1922 Beltone A-K

Although Martin never captured a major share of the mandolin market, it produced enough flat-top, flat-back mandolins that a large number of them have survived to the present day. Because they are significantly different from the modern epitome of mandolin construction (i.e. the Gibson F-5), they do not command high prices on the vintage market apart from the rare, highly-ornamented models. This has left players with a selection of affordable instruments that represent some of the best values on the vintage mandolin market.

The most common Martin mandolin is the Style A, produced from 1914 into the 1970s and fitfully thereafter. Like all Martin flat-top mandolins, it has a 13” scale and an oval soundhole. The flat spruce top and mahogany back give it a loud, punchy sound that is an excellent match for folk and classical music – though a few can be seen in pictures of country bands from the 1930s. In 1914, the next step up in price was the Style B, which featured a rosewood back and slightly upgraded binding and fret markers. The Styles C, D and E upgraded the cosmetics still further, and all are significantly rarer than the A and B.

In the early 1920s, Martin capitalized on the Hawaiian music craze by offering not just ukuleles but guitars and mandolins built from koa. It’s questionable whether this actually made the instruments more suitable for playing Hawaiian music, but the wood’s association with the island territory caused a number of manufacturers to start building instruments from it. Martin first offered the A-K in 1920 and kept building them until 1937, at which point both the Hawaiian craze and the mandolin’s popularity were thoroughly over. They also built a few B-K mandolins in 1921 and 1925 with the upgraded cosmetics of the Style B.

The demand for koa instruments didn’t just stop with manufacturers – distributors got in on the act as well. The firm of Perlberg & Halpin were wholesalers who owned a number of different brand names – Wapiti, Blue Comet, Yosco and Nonpareil, among others. Perhaps their best-remembered brand is Beltone, a line of mostly low to mid-grade stringed instruments and drums. Beltone is probably best remembered for its odd “res-o-lute” mandolins which effectively added a banjo-style resonator to the back of a conventional mandolin. While those creations were built for a long time – they were still being distributed by Sorkin in the 1950s – they fit the general Beltone mold of low prices and mediocre quality.

There were, however, a very few exceptions to this image of the brand – and one is shown above. Perlberg & Halpin commissioned Martin to build a handful of instruments: Style 2-17S guitars, style A-K mandolins and Style 3-K ukuleles. Sources for production figures are questionable – many say 10 mandolins were built, while Martin states that there were 12 – but it’s clear that few of each model were ever given the Beltone stamp. The A-K mandolins shipped in one batch from the Martin factory on July 29, 1922. My guess is that they were all sold from Perlberg & Haplin’s store on Park Row in New York, as it would be unusual to list such limited-production models in a catalog. Perhaps they were intended to be a trial run for a permanent model, but the sales were slow enough that the instruments were not re-ordered. Martin listed the A-K for $30 in 1924; it’s possible that customers were not interested in such an expensive mandolin from a wholesaler known for cheaper instruments.

This particular mandolin has survived in exceptional condition. There is only the slightest of playwear and no damage or replacement parts. The koa construction gives it a different tone than the spruce-and-mahogany Style A; it has bright treble and firm lows, with a relatively mild mid-range. However, this mandolin is noticeably louder than the average Martin mandolin; whether that’s due to the wood or to other factors, I don’t know. Remarkably, the original canvas bag has survived in similar condition to the instrument itself.