What Guitar Did Johnny Cash Play? While Johnny Cash played a wide variety of guitars throughout his musical career, he is mostly known for playing Martin Guitars. His Martin D-28, D-35, and D-42 guitars all served him well, but the Martin D-35 is often considered to be Cash’s main guitar.
Johnny Cash and His Guitars
The Man In Black
Johnny Cash lived from 1932 to 2003, his somber music and black stage clothing leaving a tremendous impact upon the music world that has sustained far beyond his passing–and will undoubtedly continue to influence aspiring musicians indefinitely. His deep, rich voice and sorrowful lyrics pierced listeners’ hearts while he made a name for himself as a man of defiance and brutal honesty in Memphis, Tennessee.
Cash quickly stood out amidst others in the rockabilly scene as a musician of note once he started performing. He later played with his backing group, the Tennessee Three, for over 20 years. Together they recorded numerous hits like “Ring of Fire”, many of which are go-to songs for beginner guitarists today. But plenty of Johnny’s most poignant performances consisted only of himself and one of his trusty guitars. So, which guitar is he most known for playing? Well, it’s hard to say for certain which guitar was Johnny’s true favorite since he performed with several, but many people know him best for his Martin D-35 and believe that he preferred it over his other instruments.
The Black Martin D-35
Johnny Cash clearly loved his Martin D-35–he played it in most stage performances for about 20 years, after all. Cash had made a name for himself as “The Man In Black” by the early 1970s thanks to his wardrobe, and by 1989 he decided that it was time for his guitar to match: So, he ordered himself a custom Martin D-35 in a sleek, black finish. C.F. Martin III was the president of the Martin Guitars company at the time, and he actually rejected the idea because he believed that a completely black finish was too radical and deviated too much from the signature design of Martin Guitars.
Luckily for Johnny, not everyone at the company agreed with the idea of denying a request from such a legend. His custom black D-35 was indeed crafted with care, and the process was carried out entirely in secret. C.F. Martin III didn’t catch wind of it until he saw Johnny Cash playing the new guitar on TV! The black Martin D-35 has been directly associated with Johnny Cash ever since and served as a powerful symbol of his influence, not only on music itself, but upon the instrument manufacturing industry as well.
Martin Guitars later crafted replicas of Johnny’s custom instrument, making a limited number of “The D-35 Johnny Cash Commemorative” guitars before discontinuing production. As a result of their very limited availability–not to mention their connection to a musician that many people see as a hero–these black D-35 guitars are highly sought after and can be quite expensive. But of course, plenty of passionate fans, guitarists, and collectors consider the purchase to be totally worth it.
What Did Johnny Cash Play Before His Signature D-35?
Before he got his hands on the Martin D-35, Cash played a variety of other guitars. And not all of them were Martins, either! Johnny played the Höfner Congress during his early days, first getting familiar with it during the year 1950. He also played the Gibson “June Pride” Hummingbird and the Gibson J-200 during the late 50s and 60s, with the latter serving as quite the musician’s status symbol at the time. Johnny even had his name engraved on the fretboard of his J-200 to commemorate the way his song “I Walk the Line” exploded in popularity and became a top hit during 1957. Interestingly, despite the customized nature of the Gibson J-200, Cash played his Gibson Hummingbird for far longer.
Johnny also played a black Fender Kingman for a few years starting in 1966, and many believe that he got the idea from Elvis Presley who played one as well. Johnny and Elvis considered one another to be friends, and always spoke highly of one another’s work and creativity during interviews. Plenty of people theorize that Cash liked the Fender Kingman as much as he did because of its black finish, which was uncommon amidst the glitz and glam of the 60s–a credible theory, considering his custom black D-35 that came along later. Johnny played his Kingman at many different shows, including his appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in 1968.
Now, Johnny Cash consistently circled back to Martin Guitars even before the legacy of his all-black D-35 began–and he continued to try out different Martins throughout his career, even while he performed mainly with his Gibsons, Kingman, and others. So, it should come as no surprise that he fell in love with Martin Guitars before the D-35 came along: He especially enjoyed the feel of the Martin D-28, which was essentially the predecessor to the D-35. In fact, Cash continued to play the D-28 all throughout his career, playing it in between his other favorites. Plenty of people would argue that the D-28 was a close second to his legendary D-35, if not secretly his favorite guitar after all.
During Johnny’s later years, the Martin D-42JC entered his arsenal, custom made to honor his faithfulness to the classic Martin instruments. Johnny used the D-42JC now and then from 1997 until his passing in 2003, but predominantly stuck with his old favorites–the D-28 and D-35–since he’d become set in his ways by that point in his career. While some people would be justified in confusing the custom D-42JC with Johnny’s black D-35 at first glance, the D-42JC sports a couple of visual differences: A fancier arrangement of tone woods and bindings, and a glitzy set of golden tuning pegs.
An Eternal Legend
No matter what type of guitar Johnny Cash held in his hands from one gig to the next, he delivered compelling performances that touched listeners’ hearts all across the nation: He was the Outlaw, The Man In Black, and an absolute icon. His grave bass-baritone vocals and skilled, emotive guitar playing blended together to create a signature sound that you can still feel in your heart to this day while you contemplate his messages of moral struggles, suffering, and redemption.
While the Martin D-35 is considered to have been Johnny Cash’s main guitar, there’s plenty to be said for the feelings he evoked with each and every guitar he played!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.