date_range 1992

Eric Clapton’s 1939 Martin 000-42

This is the guitar that Clapton played on MTV Unplugged on January 16, 1992. He played it through most of the show – which was highlighted by an acoustic version of “Layla”. Although we haven’t been able to find any photos of Eric using the guitar prior to the 1992 show, it is possible that he acquired years before this. If you happen to know more about this, please be sure to leave a comment below.

History and Rarity of the Model

This particular Martin was made in the pre-war period and is considered to be one of the most desirable and rarest acoustic guitars. Overall, the models that Martin made in the pre-war era (WWII), are extremely desirable. Obviously, some of this is due to them being rare since there’s only a limited number of guitars left (for example, the 000-42 was made only for five years, from 1938 to 1943) but there are other reasons as well.

A Martin 000-42 on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Photo credit: bobistraveling/Flickr

One of them is the type of wood used in the process of building these guitars. Prior to World War II, Brazillian rosewood was used amply by the high-grade furniture makers and guitar manufacturers. Over the years the supply was reduced, and by the late 1960s, most of the manufacturers like Martin decided to switch to Indian rosewood – which most still use today. Due to exploitation, and due to loss of the tree’s natural habitat – most of which was converted to farmland, in 1992 the Brazillian rosewood (or Dalbergia nigra) tree species was declared to be endangered and is since protected under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) treaty. Today, guitar makers in the US are only allowed to use the wood that was harvested prior to 1992, and in the EU – prior to 1947. [Brazilian rosewood – Exporting items made from CITES pre-Convention material to the European Union]

Also around WWII, the Adirondack spruce which was used for the top of the 000-42 became hard to come by due to over-harvesting, and most manufacturers switched to Sitka spruce – which is still used on most models today. Contrary to the Brazillian rosewood, the Adirondack spruce has made a comeback since and can be seen on many of the newer models.

So although there may be technical reasons as to why the pre-war models are so desirable, most of it really comes to them being built in a completely different environment than the guitars made today. Most consider 1934 to 1944 period to be the peak of Martin’s quality of production – which was obviously hurt by the WWII. And if you think about it, the Brazillian rosewood was used on both the 1950s and the 1930s Martin, but for some reason, the latter is more desirable than the former. It seems that in the guitar industry people look at the overall picture, and decide that a certain period was simply the best. The 30s with the Martin acoustic, late 50s with Gibson Les Paul electrics, and early 60s with the Fender Stratocasters.

Usage

As said in the opening paragraph, the first time that Eric was seen with the guitar was at the MTV Unplugged show in 1992, during which he used it for most of the set.  [more info to be added]

Eric’s Martin 000-42 at the Auction

The guitar was sold at auction in 2004 for $791,500, which is the highest price ever paid for an acoustic guitar. For comparison, a regular 1930s 000-42, that wasn’t played by Eric Clapton, goes for around $50,000.

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