Dick Boak is a long-term employee of Martin Guitars. Over the years he has written and co-written several books about Martin Guitars, detailing their 175-year legacy as one of the world’s finest guitar makers. Most recently Boak has published a two-part book with Richard Johnston, Martin Guitars: A History and Martin Guitars: A Technical Reference. The books cover the rich history about Martin guitars, their makers, and the people who play them, and also include pages upon pages of information about Martin guitar bodies, necks, headstocks, bridges, woods, models, the custom shop, and limited edition instruments.
We spoke with Boak recently to try and dig up a little history about Bob Dylan and his relationship with Martin Guitars.
Let’s start at the beginning.
That’s the best place to start.
When did Dylan first begin playing Martin guitars?
Well, to my knowledge, Dylan’s first guitar from his early days, when he showed up in New York City, was a 1949 00-17 – no doubt inspired by the small bodied 00 sized Martin guitars that Woody Guthrie played. Woody Guthrie often played the small 00-17s, 00-18s, 0-17s. Woody would often call [for a new guitar] and after a month or two he would give the guitar to a young musician and get another one. Dylan was no doubt aware of this and probably picked up the 1949 00-17 as a nod to Woody. We believe he got it in 1959 in Minneapolis. We got that from his book, Chronicles. He apparently traded in his electric guitar for the Martin acoustic.
How did the original 1949 00-17 Martin differ from the Martin guitars that you can buy today?
We make a model called the 00-15M, which is very, very similar. The finish is slightly different. The lacquer we’re using is a lacquer that is not self-polishing. The lacquer we used back then was a nitrous cellulose satin lacquer, that if you took a polishing cloth to it and rubbed it for a couple of days, you would actually break through the satin top coat into the gloss coats and be able to polish it up. Sometimes those guitars would polish up just plain. But the 00-15M is quite similar to the ‘17. There’s a slight difference from the bindings. [The] older style 17 guitars will be bound in wood or tortoise color nitrate – a slightly higher binding appointment level than the ’15, which is quite plain.
What about the early acoustic records he did, did he use a Martin on those albums?
Well, he certainly was back and forth between Gibson and Martin quite a lot. He played a lot of different guitars. It seems to be that he used that Woody guitar up until 1961 – for 2 or 3 years. I’m not exactly familiar with when he went up to New York City, but there are early records that he recorded with that Martin 00-17 in Minnesota. He had so many different guitars.
What Martins has Dylan played over the years?
In Newport with Joan Baez he used her 0-45 – her famous Martin guitar. For MTV Unplugged, he did a performance with a D-28. He performed at Bangladesh with Leon Russell with a D-28. I know he had a 00-21 Martin guitar.
On his duet with Johnny Cash – that was a pretty famous performance – he played a 000-18 on “Girl From the North Country.” There was the Tribute Concert in January of 1968 where he played a Martin 0-18. And there was a Chile benefit concert in ’74 where he played the 00-21 slotted headstock. He has many vintage Martins and Gibsons.
What other custom guitars has Dylan played over the years?
Well, there was a cowboy artist named Tex Fletcher, whose D-42 guitar we have in our museum. It’s quite a rare guitar. Tex Fletcher had his name in a lettering style on the fingerboard that Bob particularly liked, so we made at least two guitars with “BOB DYLAN” in that lettering style in mother pearl in the fingerboard. Pretty flashy. He also always liked different woods. We used Engelmann spruce on a lot of guitars that were customized for him – it gives it a more punchy sound. He also liked the Herringbone 28 a great deal, often with a ‘vintage-y’ flair, with herringbone bindings. Always scalloped braces. Always ebony fingerboards and bridges.
And then the Negative guitar with the white pickguards – that was a Herringbone D-28 in almost exact reverse. It was inspired by a light table I was working on with black and white negatives of the Herringbone 28 and it just occurred to me, “this would look great reversed.” That’s where the idea came from. I think he liked that most of the guitars were natural tops, not sunburst.
Can you tell us more about that Negative Martin he played?
Well, Bob had seen a negative style of guitar that I had made for Acoustic Guitar Magazine’s 10th anniversary. We actually made two of them. Bob saw it in Acoustic Guitar Magazine and had his manager call up and see if he could get one. [So], we made a couple that were specialized for Bob with double white pickguards.
I think he wanted the guitar because it matched his clothing that he was wearing for a special tour. He was wearing kind of a white and black motif and the guitar just went perfectly with that.
Did Dylan use a Martin for Blood On the Tracks?
Yeah, he used the Martin 00-21 for Blood On the Tracks. That’s a great acoustic album.
I imagine Dylan must have inspired a lot of guitar sales over his career. When you think of a guy and his acoustic guitar, he’s the main icon. Any possibility of a signature Dylan model Martin anytime soon?
We haven’t done a specific Bob Dylan signature model – not that we haven’t tried. I think that Bob has always been worried about doing anything like that because then he would feel obligated to play a particular brand and he doesn’t want to feel obligated. That’s the word I got back from management at every intersection of making proposals to him at least.
Do you know what kind of pickup Dylan uses for live shows?
You know, he often had a Fishman under saddle pickup put in for stage use. More recently, the Gold+Plus Natural 1 is the pickup that we have installed for him on a number of occasions. [With that], there’s no reason nobody at the board can’t EQ a guitar with that signal to have it sound natural, but often people hike the treble up too high. Then when the drums come in with everything it forces the [engineer] to hike up the guitar even more and that’s not the way it should be EQed. Everything should be kind of sweet and restrained a little bit.
How many Bob Dylan concerts have you been to?
I’ve attended probably 20-30 concerts through the years. Starting with Bob Dylan and The Band all the way up to current times.
Do you have a favorite concert that really stands out?
Well, you know, I’m pretty hard on Bob. There are moments in each concert where he seems to shine. I remember him doing a version of “Gates of Eden” with Bob Dylan and The Band and that was just a really, really great version. But, I’m one of those people who love his music tremendously and his songwriting and want him to shine in concert and he doesn’t always do that. Ha ha. He goes where he wants to go and that’s not exactly always where the audience wants him to go. You know what I’m talking about for sure. But that’s also what makes him “him!”
How would you characterize Bob Dylan as an acoustic guitar player?
He’s a magnificent player. Early on, his early recordings of talking blues, where he gets a roll going, that’s very hard to do. I can’t do it myself. His chording is definitely fairly simple. C, Am, F, G, and D – maybe a Bb thrown in there. But what he is able to do with them is incredible.
Can you identify a Martin guitar if you hear it?
No, I’m afraid not. Photos, definitely. Recordings, almost impossible. I mean – if they sound good, they’re Martins!
Read more 30 Days of Dylan.