Martin OM-21 Special Guitar
By Todd Stuart Phillips
I was thrilled to learn that a Style 21 instrument was entering the Martin line. After all, I had come to appreciate it greatly while researching an article on the OM-21, the lone model left to carry on the Style 21 tradition. It is second only to Style 18 as the oldest active instrument style at Martin and is the only rosewood guitar style to remain continuously available all the way back to the era of C.F. Martin Sr. and the American Civil War. That is some streak.
To my great surprise the new guitar was another OM-21! The OM-21 Special, with an emphasis on special, indeed. With its long scale neck and scalloped 1/4" top braces, this auditorium-size guitar is a lovely fingerpicker that has a pretty ring when strummed. It possesses a unique combination of vintage and contemporary features and should appeal to guitarists of diverse styles. As a new member of the Standard Series it has a modern, low profile neck with the typical OM width of 1-3/4". But it has a string spacing of 2-5/16". This makes the spacing slightly narrow compared to vintage OMs and slightly wider than the other Standard Series OMs. I couldn't be more delighted, as it is my favorite spacing and until now the only Martin OM to offer it was the 28V.
There is some irony in the choice of an OM to showcase vintage appointments missing from the present-day OM-21. The OM, or Orchestra Model, was the first modern, acoustic guitar. It entered the Martin catalog in 1930 with the revolutionary design that offered fourteen frets clear from a body that was built specifically for steel strings only. The OM lasted three years and was made in Styles 18, 28 and 45, as well as two in Style 42 as a special order. Although all Martin guitar sizes were eventually offered in the 14-fret design, Style 21 was restricted to the traditional 12-fret versions until a short scale, 14-fret 000-21 finally entered the catalog in 1939. So why was another OM chosen for this new, retro 21? The answer is it wasn't; it was the other way around.
I was in Nazareth, Pennsylvania at the Martin factory to preview their 2007 models at the same hour they were making their public debut at the NAMM trade show, out in Anaheim, California. I was fortunate in having there with me Tim Teel, Head of Instrument Design for C.F. Martin & Co. who cheerfully discussed the particulars of each guitar. When I got around to asking about the OM-21 Special he explained how he wanted to make sure an OM was included in this new collection. At first he had no idea what woods or trim would be involved, only that he wanted it to be "special". About that same time the new Martin Museum was nearing completion. He and an associate decided to take a look through the displays to see if they might derive some inspiration for the upcoming OM design. As he put it, they saw an example of Style 21 from 1905 and simply fell in love with it. Using it as their chief inspiration they then expanded on the idea by researching 21s from other eras before settling meticulously on the final specs, from its large Old Style logo on the Spanish cedar neck to its herringbone back strip and solid, ebony bridge pins.
It seems to me, Style 21 was where Martin displayed its most unusual looking Brazilian rosewood in the old days. Today the OM-21 is made of Indian rosewood that tends to have dramatic and highly contrasting candy stripes of jet black and rich browns, wood that does not need a lot of fancy trim to look arresting. The OM-21 Special is carrying on that tradition. This one had sort of an optical illusion going on across the back. Half the time, I would have said it was chocolate brown with black bars running up it, slightly angled toward the center seam. At other times I would say the black was the dominant color and the brown hues where highlights peeking out from under it. I loved how the bookmatching made a thicker chocolate stripe at the center, which narrowed and widened like a butterfly near the neck.
Mention should be made of that Spanish cedar neck. Martin has turned to this 19th Century guitar wood due to the tragic demise of South American mahogany, which is vanishing from the rainforests at a shocking rate. This guitar is the first high-end Martin designed specifically with Spanish cedar in mind. And it makes perfect sense since Style 21 had its heyday when that was Martin's first choice for neck wood. But then, this entire guitar is nothing if not about great wood.
The OM-21 Special is one of the few Martin models made today with wooden bindings, in this case Indian rosewood. It makes a superb replacement for the faux tortoise shell plastic used for most dark binding. The rosette is the classic, fine herringbone that set Style 21 apart from other vintage styles, until it vanished in the shortages of WWII. It was finally resurrected for the 000-28 Eric Clapton signature model. But the rosette and all other body inlays on the OM-21 Special are made from maple, either natural or dyed black, just like the old-timers. So it will all age and color right along with the spruce top and tonewood body. This is the least expensive Martin by far to offer wood fiber inlay.
Since the late 1940s Style 21 has had a bridge and fingerboard made from rosewood. The new Special has black ebony, like the Style 21 from a bygone age. It also has a rectangular pyramid bridge like those used on 12-fret Martins in the early 20th Century and before. To my knowledge it is the first time since 1930 that this bridge has appeared on a 14-fret Martin that was not a small batch, limited edition. It had otherwise appeared on only the first few OMs ever made and people have been wishing to see it on Martin OMs ever since.
The fingerboard is decorated with small, abalone diamonds in an old-fashioned "short pattern" unique to Vintage Style 21. It has one diamond at 5 and 9 and a double diamond at the 7th fret. This pattern appeared from at least 1904 until it was exchanged for white dots in 1944. It is almost a shame they never used this pyramid bridge, herringbone rosette and Style 21 diamonds on an OM way back when. But now they have, to the upcoming delight of a great many people.
They should find even more joy in the sound these guitars put out. The prototype I played has as much vintage vibe in its voice as it does in its looks. It shares some of the smoky rosewood presence in the low-mids found in the OM-35 and OM-28V and it has a healthy whomp to it when you mute the strings with your palm. But it is also more open and spacious in the high-mids and trebles. I would not call it a big sound or a robust OM like those other two. Nor would I call it delicate. "Old-timey" might come closest to what I heard. I bet this thing would love Ragtime and old style Blues. It would also excel on Classical style pieces as well. Whatever the case, its voice was different than those other rosewood OMs. I must wonder why this would be.
Fortunately there was a new OM-21 hanging there on the wall just waiting to be compared with this OM-21 Special. The OM-21 was like most I have played - light on its feet, open and airy - a very sprightly guitar. The OM-21 Special was meatier, with more umph down its in belly and fatter trebles on top, just not as much of either when compared to the marbled steak of an OM-35 or 28V. It really did share qualities of both types, but was like a bigger and darker OM-21 voice than a lighter OM-28 voice.
The muting influence of ebony upon higher frequencies might explain the differences in these two 21s. But what can explain how different the OM-21 Special is from those other rosewood OMs with ebony bridges? Why did this OM still qualify as the more airy kind of rosewood guitar that Style 21 has always been known for? Reputable sources have said they used to shave the rosewood thinner on D-21s so they had the dynamics of D-18s. Martin has always denied any such secret rituals. So how does Martin DO it? The talkative Mr. Teel wasn't talking.
The OM-21 Special deserves its title. Since it and its cool appointments are priced between the OM-35 and the OM-28V it should insure the Style 21 legacy continues for many happy years into the future. It is one of the most well thought out new Martins in a long time.