By Todd Stuart Phillips
So where does one begin when reviewing a new Martin D-18 Golden Era model? Should I start with the choice tonewood of perfectly quartersawn, Big Leaf mahogany with its noticeably bookmatched bands of lighter and darker hues? Or should I open up with the first class Adirondack spruce top with its hand-scalloped braces and its medium wide spacing to the grain that gets narrower in the middle, under the bridge area? Then again, perhaps I should begin at either the comfortable, modified V neck; the 2 5/16" string spacing; the top notch hardware, or the classic aesthetic appointments. The answer of course is none of these. Although such things help make the D-18GE one of the most popular models Martin has ever made, when it comes down to it, it's the sound produced by them that is the reason so many people buy them and love them.
The particular instrument provided me by Maury's Music is a stellar example. These guitars may not ever sound as dry and open as the 71-year-old D-18 they were modeled from, but whatever they got, it is pretty great. This is one serious "banjo killer". It seems astonishing that a big-bodied guitar like this can be so powerful, so downright loud and yet remain so clear, clean and ringing in tone. But even if it is a Bluegrass dream come true, it is so much more than that.
The mahogany/Adirondack combination responds to light and pretty fingerpicking with chimey fundamental notes and an open, airy undertone. Then it just blows you away with its ferocity when you take a pick and ride it like a stallion. The trebles are fat and strong, but so indelibly pure - like bells of twinkling crystal strung upon threads of platinum spider silk. The bass has such resounding power but never gets boomy or muddy. There is that great hollow log depth to the low end: dry and echoing. It seems like the voice is coming from someplace so much deeper and larger than the body of the guitar could possibly hold. And yet, there is a classic separation between that deep, woody abyss and the clear and present top voice ringing cheerfully off the strings - the hallmark of great mahogany guitars.
Although Adirondack takes longer to break in and open up than other spruces, this guitar already has a complexity beyond mere mortal mahogany, which is honed to startling clarity by that sharp focus, Adirondack lens. It is not as busy a voice as you find in rosewood guitars, as it has much more light and space down in the undertone. It is simply the very best that mahogany has to offer, with great string to string definition, and an overall fullness that makes it as versatile a dreadnought as one could wish for. As good as the Collings D-1A, Bourgeois Country Boy and Huss and Dalton T-DM can all be, I have yet to find a mahogany dread that can match the D-18GE when it comes to the ideal combination of power, beauty and character.
In my book, the next thing on the list after how good a guitar sounds is how good it feels. This is where we might separate the D-18GE players from those who may just need to find something more their own size. The current rendition of Martin's Modified V neck profile is arguably the most comfortable yet. However, when placed on a dreadnought body and matched with 2-5/16" string spacing it is still quite a handful. Many players have hands that can take on any neck without issue. For those of us with average-size hands it can be another story and this GE neck took every bit of grip I had. Such spacing does afford the player much more room for their fingers, so they are not dampening strings by mistake. But barre chords up the neck can require a lot of effort if you really want all six notes to sound clearly. This would never stop me from buying one of these guitars however, as they just sound too good not to put up with the extra work involved. That being said, I can understand why some folks find the D-18GE too much guitar for their liking.
This particular GE has higher than average Martin factory action. With medium gauge strings it became impossible to play certain licks above the 7th fret. This of course is easily altered, but since it was not mine I left it as is. Someone who plays nothing but Bluegrass may like it just the way it comes, but I would recommend that most talk to Maury about getting a set up to accommodate less than herculean pickers. He is certainly an expert setup artist, so your hands are in good hands where his hands are concerned.
With its basic trim and three progressively smaller dots on the very black, ebony fingerboard Vintage Style 18 can seem a bit austere for some folks. But considering what this guitar is made to represent, namely the reincarnation of a 1934 Martin D-18, there is nothing I can come up with that needs improved upon. However, I personally wish they could carve that neck a little sleeker in the cheeks, where it meets the ebony board. Either that or 2-1/4" string spacing might be the answer.
Whatever the case, it all leads me to rating this nearly perfect mahogany/Adirondack dreadnought a nearly perfect 7 Notes on the T Spoon Scale of Guitaracity, out of a possible 8 Notes.