My first introduction to Dick Boak was, of course, at a Winter NAMM show in Anaheim, California many years ago. I had no idea early on about the depth of his creativity as an artist, luthier, musician, composer, and author. Over the years Boak has been a wealth of knowledge on all things Martin and has been playfully dubbed “The Mayor of Martin” by some, and held in high regard by all within the instrument community. Collectible Guitar caught up with Dick in his office at the Martin Guitar Company, as he reflects on his past service to the musical institution and sets course for his next journey.
[Eric Dahl for Collectible Guitar] How did Geodesic domes lead you to Martin guitars?
[Dick Boak] (Laughs) I was a pretty good hippie during the 1960’s and early 70’s and ended up on a commune in California living off the earth and doing the Whole Earth Catalog thing. I was inspired by R. Buckminster Fuller and Geodesic domes. I also started dabbling at a very early age in my basement with my dad’s woodshop, building the most absurd instruments. I was doing a lot of wood working and lathe turning. One of the instruments looked like a banjo with a wooden bowl for a body and door knob for the headstock. Five of the strings could be tuned to a G chord and the last string was attached to this door knob so you could play Sitar-like ragas.
[CG] When did you start working at Martin, and what jobs have you held?
[DB] I taught Art for four years 1972-76 and the interesting thing is that driving home I had to go right through Nazareth and I discovered Martin. I asked the receptionist whether there were any scrap materials, and she sent me around the side of the building to the dumpster where I hit the jackpot. It was filled with ebony, rosewood, spruce, mahogany, and koa. I filled my entire car with the small scraps of wood and I came back to that dumpster probably 500 times. The foreman at the backdoor called me “The Kid.” One day, while I was in the dumpster, the foreman said (using a Dutch accent), “What do you do with this stuff anyhow?” I had some instruments that I had made, so I handed them up to him. He said (Dutch accent), “Do you mind if I parade them around the shop onst?” So off he went with my two instruments and he ran into Chris Martin’s Grandfather, C.F. Martin III, walking around the shop. He said, “Look what the kid made.” Mr. Martin looked at them and said, “Tell that kid to apply for a job.” Harvey came back and said (Dutch accent), “The old man said you should apply for a chob.” That’s c h o b – chob! I went around to the front, brushed the dirt off, and I told the receptionist that I’d like to apply for a job. She kind of laughed and said, “I don’t think we have anything for you!” Reluctantly, she brought human resources up and they interviewed me and said, “Can you start tomorrow?” I said, “No actually, I have to go to the Bob Dylan concert. I can start on Wednesday.” I was really lucky, because getting a job at Martin is all about being at the right place at the right time with the right set of skills. I got my foot in the door into a position that was just perfect for me, and I’ve been here ever since October of 1976! I just completed my 40th year!
[CG] How did the Martin Artists Relation Department develop?
[DB] During my tenure as Advertising Manager, Gene Autry had the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. Chris Martin saw Autry’s D-45, which was the very first D-45 ever made, with Gene’s name in it. He said, “Well that’s really cool,” and he asked Gene if he could replicate it as a limited edition. Gene said, “Yes, you can, as long as you pay a royalty in support of the museum, which is a non-profit.” Chris really liked that idea, because this whole thing of endorsements of paying people a million dollars to wear your sneakers doesn’t ring very true to us. It started with Gene Autry and as “artist in residence,” I was given the task of doing the artwork for the inlays and overseeing the project. During this time, I kept receiving phone calls from people wanting to buy a guitar similar to what Eric Clapton played for his MTV Unplugged performance. I went to Chris Martin and I said, “People are interested in Eric’s guitar. May I contact his management and propose a project?” He said, “Only if there’s a charitable royalty involved.” I contacted Clapton and we started work on the first Eric Clapton signature model, which was the 000-42EC, a limited edition of 461. I chose that number because “461 Ocean Boulevard” (one of Clapton’s most popular albums) seemed like a good hook for the story. It was so popular that the entire edition sold out at the NAMM Show to our dealers in about an hour, so I left the Advertising Department and was asked to start the Artist Relations Department. Early on, I got a call from Marty Stuart who wanted to do a Hank Williams guitar. Working with Hank Williams’ estate was complicated, so I suggested we do the Marty Stuart signature model instead. Our friendship resulted and one day Marty called up and said, “Dick, I want you to write down a phone number and I’m not telling you who it is. I called the number and heard (mimics very low voice), “Hello this is John,” and I said, “John who?” and he said, “John Cash.” I said, “This is Dick Boak from Martin guitars,” and he said, “I’ve been waitin’ my whole life for this phone call.” I said, “Mr. Cash – I’ve been waiting my whole life to make it!”
Early in Johnny’s career he needed a black guitar to coincide with his man in black image. He placed an order with a local Nashville dealer and the order came in. One of the sales people came in to Mr. Martin’s office and said, “We have an order for a black guitar.” Mr. Martin said, “We don’t make black guitars. We spend all of our time picking out beautiful, flawless woods, and we’re not painting them black!” So dejectedly, he left his office went back into production and had the guitar built secretly. Eventually it was delivered to Johnny, and within in a year he appeared on the Columbo television show. The black guitar played a key role in the murder mystery. Mr. Martin happened to be watching the show that night. We think that he appreciated the publicity that we got out of it, and we make black guitars now!
Marty Stuart gave me another phone number to call, and on the other end of the line, “Hello this is Willie,” and it was Willie Nelson. Willie’s guitar, Trigger, is arguably one of the most famous guitars, up there with Lucille. Willie and I replicated what his guitar would have been at the beginning of its career back in 1969 when he first got his Martin N-20.
[CG] How many guitars do you own, and what is your favorite?
[DB] Employees at Martin are allowed to buy a Martin guitar every year, so I got to the point where I had about fifty guitars. Because of having two daughters in college, I started to sell off some of the instruments. I still have 25 or 30 Martin guitars, and I would say my favorite is the original Eric Clapton guitar. It’s #2 from the very first Eric Clapton edition 000-42EC. Eric got #1, and there’s an interesting story to that because I got a phone call from Eric as he was leaving for the airport in London. He was coming to New York City to record the video for “Change the World” with Baby Face and asked me to find a 000-42EC. I said, “I don’t think I can because they are all sold out. He said, “What will we do?” and I told him I’d be happy to loan him my personal guitar. I drove the guitar to the Hoboken train station and am quite proud that my guitar appears in Eric’s video for “Change the World” and in the trailer for the movie Premonition. I also have a beautiful 00-37K2. It’s all Koa wood – beautiful high flame Koa wood back, top, and sides from Hawaii that was a gift from Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band, who over the years has become a really great personal friend of mine, and it’s very special to have that.
[CG] Do you own any vintage instruments?
[DB] I do have one. I’m really fond of tiny little guitars. Did you know Marty Robbins played a tiny Martin “Terz” guitar called a 5-18? The Size 5 is one of the smallest guitars that Martin offered as a six-string, and we still make them in our custom shop. One of mine goes back to the late 40’s or early 50’s, so that’s about the only vintage guitar I have. I could never really afford vintage guitars, though of course I love them. I really have a conscience about being honest about the value of old guitars. In my position here at Martin it would be very easy to have a conflict of interest.
[CG] Do you have any instruments besides Martins?
[DB] I have one guitar that I commissioned from my friend Grit Laskin. William “Grit” Laskin is a guitar maker in Canada in Toronto that is known for his work with thematic pearl inlay. He interviews each of his clients about the type of inlay that they would like and then crafts a guitar in which the inlay actually tells a story. I told him I envisioned the headstock being the glass window of a music store. Inside the window is Grit Laskin on a step ladder scraping the Martin logo off of the window and putting the Laskin logo on it. I’ve prized that guitar all of these years, but kept it something of a secret because I think it pokes fun at Martin. At least that’s what Grit and I intended.
[CG] How many books have you written during your tenure at Martin?
[DB] I guess six. I’m working on a seventh with co-author Larry Bartram about a very famous ukulele that is part of our collection. I had also hoped to do a book about the Martin Museum, but I’m afraid that will probably get deferred until after retirement.
[CG] Have you set a date for your retirement?
[DB] I’m going to retire on January 8th, 2018 and that is 1/8/18. I’m going to have a retirement concert on January 6th with many of my musical friends. After all, it’s all about music, isn’t it? I’m hoping to be involved somehow as a researcher or docent or advisor with the archives or an outside contractor for special projects with Martin. I also want to do road trips around the country, one of which would be to come down and visit you and my many friends in Nashville.
[CG] Your “Martin: Images of America” book was amazing. What was the catalyst?
[DB] It was actually a call from Arcadia, a publisher that has more titles than just about any other publisher. It took me about eight months back and forth with them, selecting and scanning high-resolution images from the archives. I wanted to pick images that would tell the whole story of Martin’s 180 plus years of guitar making. We just published an ephemera book called the “The Martin Archives,” published by Hal Leonard. It’s a book that has pockets that contains fun memorabilia. It is similar to the “Images of America” book, but much nicer, much bigger, in color, and beautifully laid out. It’s written by my co-author, Jim Washburn, and is selling very well.
[CG] How did the Martin Guitar Museum come about?
[DB] Most of the credit must go to Chris Martin. It was his idea, and his commitment financially. It was my honor to be the person to select and fill up the cases. After designing the basic architecture in 2003 we divided the museum cases into chronological time scenes, one being New York 1833-1839, the next one being Cherry Hill from 1839-1859, next one being the time around the Civil War to the early 1900’s, and then moving into the Ragtime Era and the Golden Era preceding WWII. I realized very quickly we didn’t have much depth in our collection of early instruments from New York, Cherry Hill, or the pre-1900 period. Chris Martin focused on filling the gaps and holes in our collection. We did this through auctions and purchased instruments from dealerships (like George Gruhn) that would come across historic instruments for our collection.
[CG] Will the Martin Museum be loaning vintage instruments out for TV or Movies?
[DB] The simple answer to that is no! Oddly enough, after the pieces of that “Hateful Eight” instrument came back to us, I’ve been told the instrument is worth considerably more now after having now been part of movie memorabilia than it would have been as a playable instrument. We loaned an instrument to Courtney Love (Kurt Cobain’s widow) for an MTV Unplugged taping with her band “Hole.” She asked to borrow a Martin D12-28 guitar and at the end of the show she smashed the guitar during the closing credits. I was very upset by this, but Chris Martin wasn’t very upset at all. He feels, “It’s part of history now, and we have the MTV clip of her doing this to prove it!” I’m trying to look at the “Hateful Eight” guitar in the same light. We are willing to collaborate with other museums and to loan instruments to them for display. But we’re no longer willing to loan any our historic museum instruments for use in movies.
[CG] Do you still perform music publicly?
[DB] I love to play guitar, but I don’t consider myself good enough to write and perform songs on the guitar. I’ve played autoharp since I was a teenager. I recorded my first album called Beside You largely on the autoharp with guitar work done by my friend, Craig Thatcher. I’ve been working on a second album, which is almost done. There are ten original songs, three covers, and one reprise. It’s got a lot of instruments including tuba, accordion, violin, guitar, bass, lots of vocals, autoharp etc. It should be out by April.
[CG] What is your next project?
[DB] I’m working on a book about a very significant concert ukulele, and I’m pretty excited about this. In 1926, a prominent ukulele player named Richard Konter signed up for Admiral Byrd’s expedition to the North Pole. He took his Martin ukulele with him and was the sole source of entertainment on the ship. Konter solicited signatures from Admiral Byrd, Floyd Bennett, the entire crew of the USS Chantier that went to the North Pole, and the crews of the Italia and the Norge (many of whom died in the crash of the Italia). It is also signed by President Calvin Coolidge, Thomas Edison, and may other dignitaries of the day. We’ve done a tremendous amount of research on the instrument to identify all the signatures. Because so many of them are faded, we did spectral light imagery on the ukulele at the Smithsonian Institution and we’re writing a book about the instrument’s incredible story. It is probably the most valuable ukulele in the world.
[CG] As a dominant figure in the guitar industry, do you have any advice for others?
[DB] I like the 15 minutes of fame idea, and I’ve been given 100 times my share. My hope is that in 25, 50, or 75 years from now, people might look back at this time period and think of me in a similar vein as someone like Lloyd Loar. I’ve had the honor of being able to cause a lot of very special instruments to happen, and I hope that the company is better off as a result. These projects came together as a result of collaborative efforts on the part of the artist, myself, and Martin production. In many ways, projects like these produce the very best of what we do. I’m proud of these projects and I’m thankful to Chris Martin for giving me the opportunity to do them. I feel lucky to have had a job that aligned me with the things that are most important to me – basically music, art, and creativity.
Obviously, the Martin Guitar Company is one of the most iconic guitar builders in the world, but I wonder where the company would be without a tenacious driving creative force such as Dick Boak? From his early days designing and building guitars, to heading the advertising side of Martin, the almost accidental creation of the Artist Relations Department, and finally his dedicated work in the Martin Museum and Archives. Martin guitars would certainly have continued creating instruments without Boak, but the partnerships and friendships he developed with high profile musicians gained Martin more attention than any advertisement could ever achieve. Dick Boak has been a contagious artistic force of nature and the guitar world is a better place thanks to his passion for the instruments and its players.