The Perfect Fingerpicking Guitar

Perhaps one way to start the final conflagration would be to assert what the perfect fingerpicking guitar is.

When I showed master fingerpicker Stevie Coyle the particular guitar in question, he held it out at arms length as if taking stock of a fresh-caught fish and exclaimed : “Why, it’s the Golden Mean!”.

What he meant was: a small bodied guitar, with a solid Adirondack spruce top, solid mahogany back and sides, and a shorter scale length.

I sometimes wonder: are these guitars the ‘golden mean’ for the sound they make or because they’re the guitars that made certain sounds we love? If the blues and country of the 30s had been played on a different kind of guitar, we would seek to recreate that sound. Had mahogany not been available at a low enough cost for Martin to make these available and affordable back in the day, would we be so attached to the sound of mahogany guitars? Such are the ponderings that grip me as I clutch this beauty to my breast, and pluck and pluck. The Bass response is unreal, round and warm, and the treble simply thrills and I am enthralled.

I’m talking, naturally, of a Martin 000-18 Golden Era 1937 (sunburst of course). I don’t want to get into reviewing guitars, but Martin has done some good work and I’ve played a number of really nice Martins that hold up well to many ’boutique’ guitars. Of course, there’s nothing like a small production, truly one of a kind guitar. Schoenburg comes to mind. But for a mid-price guitar (which I’m arbitrarily setting at $3,500 US for a fine hand-made instrument,) the 000-18 has a lot going on, musically–plenty to deeply satisfy.

As amazing as the 000-18GE is on fingerpicking, it is also a great strumming guitar, with full, loud barre chords. This was a guitar model which in fact was used by Elvis early on, ditched as soon as he could get a hold of a flashier, more modern D-18, because, after all, the 000-18 was seen as a workingman’s guitar, not really intended for stage work, hence the need for Martins dripping in mother-of-pearl (or in Elvis’s case, encased in hand-tooled leather,) and ultimately, big Gibson Jumbo 200s with ostentatious pick guards and mustache bridges.

An aside: this is getting out of hand, but my 000-18 has a bumpersticker that reads “My other guitar is a Gibson J-185“. This is a model played by Big Bill Broonzy in the late 30s, and of course, the Reverend Gary Davis12 string was a Gibson Jumbo. So, yes, there is something about a maple guitar of the ‘grand auditorium‘ size and shape that lends itself to fingerstyle blues and blues guitar in general. These larger guitars, with sleeker necks, have a more modern feel and so the blues I play on them wants to get edgier. On the Martin 000-18 I get into this calm, deep-seated place and can somehow connect to an even rootsier vibe with ease.

The 000-18 also excels on open tunings; it likes the slide and performs well on material other than roots blues, like modal, drone based fingerstyle. It’s also really responsive to some more modern guitar techniques, like right hand struck harmonics or poly-rhythmic effects. Celtic airs in DADGAD sound celestial. All the while, the tone so grounded, rooted–I imagine–in that dove-tail joint deep inside, making one continuous piece of wood of the neck and body. (My cheaper Martin has a bolt-on neck, not that it’s comparable, but some guitar makers use bolt-on necks even on their high-end guitars–however I demure; neck joinery is a subject that should not be discussed in mixed company.) I’m not saying the 000-18 is an all-purpose instrument, just that it seems to do a lot of things well. I wouldn’t necessarily play Bill Monroe style on it, but I would play Charlie Monroe style on it, if you know what I mean.

This versatile guitar could become such a favorite that it would be in danger of turning into a general knock-around axe, but the ‘polished gloss’ finish gives what would otherwise be a very plain-looking guitar a very special allure. You want to caress it, protect it. All the little details sweetly whisper “finely crafted“, from the checklist stuff like ebony fretboard and bridge, the understated binding and inlay, to the things that bring it all into focus like the fossilized ivory saddle and nut, and the modified V shaped neck, with the total result being that I am floored by this little vixen. Pretty much licked.

It’s so pretty, I’ve developed a new playing style, which involves being seated with the case in front of me while I play, so I can put the thing away immediately upon getting distracted (something external has to actually interrupt me to get me to stop playing this guitar,) so I won’t leave it on the couch or someplace even more perilous. I won’t even take it to a gig , unless it’s a local sit down show I’m actually being payed for, where there will be a sound guy capable of micing it. Hell, I won’t even take it out to play it unless I know I have the time and headspace to give the serious attention it deserves.

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Fingerpicking Fool

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