Updated: Sep 2, 2019
In 1980-81, after several years of being completely uninterested in the steel-string acoustic guitar, I was on the hunt for one that felt as close to my '66 Gibson 175 as possible. I had even strung the 175 with acoustic guitar strings for a while.
With that in mind, I was looking for an acoustic that had a cutaway and was perhaps smaller than the standard dreadnought.
I had been converted by Alex deGrassi's album "Slow Circle." That album single-handedly reignited my interest in the steel-string acoustic, and also caused much experimentation with altered tunings for several years.
Though I abandoned the altered tunings, what I learned from jacking around with them has had far reaching consequences for my playing and writing in standard tuning, with the steel-string acoustic front and center.
That story I told in my blog, Altered States - Unique Voicings.
So it was that sometime in the spring or summer of 1981 I walked into the biggest music store in town looking for a particular Guild (I can't remember the model) that I thought might be what I was looking for.
The manager, who I knew well, said,
"We don't have any of those but I've got a Martin you should try."
"Don't like Martins" I said, "They're too dark."
"This one's different" he said.
"Sounds like salesman talk."
He shrugged and said, "You'll never know until you try."
He let me into the locked acoustic room and took the guitar down off the wall and handed it to me.
Instant. Affinity. Instantly.
I played it for about 30 seconds.
"Yup, this is the one!"
After some negotiation, the price was $1,100.00. That was quite a bit more money in 1981 dollars than it is now. Today it would be $3,202.27 to be exact. And I didn't have it. I was a struggling, self-employed musician with a wife, a baby and another one on the way, trying to make a living playing clubs six nights a week and barely subsisting from gig to gig.
I went to the bank where I had my business account to try and get a loan.
The only thing I could offer as collateral was a paid-for 1972 Plymouth Satellite Sebring that I had purchased in '74. I think I paid $2,095.00 for it. When I bought it, it had 24,000 miles and now had well over 100,000.
The banker told me the car wasn't worth $1,100.00 but if I drove it by his window, proving that it would run, he would give me the money on a one-year note.
I went home, started it up and drove it by the bank's window. I drove it home, parked it in the driveway - and it never started again.
It sat in my driveway for a whole year until I paid off the guitar, got the title back from the bank, and sold the car to a junkyard for $25.00. I have never regretted doing what I had to do to buy that guitar.
I'm not a gear-head or a collector; I'm functionally oriented. For a long time I didn't even know, or care, what model of guitar I had. I didn't know anything about it; I just knew I liked the sound and the feel of it. It was what I had been looking for.
It has a cutaway, an oval sound hole and the upper frets are accessible. There is a passive piezo pickup under the saddle. There are no onboard controls; no holes, knobs or panels. The output jack is also the strap pin. The body is thinner than a standard acoustic - it's pretty close to the same size as my 175. The neck has no truss rod. It was built to not need it and there's never been a problem with the neck.
I think the smaller body, the cutaway and the oval sound hole all contributed to brightening up the tone as compared to most Martins I had played.
I was doing only occasional gigs with it. I was mostly playing pop/dance music in clubs and had no need for an acoustic.
However, I was constantly playing, writing and recording with it. I was also using it to explore the altered tunings I had lifted from Alex deGrassi's "Slow Circle."
On a side note, when I was in India in April of 2019, I heard Alex deGrassi's "Slow Circle" in the restaurant of my hotel in Bangalore. There I was - on the other side of the world and I was transported back 35 years to our little 2-bedroom house on Bennington Avenue in Kansas City, seeing in my mind's eye my young wife and 2 infant daughters, and messing with deGrassi's altered tuning on the MC-28! So it was that I found myself in India pondering how life had gotten me from there to here all because I heard "Slow Circle." Music is such an amazing thing.
The next chapter in the story of this guitar involves Bob Abernathy.
I met Bob Abernathy sometime in the early eighties. Bob was a luthier - a world class luthier. He built all kinds of stringed instruments; he was a one-of-a-kind person in general (huge understatement!) and his luthier skills were unparalleled. He had some pretty big-time connections.
He introduced me to jazz guitarist Emily Remler. I bought a pair of floor monitors that he built (still have 'em) that were on the European leg of the Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour. He built all kinds of stringed instruments and his guitars started at about $5,000.00 - this was in the eighties - $5,000 in 1985 is $11,390.33 today - way out of my range!
He built violins, violas, cellos, upright basses, harps, dulcimers, ukuleles - if it had strings and was made out of wood he could build it, and it would be one of the best in the world. His harp, violin, viola and cello clients were some of the biggest names in the classical music world. He was one of only four people in the world who were considered experts on Old Testament Temple instruments - and the only Goy (Yiddish for non-Jew)!
Bob offered to "set up" my new guitar - just 'cause we were friends. "I can make it better" he said. I didn't know anything else could be done; it played great, the action was good, the intonation was spot-on - what's to "set up"?
When I got it back, Bob had hand-carved a bone saddle for it. The action was even lower than it already was, and the intonation was exquisite! There was more sustain! It was amazing! It played like warm butter.
Bob passed away a few years ago, and I cherish his hand-carved bone saddle - which remains on the guitar to this day.
Years went by and then, all of a sudden in the nineties, I started playing tons of acoustic gigs. It was mainly due to the popularity of MTV's "Unplugged" series of concerts, especially Eric Clapton's episode. The release of Clapton's Unplugged set sold over 26 million copies and is the best-selling live album of all time. The acoustic version of "Layla" was huge. Very quickly I was doing one or two acoustic gigs every week, sometimes more.
I began to realize the pickup that was in the guitar had become sub-par. The technology had evolved. Newer systems had a much better sound. So I decided to buy an active pick-up (one that needed a battery) and have it installed. I can't remember for sure, but I think I bought a Barcus Berry.
Keep in mind that the original pickup was under Bob Abernathy's hand-carved bone saddle.
When the tech got into it, he discovered that the new pickup was thicker than the old one. This would necessitate filing down the saddle to accommodate the thicker pickup.
Recognizing the superior and unique craftsmanship of the saddle, the tech balked at taking a chance on filing it down. A slight error and it could very easily be rendered useless. I felt the same way because by this time, Bob Abernathy had left the area and was God-knows-where on some bizarre quest for one-of-a-kind wood or something. I didn't know if I would ever see him again and so figured there would be no replacing that saddle if it got totaled.
The tech suggested leaving the old pickup in place and splicing the new electronics into it. He didn't know if it would work but thought it was worth a try.
It worked! The output signal was stronger, richer and had a much-improved tone, and Bob Abernathy's saddle was preserved. The newer electronics spliced into the old pickup is still the system in the guitar some 20-plus years later.
I wonder whatever happened to the new pickup? I don't remember what we did with it.
In 1998 I was performing at the Summer NAMM Show in Nashville and Martin Guitars had the biggest booth there.
"I'm going to see if I can find another MC-28" I thought to myself. "It would be nice to have a spare."
I went over to the Martin booth to check it out - and (irrelevant name-dropping) met Stephen Stills!
It was then that I discovered Martin had discontinued production on the MC-28 and no longer manufactured it. They made only about 1,100 of this unusual model between 1981 and 1996, but its cutaway body, oval sound hole, 22 fret fingerboard and superb live tone was so impressive it became a cult hit in the Martin world. It's now considered "vintage." Apparently I have one of the first ones.
Unfortunately, being the functionally-oriented guitarist that I am, I've beat the crap out of it for decades so the collectability is probably destroyed - not to mention the modifications.
The most recent chapter:
From the nineties on - when I started gigging with it extensively - I stuffed it with a blanket when playing live to avoid feedback issues. I couldn't find anyone that made oval sound hole covers. None of the standard rubber covers you could buy would fit. The blanket worked fine, even improved the amplified sound, but was inconvenient whenever I needed to change the battery or wanted to play it acoustically.
The battery holder is mounted inside the guitar at the base of the neck. You have to loosen the strings in order to stick your hand through the sound hole to swap the battery out. As I said, the active electronics were installed in the MC28 as a modification. The battery holder also covers up the serial number. That's unfortunate.
I got a reputation at one of the local recording studios - one of the engineers there loved the sound of the guitar and so I would get calls to do tracking sessions for acoustic guitar parts. I would have to take the strings off, pull out the blanket, usually put a new set on, do the session, loosen the strings to stuff the blanket back in and tune back up for the next gig.
When at home it was just too much trouble so the blanket stayed in. That cut down on my enjoyment when playing it acoustically since the blanket dampened the wonderful natural tone. When at home I usually played an inferior guitar I had just because of the acoustics.
At first I used a piece of cardboard at the sound hole to hold the blanket in. Eventually I fashioned a piece of black foam rubber for that purpose.
In 2018 I bought a used Martin GPCPA3 as a possible replacement for the MC-28. The reasons for that and a comparison of the two guitars is here. I wound up using the GPCPA3 for most acoustic gigs since I purchased it.
So, since the MC-28 was sitting around with no more blanket stuffed in it I decided to see if someone made custom-built sound hole covers.
I did a google search and of course someone does. I picked one cold: Lacuna Acoustic Art.
Since I had no idea of who or what I was dealing with I went with the cheapest, most basic design; Black Walnut for the wood, no fancy design or inlay - $100 plus $15 shipping.
I thought that was pretty pricey for a simple sound hole cover, even considering it was wood rather than rubber. However, I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt.
Dwayne Becknell (owner-designer) asked me to send him the measurements for the sound hole. I am notoriously unhandy and didn't trust myself. I sent him pictures with a tape measure laid across the sound hole. He sent me a PayPal payment request and I paid him.
A couple of weeks later I received the package.
To be honest, I expected some kind of problem; I assumed it would probably take at least a couple of tries to get it.
I was wrong; it fit perfectly and was super easy to slide in and out. I was impressed. It looked good too.
I took the blanket-less MC-28 with the new nifty custom sound hole cover to my next solo acoustic gig. I posted the following on social media along with pictures:
Just finished an hour and 40 minute set. I’m definitely going to keep using this. I’ve had to EQ the guitar differently than usual. This cover definitely cuts the highs. I have the highs boosted some to compensate. I have another Martin that I’ve been using with a round sound hole. I use a generic rubber cover you can buy at any music store on that one. The rubber cover doesn’t seem to change the EQ that much. The oval cover is wood. I guess that’s what makes the difference.
The EQ situation is easy to compensate for. I like this product so much I'm considering another one; a fancy one with a Master Guitar logo engraved in it, or my name or something - something cool. If you go to the Lacuna Acoustic Art website, you can see some pretty fancy sound hole covers. I might even buy one for the GPCPA3. It's so much hipper than a generic rubber one.
So, while I will be primarily using the GPCPA3 for gigs (built-in tuner, easier battery access, less weight, and maintains tuning better), the old MC-28 still has quite a few miles in her I'm thinking.
It's difficult to completely retire something that's now more functional than ever (because of the new sound hole cover!) and has so much personal history and vibe. Besides Bob Abernathy's hand-carved bone saddle, there have been various cracks repaired and it's full of character; thousands of little finish-checks, places where the finish is worn off by skin oil and sweat, pick scrapes all around the sound hole, scratches, whiskey stains and stories. And it sounds great - good acoustic guitars sound better as they age and this one is no exception.
It fits me like a well-broke-in pair of Dingo boots - which I also wear, BTW:
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