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Big Tom: Martin J-65M

New year’s resolution, somewhat delayed.

I bought this battered beast back in 1991, or thereabouts. Got it after an afternoon trudging round the West End wondering which guitar might make best use of the part of an inheritance that I really didn’t want to get eaten up by my overdraft.

Memory is random as ever, but I vividly remember sitting in Ivor Mairants’ basement, playing for a very patient salesman, and wondering if it was too demanding for my fumbling fingers. It’s a Martin, you see, and they want you to put in a bit of work.

To be specific, it’s a maple-bodied Martin J-65M, and it’s as rare as hen’s teeth. The only one I’ve ever come across in this country was in an interview with Fairground Attraction’s guitarist, and he was as impressed as Your Fearless Correspondent.

According to the official Martin Guitar book, they made 391 of these before they gave up the ghost on maple guitars and went back to good ‘ole reliable rosewood. Cannot for the life of me figure out why, but that’s business for you.

I think of this guitar as Big Tom, and it has never let me down. It’s covered in dings and scratches: look closely and you’ll see the soundhole is surrounded by little pits that I put there very early on when my playing style mostly consisted of tapping downwards on the backbeat with a spare fingernail. That was so embarrassing I eventually had an oversized pickguard fitted. On the other side of the soundhole are some particularly spectacular gouges that came about when I lent it to someone who played with a thumbpick. Badly. The bridge has acquired what the antique dealers call patina. The neck varnish is beginning to look lumpy, probably from playing with a brass slide. The lower bout has some of those weird little scratches appearing that I worry might eventually turn into actual splits, and a couple of places where an odd dark stain has clawed its way to the surface, and which I think reflect a flaw in the original bookmatched wood.

Oh, and the nut falls off when I replace the strings. Must get that fixed.

I’ve lost track of the different types of pickup I’ve had installed. Passive piezo. Active piezo. Soundhole mic and piezo in stereo, linked to an external Fishman preamp. Right now there’s just an active dynamic Fishman in the soundhole, which works just fine, either through a preamp to the PA or my acoustic amp. The battery might be flat but there aren’t any gigs right now, are there?

In the summer of 2019 I lent this to a guitarist and friend I trusted (take a bow, Johnny Black) for a wee festival spot on the hottest weekend of the year. ‘Solid’, he said, or words to that effect: so long as you change the strings regularly, Big Tom holds his tuning without quibbling, and doesn’t mind the occasional excursion into G.

There are lots of other good guitars out there, but this is mine. It lives in The Battered Case, which has a small but perfectly formed reputation over there on Instagram. And it occurs to me that we probably ought to be celebrating our 30th anniversary round about now, if I only knew the exact date.

Of course the only correct way to do that would be to go out and play somewhere, but here’s my lockdown confession. I’ve done lots of musical things this past benighted year, but I have not played this guitar as often as I should. My fingers have become agile on slinky electric strings, but on Big Tom they feel indolent and flabby. Martins, you see, can be demanding.

So that’s the resolution. Put the software down. Put the nylon string down. Put the electrics down.

And man up my country jazz chops all over again, with the guitar I really would take to my grave if I didn’t think handing it on would be a better use of resources.

Respect, Mr Martin.


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