Welcome back to our feature on MTV Unplugged and Martin.
In this edition, we’re diving in with the first taping of MTV Unplugged, and how a special relationship between the program and Martin guitars was established.
In 1989, MTV recorded the inaugural episode of Unplugged. But, pitching the radical new format to artists and audiences wasn’t exactly easy.
As producer Alex Colleti recalls, “getting someone to do the first one was like rolling a boulder up a hill. There were maybe 50, 60 people in the audience; I could look at footage and name half of them, because I had to invite people,”
British new wavers Squeeze – known for their hits “Cool for Cats” and “Up the Junction” – were tapped for the first episode. But, they weren’t at all prepared for the unplugged format:
“I remember Squeeze showing up with electric guitars and I said, ‘Um, hello, it’s Unplugged!’ No one really knew what ‘unplugged’ was; the term didn't exist in the way it does now in the lexicon. Later, that term became a thing that took on a whole new meaning.”
Once suitable acoustics were sourced, the show was recording and the resulting episode was the proof of concept that Colleti needed:
“It was magic,” he told Yahoo. “I knew from the vibe in that room that we had something special going on. I was like, ‘This show's going to be a hit. This is awesome. This is going to be fun, every day of my life.’ And it was.”
MTV Unplugged was a goer, but as the Squeeze episode showed, the specifics of the format presented a challenge. Acts featured on the show didn’t necessarily tour with acoustic instruments, and wouldn’t have them on hand for the taping. The solution, as Absolute Guitar notes, was a phone call to a certain acoustic guitar manufacturer:
“MTV called C.F. [Martin] IV to explain their brand new idea for a show… [They asked] would Martin be kind enough to give them some guitars to equip these artists to save them bringing their own instruments?”
C.F. IV said yes, starting a longstanding association with the programme in the process.
Martin’s endorsement of MTV Unplugged established a precedent for artists using Martin guitars on the show. And, as the format picked up steam, the guitar company saw a resurgence of interest in their products.
It helped that some of the most high profile performers on Unplugged were already Martin guitarists. Eric Clapton, for example, whose Unplugged broadcast sparked a latter day career revival, had his Martin guitar front and centre. As Guitar.com notes:
“Clapton, in particular, was key to Martin’s association: his first MTV Unplugged performance in 1992 saw him playing his 000-42. This individual instrument, which achieved even greater notoriety after featuring on the cover of the multi-platinum Unplugged album, was sold at auction in 2004 for $791,500 – then the highest price ever paid for an acoustic.”
For a younger generation of guitarists, Nirvana’s Unplugged appearance, in which Kurt Cobain played a 1959 D-18E, established Martin as the acoustic maker par-excellence. Nirvana’s appearance on the show, which aired in December 1993, was praised for laying bare the songwriting prowess of a band that normally traded in pounding drums and Marshall stacks. After Cobain’s suicide in April 1994, however, the show took on a near-mythic quality. Acquiescing to demand for re-runs of the performance, MTV’s repeat airings of the show pushed Cobain - and the image of him holding that D18E – to iconic status.
By the mid-1990s, Martin and MTV Unplugged were synonymous. So synonymous, in fact, that the guitar company introduced its very own MTV Unplugged acoustic model. As this entry from Martin’s August 1996 issue of “The Sounding Board” states:
“Perhaps one of our most interesting new products is the Martin MTV-1 Unplugged® guitar. MTV Unplugged® has been a significant catalyst for the increasing appreciation of the acoustic guitar. The guitar we designed is unique in that it combines mahogany with rosewood for the back and sides. The mahogany on the treble side accentuates the high and midrange while the rosewood on the bass side accentuates the deep booming bass expected of the Martin Dreadnought.”
In the late 1980s, some cultural commentators were lamenting the death of the acoustic guitar. But, as the MTV Unplugged revival of the 1990s showed, the steel strung solid-top wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. And nor were Martin, whose legacy – like the MTV Unplugged format – shines through to this day.
What’s your favorite MTV Unplugged episode? And did you ever play the MTV-1?
As always, share your stories in the comments.
“I'm sick to death of people saying we've made 11 albums that sound exactly the same, In fact, we've made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.”
“I honestly believe that you have to be able to play the guitar hard if you want to be able to get the whole spectrum of tones out of it. Since I normally play so hard, when I start picking a bit softer my tone changes completely, and that's really useful sometimes for creating a more laid-back feel.”
As a young guitarist, I completely rejected any notion that music theory would help me in my journey. At the time, I justified this as a “punk rock/music is freedom” attitude to playing. If I learned my theory, I told myself, I’m just putting myself in a box. “[Insert guitar hero of the week] didn’t need theory, and they were a genius. Why do I?”