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Martin SC-13E review

Martin's bold and radical new acoustic makes an early claim for the best guitar of 2020

  • £1599
  • €1999
  • $1499
Martin SC-13E review
(Image: © Future / Neil Godwin)

Our Verdict

Once you get past the radicalism of the design, the SC-13E may overwhelm you with its lightning quick playability and stage-ready electronics. Very cool indeed.

Pros

  • The price is very welcoming.
  • Great access to the fingerboard.
  • Quality build and design.
  • Excellent plugged-in and acoustic tones.

Cons

  • Onboard tuner is a little sluggish.
  • Believe it or not, the action was maybe a little too low.

What is it?

Every now and then you've got to take a risk. Playing it safe can only take you so far in life, and so it is with guitar design. Martin gets this, and for a company steeped in tradition of acoustic guitar building, it's not afraid to swing for the fences every now and again.

Introduced at NAMM 2020, the SC-13E is the boldest new design to come fresh off the drawing board at Nazareth, Pennsylvania, in some time. This is an electro-acoustic to provoke traditionalists and inspire new ways of thinking about the instrument. So what makes it different?

The thinking behind the SC-13E is to blur the line between traditional acoustic guitar design and the electric guitar. In spirit, if not execution, that's not so far away from what Fender is doing with the Acoustasonic Series. Here, Martin isn't looking to impress the D-18 ownership circle, but instead, attract the acoustic-curious with a guitar that feels and performs more like an electric.

Quite how you see the boldest new features is a matter of opinion. For some, it will be the body shape, a sort of squashed off-set with a dramatic cutaway. Those same people might gasp when they see the heel, or what's left of it. Sure, this is a 13th fret cutaway electro-acoustic but its Sure Align neck system ensures you get to access all 20 frets.

 

The electronics we have seen before at this price point, with a Fishman MX-T pickup and preamp system and an LED tuner discretely mounted in the soundhole

The Sure Align neck system is described by Martin as a linear dovetail joint, and it allows for neck pitch and intonation adjustments via the soundhole. We haven't seen an acoustic quite like this.

Nor have we played one with such a fast and easy action. The strings are low here. Maybe too low? That is a point of individual preference, but there is no question that the low action allied to the asymmetric neck profile (oh, hello there, another quietly radical but player-friendly feature) makes for a super-quick feel. 

Image 1 of 4

The Sure Align neck system all but does away with the heel, making upper-fret access super easy, and also adjustments to the neck.

The Sure Align neck system all but does away with the heel, making upper-fret access super easy, and also adjustments to the neck. (Image credit: Future / Neil Godwin)
Image 2 of 4

The Fishman MT-X electro system was specially designed for Martin’s Road Series. Here is where the battery and the cable goes. The controls are all discretely presented in the soundhole.

The Fishman MT-X electro system was specially designed for Martin’s Road Series. Here is where the battery and the cable goes. The controls are all discretely presented in the soundhole. (Image credit: Future / Neil Godwin)
Image 3 of 4

At the 12th fret you'll find the ‘Celestial Bullseye’ style inlay.

At the 12th fret you'll find the ‘Celestial Bullseye’ style inlay. (Image credit: Future / Neil Godwin)
Image 4 of 4

The tuner is well-positioned, with a bright display.

The tuner is well-positioned, with a bright display. (Image credit: Future / Neil Godwin)

Build-wise, the SC-13E has a solid Sitka spruce top with what Martin calls a "koa fine veneer" on the back and sides – essentially, it's a mahogany back and sides but with a koa veneer, and it is very smart, on-brand, and befitting a top-line model from the Mexican-built Road Series.

The electronics we have seen before at this price point, with a Fishman MX-T pickup and preamp system and an LED tuner discretely mounted in the soundhole. Under the hood, you'll see X bracing on the top, and at the back so it is visible as an aesthetic feature. This, says Martin, was a bit of fun, a talking point, purely visual – as if there were not enough talking points on the guitar already.

Traditionalists, you can come back in the room now; the headstock is classic Martin.

Performance and Verdict

Despite all the hot air, the online discussions, the hype and whatnot, the SC-13E feels reassuringly familiar in the sense that it is a guitar, a playable guitar, and before we get into the details, it is a fun guitar to play.

There's a case to be made that the SC-13E, free from conventions, is a very convincing option for players of all styles. Those who are okay with the hybrid aspect of its design will love the speediness of the neck. Those who yearn for something old school can reassure themselves by the tone, by the name on the headstock, and the good time they are having playing the thing.

The SC-13E ships with a set of Martin Authentic Custom Light strings (011, .015, .023, .032, .042, .052) and – heavens above – that fretboard feels nice. Martin's new Low Profile Velocity neck design is an amalgamation of two asymmetric neck profiles that see the bass side rounder and fuller in the lower regions of the fretboard, tapering out so that the bulk of the wood is on the treble side when you move up the fretboard.

Also consider...

(Image credit: Future)

• Taylor 214ce
Attention to detail is up to the company's usual nigh-on faultless standard, and it plays well and sounds good. And when the guitars come at such new even more affordable prices, what more could you want?

Fender Acoustasonic Stratocaster
An innovative, lightweight electro-acoustic that proves Fender's Acoustasonic designs are no flash in the pan; they might well be the future.

Yamaha LS-TA Transacoustic
The level of ingenuity here is absolutely staggering. Everyone in our office who has played the guitar has come away with a grin on their face - and surely that's the point?

But should you endure a moment's cognitive dissonance and suspect you've been slipped an electric guitar – and such is the feel of that neck – the frets are very much acoustic, measuring a very conventional 1.92mm wide by 0.9mm high on a fingerboard radius of 406mm (16 inches).

Down to business, the SC-13E feels like an all-rounder. From a few idle chords, then a strum, then some fingerstyle, the suspicion grows that this is going to be an electro-acoustic you could use in all kinds of musical contexts. There is a lovely balance to its acoustic voice. 

There is a depth to the SC-13E, an authority to the lower mids; it's not a million miles away from the OM/OOO voice, and it sounds like it would perform well in a mix. Of course, that's the idea. The MX-T pickup and preamp is more than capable of translating that tone through your amplifier. At one end of its EQ there's a nice musical scooping of the mids, at the other a flatter response.

The tuner is a little on the slow side. You can get quicker clip-on tunings, but that is hardly a deal-breaker. But, y'know, it is good to know this in advance of going DAGDAD during the open mic. 

On the whole there is not a lot between this and Taylor’s 214ce, though the Taylor's 2-band EQ makes it a little more versatile, and its pickup is a little more transparent. If you can look past the squished offset shape and are not looking for a heritage Martin, the SC-13E presents itself as a supremely playable and giggable instrument. A lot of craft has gone into this and it makes its presence felt in that performance. 

MusicRadar verdict: Once you get past the radicalism of the design, the SC-13E may overwhelm you with its lightning quick playability and stage-ready electronics. Very cool indeed.

The web says

"This Martin is truly special, and to have such a progressive acoustic-electric drop virtually out of the blue from America’s most historic guitar manufacturer is like having a Tesla suddenly roll off the line at Ford."
Guitar Player

"It’s an inviting concept for players who feel more comfortable on electric than acoustic. But don’t let the striking design details blind you to the fact it’s also a fine-sounding steel-string with a lovely and unique voice."
Premier Guitar

"In a purely acoustic setting, the SC-13E offers a surprising amount of volume for its size, and, especially when strummed or plucked over the soundhole or upper reaches of the neck, an excellent overall projection balance string to string, with a rounded, compact bottom-end, detailed and bronze-y highs, and the warm, woody, coppery quality one associates with, well, a Martin." 
Acoustic Guitar

Hands-on demos

Guitar Center

Musician's Friend

Reverb

Sweetwater

Specifications

  • ORIGIN: Mexico
  • TYPE: 13-fret cutaway electro-acoustic
  • TOP: Sitka spruce
  • BACK/SIDES: Koa fine veneer
  • MAX RIM DEPTH: 102mm (4”)
  • MAX BODY WIDTH: 394mm (15.5”)
  • NECK: Select hardwood, Low Profile Velocity neck shape w/ High performance taper
  • SCALE LENGTH: 645mm (25.4”)
  • TUNERS: Nickel-plated, open-geared Grover w/ ‘butterbean’ buttons
  • NUT/WIDTH White Corian/ 44.23mm
  • FINGERBOARD: Ebony, Celestial Bullseye style inlays, 406mm (16”) radius 
  • FRETS: 20, medium
  • BRIDGE/SPACING: Ebony w/compensated Tusq saddle/55mm
  • ELECTRICS: Fishman MX-T w/Sonicore under-saddle transducer, soundhole-placed volume and tone, phase switch and tuner 
  • WEIGHT (kg/lb): 2.04/4.5
  • OPTIONS: None
  • RANGE OPTIONS: The Mexican-made Road Series is expansive, starting at £839 for the 000-10E all-matt finish
  • LEFT-HANDERS: No
  • FINISH: All gloss natural with satin neck back (as reviewed)
  • CONTACT: Martin Guitar