The picture above is the back of my 1937 00-21 Martin. This is a close-up view of beautiful, quarter-sawn Brazilian Rosewood from the 1930s. It is tight, straight, not much figuring, and has the classic "dots and dashes" in the grain that always seems to be present in the classic Brazilian Rosewood.
Left: For comparison, this is a 1955 00-18, 14 frets to the body, the newer body style that was typical of all 00-18s after about 1933. Notice that it doesn't have the 'pear shape'; that changed when the longer neck was added.
A good friend of mine heard my 1937 Martin 00-21 back in 1996, the first time I brought it to the Ozark Old Time Music Festival in Mountain View, AR. I had just purchased it in early 1996 and had it restored to playable condition. His comment was that it must be from another planet and dubbed it 'a Martian'....so it became "My Favorite Martian".
**NOTE: Anything I state about Martin models, years, or specific model details is what I have learned from Martin books, experts in the field, and other sources, but I don't claim to be an authority on Martins.
I started hunting for a "double 0" size guitar after playing a good friend's 1936 00-18 in 1995. It simply blew my mind and captured my heart with its rich, dry tones and great volume. I didn't know much about the double 0 size, but I tracked one down at Bernunzio Instruments in Rochester, NY. I spoke with John Bernunzio and told him I was looking for a 1930's 00-18, but at that time he only had a 1937 00-21. The "21" designation is Martin's description of a Brazilian Rosewood back and sides, Adirondack Spruce top, and the decorative trim is like the "18" models, with either faux tortoise binding or mahogany binding on the top, and it does not have the "volute" carved where the neck joins the headstock like a "28" model. The "21" models have been around since 1877. What is interesting about the 00-21 is that it has always been a 12-frets to the body model, has always had a slotted headstock, and the body shape is the more "pear-shaped" style that you see on older parlor style guitars before 1930. The 00-18 my friend owns is a 14-fret, mahogany guitar, and the 14 fret models have a different shape than mine. On my friends '36 00-18, the body shape is more angular and the longer neck does change the scale length and also changes the sound of the guitar somewhat. Not better or worse, just different, and still great.
Bernunzio told me the 00-21 he had for sale had problems. He said the back, sides, neck, headstock were all in very good clean condition. But some guy who had owned it had taken off the original pick-guard and had also sanded down the bridge to lower the string action. This is a terribly incorrect way to fix a problem that is really about the neck angle, but years ago these small body guitars weren't really respected as serious vintage instruments, and he apparently didn't care. So I was told the front of the guitar had heavy wear around the pickguard as well as damage to the bridge and top caused by sanding. It wasn't playable as it was, would need a new bridge and a neck set, but was a great candidate for restoration if I was adventurous. The price was right too, so I bought it sight unseen and he shipped it to me. I was surprised when I opened the case and saw a completely different looking guitar than my friend's 00-18. (see picture above of the 1955 00-18, the '36 looks like this) This was the first time I had ever seen the unique features of the 00-21 body style, headstock, and shorter neck. Man, it sure looked cool.
A good friend of mine in Dallas, Sam Swank, was the Martin authorized repairman at Charlie's Guitars. I had Sam do the restoration. After waiting a few weeks for the work to be completed, I was really stoked when Sam called and said he was playing it and "would I like to come pick it up?" I was lucky I didn't get a speeding ticket that day. When I got to Charlie's Guitars, Sam was surrounded by several other envious pickers, all wanting to play it. Even Sam was amazed by this little guitar that had been left for dead until he revived it.
The neckset was done in 1996, and is still perfect today (2013, 17 years later). I decided not to replace the pickguard, as the top had a lot of wear in that area, and it wouldn't really fit flush and flat. Pickguards also affect the sound and I didn't want to change a thing. The bridge replacement was clean and the guitar sounded fantastic. I've been playing it as my main guitar since 1996, along with my Gibson L-00, and no longer own any Dreadnought size guitars; I'm hooked on the double 0 size.
Martin Introduced the "21" style in 1877, and a couple of 00 size guitars were made before regular production of the 00-21 began in 1898. It was produced up until 1964 when it was discontinued. However, in recent years Martin has released them as special editions, and they have always been available as a special order model. The "New Yorker" model made in the 1960s, made popular by Peter Yarrow (of PP&M), was made to be played with either steel or nylon. It is the same model but has modified bracing from what I have heard.
An interesting note about the 00-21 is that the body length is actually 1/4" longer than the 000 (triple 0) size. The depth is virtually the same, only 1/16 difference. The major size difference is that the large bout on a 000 is 7/8" wider, and except for very old ones (1902-1933) the 000s are 14 frets to the body. Here is the comparison:
Size Frets Large Bout Depth Body Length
OO 12 14 1/8 4 1/16 19 5/8
OOO 14 15 4 1/8 19 3/8
I have been playing my Martin 00-21 for 16 years now, and also have been playing a Gibson L-00 for 24 years, and can say that 00 size guitars are truly remarkable. The 00 size is NOT just a finger-picker's guitar. You will often hear that said, but believe me, it is an incredible flat-picking instrument as well. Just ask Norman Blake, who prefers playing his Gibson Nick Lucas (a deep body 00 size) and various Gibson L-00s. His wife, Nancy Blake, plays a 1929 00-45 12 fret.
Playing (flatpicking) at Old Town Historical Park in San Diego, CA, July 4, 2009.
"Ragged but Right"