Recently, I worked on my first Martin in India – one from the X Series. This was not the high dollar D-28 or D-35, but featured high-pressure laminate (HPL) back and sides and a Richlite fretboard and bridge.
Richlite is an incredibly durable, extremely versatile, and highly sustainable material made from resin-infused paper – 65% recycled paper content and 35% phenolic resin. Applications include furniture, cabinetry, cladding, skateparks, consumer products, signage, retail displays, restaurant tables, bar tops, and worktops, and is a choice material for a wide range of architects, designers, industrial manufacturers and product developers.
I would be lying if I said that the guitar was not pretty to look at. Solid Sitka Spruce top, back and sides all in a matte/satin finish, the GPCX1RAE is a 20-fret Grand Performance model which sports a cutaway, rust Birch laminate neck, scalloped spruce bracing, a corian nut and a Tusq saddle (actually glorified plastic both), Fishman Sonitone electronics, chrome Martin closed tuning machines and the iconic Martin logo on the headstock in gold script ink.
It came to me because the intonation was shot on the ‘B’ string. And that meant only one thing: the saddle was not cut right. It was eyebrow-raising to see a Martin suffering from intonation issues, not that their guitars can’t have intonation issues, but because CF Martin & Co are usually very meticulous about everything.
As I pulled out the saddle from the bridge and measured it, to my horror, I found that the radius on it was 16 inches. I checked the radius on the fretboard: 16 inches!
Fretboards on steel string guitars (acoustic and electric) generally have a certain radius that is sanded into it by the manufacturer and that radius is then mirrored in the tops of the fretwires, the saddle as well as the nut. When all of these elements carry the same radius, playing the instrument is that much easy and pleasurable. And acoustic instruments generally have a radius of 10, 12 or 16 inches. My problem was that I did not have nuts and saddles with a 16-inch radius!
The way out was to take my 16-inch sanding block
glue on some #320 grit sandpaper
and with the top of the saddle facing the sandpaper and completely centred, go up and down the block (lengthwise) till I got a 16″ radius. By the time (some 45 mins later) I could dial in that radius, the new sandpaper looked like this
but the saddle looked like this
And this was the easy part. All that sanding on the top of the saddle meant that the grooves cut into the saddle for intonation were all but gone, and without those, this new saddle was useless. There was no way out but to re-cut the grooves on the saddle.
Then I turned my attention to the fretboard. Like I said, it was Richlite but it looked every bit ebony – though a very dirty ebony, for it carried enough DNA on it to map the entire family tree of the owner! Just out of curiosity, I checked the straightness of the neck and was a little surprised to see a little fall-away.
Do you see the gap under the notches where the ruler ends? Compare that to the extreme left.
But there was nothing that could be done about it right away. This would require taking off the fretboard extension (the part stuck to the top of the guitar), making a shim to size and sticking it to the extension and then sticking the whole thing back to the top. Me not doing!
Instead, I decided to clean the fretboard. The thing about Richlite is that it is cleaned very easily. So, I took some warm water, some liquid soap and moistening an old t-shirt rubbed the fretboard and bridge clean.
That done, I turned my attention to the hardware on the headstock and snugged up everything as it should be. This exercise should be done by everybody, each time you change strings.
Everything in place, it was time to string this baby up. The owner prefers to use these strings and so they were put on.
But before I put the strings on, I did bevel the bridgepins so that string ball-ends would not catch on them.
The moment of truth had arrived. Now, to check the intonation on the ‘B’ string.
As I sat down to tune the guitar, I was very taken up by this little electronic tuner clipped to the edge of the soundhole. It was sensitive and very accurate.
You cannot even imagine how thrilled I was seeing this ‘dead-on-the-money’ reading of the open ‘B’ string and fretted at the 12th fret. All that effort had not gone to waste.
As I played the instrument, I was actually surprised at the instrument’s very warm, mellow, almost Martin-esque sound; beautiful sustain too. I had not expected this, for I had my doubts about how the HPL body would sound.
I guess, we can owe the sound to the Martin expertise. Whatever the material, expect a Martin to sound like one. Maybe that is what you get when an enterprise as big as Martin, stays within the family for four (five?) generations.