Guitar Gopher is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
The Martin DX1AE
There is something special about Martin guitars. I’ve long been a fan, especially of their dreadnought instruments. They have a deep, rich sound, impeccable construction quality and a reputation for excellence they very much deserve.
They’re also a little expensive. I’ve owned a few over the years and, while they were worth every dime, they certainly set me back a bit. So, when I was recently looking for a new acoustic guitar between $500 and $1000 I’ll admit I wasn’t thinking of Martin.
I was thinking of brands like Seagull, Washburn and Yamaha. These guitar companies really shine in the intermediate price range, and they produce some outstanding instruments for not a lot of cash. There is no way Martin can be competitive with these working-man’s brands when it comes to guitars under $1000. Martin is focused on competing with premium brands like Taylor, Gibson and Guild.
This is what I thought as I walked into a guitar shop a few months back, right before I spotted the Martin DX1AE on the wall. I grabbed it, played it, and immediately loved it. But I didn’t walk out with that guitar that day, because there are a few interesting things about it that required a little research and thought.
A couple of months later, having completed said research and thought, and after playing a few more DX1AEs in a few more shops, I brought one home.
In this article I’ll cover my thoughts on my new guitar after putting it through its paces for the past month. I’ll also go over some of those interesting things that gave me pause, and what I found out when I did a little reading.
Let’s get on with it!
Specs and Construction
The first time I played one of these guitars I was convinced it had to be an all-solid-wood build. Even though that didn’t make sense for a Martin in this price range, even though the wood grains on the neck, back and sides looked awfully perfect and even though I knew Martin used alternative materials in more budget-friendly instruments, the sound was telling me something different.
I know a bit more than the average Joe when it comes to guitars and I always do my research before walking into a shop. But, remember, I wasn’t expecting to look at a Martin that day. When I played this guitar and took a look at the little tag on the headstock my game plan went into a tailspin.
That little tag told me the back and sides of the DX1AE were made from HPL, or high-pressure laminate, not solid woods. I’m familiar with the stuff, and aware that Martin has utilized it for a while in their X-Series instruments, but never owned a guitar made from it.
According to Martin, HPL is a “composite material made from paper and resin that is pressed at very high pressure”. It’s made from discarded bits of wood, and it's finished off with a nice wood pattern, in this case mahogany, but it isn’t solid wood. The neck, too, is made from a laminate rather than solid wood.
The fingerboard isn’t rosewood or ebony. It’s Richlite, another composite material. The bridge is also made from Richlite. In other words, neither is wood.
However, the top is solid wood. Sitka spruce is a common tonewood used in acoustic guitars, and that’s what we see here.
So, I played this guitar and loved it, then looked at the tag on the headstock and realized, with the exception of the top, it was made entirely of laminates. This presented a conundrum, and that’s why I didn’t walk out with the DX1AE the first day I played it.
When it comes to acoustic guitars, wood is good. What about this stuff that’s not really wood?
Before I broke my piggy bank for this guitar I had to learn a bit more about Martin’s philosophy for making an instrument like the DX1AE. It sounded and played so darned good, but what’s with all this HPL business?
Obviously their X-Series guitars are meant to compete at lower price points and tap into the intermediate-guitar market. But this is a company with a legendary reputation. They aren’t going to cut corners just to make a few bucks and risk damaging their brand name.
Through my research I discovered that the DX1AE is among several Martin models that are utilize Sustainable Wood Certified parts.
Why does this matter? As you may have heard, wood comes from trees. Guitar companies have needed to see a whole lot of trees get knocked down over the years to build their instruments. That can’t go on forever, especially since some of the most desirable wood species are under duress from manufacturing needs.
Martin recognizes this, and along with a few other giants in the industry they have taken steps to try to turn the tide a bit. Using HPL and alternative materials is one way they can make a difference.
Should this mean anything to you? That's up to you to decide. Below I've posted a Martin video I've shared in a couple of my articles, which illustrates Martin's approach to sustainability. Personally, I love that Martin is going this way. If nothing else, I think it is food for thought.
Martin and Sustainability
Saving the rain forests is a nice idea, and I do care about the environment, but I’m not going to spend a few hundred dollars on an instrument just to feel warm and fuzzy. None of this sustainability stuff means much if Martin can’t produce a product worth my time and money.
I played four of these in different shops. I could feel and hear that each instrument was made to extremely high quality standards. That’s what drew my interest to begin with, before I read the specs.
In fact, the guitar I own today is downright flawless. The seams are tight and precise, the frets are smooth and comfortable and there is even a nice bevel to the top edges to prevent that annoying feeling where your arm rests on the guitar.
Tuning has been rock solid. The guitar only needed a slight neck adjustment when I took it home, just to get the action right where I want it. Simply going by the comfort level when playing, this guitar certainly feels like a more expensive Martin.
The back of the neck is smooth. I can’t tell any real difference between it and, for example, a solid mahogany neck. However, I’ll admit the sides don’t feel quite like wood, at least in a tactile sense. I suppose I shouldn’t expect this, since I know they're not. I’m also curious to see how the top ages over the years. It looks a little raw right now, with a little blemish to give it character.
It’s important to note that the DX1AE is made in Mexico, not Martin’s U.S. facility in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. This certainly keeps the cost down a little, but I don’t think this outsourcing is any cause for concern. In fact, Fender is another American guitar company that has been using a Mexican facility to produce their intermediate-level instruments for years.
It’s probably clear by now that I think very highly of the sound I get out of this guitar. It doesn’t just sound good for a mid-priced guitar; it sounds good, period. You get the rich resonance you’d expect out of dreadnought-style guitar, with excellent note articulation and midrange definition.
I’ve already mentioned how I was surprised when I looked at the tag on the headstock and realized it wasn’t made of solid woods. As guitar players we are always so concerned about tonewoods, especially when we talk about acoustic instruments. Martin obviously put a great deal of thought into the design here, in order to utilize alternative materials and still get a high-end sound out of this instrument.
For the sake of comparison I spent some time with a Taylor 110e, which is also a fine guitar. Obviously I liked the Martin better, as I felt its sound had more depth and projection. If flexible electronics were more important to me I may have considered the Taylor more seriously.
Speaking of electronics, this DX1AE is equipped with a Fishman Sonitone preamp system. The super-simple volume and tone controls hide away in the sound cavity of the guitar, and you reach just inside the sound hole to adjust them. Aside from the output jack and battery compartment it’s hard to notice this is an acoustic-electric instrument. I have no intention of performing live, but if you do this is a very simple and effective system. I may eventually use the preamp system for simple recording.
I plugged the Martin into a Fishman Loudbox Artist amplifier in one shop and fiddled around with it a bit. In another guitar shop I tried it through a basic portable PA system (can’t recall the brand). In both cases the sound was rich and clear, and I found both the tone and volume controls responsive and useful. If you need a complex preamp with an EQ, tuner and other gadgets the Fishman Sonitone isn’t it. This is all about ease of use and excellent sound quality.
As I become older and (arguably) wiser I find I am much pickier when it comes to new guitars. In the olden days I would find a guitar I thought I liked, bring it home, and in a month or so if it didn’t live up to my expectations I’d trade it in or sell it and get something else.
These days, I don’t like spending money on gear unless I have a pretty strong sense that it will stick with me for the rest of my life. Every instrument in my collection right now is a keeper, for one reason or another, and that’s what I was looking for when I set out to find a new acoustic guitar.
I love the sound of my Martin, but I also love that they didn’t have to knock down some rare tree to build it. I am not a professional musician. I do not play in a band anymore, and any recording I do will likely be for my own amusement. I wanted a guitar that sounded awesome, and didn’t cost a lot. The fact that it isn’t so hard on the environment is a nice bonus.
That’s not to say I won’t drop big cash on an expensive Martin again someday. I very well might. But for now, for my budget and goals, this guitar is just right. Over the past decade I have made it a point to find guitars that are excellent and sometimes unexpected values, and that’s what I think I’ve got here.
Maybe the Martin DX1AE is the right guitar for you, or maybe it isn’t. In my opinion, if you are looking for an acoustic guitar in the $500-$1000 range it is definitely worth your time to check it out.
Does it matter to you if a guitar is made from composite materials?
Ken Dawson on January 02, 2020:
I have one of those. I love the sound but guitar is coming apart on me.
I just bought a 1963 Gibson J45. I think I'll just stay away from all new guitars.
Guitar Gopher (author) on March 16, 2018:
@Jacob - As you can probably guess by my article, I highly recommend this guitar. I couldn't be happier with it. Good luck with yours and thanks for the kind words!
Jacob Majba on March 15, 2018:
Great review, I'm thinking of pulling the trigger on one of these. I think it may have escaped everyone's attention that the hpl brings the best out of the spruce top (you don't get the resonance of another wood muddying the sound)
Russ on January 28, 2018:
Thanks for the great time you use and for the truth. I bought a used one and really like it!