Martin SC-10E review: redefining what playability means for an acoustic guitar
With its offset body shape and radical departures from tradition, the SC platform might be Martin’s most controversial guitar ever – but is there genius lurking underneath?
All images: Adam Gasson
With all due respect to the love/hate relationship the guitar world has with Fender’s Acoustasonic platform, the Martin SC might very well be the most divisive and polarising acoustic guitar innovation of the last few years. “It’s time to rethink what an acoustic-electric guitar can do” was the message from Chris Martin IV when the original model, the SC-13E, debuted to a room of journalists shortly before the NAMM Show in January 2020.
- READ MORE: Fender Acoustasonic Player Jazzmaster review – a genuinely inspirational instrument at its best ever price
And it was hard to argue that’s what they’d done when the world’s oldest surviving guitar maker brought out an acoustic with an offset body shape, a cutaway so deep it arguably isn’t even a cutaway, and a patented Sure Align neck system that means the guitar has almost no neck heel to get in the way. The SC-13, said Martin, was about building an acoustic guitar without limitations – an instrument designed to blur the boundaries between the sound of a classic Martin acoustic guitar and the playability of an electric. It was, suffice to say, not what anyone in the room was expecting.
Of course, Significant Events that began to occur in the weeks and months immediately following the 2020 NAMM Show no doubt derailed the big launch of the SC-13E, which is produced in Martin’s Mexican facility, and it wasn’t until mid-2021 that guitars began to find themselves in the hands of players in earnest. The delay has led to the whole project flying under the radar somewhat, but Martin clearly has great faith in the concept – the June 2022 NAMM Show saw the company add another three SC models to the range, of which this SC-10E is the most affordable and thus accessible for the offset-acoustic-curious among us.
Given that the original was already produced in Martin’s Navojoa factory, the SC-10E isn’t a dramatic price drop from the original, but £1,300 quid feels more towards the end of the market where you might take a chance on something a little different than the original, which will now set you back £1,699 at retail (it launched at £1,599 in 2021 – thanks Liz Truss!).
On the surface, you’ve not lost a whole lot from the package for that 300 quid saving; you still get the same Sitka spruce top with koa fine veneer back and sides, the same Low Profile Velocity neck shape with what Martin calls its High Performance taper, plus that patented Sure Align neck system. It has the same unconventional 645mm (25.4”) scale length, a 20-fret neck with an equally weird 13th fret neck join, and even the same Fishman MX-T electronics system complete with a handy built-in soundhole tuner. In fact the only difference between the SC-10E and the SC-13E is in the finish; the original had a classic gloss and this has an ultra-thin satin job, and and the application of a lot of black – which includes the tuners, binding, bridge pins and soundhole rosette. Whisper it, but we actually think the pared back aesthetics suit the SC’s modernist vibe a bit better than the traditional pearl and gloss show of a Martin acoustic. And if you’ve come this far, you probably don’t mind a guitar that looks a little bit different to standard fare. But is this more than just a funny looking curio?
Well, we should start by saying that is is, without doubt, a funny looking thing – the reaction across the Guitar.com team. One of our writers first impressions was “asymmetrical migraine fuel” – despite the fact that he spends a goodly chunk of his time playing and writing about some of the most leftfield and challenging luthier-built acoustics on the planet. And that’s absolutely fine. Some people feel very strongly that a Martin should not look like this, and thankfully for them the company’s range is still well stocked with all the dreads, 000s, OMs and parlours you could ever want.
We can’t deny though, that over the weeks we’ve had the SC-10E kicking around the house, the look of it has grown on us considerably. Yes it’s weird, but weird can be fun sometimes – that’s why everyone’s wearing MSCHF’s Big Red Boots all of a sudden, and the SC has a similar effect on you. There’s a certain elegance to the downward slope of that most unconventional cutaway, or the way the back’s X-brace perfectly sits inside the soundhole, slicing up the equally unconventional circular model label into four pizza-shaped segments.
Ultimately however, the SC concept lives and dies on the basis of that promise up to – to remove the limits of what an acoustic guitar can do in terms of its comfort and playability. But before we talk about that, it’s important to talk about the sound.
Many guitars have promised electric-like playability to an acoustic platform – hell, it’s practically the reason why Martin’s great rival Taylor Guitars has become one of the world’s most popular acoustic brands – but often that comes with certain compromises in terms of unplugged sound. Thanks to its full-depth acoustic body and no doubt a bit of technical wizardry from the folks in Nazareth, the SC-10E feels like a proper acoustic guitar – with a warmth and depth that is pure Martin, albeit without the boomy insistence of a dread. There’s nothing plastic-y or dead about the tone, no harshness – just a lovely top-end sparkle and bark that’s no doubt helped by that ultra-thin satin finish.
Plugging in we find that the MX-T system performs admirably – the built-in tuner is handy if a little unresponsive compared to our trusty PolyTune Clip, and the sounds are a tad generic but very usable.
Which is all to say that were this a ‘normal’ Martin acoustic, you wouldn’t feel short-changed about its sonic performance in the slightest – indeed if you’re playing live (which surely is the stated purpose of this guitar) it’s wonderfully voiced to sit in a band mix. But this isn’t a normal Martin, and that’s where the SC-10E really earns its coin.
Simply put, the SC-10E is perhaps the easiest-playing Martin we’ve ever had our hands on, it might be the easiest playing acoustic guitar we’ve had in our hands full stop. With its ultra-low setup and the shipped custom light gauge (0.011 to 0.052) Martin Authentic Acoustic Lifespan 2.0 92/8 Phosphor Bronze strings, it’s a slinkier player than many electric guitars we’ve played. And the neck itself, while not dramatically different from other acoustic guitars with friendly neck profiles (looking at you here Taylor) in terms of its dimensions, just feels more effortless. You might take that as code for it being a cocktail stick, but rest assured, it never feels too slim or too narrow, it’s just addictively playable, especially as you move up the neck. And move up the neck you shall – even if you’ve never really thought about it before, because the neck profile, that giant cutaway and the heel-less Sure Align neck join (which Martin refers to as a linear dovetail joint and also allows for easy neck pitch and intonation adjustment) just make everything so damn inviting.
But the genius of the SC concept is even more stark when you swap back to a ‘conventional’ acoustic – even the slender neck of a Taylor AD-12e feels positively restrictive compared to the wide open space of the SC-10E. And that is why the SC-10E deserves not to be judged by its unconventional looks – put one in your hands, and you might find your preconceptions melt away in the face of one of the most playable acoustics we’ve ever picked up.
- PRICE: £1,299 (including semi-rigid Martin gigbag)
- DESCRIPTION: 13-fret six-string electro-acoustic guitar, made in Mexico
- BUILD: Sitka spruce top with, koa fine veneer back and sides, scalloped X-bracing. Select hardwood neck with Low Profile Velocity profile and heel-less Sure Align system, ebony fingerboard (16” radius) and bridge
- SCALE LENGTH: 645mm (25.4”
- HARDWARE: Martin open-gear tuners, black
- ELECTRONICS: Fishman MX-T system with soundhole controls and built-in tuner
- WEIGHT: 2.04kg/4.5lbs
- NECK WIDTH: 44.23mm (nut)
- STRING SPACING: 55mm (bridge)
- FINISH: Natural ultra-thin satin
- LEFT-HANDERS: No
- CONTACT: Martin Guitars