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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Acoustic Guitar Review!
New Martin D18 Standard Dreadnaught:
“Mahogany/Spruce Favorite Gets New Vibe”

Price: $2,899 Retail
Like: More bass, comfy neck
Dislike: this one had tight tuners

by John Gatski

  From the late 1930s, the standard bearer for mahogany dreadnaught acoustic guitars was the non-scalloped, braced Martin D18. From Bluegrass, Folk, and Country to Progressive rock, the D18’s cutting, crisp tone and rhythmic could do it all.
  For 2012, the D18 finally receives key performance upgrades that improves playability and gives it enhanced bass response and loudness — right out of the case. For the first time in 70+ years, there is no longer a standard, non-scalloped braced D-18; the new D-18 Standard, retail priced at $2,899, gets the forward-shifted bracing of the old D-18V. Couple that new bracing pattern with the new Modified Low-Oval/High Performance neck dimensions from the Performing Artist Series, and you got yourself one great USA-made acoustic guitar.

  The new D18 Standard’s main ingredients are the premium sitka spruce top and genuine mahogany back and sides. A mahogany (or Spanish cedar) neck and ebony fretboard and bridge complete the wood trimmings. Other changes include the Modified Low-Oval/High Performance neck, brown tortoise shell pick guard and open tuners. Dimensions are typical of C.F. Martin dreadnoughts including the versatile 25.4-inch scale neck length.
  The key difference between the new D18 and the old standard is the bracing. Whereas the old D18 used the long-running, non-scalloped X-bracing pattern that crossed about 1.5 inches from the sound hole. The new D18 gets the bracing from vintage D18V (no longer made). The vintage 18-style bracing crosses 1-inch from the sound hole and is scalloped to allow for more vibration of the top. The bracing is based on the late 1930s Martin dreadnaught X-brace pattern. The new D18 also gets a vintage-spec bridge plate, which also enhances the volume of the top.
  The body is sprayed with a slightly tinted vintage toner and finished with the classic Martin nitrocellulose over coat. The neck is finished with a satin toner. The black pick guard from the old Standard also has been changed on the new D18 Standard. It is now the tortoise-shell style, stick-on pick guard — seen on various models in various vintage models. I think the tortoise shell color pick guard looks more classic than the old black version, which is still used on the D28 Standard.
With the new version's sonic improvements, enhanced midrange projection and fuller bass, thanks to the vintage-style braces, the D18 is now even better.
  Neck-wise, the D18 Standard is now equipped with the new neck dimensions that first showed up in Martin’s Performing Artists Series guitars. Based on my sample, the new D18’s Modified Low-Oval/High Performance neck is much easier to play with a medium action saddle than the older standard neck D18s. In fact, it was a joy to play. Much less of the medium-string tensioned, finger fatigue of the old standard neck when using a higher action saddle. The new neck feels perfect for strumming or flat picking. 
  Spec-wise, the 25.4-inch scale length neck measures 1-3/4 inches wide at the nut and 2-1/8 inches wide at the 12th fret. String spacing at the bridge is 2-3/16 inches. The neck‘s outer dimensions result in a slimmer taper at the 12th fret, making the new D18 much more comfortable than the old standard neck, which is still used on many of the standard Martin rosewood models, including my beloved J40. With the new neck, however, my hand did not feel as cramped, especially in the first five frets, and it allowed for faster chord changes and fretted notes. The neck on my new D18 Standard review sample was as comfortable as any Taylor I have played with medium strings.

No more black pick guard

  As previously mentioned, the bracing is vintage, forward-shifted, scalloped sitka spruce x-style that crosses one inch from the sound hole. This bracing pattern is well known to those who have played the D18V, HD28V and many other modern vintage-spec Martin models. This ‘30s style bracing allows more of the top to vibrate, and to my ears, the new D18 Standard has more bass right out of the box, compared to the previous standard D18.
  The D28 Standard still has the old non-scalloped, non-forward shifted style, and I have spoken to some Bluegrass players that still prefer the tighter bass of the non-shifted non-scalloped braced Martins. Having played numerous Martin dreadnaughts — with and without the forward-shifted bracing — I hear more bottom end in the forward-shifted brace guitars. Thus, this bracing change really helps the new D18.
   The new ’18 still utilizes the 1930’s style ebony belly bridge as the Vintage series, but the bone saddle is the modern, drop-in version, as opposed to the glued-in version of the Vintage line.
  As with the old versions of the D18, the new standard D18 has no neck binding, but is adorned with the simple, dot neck fret markers. One notable departure from the old D18 is the tuners. The old enclosed tuners have been replaced with the vintage style open tuners, made for Martin by Gotoh. 
  The tuners look retro and they tuned to pitch, but on this early sample, several of them were very hard to turn with the standard medium strings. I have played numerous Martins with the open tuners and never have experienced such tight turning knobs. I figured that, maybe, this early sample had some offset in the peg head holes — causing the strings to pull harder.

With the new neck, however, my hand did not feel as cramped, especially in the first five frets, and it allowed for faster chord changes and fretted notes. The neck on my new D18 Standard review sample was as comfortable as any Taylor I have played with medium strings.

  The overall fit and finish and construction of the new D18 Standard sample I auditioned was first rate. No excess glue inside the body, purfing was straight and the neck set was absolutely perfect. (The only cosmetic blemish in the wood was a small “pitch pocket” in the spruce top.); Martin sure knows how to build ‘em in that Nazareth, PA factory. 
  The D18 comes in a quality, vinyl TKL-made case to protect this fine guitar. The guitar comes with its end piece removed to reduce the chance of a drop-induced body crack during shipping, a calamity that I have witnessed in the past. 

The audition 
  In a word, the new D18 Standard is the best modern D18 I have ever played! I have played numerous good-sounding 1950s and early 1960s D18s, but I have never been a big fan of the early 70s and later standard D18s. They never seemed to have quite as much bottom as the older ones. The vintage style D18V had more bass, and the new D18s uses the same bracing, giving it more power. Plus the extremely player-friendly Modified Low-Oval/High Performance neck makes the new D18 play so damn easy. 
  Rhythm bluegrass strummers and pickers will love the full-bass and loud, articulate midrange of the new D18 Standard. At full strum, it could easily hit 93 dB on my decibel meter at three feet. Versus a 2000s era D18 Standard I borrowed, the new D18‘s sound was much more mature with the scalloped, forward-shifted bracing. The old Standard version, in my opinion, often took years to get decent bass projection. that the new one has brand new. 
  It is not as loud and crisp as the red spruce topped Golden Era Martin D18, but I think the tone is better controlled. The new standard D18 is warmer, but still has great midrange and top end. Right out of the case, this guitar can perform 100 percent with a Bluegrass band or folksinger. The loud midrange can compete with the banjo and the bass offers up the rhythmic bottom end you expect from a fine acoustic.
  Those rockers who like the Martin sound will also love the easy playability of the neck. Fretting and note picking is really comfortable, and despite medium saddle height, the medium Martin SP Lifespan strings did not tire my fingers.
  In recording the D18 with various microphone at 24-bit, I heard the classic Martin mahogany/spruce sound, that is plenty loud and oozes that cutting tone when aggressively picked. The best D18 I have ever played was a 1953; The new one I tested was very close — with that ripe bass and healthy top-end projection. 
  As good as it is as a flat picker and strummer, the new D18 Standard dreadnaught still is a mighty fine finger picker, producing warm tones that are easily coaxed from the fast, low-profile neck. But those sounds are never too dark; it’s a good choice if you want a big body, finger picker. Less dark than the rosewood-bodied 28 Series Martins. 

The verdict 
  With the new D18 Standard, Martin has breathed fresh air in to the world’s best known mahogany/spruce top dreadnaught. The mighty D18 has been popular with country, bluegrass, folk and rock musicians for more than 70 years. With the new version's sonic improvements, enhanced midrange projection and fuller bass, thanks to the vintage-style braces, the D18 is now even better. You don’t have to wait for the guitar to season for five years. It is loud and full right now. Throw in the Modified Low-Oval/High Performance neck that is so easy to play and you’ve got yourself the perfect Martin dreadnaught. Highly recommended and worthy of the Everything Guitar Network Grade A Award.

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