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The Martin D-18 Guitar and Its Very Special Sound

Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.

The Beautiful Spruce and Mahogany of the Martin D 18 Flat Top

The Beautiful Spruce and Mahogany of the Martin D 18 Flat Top

The D 18 Is Less Expensive Than the D 28, But It's Not Cheaper

Listen, I'm a lifelong guitar nut, and I've owned a wonderful Martin D-18. Do you know what I seriously regret? Selling it, that's what. The Martin D-18 is another American guitar Icon; it's not "the other one" either. So the D-18 is a less expensive instrument than the D-28 or its million-and-one knock-off versions. That doesn't mean, and will never mean, that the D-18 is even a little bit less wonderful of a guitar.

The Martin D-18 is a solid wood guitar of heirloom quality. If you own one, you would be foolish to ever sell it. Yes, I just called myself a fool. The D-18 features a solid spruce soundboard and solid mahogany back and sides—it comes with less mother-of-pearl inlay in the neck than does a "herringbone" D-28, and it doesn't feature the herringbone trim either.

The major complaint D-18 lovers have had has always been it is too dressed down, not as fancy looking as a D-28 or something with a higher number in the Martin line. Others have forever adored the simplicity of the D-18. No matter, nowadays you can get some very fancy ones, the David Crosby D-18 comes to mind, also, the Jimmy Buttett D-18, and the Gordon Lightfoot one.

Simplicity in Design, and the Wonders of Mahogany

If you are much younger than I am and not familiar with music history, then you may be shocked to know that in the early 1900s, the guitar was generally thought of as a rhythm instrument and not a lead instrument at all. Only in 1930s France, with the beyond amazing guitarist Django Reinhardt and his equally fabulous violin-playing sidekick, Stephan Grappelli, did the guitar become prominent as a lead instrument. The comparison I'm trying to make here is that Django's guitar provided a very bright, very immediate tonality that is very different from that provided by the legendary rosewood guitars like the D-28.

The mahogany back and sides of a Martin D-18 provide the same sort of counterpoint in comparison to its cousin and competitor, the Martin D-28.

The Beautiful Mahogany Backside of a Martin D-18

The Beautiful Mahogany Backside of a Martin D-18

A beautiful sunburst top on a Martin D-18.

A beautiful sunburst top on a Martin D-18.

Mahogany Guitars Like the D 18 Provide a Very Special Sound!

"So, Todd, I'm confused here, buddy—everyone knows that you get what you pay for in life-if you think a D-18 is as good a guitar as a D-28. That's crazy Texan talk!"

"Crazy Talk!" Indeed, good sir, you get what you pay for in life, and with Martin guitars, and when you spend the extra for a D-28, you get the rosewood back and sides, it's a more expensive wood—it's not a "better" tonewood, it's just different. You also get more abalone inlay with the D-28, and with the HD-28, you get herringbone trim.

Look, a lot of people prefer the sound of the mahogany D-18 to that of the D-28, or the HD-28-it's a matter of preference and opinion as to which one you like better, and think is "best." The cost is a matter of economics and the myriad factors that play into the price of mahogany vs. whichever kind of rosewood your D-28 or D-28-style instrument features.

One more thing-mahogany is a lighter wood, so a mahogany guitar such as the Martin D-18 and any copy or similar guitar is going to be a lighter-weight guitar than a Martin D-28 or similar guitar.

The Martin D 18 GE - With Adirondack Spruce Top, Wider Neck Width, and Pre War Martin Construction

The Martin D 18 GE - With Adirondack Spruce Top, Wider Neck Width, and Pre War Martin Construction

High-Quality Alternatives to Martin's D-18 Guitar

In exactly the same way as the American Guitar Icon, the Martin HD-28 has inspired luthiers across the globe and this nation to build and sell their own versions of the D-28; the different sounding and less expensive Martin D-18 has led guitar companies in the same direction. There are more fine outright copies and variations of the Martin D-18 available than I could ever mention. I'll touch on a few here, though.

Note: These instruments are in some cases more expensive than the original by Martin-and the reasons for this are that they are often hand-made and have the highest quality specs possible. The Martin D-18 GE, or "Golden Era," however, would be VERY TOUGH TO BEAT. As always, keep in mind that no two guitars are equal and that they are all completely unique. Personal preference is always the key and should always be the deciding factor when buying a guitar.

I haven't mentioned Dana Bourgeois or Bourgeois guitars on my other guitar hubs-but that is only because I actually own a Santa Cruz, and I've met Bill Collings of Texas' own Collings guitars. Dana Bourgeois-way up in Maine, however, makes some of the finest high-quality acoustic guitars in the United States of America.

I already knew that to be a true statement from knowing of the amazing guitarist that prefer his brand of guitars, but one day in the North Dallas Guitar Center, I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of those guitars—and I literally thought that it was the finest instrument in the entire store, and I didn't have to think about that for even a minute.

Gallagher Guitars is another very fine, super high-quality guitar company that makes a D-18 style guitar, and their guitar, the G-50, should be well known to anyone who is reading this article. If you've not heard Doc Watson playing on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's wonderful double album Will The Circle Be Unbroken? Then you're missing out on what my guitar articles are all about.

Say, Doc, that's a fine-sounding old box!

Mr. Gallagher made this thing.

And then the legendary Doc Watson rips into some hardcore and classic flatpicking! I've had my hands on a few Gallagher guitars, and they are top-notch. I believe that the original Doc Watson G-50 has been resigned to either the Country Music Hall Of Fame or the Rock N' Roll Hall Of Fame. I'm not certain which-but I think that putting outstanding guitars in a museum where they won't be played should be a criminal offense.


I'd like to state that just because guitars with mahogany backs and sides, like the Martin D-18, are less expensive than guitars with rosewood backs and sides, like the Martin D-28-that in no way makes them "cheaper" guitars.

The mahogany guitars are lighter weight and have a greater velocity of sound, a "brighter" sound, if you will. This makes these guitars ideal for playing leads. The rosewood guitars are more often sought after-but they are also more expensive, and have a "darker" sound, and really excel as rhythm, or backup instruments.

But don't let me be the judge of how you make your music with your guitars-I'm just a talking head who knows a thing or two about a thing or three. Today the Martin Standard Series D-18 is the most affordable of the lot, and is the go-to guitar for mahogany excellence.

Martin Standard Series D-18 Guitar features:

  • Powerful dreadnought design
  • Great-sounding combination of solid spruce top and mahogany back and sides
  • Modified low oval neck profile with high-performance taper
  • Smooth black ebony fingerboard
  • Bone nut and compensated saddle for improved sustain and intonation

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What Martin Strings would be best for the D18 guitar?

Answer: I'm a guy who likes to flatpick fiddle tunes on my dreadnoughts. I use medium gauge strings. The medium gauge strings are louder, and sound better. They make the soundboard vibrate more, and especially if you use, as I do, a very thick pic or plectrum. They do punish your fingers, and you do have to worry about temperature and humidity more with them too. If mediums are just too big, go for lights on the big three strings, and medium on the small three strings.

Question: I'm curious why you never mentioned the standard by which all-mahogany guitars are actually measured, the 000-18 or the OM-18?

Answer: Because this article is about the D-18 Dreadnought and not smaller body guitars. The Dreadnought size is absolutely the standard sized acoustic guitar in this modern day.

© 2010 Wesman Todd Shaw


Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on November 08, 2019:

@kgeterphd Fantastic!

It takes the real thing to recognize the real thing. That's why Dwight is talking about Merle, and understood him perfectly.

kgeterphd on November 08, 2019:

...and I'm right there with you on Wildwood Flower. Here's a cut from the documentary where Dwight talks about Merle Haggard. Get out the Kleenex!

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on November 08, 2019:

I'm right there with ya, kgeterphd, the only person I really do love in modern country music is Dwight Yoakam. There are probably some others, but there's no one I respect more than Dwight who's active.

I'm no great guitarist, and I doubt this is anything like unique to me - but the very first thing I ever learned to flatpick was 'Wildwood Flower,' the very simple Carter family version of the melody.

I bet I could not touch a guitar for 30 years, and I could still pick one up and play that fairly well.

kgeterphd on November 08, 2019:

I agree about mahogany dreds being "different" but not "lesser" than rosewood. My ear might be shifting towards preferring mahogany.

I'm not a contemporary country music fan (read: I kinda hate it), but Ken Burn's documentary is fantastic! For me, the first 3 episodes were very compelling and educational. I never realized the extent of the influence of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family on all American music, not just country.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on November 08, 2019:

Sounds like a great deal!

Yeah, mahogany dreds are just a completely different animal. I mean mahogany body guitars are always very different from rosewood.

I've sold two Martin dreds, kgeterphd, and I regret both of the sales.

Hey, I've been meaning to remember the Ken Burns thing. I have enjoyed previous things he's done. Thanks for bringing that up!

kgeterphd on November 08, 2019:

I lucked into getting a like-new 2017 D-18 yesterday (11/7/19) at my local (and locally owned) music store for $1600. I've had my "keeper" HD-28 for nearly 20 years now and thought I'd never want another dreadnought, but when I picked up the D-18 I could not put it down! It is distinctly different than my HD-28: lighter in weight and lighter in sound, and that isn't a bad thing. It seems quite a bit more responsive than the HD-28 and is quite loud even with the lightest touch of the pick. It has a more "even" sound across the range than the HD-28 which is darker and more bass-ie. It is MUCH better suited for finger picking and/or Carter scratching than the HD-28, IMHO. We'll see how it goes, but I might actually sell the HD-28, although I've always regretted selling Martins (I've had 4 others).

Another thing: watch Ken Burn's Country Music doc and notice how many artists played D-18s: a lot.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on June 04, 2019:

Weeasle, the thing is the application. The D-18 is typically thought of as a Bluegrass or flatpicking guitar. For Bluegrass and celtic sorts of stuff, you want as much snap, crackle, and pop as you can possibly get.

If you're more of a fingerpicker, or a singer/strummer or mega rhythm player, then any of the Martin guitars without the advanced X and scalloping would do you maybe the job you want, and also, those guitars are sturdier built.

The reason Martin ever even started doing bracing which wasn't the 'high X,' and scalloped was to reduce the numbers of warranty jobs. They do have a different sound.

Dan Tyminski plays a D-28 with the non advanced x, and the non scalloped braces. He gets a good sound out of his, but he's not trying to win the flatpicking championships down in Winfield, Kansas.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on June 04, 2019:

As for finding out the numbers or total number of very specific models built. I don't know how to do it except for to look at just about every page I find about a guitar, on different sites, and just maybe they'll have it listed somewhere. It's a very hit or miss sort of thing. Sometimes I can find out that kind of information, assuming what I read is true, and other times I can't find anything.

You can find out some things sometimes on Reverb. Most especially, you can find out what something's used price is with Reverb. That's a pretty stand up sort of place.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on June 04, 2019:

No, a pre-war D-18 would have absolutely had the forward shifted scalloped bracing. Furthermore, the pre-war D-18 also had those bracing, and its top of Adirondack spruce.

A lot of people believe Adirondack to be superior to all other varieties of spruce. I'm not one of them. I believe a high grade Sitka spruce top is as good as it gets.

Well I've never seen one of those D-15 Specials before. That would be a fine thing.

If you get the chance to lay hands on one, the X of the X bracing should be about an inch behind the back end of the sound hole.

weeasle on June 04, 2019:

Hi Again Todd,

I should have specified the exact model as Martin does have many models - D15 Special -

This really has me wonder two thing -

a. how many were made, ie. how available

b. Since on paper it specs as a D18, whats the diff other than lack of tortoise binding? Because if I am not mistaken the older (pre-war) D-18s were not scalloped-braced.. I guess it doesnt say forward shifted X-brace on the D-15.. I am no martin expert so any insight appreciated..


Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on June 04, 2019:

The D-15 is a fine guitar, Weeasle, but it has a mahogany top, and that puts it in a different sort of category.

weeasle on June 03, 2019:

Quoting article:

Today the Martin Standard Series D-18 is the most affordable of the lot...

The Martin D15 seems to similar specs but comes in lower priced than the D18...

Michael bray on January 04, 2017:

Very helpful. I am shopping for a Martin and thought this article was excellent in explaining the differences in the D-18 vs D-28. Thank you!

Sweet Earl D on June 08, 2016:

Nice article. I couldn't agree more. The D-18 is an awesome guitar. I own a 2009 D-18 and a 1990 D-41 (rosewood). I play them back to back some nights, and they each sound so unique. I would never say that one sounds "better" than the other. I've also played a few D-28s and HD-28s. When I think about how to compare the sounds of all these, I guess I would say the HD-28s definitely have a "scooped" sound (higher bass and treble and less mids). The standard D-28 I think sounds similar to the HD-28 with less volume and a bit tighter (less wide open). The D-41 has a more balanced sound than the standard rosewood guitar with a lot of volume, bass, punchy mids, and highs. The D-18 has sufficient bass but really shines in the mids and highs. When I play the D-18, I often stop and appreciate how well-balanced it sounds.

Safe to say, I will never sell either of them.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on January 06, 2016:

Congratulations, Laco! You'll never experience buyer's remorse for the guitar, and believe it or not, it's only going to sound better and better as you play it and break it in!

LAco on April 21, 2015:

Great article!

I have bought my D-18 yesterday. Compared it with D-28, HD-28, Gibson J-45, Dove, Humming bird... and lot more. (90 minutes I was in the store) I'm still like in a dream and could not beleve how great sound is the less expensive D-18 producing! For me it's the best choise! Stil like in a dream...

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on April 14, 2011:

Hey MysteryPlanet, I bet the J-45 is a great guitar! One of my uncles inherited my Grandfather's Gibson Country Gentleman, a similar, but discontinued model. I hope to be able to get that off of him some day, and have it restored as much as possible.

MysteryPlanet on April 12, 2011:

I have an old Gibson J-45, its nearly 40 years old. I have played around with some Martins too. I especially like the older ones.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on November 15, 2010:

I sort of wondered-was he married to Mary Ford? I saw several clips of him and her acting like a couple when they performed together. Mary Ford looks so much like my Brother's wife, Sally. . . . that it sort of blows my mind.

I'd heard my whole life about how he'd had a doctor set his damaged arm in position so that he could still play his guitar-and damn, what an icon the Gibson Les Paul will ALWAYS be!

I'm going to look for that song you mentioned, and I wanted to ask you if you had actually met him, guess I got shy, or something.

Tracy, you're so kind-I'm so very pleased to be getting to know you. :-D

Tracy Savage on November 15, 2010:

Hey Todd! You rock and it is a pleasure to read your work. Thank YOU for writing and sharing your mind.

Mr. Paul was an incredible guitarist as well as a master craftsman. I got to hear him play jazz on several occasions, and my personal favorite was "Somebody Ease My Troublin' Mind". Truly a genius and a fine human to have known. There is a documentary about him called Les Paul Chasing Sound, and I think it probably is one of the best biographies there is on him.

LOL I WILL KEEP MY KIDNEYS AND GUITARS just cuz you said so ;)

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on November 14, 2010:

Hey Tracy! I really appreciate you taking the time to read my hubs, THANK YOU!

Les Paul. .. .that was a great one that we've lost recently, but I'd heard of him my entire life, of course, as I've always been into guitars and guitar music.


Tracy Savage on November 14, 2010:

I lived around the corner from Les Paul for most of my life. His store is less than 10 minutes from my house. He would have loved your thoughts. The picture of me with my favorite guitar is on facebook- that is an Epiphone. I was given that as a gift. I will sell a kidney before I sell that guitar.