Building a great acoustic guitar is tricky business. One has to find the perfect balance between two opposing ideas: build a guitar that sounds good, or build a guitar that lasts. If the guitar is too solidly built, it won’t have any resonance and will sound terrible; if the guitar is too flimsy, it will collapse under string tension. Martin guitars over the decades have flirted with that line beautifully, which is why they are a favorite not only of players but also techs that work on them. We recently came across a Martin that blurred the line a just a tad into the sounds-great-but-is-too-delicate category: a 1926 00-27, owned by Melvin Volz. Melvin is the co-owner of C&M Music Center, and has one of the most impressive guitar collections anywhere (just ask him about it – he’ll happily show you pictures). When Melvin came upon this vintage Martin, he knew it was something special, even though it was in really bad shape. He bought it at a bargain price, and immediately called us to get it back into shape.
This was a HUGE project, and we spent a ton of time on it. All in all, we fixed 19 body cracks, repaired 10 braces, removed and replaced the bridge plate, reshaped the warped top, made a new bridge and saddle, reset the neck, heat pressed the neck to remove excessive bow, made a new bone nut, and refretted it with period correct bar frets. We were so deep into this project that we simply couldn’t stop and take pictures of every part of the process, so we opted to focus on just one facet of the job: making an acoustic bridge from scratch.
The original bridge was unsalvageable: it had been removed and replaced previously, and some knucklehead had used superglue to put it back on. The bridge had cracked in several places right along the ebony’s grain line, perpendicular to the strings – the immense string tension had won out in the end. Removing a bridge is usually a fairly straightforward affair for us, but since this was very fragile 90 year old ebony which had been improperly glued down… well, we were super careful and it still came off in pieces.
We aren’t aware of any source for a pre-made replacement bridge in this size and shape, so we ended up making one ourselves. Since the original bridge had appeared to have been shaved down at some point (an improper way to compensate for an underset neck angle), and since Melvin was aiming to use steel strings on this guitar, we opted to make a bridge that was mostly period-correct, but slightly more substantial. We started with a chunk of raw ebony and cut away everything that didn’t look like a Martin bridge.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get any action shots while we were making this bridge – there’s only two of us here, and sometimes it’s impossible to put work down to pick up a camera. Suffice to say that while it may seem like a simple task, custom carving a bridge takes a lot of time and effort. We feel it came out really nice, and is sturdy enough to handle the 200 some-odd pounds of string tension exerted by steel strings.
We spent about a month working on this guitar – it definitely became a labor of love rather than a labor of profit. Once it was all put back together and we strummed that first chord, we instantly understood why Melvin picked this guitar up: it sounds absolutely amazing. Yes, it’s a bit frail, but we expect that our work will keep this guitar in good shape for another 90 years or so. Huzzah!
(Swing by C&M Music Center in Kenner – if you ask Melvin really nicely he might let you play it!)