3/20/2014

c.1924 Martin-made Ditson T-18 Tiple



A friend of mine brought this tiple to me and I purchased it from him. When this guy was made ukes were at their most popular and these uke-family tiples became somewhat common to see and hear in some of those (professional) jazz-era vocal trios and quartets as they allow a proficient uke player to get a very full, jangly, and rich voice in a package the same size as a tenor uke. Most uke players, however, won't make full use of one until they admit to themselves that "it's not the same instrument" as a uke and start exploring different ways to play it.

For my part I find them invaluable for recording as their range, punch, and thick sound really sits beautifully in a track and they're extremely useful as both backing (chordal) instruments as well as melody or lead instruments. Either way they stand out and provide the mid-range jangle everyone loves from a good 12-string guitar but in a compact and uke-friendly voicing and a high A string (at least in the way I tune them: GCEA vs. ADF#B) that will cut just like a tenor banjo or mandola's high end.



While the headstock and backstrip on the interior are stamped "Oliver Ditson Co," there's no mistaking this for a Martin-made tiple of the T-18 variety (spruce over mahogany) and the Martin serial at the neckblock confirms it. It's got a 17" scale, 10 strings in the tiple 2-3-3-2 format, and this one is entirely original except for the new bone saddle. There were old repairs evident which included some cleated/filled/repaired lower-bass-bout side cracks, a couple small reglued back hairline cracks, an old bridge reglue, and an old neck reset which had given way (they got the idea right with shimming up the dovetail joint but it wasn't quite tight when glued so it failed over time). There was also a very thin coat of varnish applied (a very long time ago) over the worn areas on the top upper bout.

At any rate, my work on this included the new bone saddle, a neck reset, fret level/dress/seating, cleaning, and setup. It plays beautifully and just as you'd expect from a Martin, the tone is lush, sweet, and warm with a mellow "front" rather than the attack-y jangle I'm used to from most Chicago builds.


The rosewood headstock veneer has a bit of "ghosting" in the finish. After adjusting it, the original 1 1/2" ebony nut was lightly sanded-down and polished back up as there was chipping along the top edge. Per the original slotting, the bass side of the nut leaves the strings pretty close to the edge of the board. I left it this way as it was "original" but if you're interested in this instrument and tend to have a "power grip" and push your strings from side to side a lot, this can be adjusted with a new nut quite easily.

Personally, I don't find it a problem but then again I set my nut slots on all my instruments pretty close to the edge of the board so I can "thumb over" if I want to.


The board is ebony with pearl dots and original bar frets. The side dots are a nice touch.

I normally string my own tiples with the outer first string pair (the G in the GCEA low to high tuning) with the low octave string on the inside but I left it on the outside here as that's how it was shipped from the factory and slotted at the nut (as was normal for the time). The difference in tonality is that you get a slightly mellower "jangle" on that course than if you had the high octave string first.


This has that typical 20s Martin-style rosette. The binding on both the top and back edges is rosewood and the top edge has 5-line wooden purfling as well. It's a good, clean, but elegant look.

The top has no cracks in it and is fan-braced (with scalloped braces) internally like a classical guitar.


The curly-mahogany bridge is original (I've seen these on other Martins) and has a hairline crack along 2/3 of its length from the back edge of the bass "wing" and behind the string tie block. It looks like it was reglued in the past and at the same time that crack was glued-up, too. In any case, it holds string tension just fine and appears healthy.

You can see that the (original) fret saddle has been replaced with a new bone (compensated) one. The saddle area was a bit chewed up anyhow. In person the contrast between the "fresh" finish around the touched-up saddle slot and the dark (old) finish is a lot less. It looks kinda silly in this picture but doesn't look that stark in person. Either way, it's a lot nicer to have your strings more in tune up at the 12th fret than on your typical 20s tiple!


Except for the "oversprayed" worn-area sections on the top upper bout, the finish is all-original, looks good, has some worn-in areas and of course plenty of (light, fine-grain) weather checking here and there.



The original (Waverly?) tuners work just fine but they're the "post over the worm-gear" style so if you need to tune down it's best to tune down below the note and then come back up to "lock" it. "Post over" tuners tend to have slightly more play when tuning up or down vs. "post under" style ones (as in: all modern tuners but unfortunately zero antique tiple tuners). I lubed these guys a bit and they work as-new.


Typical Martin simplicity...


One thing I didn't photo was the nice comfortable C-shaped neck profile. Most other tiple brands used a harsher v-shape that's a bit deeper but these feel really comfortable for chording up and down the neck with.



There's the Ditson mark.


Good sturdy neck set, now. You can see a bit of fine wear along the joint edges, however, from its (now 2nd) neck reset.


You can see on the lower bout treble side that there are some old-repair "crunch" cracks. They're all backed inside with some mahogany veneer glued on as cleating so they're perfectly stable. There's only one tiny little hole among that cluster and it was filled when the repairs were done.


Original endpin...



Hey, an original chip case!


...with original period tiple string packs. Nice!

What's interesting about old steel strings is that so many of them appear to be "ground wound" sets where roundwound strings have been ground down to have an almost flatwound feel to them. I see this on so many instruments that come in from the 20s/30s and I'm surprised that type of string fell out of fashion... they feel slick on the fingers, wear down callouses less, and have a nice warm fundamental tonality to them. Because they've got a smoother surface, too, you can crank them down closer to the frets as they "wobble" less in the same way that flatwound strings wobble less and thus you can maintain a pretty quick action. They also wear frets less.

However... they do cost a (tiny bit) more to make and compared to regular roundwound strings they have slightly less initial volume and much less treble-frequency "sting" to them (I think this is mostly due to the fact that the fundamental note and pitch is what comes strongest from these and you have fewer harmonics and thus you "hear" more of the lower note itself on its own vs. a true "volume drop"). I use a set of GHS "Brite Flats" (which are essentially the same thing but nickel-wound) on my old Gibson archtop guitar as it has volume to spare and the slick feel and less-treble sound really works with the tonal characteristics (bright, forward, snappy) of that guitar.


Here's another pic of those repaired old cracks on the lower bout side.

2 comments:

kistenjc said...

Inwhat ways do you prefer your Regal tiple over this one (besides the bunnies)?

Jake Wildwood said...

My Regal = more aggressive, brash, and snappy (it "cuts" better). It actually sounds more like a higher-pitched version of a Columbian tiple or maybe somewhat more similar to a Portuguese guitar.

This Martin = mellower, just as loud, more warmth, and sweet longer sustain.

They're actually very different instruments overall. The neck on the Martin is a lot cozier, too.