Two of the more interesting guitars released by Martin this year are the new 17 Series 00 sized guitars, the 00-17S and the 00L-17. It’s great to see Martin not only expand it’s often neglected 17 Series but also to have them bring out two new guitars in the rarely used 00 shape. For those of you who haven't yet, I encourage you to take a look at the spec sheets for both of these models. At a brief glance they’re pretty much the same instruments. Sure, a measurement here or there may differ but the only thing that stands out is the listing for the body size. The 00L-17 is listed as a 00 14-Fret guitar while the 00-17S is a 00 12-Fret. But what exactly is a 12-Fret guitar?
When discussing body sizes it’s common to categorize guitars as either 12-Fret or 14-Fret body sizes. These designations are based on the location that the guitar fretboard and body come into contact. I’ve talked to some beginning players who are under the impression that a 12-Fret gutiar is smaller than a 14-Fret guitar of the same body shape. It’s not. What’s actually happening is that on a 12-Fret guitar the body is actually stretched longer than on a 14-Fret.
To illustrate this, let’s look at the 00-17S and the 00L-17. Both of these guitars are 00 sized, short scale instruments (This is disregarding the slope shoulders on the 00L-17, which is a discussion best saved for another time). They share the same exact 24.9” scale length, and the same body depth, width and waist. Where they differ is in the length of the body itself. If stood back to back the 00-17S is going to have a slightly taller body than the 00L-17. The tradeoff for this is that the 00L-17 is going to have two more accessible frets than the 00-17S. But, in terms of playability, especially if you’re not moving up very high on the neck, these two guitars are going to be identical. What’s important to take away from this is that when choosing between these two models you are not making a decision between two different feeling necks, you’re choosing between two different body sizes.
So now that we know what’s going on, the questions is “why?”
For the history buffs among us, lets take a look at the history of Martin guitars. Originally all Martin’s were 12-Frets. Why this particular number became the standard is a question lost to the ages. What is known however is how the change to 14-Fret happened and we have banjo players to thank. Hoping to attract banjo players who were used to instruments with more fretboard access Martin began building guitars with 14-Fret construction. These banjo players would use these guitars both in Orchestras (The reason behind the Orchestra Model body size, a.k.a. the OM) as well as in the increasingly popular genre of Bluegrass music. Eventually these newer 14-Fret bodies became the new standard, making up the majority of Martin’s output to this day.
Anyway, back to the 17 Series...
If you pick up both of these instruments the first thing you’ll notice is that the 00-17S is louder. Volume on an acoustic guitar is based partially on how much air the guitar can get moving with more air equalling more volume. The 00-17S, with it’s 12-Fret construction has a larger soundboard than the 00L-17. A bigger soundboard means that as the guitar vibrates more air is going to be displaced inside of the sound cavity and, as a result, the guitar will be louder.
This added volume can be advantageous to fingerstyle players. As I’m sure any seasoned fingerstyle player would agree, one of the keys to good sounding fingerstyle is the preservation of dynamics. Altering your attack between hard and soft gives you the chance to influence the mood of whatever piece of music you’re playing. However, if you’re playing in an ensemble sometimes these dynamics need to be sacrificed in the name of remaining audible. Having a 12-Fret instead of a 14-Fret can alleviate this as it gives you more volume without needing more force, helping to preserve your dynamics.
Of course a longer body length isn’t only going to affect the volume of the guitar, it’s also going to change the overall tone of the instrument. Before writing this I really had to sit down and think about whether or not I could come up with one objective statement about the tonal differences between 12 and 14-Fret guitars but I realized that’s impossible. Like I’ve written about before, body size is just one of the almost innumerable factors that influence a guitars tone and when you’re talking about a small body size change like the one seen between the 00-17S and the 00L-17, that influence is even smaller.
To me, a 12-Fret guitar is going to sound fuller than a similar 14-Fret, much in the same way that a dread will sound fuller than an OM although not nearly to the same extent. A 12-Fret is going to have a bigger low end warmer sound. This added bass is great for fingerstyle players or light strummers but can get muddy very quickly if strummed more aggressively. Now, since we’re talking about 00 sized guitars aggressive strumming really shouldn’t be much of a consideration but if you want to take these same basic points and apply them to something like 12 and 14-Fret Dreadnoughts it becomes a much more important consideration.
One other difference in the body sizes is the question of comfort. Personally I don’t notice much of a difference in comfort when playing a 12-Fret versus a 14-Fret whether I’m sitting or standing. However some players I found posting online or that I’ve talked to personally, have reported a comfort preference for one or the other. Some have said that they find 12-Frets more comfortable because they can draw the longer body closer to themselves and I’ve talked to others who claim the complete opposite. At the end of the day it’s purely a personal decision. One thing that I feel I should say that I’ve never heard anyone claim is that they were simply unable to play one size or another, only that they had a slight preference.
And that about sums it up. Both the 00-17S and the 00L-17 add some much appreciated variety to Martin’s offerings and, if you have the opportunity, I recommend getting your hands on both. While their body differences will give them each a unique voice, no matter which way you go you’re going to end up with a solid, American made Martin.
Have any thoughts about the 12-Fret vs 14-Fret or Martin 17 series guitars? Post your comments below.