Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sigma Guitars by Martin & Co. DR1ST Acoustic

It seems like every major manufacturer has their second tier brand of guitars these days. Fender has Squier, Gibson has Epiphone, Ovation used to have Applause though I don't know if they still do. And yes, the folks at Martin had Sigma. Note that I said "had" Sigma. In one of those "uh oh somebody's gonna get fired" moments, someone at Martin forgot to renew the trademark on the Sigma brand, and sure enough, one of those crafty overseas companies jumped on it and now own the Sigma brand. But, up until the last few years, Martin used the Sigma brand name from 1970 until 2007. They were made in Japan from '70 until 1983, then moved to Korea. From what I understand, the company that now owns the Sigma brand has been making guitars since 2011, but they have nothing to do with Martin.

Okay, so now we've established a little history. If you want the whole Wikipedia version, click here. However, the Wikipedia version completely leaves out this late '90s time frame. Not sure why, but I have not been able to find out a ton of info other than digging deep in some forums. If you need more in-depth info, you'll need to get familiar with Google.

Now on to this guitar. This is the DR1ST model, made in Korea in about 1998. Could be '99. I have referenced the serial number on the Martin website and that's what I get. I think it's nice that Martin included the Sigmas in their regular serial number runs, rather than treat the brand like an outcast. I think it shows that they were proud enough of their overseas manufactured guitars to claim them as part of the family. There seems to be a lot more documentation on some of the other model numbers. The new company that makes Sigma now uses this model number in their current line-up, but don't be confused by that. This is definitely one of the older models and you can tell right off the bat by looking at the headstock. During this time period, they actually had "Sigma Guitars by Martin & Co." on the headstock. Not much confusion there.

The DR1ST was modeled after the Martin D-16 from what I could find. It's a nice standard dreadnought guitar with a solid top. I think. I've owned quite a few nicely made Asian factory Yamahas and Brunos and others that have been pretty tricky to figure out. I've been fooled a couple of times. So take a good close look if you have one and decide for yourself. I've even heard that, on some of the '70s Yamaha FG models, they would make some solid and some laminate. So, you have to look at the guitar...get a close look right on the edge of the soundhole. This guitar was really nice sounding and had a very clear, rich tone for a guitar in this price range. Those guys at Martin know how to spec out a guitar. I found this one at the Oceanside CA Swap Meet and picked it up for a mere $75. It had some old loose strings on it, so I couldn't get a good read on the neck. Didn't look warped or anything so I took a chance. I got home and got the swap meet layer of funk off of it easily...just a little dust and the smell of breakfast burritos. I put a set of brand new Martin SP Bronze medium strings on it, and...hmmmm. I little buzzing on a couple of frets.

I don't know about you, but I am just always hesitant to break out the allen wrench and start cranking on the truss rod. I've heard horror stories about snapped truss rods and popped necks and it makes me nervous. I made sure everything else was looking good...all polished and clean, and I listed it on Craigslist with a description of what nice condition the guitar was in, but it needed a set-up and a little tweaking due to the fret buzz. I guess that tends to scare people away and no one was biting on my original asking price of a very reasonable $235. I've seen these listed on eBay for a lot more, but they tend to sell for anywhere from $225 to $400. One was even more. But, Craigslist can be fickle and I wasn't getting any interest at all. I dropped the price to $200 and got an offer. A local guy who fixes guitars was looking for a little project to flip and offered $125. I decided that it would be best to get this guitar fixed up the right way and put it in the hands of someone who could really enjoy it. The guy showed up to buy it and explained that he actually used to work in the Taylor Guitars factory. This guitar was going to get a new life, and that's a good thing.

Overall I'd say that the vintage Sigma Guitars are pretty underrated, even though they have the Martin brand behind them. I do see them for sale from time to time on my local Craigslist and they are usually in the $225-275 range. I think if you are looking for an excellent guitar in an affordable price range, you can't go wrong with a vintage Sigma.


Kevi Dunham said...

Hey Jammie-My name is Kevin Dunham and I am one of the editors of the Wikipedia Vintage Sigma Guitars page. I also own www.nossigmamartinguitars.com and am a co administrator of the Vintage Sigma Guitars fan page on Facebook. I have been researching Sigma by Martin for around a decade and am currently writing a book on the line. Early this year I spent 8 days back in Nazareth doing research in the archives and have received permission from Dick Boak on behalf of Martin & Co. to reproduce and use all of their diseminated material and original catalog art, etc...Martin Customer Service also sends Sigma owners my way for more info on a regualr basis. I have an article on Sigma by Martin's early years coming out in VGM in Novemeber...check out my website or our FB page or shoot me an email at kevin.dunham@gmail.com if you need any assistance or want to find out more about the SImga by Martin line of fretted instruments. Cheers, Kevin

Anonymous said...

Oh if I could just get back my Sigma DM-5 that I left for repair at Pop's Music in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Last I heard/saw of it was that it was at Royal Music (pawnshop) and I had no bucks to get it. Any sightings could be directed to valuevillagereject@hotmail.com 10-Q

Llama Sherpa said...

I still own the DR1ST N I bought for I think $350 as a "put at risk" guitar during the Telluride Bluegrass Festival back in 1996 to take with me as a full-size for my time in the Peace Corps in Africa. I recall being blown away that a Korean manufacturer was able to produce the sound and feel quality that a picker could really feel like he was not severely compromising at the price. The only shortfall for me was that it lacked the sound projection of a proper Martin, but the sound - when played at the instrument's native volume - was fantastic.

That said, to clear up your comments -- my understanding is the model was made only from '94 to '96 -- verified by my own purchase, so your dates are a little late. That, and I was told by the Martin rep at the festival that Martin had put a little extra effort into the DR1ST with Martin trying to get some lift / buzz about the brand again amid a market growing more crowded. Given how I felt about the guitar for a long while, I bought that view, real or not. Today I wonder if the "1ST" in the model name was the hat-tip to the concept. Who knows, and I'm certainly no Sigma officianodo to tell you one way or the other.

Nearly 20-years on, my main guitar is a D-35, but I still have the DR1ST sitting around. Whereas a high-end guitar gets better with age, I can't say time has treated it as well, but I still have a fond spot for the guitar. Just played it side by side to my D-35 - naturally less buttery and tinnier -- but it's nothing to be embarrassed about. For the prices I see them out there, I'd definitely recommend kids looking to upgrade or get a decent starter vs. what's being sold new today go for them if in proper shape.

Brent Strine said...

My wife was visiting our son in Ashland OR. & he saw this Sigma DM-1ST & called me to see if I would buy it for $75.00. So my wife bought it & brought it home to California.
Even with the old strings I could tell it was a winner! I carefully clean years of grime off of it & put new Martin Phosphor/Bronze lights on and bam! What a great sounding guitar - no buzzing & decent action! The finish is almost new. I already knew that the sides & back were mahogany lam but the rest was just like a Martin D-18. Solid spruce top, rosewood finger board & bridge, one piece Mahogany neck real, (not painted on) inlays. The headstock & label is just like the pic's above, Sigma CF Martin & Co. on the headstock and the label says both Made in Korea & Nazareth Pennsylvania w/ model # and serial #.
So, I started to research it and like you found very little on the DM1ST. One said the 1ST meant "first generation", another said it meant "solid top". Closest I came up with so far is your post with the exception that mine has a tortoise shell (plastic) pick guard. The only up grade it needs is to replace the plastic (super cheap plastic!) nut & bridge bone with real bone.
I gave my 1970 D-28 Martin to my son (that I played for 40 years) & now own a 1997 Larrivee D-03R,CS-6 Made in Japan Sigma classical(solid top), 2014 Washburn R-320SWPT Parlor,(all solid wood)1980 Guild D25,etc.

dono-man said...

I just picked up a Sigma DR-3. I've hardly played it but it was too good to pass up for $80. It has one pretty good ding on the back that has damaged it. I didn't notice it at first but still, great sounding guitar. I've not seen too many DR-3's. I'm sure there are a lot out there. I've owned various Sigma and Takamine guitars, only the Martin clone versions, and only once was I disappointed. I think this one will be very pleasing!

JLM said...

The history of Sigma is spotty and sketchy at best. I have three of them. Two DM-4s and a DR-7. The DM-4s were made in Korea the DR-7 in Japan. According to most Sigma history manufacture of Sigmas in Korea didn't begin until 1984. I am absolutely certain, swear on my children's heads certain, that I purchased the first DM-4 in 1981 from Music Emporium. If Korean production didn't begin until 1984 how did I get a Sigma labeled made in Korea in 1981? I know that I'm not mis-remembering the dates. I bought it early in 1981. Possibly January. As I stated I also have another DM-4. Same design, same inner label but the difference in the neck shapes are prominent. Anyone have any info or knowlege?

Marshall dienger said...

I have sigma made by martin with the number DR-28s can anyone pleade tell me alittle about what I have cause no one can

johnmac said...

Hi Marshall I'm in Sydney Australia and I have a Sigma DR-28 I think it was made in 1980 solid spruce top with rosewood back and sides I got it in 1999 it is amazing I use it to teach with everyday and it just sounds better and better every year. the 2 numbers inside the guitar are: 4244065 K and 832830 with Made in Japan stamped inside with the CF Martin stamp. I can send you some photos hand on to yours! cheers John