John Woodland doesn’t look like it, but he has been a rocker, owns a guitar hardware company called Mastery Bridge, and is a luthier. He looks like a cross between a forty-year-old Harry Potter and your accountant. No watch or rings, no tattoos or piercings, just large framed glasses and an unruly shock of dark brown hair. His dining room table is covered with faded files, letters, and photographs, which together tell the story—the true story, Woodland emphasizes—of the conception, labor, and delivery of the best known and most copied acoustic guitar ever made: C.F. Martin’s Dreadnought.
Fans of American music know this guitar by sight even if they have never plucked a string. It’s the guitar of Gene Autry, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Neil Young too, and far too many others to list. If there is a preeminent American musical icon, one especially dear to folk, rock, and the “Americana” mixture of the two, it’s that unmistakable Martin shape, whether strung with old Black Diamond, D’Addario, or whatever steel strings players have been able to lay their hands on over the years.
But even the players don’t know the whole proper history of the Dreadnought. “Most collectors, enthusiasts, and dealers think that Martin first designed and built the Dreadnought in 1931 for country and Western and bluegrass musicians”, says Woodland. “But they’re missing nearly 15 years of history.” The Dreadnought dates to 1916 and was not originally branded as a Martin. The first ones, it turns out, were special orders for Harry L. Hunt, manager of the Chas H. Ditson store in New York City, and they were made not for any country or “Western” artists but for those playing Hawaiian music, which had become a fad thanks to the spreading awareness of different styles of music. Particularly shocking to me, a Martin fan, was the revelation that the Dreadnought, while guided by the great Frank Henry Martin, was the direct creation of John Deichman, a 22-year-old apprentice at the Martin factory in Nazereth, Pennsylvania, who only a few years before had been stringing telephone lines. Unlike Frank Henry, John Deichman was not a third-generation luthier who had seen and done it all.
Vintage guitar experts like George Gruhn, Larry Wexer, and Fred Oster think about 90-year-old guitars just as antique furniture experts think about 250-year-old desks, tables, and chairs. They are consummate experts concerning the choice of woods, joinery methods, tools, finishes, and much more. Martin enthusiasts debate the relative importance of bracing patterns, fingerboard width, string spacing, top thickness, boxed end pieces, forward versus backward shifted braces, and old-growth Brazilian Rosewood. Like modern Shakespearean scholars for whom the play’s the thing, their focus is on the object in the case, in their hands, or on the bench.
John Woodland is a deeply skilled man in love. He studied guitar building at Redwing Technical College and has spent his life around guitars. His expertise is already legendary, and John’s still learning. Enthusiasts with online names like “whatsinthecase” refer to Woodland in near reverential terms: “Knows more about the history of Martin in the twenties and the thirties than anyone alive.”
Like those who follow that older, currently out-of-vogue school of Shakespearean scholarship, Woodland wants to know who created the objects of interest, how, and why. As he once told me, “I believe that the way to understand the guitars is to understand the people who made them.” Here Woodland is on the same wavelength as the neuro-anthropologist Terrence William Deacon, who wrote, “Knowing how something originated often is the best clue to how it works.” Woodland’s perspective on the evolution of the flat-top guitar also meshes with Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium: long periods of little change punctuated by huge changes in design. In the case of the guitar, each change was the result of one person’s vision.
That’s why when, about a decade ago, Woodland came across an unusually shaped guitar made by Martin in 1916, but stamped only “Oliver Ditson, New York, Boston”, it piqued his curiosity. Since the instrument lacked any Martin markings, he wanted to know more about its origins, and for Woodland that meant “meeting” its maker. Guitar craft is very, very personal.
So Woodland, accompanied by Peter Kohman of Retrofreet in New York, visited Dick Boak, who had worked for Charles Frederick (C.F.) Martin III and who had known Mike Longworth, the Martin employee who in the 1960s brought back the 45-style Dreadnought and later wrote Martin Guitars: A History. Although his work is widely regarded as the last word on Martin, there were gaps in Longworth’s story. Boak told Woodland of “some old papers” locked in an attic of the original Martin building on North Street in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Nobody had sifted through those records since the 1930s, and one reason, he learned, was that the attic could have been featured on Hoarders. It was not search-friendly. Woodland climbed to the attic and saw a huge mess of “tools, guitar templates, and rows and rows of bankers’ boxes; probably 20,000 pages of correspondence that nobody had seen since they were written in the 20s and 30s.” Why had Longworth not gone up there himself to root around? The answer was that he “didn’t like to climb stairs.”
Woodland didn’t mind the stairs. “Once I found all that”, he told me, “it was so overwhelming that I knew I had to go back. The information in that attic pretty much lays out the history of the modern flat-top guitar; and no one had seen the material.” Woodland and Kohman spent several days looking through the huge amount of material. “I remember opening the 70- and 80-year old folders and hearing them crackle. I needed to know everything. I wanted to read everything.” His excitement was contagious: The Martin organization talked with him about writing a book about the origins of the Dreadnought.
Woodland’s interest in history, and his interest in music as well, began in childhood. When he was 12, his mother, a nurse, converted a big house in the countryside outside Cambridge, Minnesota, a very small town in the center of a pretty big state, into a bed-and-breakfast version of an assisted-living facility. The elderly residents spent hours regaling young John with their stories about the Great Depression and World War II. Woodland was fascinated: “Even when I was really young I knew that they could teach me things that I wouldn’t learn from another 12-year-old, and it didn’t feel right that all their stories would die with them.”
That fascination might have led another young man to a university and to one or more history degrees. Woodland, however, had not been a great student. “I think I had a learning disability that wasn’t recognized in that small town. When I was at Mayo Clinic [years later] I had a shit-ton of tests and they said I was in the top 2 percent for visual learning. Apparently, I just wasn’t book smart.”
Woodland grew up in a musical family, and that’s ultimately what led him to Redwing Tech to learn how to build guitars. He was not a great student there either, he admits, but he did stay up many nights drinking tea (yes, tea) and drawing guitar shapes on his kitchen table. His classmates were drawing and building Fender stratocaster and telecaster replicas. Why not? It was 1991. But Woodland was on the hunt for the Platonic ideal of guitar-ness.
Long before walking up the stairs to that dusty attic in Nazareth in search of the first Martin Dreadnought, Woodland’s hunt had led to a fascination with Paul Bigsby, the inventor of the “Bigsby Vibrato” and the creator of the famous Merle Travis solid body guitar, the first modern electric guitar. “You can source the modern electric guitar back to Bigsby”, Woodland notes. “His lines remain modern. There was nothing like it before him; the design work was bold and outrageous.”
Woodland read all he could find about Bigsby’s life, which was not easy since up to that point all interest in Bigsby had been in those iconic objects he created and not in their creator. But Woodland would not relent in a mission driven by fascination, intellectual curiosity, and more than a bit of obsession. Eventually he caught a few breaks. Woodland’s monk-like devotion to learning about the people who created the instruments opened doors. He has a gift for listening that, combined with a complete absence of narcissism, inspires trust even in the wary—and guitar collectors tend to be wary because their treasures are breakable (and theft-worthy) and some people are, frankly, both ignorant and clumsy (and dishonest). Nate Westgor, owner of Willie’s Guitars in St. Paul, who has known Woodland since he was 19, describes him as someone who “knows how to pocket his own ego when big egos are around.”
Woodland is a guitar repair expert so sought after that he has been able to meet people in a position to advance his historical sleuthing. Woodland is also the only luthier Nels Cline will allow to touch his valuable 1959 Fender Jazzmaster. Woodland has worked on Sean Lennon’s guitars for years, too. His repair customers at Willie’s believed Woodland capable of magical restorations and repairs. Like the cardiothoracic surgeon whom other docs admire for the precision of his sutures, the subtlety of his technique, and the quick recovery of his patients, Woodland is the guitar tech’s tech.
Woodland is one of those individuals music people trust with their ideas as well as their treasured stuff, so it was natural that Andy Babiuk would ask him to contribute to his book under construction on Paul Bigsby. It was equally natural that Woodland would be the first person in decades allowed to remove Merle Travis’s Bigsby-designed and -built guitar from its massive case at the Country Music Hall of Fame to study its construction and record its dimensions in detail. Woodland convinced Babiuk that they had to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame to see the famous guitar. Thanks to Fred Gretsch’s intervention, they did. The case was opened, and Woodland photographed, examined, and measured the guitar. His background as a luthier helped him spot previously unknown details like the guitar’s completion date hidden under an end button, and note that the fingerboard had come from a parted-out Gibson.
Much of the rest of the Bigsby adventure flowed from Woodland’s personal connections with just about everybody in the vintage guitar world. He had for a time owned Bigsby’s homemade pickup winder, a rustic-looking thing built from Bigsby’s wife’s castoff sewing machine and some scrap lumber. It was nothing special, except that Bigsby had penciled notes for future projects all over it. In need of money to pay for his research trips to Nazareth in search of the first Dreadnought, Woodland sold the winder to Fred Gretsch. At the time Gretsch was trying to get Babiuk, who had just written Fab Four: All the Beatles Gear from Stage to Studio, to write the definitive Bigsby book. He succeeded, in part because Gretsch led Babiuk to John Woodward.
The people most knowledgeable about Bigsby were Woodland, Bigsby’s daughter Mary, and Bob Guida, a funeral home owner in Queens and an obsessive collector of all things Bigsby. Other fans looking for information or trying to get close to their hero had approached Mary, but she had turned them all away. She agreed to talk to John Woodland, however. Bob Guida, too, seemed determined to keep all his knowledge to himself. Woodland, however, by force of will and the power of his sincere belief that information of this sort was meant to be shared, convinced him, too, to participate. The result was Babiuk’s The Story Of Paul A. Bigsby: The Father Of the Modern Electric Solidbody Guitar, published in 2009.
While the Bigsby project was proceeding, Woodland was traveling between Minneapolis and Nazareth to unearth Dreadnought documents, and Martin was mailing him other materials from their archives. Woodland sensed that he was getting close to an answer.
Among the templates in the North Street attic were two (one paper and one wood) templates for a custom-ordered, baroque-shaped instrument with cryptic penciled annotations: “OEON Model” and the date “December 1915.” Woodland had spent so many hours scrutinizing the attic material that he recognized the handwriting as belonging to Frank Henry Martin. This was a breakthrough: “That template contained the origin of the Dreadnought guitar. I had to figure out what that meant because no written correspondence from 1915 or 1916 existed; the only correspondence was from 1922 to 1935.” Woodland also found a reference to “Oeon” in the sales order for the guitar. By itself, however, that “Oeon” scribble, even with the date, meant little more than a square millimeter from a Dead Sea scroll.
Woodland suspected that there might be a connection to Vahdah Bickford, a well-known guitarist, teacher, and popularizer during the teens. He had seen photographs of Bickford holding and playing a Dreadnought-shaped guitar of the period and knew from Ron Purcell, a correspondent of his at the California State University, that in 1915 Vahdah had ordered from Henry Hunt a baroque-shaped guitar, the same shape as the mysterious Oeon. Woodland then learned that Vahdah Bickford’s real name was Ethel Lucretia Olcott, and that her uncle, Henry Steel Olcott, had been the co-founder of the Theosophical Society with the famous spiritualist Helena Blavatsky.
Woodland had never heard of theosophy, and neither had Hunt or Martin; but a clue is a clue, so he kept on the trail. It led him to The Secret Doctrine, a book by Blavatsky that talks about “Oeon.” Woodland put it together: Vahda, a Spanish guitar player, needed an instrument braced for steel strings so that she could play the Hawaiian music she hated but that her audiences demanded. She wanted the new guitar to look like her other guitars, hence the baroque-guitar shape, and she wanted to order it through Henry Hunt as she had all of her other guitars since moving to New York. The working name for this new guitar shape came from her Uncle Henry’s philosophy: Oeon.
So the Oeon model became the Ditson Standard under the direction of Henry Hunt and Frank Henry Martin, the template later enlarged to concert size. In July 1916, Hunt asked Martin to enlarge the guitar even more. Enter 22-year-old John Deichman: He was assigned the job. When Hunt received the first large guitar the next month, he named it “Dreadnought”, a word much in vogue at the time for anything exceptionally large or strong, notably the then-highly active warships of British or German manufacture. For Woodland, the final piece of this puzzle arrived in the form of another 1915 custom guitar ordered with steel strings, this one for a Hawaiian musician named Major Kealiki and called a “K model.” This guitar was Martin’s first extra-large 0000 size. Its dimensions are identical to today’s Dreadnought, but with Martin’s classical guitar waist.
Woodland had found the answer to his quest. He learned that within a 15- to 20-year span John Deichman had helped completely transform the Martin company by introducing the features that define the modern flattop guitar: “its characteristic shape, the belly bridge, 14-fret neck joint, a teardrop pick guard, and the solid headstock.” He told Deichman’s family all about this. “When I started talking with John Deichman’s nephew, John W. “Jack” Deichman, they gave me family letters, some of his tools, and told me lots and lots of stories.” John Deichman’s family wanted to give him a guitar that Deichman had custom-made in 1916, a Ditson Concert guitar worth at least $40,000. Woodland, characteristically thinking of Deichman’s legacy rather than personal gain, refused the gift, telling them that the guitar should stay in the family.
Woodland’s obsession with the origin of the Dreadnought, however, was putting both his marriage and his health at risk. “I had even talked with Jack Deichman’s family about living in the house his Uncle John had built”, he told me. “I felt I had nothing left and wanted to be surrounded by John. I was wrong.” It turns out that John was ill, not wrong, and unlucky enough to have taken up with people who suddenly died on him. Jack Deichman was one of them. At around the same time, John had broken his ankle in Minnesota before leaving for Nazereth and was so obsessed about getting there he didn’t stop to get it set. He then tripped getting out of the car in Nazareth and tore it up even worse. “I ended up spending three days in the hospital and another month in bed at the Bethlehem hotel without ever leaving my room”, John told me. “My world was collapsing. My marriage was in trouble.”
What’s more, and more telling, John Woodland was soon in treatment for PTSD. When he read about the guy who had done all that work on bluesman Robert Johnson in a April 13, 2014 John Jeremiah Sullivan story in the New York Times Magazine, he said, “‘That’s me!’ It was consuming me to the point that it was killing me. It just about did kill me.” As John explained to me, back in 2009,
After the Bigsby book came out it was a really awful time for me. I was suffering from PTSD from abuse that happened when I was a child and that I hadn’t recognized before. I was having panic attacks for the first time. I called my Bigsby friend Bob Guida who said “Woody, it used to happen to me, too. You feel like you’re gonna have a heart attack but you’ll be fine.” Three days later I got a call saying that Bob had a heart attack and died.
Sometimes, as they say, the darkest hour really is just before the dawn. Dawn came to John Woodland. During all the tumult with helping Andy Babiuk track down Bigsby and finding the origins of the Dreadnought, he had designed Mastery Bridge, the technical breakthrough that enabled him to start his own business. He lost the memory of several months of his life, but he got help. And when he “came to”, so to speak, he knew why the Dreadnought was designed, who was actually responsible for it, and how exactly it was drafted. He had a lot of information and it nearly consumed him. “I lost and gained things from it, personally and professionally”, he confessed. “But what I thought was the end was just the beginning.”
Woodland credits John Deichman and Paul Bigsby with showing him how it can be done, how to innovate, how to leave his own stamp. Mastery Bridge became that. From studying Bigsby, it became clear to Woodland that the wood in an electric guitar is shaped around metal: “Wood follows metal and plastic follows wood. If you can design hardware, then all these other builders can use your hardware. Mastery Bridge is Paul Bigsby’s business model. We make stuff in small batches, just like he did.”
When Woodland started his explorations at Martin, documents from the past century were piled in an abandoned attic and scattered throughout the factory. Now they are preserved in a climate-controlled and highly organized archive in a modern building that houses the Martin Museum.
Mastery Bridge has grown from a boutique, one-at-a-time manufacturer of an after-market bridge for offset guitars to a small manufacturing company focused on developing new solutions for guitarists and other small builders. Woodland still does all the design work himself, and is currently working on a new machine head for acoustic and electric guitars. He also continues to service guitars for a few highly select clients, including Sean Lennon; others include Tweedy and Nels Cline. He provides design consultation to Martin for special projects, including the 00-DB Jeff Tweedy, Martin’s first FSC® Certified Custom Artist model, and the first such model built only out of sustainable woods.
But John Woodland’s most noteworthy project is John Woodland. “John Deichman’s story is still inside of me”, John told me, “and since everyone else is gone now, it might stay that way, but I think all of it shows in my work. The meaningfulness, the ethics, and the lines. I can see it.”
He really can see it, too. Lots of craft skills have fallen on hard times in industrialized America, and some may even have gone extinct. But the American love of the guitar has helped to preserve the skill sets involved in making stringed instruments of all kinds, including mandolins, hammered dulcimers, fiddles, zithers, and even the lowly autoharp. John Woodland, craftsman, historian, businessman, and inventor, is preserving and expanding the tradition. If anyone deserves the label, John Woodland is America’s guitar hero.