Dick Boak of Martin Guitar
by Rick Landers
Dick Boak reaches for the stars. Literally.
As the Director of Martin Guitar Artist and Limited Editions, Boak collaborates with top celebrity guitarists to design and build some of the most unique and finest instruments made. An affable character who puts everyone at ease, his intellect runs deep and his creative juices smolder with a desire to shake up the status quo while at the same time honoring and protecting the finest aspects of the Martin tradition.
Boak, the author of Martin Guitar Masterpieces, is a woodworker, guitar designer and builder, draftsman, Martin's public relations liaison, artist, guitarist, and a company insider who thrives on keeping the entrepreneurial flame alive in a business founded in 1833.
Modern Guitars Magazine met with Dick Boak at Martin's headquarters in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
Life before Martin Guitar?
Dick Boak: I started out as an illustrator and art teacher. One of the teachers at the Blair Academy, a private school that has about 400 students, up in New Jersey, was having some difficulty reaching the right rapport with his students. They weren´t responding. He asked me to work with him in order to connect with the students better and that lasted for about two years.
I was fresh off the commune, had wild hair and blue jeans and the kids seemed to relate to me a lot. I really wasn´t much older than they were. This was back in 1972.
Even though I lived in nearby Bethlehem, I didn´t realize that Martin Guitar was next door in Nazareth. I was very interested in building guitars but had a rather unsuccessful track record. I basically traced the steps of the caveman guitar builder using Whole Earth Catalog-type books to learn to be a luthier. There weren´t many books available back then and those that were, were very primitive.
Your introduction to Martin?
DB: Basically, I saw the Martin Guitar billboard and I took the tour. I couldn´t believe it. Having been a woodworker all my life I was in awe of Martin´s great woodworking shop! So, I ended up asking some of the guys there if there were any dumpsters where I might be able to get some wood and they pointed me to the back of the building. I asked if I could hop in and look around and they said, ´Yeah.´ I must have hit it on the right day because there was a great mix of nice rosewood and ebony. Where else are you going to get that?
I got tired of teaching and continued my dumpster diving. The Martin workers were these old-school Pennsylvania Dutch Germans and they yelled out to me, ´Hey, you know you should be applying for a 'chob' here!´
I took their advice and after an interesting first interview with a receptionist who wasn´t really keen on talking to this long-haired hippy, everything fell into place. She kept asking me questions to steer me out the door, but after I let her know that I was a draftsman, a woodworker, and a musician that could build guitars, I finally broke down all the barriers and I was offered a job as a design draftsman.
Were you a guitar player?
DB: I sang, played bass, autoharp and some harmonica and performed at several coffee houses. I wasn´t exactly becoming what you´d call a legend! I played guitar like I played my bass, a single note at a time without any rhythm. Now, even though I have a bunch of guitars, I play mostly for my own personal enjoyment.
What was Martin Guitar like when you first arrived - different than the Martin of today?
DB: Yes, it was different, but in many ways the same - we're still grounded in a tradition of fine luthiership. I joined Martin in 1976, and when I showed up the company was facing pretty tough times with the workers striking in 1978. This was also the era when the Japanese were building inexpensive Martin copies and we had to send out a couple cease and desist orders, no lawsuits. Anyway, around that time our workers went out on strike and during that time frame I got fired for insubordination. I really believed my boss at the time was wasting money and I just did a stupid thing - well, in hindsight I did the right thing and got fired for it.
DB: The guy who fired me kept it a bit of a secret. Fortunately, when everyone found out about it, they wanted me back. Frank Martin, his father "Mr. Martin" and his grandson Chris (Christian Frederick Martin IV) and the guys in the production shop didn´t know I´d been fired. While I was ´on sabbatical´, I worked on an illustration of a D-28 and eventually published it. My artistic interest or specialty is to make very detailed, highly intricate drawings through a method artists call pointillism. I thought of it as hippie art, sort of San Francisco art nouveau.
Anyway, I was hired back during the strike and worked final assembly, and through the years I´ve worked in a lot of different areas at Martin, learning from the ground up.
What else have you done at Martin?
DB: I´m sure I´ll miss some things, but let´s give it a go. I've worked in prototype design; drafting; the wood and production division; and, I ran the sawmill for awhile. I started the 1833 Martin Gift Shop and the Guitarmakers Connection that morphed out of the Woodworkers Dream. The Connection is set up to furnish parts and supplies for luthiers - it´s a very interesting place to visit and offers a great opportunity for budding guitarmakers.
Once personal computers arrived, I learned how to do spreadsheets on a MacIntosh in order to invest in stocks for my own personal use. My abilities with the Mac helped me get a job in our string making division in Mexico. We needed to order material, organize the material, develop shipping procedures, and do inventory control. I was also given a opportunity to do some publishing with the Mac and around 1985 I co-founded the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (ASIA) and published GuitarMaker magazine.
But what I was really interested in was advertising. Martin had a contract with an outside company to do that and I didn´t think they did a good job for us. It looked to me like Martin was getting a bad value for the money. I was lucky again and they gave me a shot at that and we pulled the work in-house, where it mostly remains.
How did the Artist and Limited Edition Martin guitars evolve?
DB: We can all thank our current CEO, Chris Martin, for that. Around 1994 or so he flew out to Gene Autry´s museum to see the first, you could call it the prototype D-45. Your younger readers probably don´t remember, but Gene was the number one cowboy singing star in the 1940s and everybody loved him.
Chris loved the guitar, but was especially impressed or intrigued with the gift shop and all the Gene Autry souvenir items for sale at the museum. That led him to ask if Gene would be interested in licensing us to build a Gene Autry D-45 model. Gene was enthusiastic, but had a caveat that all royalties would be paid to the museum, which is a non-profit.
Chris loved the generosity of the idea and liked the way it felt. I ended up handling the design work to replicate the guitar. The project was a success and we sold all 66 guitars that we made and it gave us a process template for doing future artist series guitars, even though at the time we weren´t thinking about this.
What drove Martin to institutionalize the Artist and Limited Edition guitars?
DB: It was a series of events I think and probably a single motive, Chris Martin´s interest in charitable contributions, that firmed this up for us.
I started getting calls after Eric Clapton did the MTV Unplugged show and later gathered up 7 Grammies for the album. People wanted to know what guitar he was using and wanted one. Eric actually used two Martin guitars on the show, a 1966 000-28 that had been modified into an ornate 45 by Martin´s historian, Mike Longworth, and a 1939 000-42 rumored to have been given to Eric by Stephen Stills.
I went back to Chris to see if it would be okay to contact Clapton so we could build some guitars. Chris thought it was a great idea, but only if the royalties went to a charitable cause. We wanted this to be a meaningful contribution and knowing Eric´s young son, Conor, had recently died in a tragic accident, I sent Eric a fax suggesting that the guitar would be made to Eric´s specifications and that all royalties would go to a children's charity of his choice.
Eric got back to me the very next day and we ended up blending the best characteristics of both guitars into the first 000-42 Eric Clapton Signature Series guitar. The model sold out in a single day!
We gave Eric the first model when he played at the Royal Albert Hall, along with a mock check for $92,000 made out to The Eric Clapton Charitable Trust. He loved the guitar. The edition was limited to 461 guitars based on his Florida address and his ´comeback´ album at the time, ´461 Ocean Boulevard´.
After that, I was set free to do more artist-oriented Martins.
Whom did you approach after the 000-42EC?
DB: You can count on two hands the other artists who might generate the same level of interest as the Clapton guitar. Among those would have to be Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Paul Simon. I went for Simon. And it wasn´t easy to set up. After some trials, I was able to reason my way into his circle of friends and finally met with him.
It might have been helpful for me to have known that Paul has a wicked sense of humor - very wry.
I´ll make this shorter than the full story in my book, Martin Guitar Masterpieces, but basically, I´m sitting waiting for him with a 000-42 to show him an example of what we could build. He cracks open the door and peers in and says, ´I don´t think so!´ and slams the door. There I am flabbergasted and really deflated, feeling dejected. Moments later, the door opens again and he´s got this smile on his face and says, ´Just kidding.´
Your book, Martin Guitar Masterpieces, has a lot of great stories about meeting the artists whom you collaborated with on their signature models.
DB: Well, okay I´ll tell you another, but people should really buy my book! [Laughs]
There´s now a large list of artists with signature models: Joan Baez, Stephen Stills, John Mayer, Jonny Lang, Rory Block, Dion, Lester Flatt, Merle Haggard, Roger McGuinn, Willy Nelson, Johnny Cash, Dave Mathews, Jimmy Rodgers - many more - and we have even more in the works, including a new John Mayer model. We also have some limited editions that aren´t assigned to a particular artist, like the HDN ´Negative´ that we made for Acoustic Guitar magazine that got Bob Dylan´s interest. He ordered two of them.
Alright, here´s another story, but still, for the full story the book is an absolute necessity [smiles].
I love Mark Knopfler and think he´s one of the most unique guitar players out there - just impossible to replicate. Well, maybe J.J. Cale and John Fogerty occasionally sound similar to him.
It was such a tremendous honor to pay tribute to him as a guitarist and not as an endorser of our guitars since Mark plays a lot of different, primarily electric, guitars.
When we came up with the idea for Mark´s guitar there was a group of paleontologists from the University of Utah digging in Madagascar and for the life of them they couldn´t find any bones, until they played their Dire Straits CDs. Play Dire Straits and find bones. Don't play Dire Straits and just dig. Uncanny, but a true story! They ended up naming a newly discovered dinosaur after him - Masiakasaurus Knopfleri.
So, with enthusiastic agreement from Mark, we made the Martin HD-40 Mark Knopfler model with a little dinosaur laser-etched near the serial number inside the guitar, so people will have to discover it, just like the paleontologists discovering real bones. The basic guitar is based on a Martin HD-28V. He was very specific as to what he wanted the guitar to be and there was a great deal of collaboration about the nut, the guitar´s look and feel, the tone woods and all the details. It is a beautiful instrument.
He had to be pleased with the end result.
DB: The best thing that happened was that he absolutely loved it and he´s got it with him wherever he goes - always asking, "Where´s my Martin?" And then he goes and writes this terrific album, Ragpicker´s Dream, and uses the guitar, peppered with some electric. At a press session he says he got this new Martin guitar and there was all this music locked up inside of it and all he did was let it out - so that was especially wonderful - and then he did it again as his primary songwriting tool with Shangri-La! I guess there must have been twelve more tunes in that guitar.
Who couldn´t you get?
DB: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Paul McCartney. For various reasons I suppose. For one, they´re really hard to get to and none really seems interested in endorsing any guitar. We´d love to honor them with their own signature models and contribute to their favorite charities, but we haven´t been able to work through their inner circles with enough panache I guess to reach them.
What we have done, and I´m really proud to be part of it, is that Martin Guitar's and all the artists' contributions to a panorama of good causes exceeds two million dollars and counting!
Do artists tend to focus more on the look of their signature models or on tonal quality?
DB: There are different ways to work the collaboration depending on the artist. We can readily cut and paste together a guitar with various features they like or we can work with them to come up with something unique. With Sting, we´ve worked on a small parlor style guitar called a Terz. We´ll do a tour of Martin later and you´ll see these little guitar bodies roaming around as they go through the various building and finishing processes [see top photo]. They´re great sounding guitars and Sting used one on the song Deadman's Rope from his album Sacred Love.
As far as tone, we can pretty much figure out how a guitar will sound based on the design, the parts, and the woods we use. Different shapes and sizes will yield different sounds. Different woods can make the sound crisp or warm and thicken or lighten the tone. Our goal is to get the optimal sound out of all guitars we build, so yes, tone is a definite area that we work at with all of our guitars. We also decide about electronics and the way the guitar looks.
What´s been funny is that we´ll make a special guitar for someone like Sting, and Bruce Springsteen will show up at a recording session, like he did when Sting was playing the Terz. Bruce picked it up and played it and liked it, so Sting had another made and sent it to him as a gift.
You´ve designed several guitars, including a double-cutaway model that looks like a gypsy guitar.
DB: Yes, I designed a double cutaway guitar I called the MC Squared and I thought, and still think, that it´s a very elegant instrument. I had a lot of ideas about it and I thought the hook of "MC2" was cool. I came up with idea when I was running the Woodworkers´ Dream shop and the production line would send me rejected parts.
One day they sent me a cutaway on which they had broke the non-cut side while bending it and gave me the right side. So, I put it away and really forgot about it until six months later the same thing happened but to the other side of a guitar being built. Bingo! I got this epiphany to build a guitar out of the two parts - a double-cutaway Martin!
I got called into a meeting. Here I am, the new young kid with unwieldy hair, new ideas, and kind of a bohemian compared to the rather conservative nature of the company at the time. So, I was told to defend my idea. I gave them the whole rap - everything - including the MC2 name and how clever it was as a marketing thing, and how the double-cutaway would give guitarists the ability to go all the way up the neck on both sides, and the beautiful balanced look of the design. They agreed to build some. It was pretty and balanced, but not a huge success and the paradox of that is they're now very collectible and highly prized by those who have them because so few were made.
But, Martin really likes to see home runs like the Eric Clapton, John Mayer and Jimmy Buffet models.
How has Martin Guitar, the employer, changed since you arrived in the 1970s?
DB: I understand that yesterday you called my office to check on the dress code. As you can see, it´s not a shirt and tie place. It was perhaps a little more conservative under Frank Martin´s rule, as well as with Chris´s grandfather - a little more formal.
When I showed up there wasn´t a tremendous amount of focus on new products or design innovation. And with respect to how we did business, dealers were dealers and if you wanted a guitar you went to a dealer. If you were Bob Dylan and you wanted a Martin guitar, we´d send you off to a dealer. That was too bad because we really can get great inspiration and feedback from the artists that use our guitars in a professional setting.
Now we have the Custom Shop that started in late 1983 and that´s where a lot of our R&D takes place. We figure if someone suggests a good idea and we hear it over and over again, we´ll eventually decide to use it.
The Custom Shop is great for that and with artists it´s really a no-brainer, their signature models are exactly what they want. They take them on stage in front of thousands, if not millions of people, who are potential customers and it´s really ludicrous to say anything negative about that. It´s a win-win from every angle.
Today, if you want to go to the edge of the cliff with an idea it´s more of an informal process and very succinct - and the great ideas don´t get set aside.