Deforestation is real but then so is the deep-seated human need for a great-sounding guitar. Can Martin help us go green without tonal compromise? Review by Jerry Uwins
There has been increasing concern over recent years about the dwindling supplies of legally or sustainably sourced tonewoods such as South American rosewood and mahogany. This has prompted traditional acoustic manufacturers to investigate and utilise alternative timbers and even synthetic options, not just from an environmental standpoint, but cost too. Few have done more in this area than Martin. Back in 1998 the company launched the budget DXM dreadnought with a body of ‘High Pressure Laminate’ (Formica to you and me) topped with photo veneers resembling spruce and mahogany. Initial reaction was cautious, but X-Series instruments are now big sellers for the company, thanks in large part to the later substitution of real spruce tops, which addressed some sound and tonal concerns.
Earlier that year, Martin introduced its first ‘Certified Wood’ guitar, the SWD dreadnought, using cherry from independently-verified sustainable sources, along with ‘rescued’ spruce that was otherwise condemned as pulpwood. A Red Birch version was launched plus some other occasional models, now embraced under the banner of the Sustainable Wood Series. The OMC Red Birch cutaway orchestra electro arrived in 2007, in turn spawning our OMC Cherry, introduced last year. A GTE (gloss-top) version has since been added, but it hasn’t yet arrived in the UK.
At first glance, the gloss-body, satin-neck OMC Cherry looks almost Scandinavian inspiration with its blend of light-hued timbers in a ’70s-style sub-Habitat vein, with a touch of added Arts & Crafts movement courtesy of the pretty cherry-wood leaf motifs that grace the soundhole rosette and peghead. Cherry does duty for the neck, position dots, rims and back; the back also has a central wedge of maple bordered by herringbone strips. There’s ivoroid binding and herringbone purfling running around the spruce front, while maple, complementing the three-piece back, is used for the headstock overlay.
The bridge and fingerboard are interesting. At first glance you’d think they were rosewood or ebony; in fact they’re fashioned from a sustainable central American hardwood called katalox – a good, cheaper substitute for ebony, though not commonly used. Down on the bridge are a set of pins that sit quite proud, something not uncommon on new Martins. Apparently, this is done to allow for slight shrinkage in the timber that tends to occur over time, thus allowing the pins gradually to sit more snugly rather than eventually become a sloppy fit in their holes. The leading edges of the holes are bevelled for the string paths to provide as much break-angle over the saddle as possible.
Cherry, maple and spruce can look a tad bland, so an ageing toner is applied to all surfaces to perk up the patina. This works very well on the front – and , if you weren’t aware that the sitka spruce was otherwise destined for an ignominious end, you certainly wouldn’t know it. The grain pattern is close, straight and even, and there’s plenty of quality-affirming cross silking. The bracing is also formed from reclaimed sitka, further enhancing the instrument’s ‘green’ credentials.
The OMC Cherry‘s 644mm-scale neck – which is one-piece – is configured for fingerstyle, with a nut width of 44.5mm (1.75") and sharing a measurement of 57mm both at the octave and for the bridge string spacing. It’s wide, for sure, but the depth of the evenly oval profile is modest, providing a comfortable grip for general playing plus enough space and precision for picking styles. The frets are shiny, the satin finish is smooth and slick, the action low and buzz-free. Pocketed frets give a bound look without actual fingerboard binding, while a set of aged nickel open-back tuners add a retro touch even if their gearing is presently a tad stiff. A second strap button at the heel is a welcome practical inclusion.
Powering is Fishman‘s non-invasive Ellipse Aura which offers four digitally processed, mic-recorded sound images (of another OMC Cherry) blendable with the undersaddle Matrix pickup, with preset EQ apart from a bass-boost switch. There’s also phase reverse plus a switchable anti-feedback facility which is fiddly to activate on the fly but effective at its task. That aside, the switches and sliders fall easily enough under a finger once you’ve remembered their location on the control panel in the soundhole.
This OMC has a distinctive sound. The maple in the build lends that typical, slightly restrained sense of headroom in the dynamics, yet volume and projection are generous in a folk-size context, particularly the warmly resonant bottom end that provides a rewardingly firm footing. The guitar’s overriding unplugged strength is its purity of tone – clean, open and very smoothly delivered.
The Ellipse system has plenty of gain and replicates the acoustic sound well when fired up. The low end can dominate slightly, not through any undersaddle imbalance but simply because of the guitar’s inherent richness. However, this is easily tempered by selecting the appropriate combination of phase and bass-switch settings. Blending in images is effective for introducing mic-like ambiences, though a little goes a long way before the results start sounding artificial, at least in a live situation. As I’ve remarked before about the Ellipse Aura, most of us are likely to be perfectly content with the undersaddle alone. Keep things simple, I say.
The OMC Cherry is not only a highly enjoyable fingerstyle performer that's beautifully put together, it offers a visual persona distinct from Martin's more mainstream mahogany and rosewood-backed OMs, adding an engaging element of individuality. If you bought one, who could blame you for feeling just a bit smug for helping to save the planet - or some endangered trees, anyway.