Michael Greenfield: Passe a table

By Antoine Gedroyc

Michael Greenfield is a perfect illustration of a luthier who developed his own unique and distinct vision despite emerging from a traditional apprenticeship. Each of his amazing instruments are built solely by him in his Montreal workshop; not from “cookie cutter” templates and CNC machines but individually tailored to the needs of each lucky customer.

Greenfield combines humor, humility and mind-blowing skills with his strong and focused
approach to designing and building acoustic instruments. In this fast-food paced world, some, though they may be few and far between, still take the time to make and deliver the finest quality instruments, one at a time.

Guitar Connoisseur: Can you compare your experience as a chef of fine food with your guitar building?

Michael Greenfield: There are many similarities between them in a weird way. We welcome our customers as we would our friends, cater to their needs, search for absolutely the finest ingredients and prepare and present them in a loving way. The hospitality industry taught me how to be organized, work clean, schedule time and address the customer’s needs. It also taught me about providing exceptional customer service. I believe in these things and they are important to me. Having completed a traditional apprenticeship, I learned an old school work-ethic and that there are no short cuts. My chef taught me many lessons — not just about the kitchen but about life. A big one is that you cannot work fast, you can only work organized and that “perfect is acceptable”.

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GC: Everyone is using the same ingredients yet the outcome of the final product can be radically different. You often talk about “tone.” How would you define the perfect tone to your ears, if there is such a thing, for a stringed instrument?

MG: Yes. As you say, most builders are using the same materials to produce radically different results. Some of those differences can be the result of thoughtful design and skillful execution. A successful instrument always distills down to the maker’s proficiency, experience and ability to work with the given materials. As for tone: it is a very personal and subjective thing. While guitar styles and “personalities” change from maker to maker and even between models, I feel there are certain critical commonalities which are always constant in a guitar that I find pleasing to listen to. I listen for a clear and present treble. Round, warm, thick sounding. Never harsh or thin. The mid-range needs to be balanced and present and the bass should be full, yet tight and articulate. I find a lot of guitars are being built with an over-powering bass and a lack of mid-range. The trebles in those guitars are often thin. Like a scooped “smile” shape on a graphic EQ. In most music, the treble is typically where the melody lives. The bass is usually the foundation and the support for that melody. It should not envelope the guitar’s voice swallowing the melody – that is not musical. This is only my opinion and others may disagree and listen for different things but this is what I strive for in my work.
GC: Tell us what you got out of repairing and modifying instruments?
MG: Oh, so much…As simple as it sounds, probably the most valuable thing I learned was how to address the needs of the player. So many different styles of music, guitars and individuals. All playing the guitar. Each style, guitar and player with different needs. And lutherie is ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC. At least it is for me. I have done hundreds and hundreds of fret dresses, re-frets, cut thousands of nuts, made saddles, performed setups, etc. All of this led to my being able to understand the player, their gig and setting-up a guitar to address their individual needs.
Maintaining, inspecting, restoring and servicing thousands of guitars also points out what most
commonly goes wrong in a guitar and what may typically need service down the road. Where possible, I try to engineer those things out of my own instruments and make them as stable and road worthy as I can. Further to this, it allowed me to think of the luthier/tech that may have to work on one of my guitars for an artist on tour, or a client on another continent. I try to design my guitars to make it easier for them to do their job, should it ever be necessary.
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GC: Would you consider it some kind of reversed engineering learning curve?
MG: Absolutely! Aside from the repair and setup work. I also restored vintage and antique guitars from the 19th and early 20th century. I was privileged to have my hands-on and my inspection mirror inside a lot of golden era Martins and pre-war Gibsons, Larson Brothers, early 20th century Washburns, D’Angelicos, etc. What an education! You asked me about tone THAT was the real education. Those 1930s Martins are coveted for a reason.
While my guitars sound nothing like a Martin character-wise, it is where those musical and tonal qualities were first inspired. That voice is what I listen for today. It was an absolute gift to have had the opportunity to listen to, play, measure and carefully examine how those great guitars were made.
GC: Did you ever build any solid body guitars before going the acoustic route?
MG: In the 90s, I built straight ahead Strat and Tele style guitars along with 4 and 5 string PJ style basses. It was fun but not where my passion was.
GC: Learning from a very traditional Martin kit, what led you to explore and break away from the mold?
MG: It was time. Early in my career, I built OMs, Advanced Jumbos, Dreadnaughts and J-200s. They were the guitars I knew and was intimate with. I understood them. I learned from them. But eventually, as I developed my craft and grew as a maker, I was ready to create my own identity, my own voice. I guess it dovetailed with my past (pun intended). My restaurant had no menu; it changed weekly and daily based on what was at the market and my inspiration. I guess it is just a part of who I am creatively, and so began the journey.
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GC: Do you have any preferred wood essences (or combo) or does it depend on what the customer is trying to achieve?
MG: In my world, it is all about the quality of the piece of wood and the musical result the player is hoping for. It really isn’t about the species of wood. Indian rosewood and Sitka spruce make fantastic guitars. So do mahogany and maple. For some reason people seem to think of these as inferior materials. Of course Brazilian rosewood, African blackwood, cocobolo, Alpine and Adirondack spruce all make wonderful guitars too, but they are not better than the others. Just different. As I mature as a guitarmaker, I have learned how to get what I want out of the instrument by the proper selection and use of those materials: much more so than by using one species of wood instead of another. We are a funny community. When a player wants to commission a violin or cello (or any instrument from the viol family), they do not enter into a discussion with the maker about wood choices and aesthetic adornment. Your choices are maple and spruce – the timber the maker has in his store room and has been seasoning for years or decades. They offer instruments ranging from student level to concert level; the difference being the quality and age of the wood selected. But that is not the acoustic guitar market. Not yet, anyway. A big part of my job as a guitarmaker, I feel, is to carefully listen to the client and ask the right questions so that I can steer them to the instrument I make that will best address their needs, or fill a vacancy in their arsenal. Sometimes people approach me requesting a Brazilian Rosewood and Adirondack spruce guitar when what they need in order for me to craft the instrument they are describing, for example, is a mahogany guitar with a cedar top.

GC: When building the arch top for Pierre Bensusan, you mentioned he gave you a great deal of creative freedom and few directions. Is that your favorite approach, even if it may be the most terrifying one?

MG: It is. I love it when a client just lets me do my thing. It really isn’t all that scary though. I ask a lot of questions of each player during the design/consult phase of the commission; whether they are a touring artist of Pierre’s profile, or someone just starting out.

Knowing Pierre, his repertoire, playing style and that he plays exclusively in DADGAD, I knew what the instrument had to deliver technically. He did give me very specific details regarding string spacing at the nut and saddle along with his preferred neck specs. Having discussed where he wanted the instrument to live sonically on the tonal pallet, I was also able to steer the build in that direction.

The rest was ergonomic and aesthetic. I am just about to deliver a guitar to Danish guitarist Steffen Schackinger. While I am not creating anything new or unique for him, we did speak extensively about his needs, repertoire, tunings and neck/setup preferences. He even sent me templates of his favorite neck (supplied by his tech). Model choice, appointments and the rest
of the build was up to me.

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GC: How did you come up with the fan frets?

MG: While I have made over 150 fanned fret guitars to-date and am known as “the fanned fret guy,” I did not invent them. They have been around for a few centuries. They disappeared and were quite obscure for about 100 – 150 years when Ralph Novak (Novax Guitars) popularised them in the 1980s and actually held the patent on the system. That patent has since expired but I still like to credit Ralph for his work.

GC: What do you think they are bringing to the table and what would you say their limitations are?

MG: Most people think that fanned frets improve intonation. They do not. They can definitely help when playing in severely altered tunings – because of the selection of the correct string
gauge and scale length, not because of fret placement. The guitar (lute, oud, etc.) has been a successful instrument for centuries and the modern guitar for over 150 years.

Currently, as fret placement has improved due to very accurate slotting, along with our better understanding of compensation, a well-crafted, standard fretted guitar will play in tune and
address many musical styles and most basic tunings. I am VERY meticulous about intonation and all of my guitars play in tune. If the player lives in standard tuning or maybe drop D, there is no real advantage to fanned frets, although there still are some benefits.

So how does the Fanned-Fret system work? By combining scale lengths customized for each string’s tension and harmonic response, instruments with greater “fidelity” are possible. A
simplified explanation would be to imagine six one-string guitars, each with a scale length optimized for the pitch and tension of that string.

GC: How did you decide to go with a negative neck angle?

MG: Similar to fanned frets, there is little that is new in the world of the guitar. If you want to design a better guitar, go to a museum! Someone already did it 200 years ago! About 15 years ago, I wanted to change up my C1 concert classical model. I was inspired by the work of the late Thomas Humphrey (Millennium guitar). There are many classical makers who are using elevated neck/fretboards but their neck angle is quite conventional. They typically “bend” the soundboard away from the neck to allow clearance and upper register access. Humphrey incorporated a negative angle to his neck geometry. This tends to excite the soundboard in a slightly different manner. In this case, the soundboard is driven more like a harp. The voice is certainly not “Spanish” and quite different. I really like it. Following that, I began thinking about applying this to fingerstyle steel string guitars. Back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Gibson guitar company (and probably a few others I am not aware of ) was actually making guitars with negative neck angles.

I have seen a few Century of Progress models, as well as one Nick Lucas model that were built this way. Once again, this is a great example of the education that comes from years of repair work. Based on the sonic characteristics the negative angle brought to my concert classical guitars, I thought it would be an interesting offering for contemporary fingerstylists too.

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GC: Do you approach a nylon string build the same way as a steel string?

MG: The classical guitar, while a guitar, is a completely different animal. Yes, the principles of guitarmaking and woodworking are the same and many of the mechanics of the instrument are also, but getting the instrument to speak well is different. My approach to that task is necessarily different as they each have different requirements.

GC: What is your take on using laminated back and sides vs solid wood?

MG: First, I would like to say that laminated ribs are “solid wood”; just multiple layers of it. I begin with the same piece(s) of wood I would use when bending a conventional set of ribs. I then dimension the laminates to specific thicknesses and glue them together. I view the guitar as a drum – a rigid shell supporting two thin vibrating membranes. There are many ways of crafting drum shells. Depending on rigidity, weight, wall thickness and bearing surface, each one will impart a specific sonic characteristic to the drum.

The same holds true for the guitar’s ribs. Laminated ribs are more rigid and the way I build, heavier than a one piece rib. They are not better, just different. If I was trying to realise a different sounding guitar than my current work, I may chose a one piece, “solid” rib.

GC: What do you feel about extra sound holes on the sides and what that brings to the instrument?

MG: I no longer offer them. Music and musical instruments are fashion driven. Right now, it has become very fashionable to cut holes in the sides of guitars, which is fine, but what is it doing acoustically? Most folks think that it is merely a “monitor” so that the player can hear some of the sound that is normally projected out in front of the guitar. This is true. That is a by-product of cutting the hole. But there is a very complex relationship in the voicing of bodies called porting. The total volume of the port and the placement of that/those ports can have a startling effect on the voice of the guitar. I use 5 different soundhole sizes on my guitars, depending on the model. I find that side sound-ports, in most cases are detrimental to the voice of the instrument. I feel my guitars sound better without them. Interesting anecdote: when Andy McKee ordered his current G4, he asked that I not install a sound-port.

He said that it contributes to feedback on stage. So for gigs, he covers up the sound-port on his original G4. Had he not told me about the feedback on stage, I would have never known that
it was an issue. As it turned out, I was not going to install one on his G4 anyway.

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GC: How do you approach electrifying / amplifying / on board pickups on your instruments?

MG: I do not offer pickups in my guitars. I leave that up to the client and their tech.

GC: Are there any luthiers who are a major inspiration in finding and developing your own very personal style?

MG: Certainly the C.F. Martin Company, Gibson, Lloyd Loar and the Larson Brothers. They continue to be just as relevant to my work today as they were in the 1990s. Other makers who have helped to steer my work in any one of a number of ways are Grit Laskin, Ervin Somogyi, Linda Manzer, Bryan Galloup, Tom Ribbecke, Jeff Traugott, Rick Turner, Steve
Klein, Jim Olson, Kevin Ryan, Ken Parker, Julius Borges, Robert Ruck and Daniel Freiderich.

 While what I am doing these days is my own thing (to the best of my knowledge), they were and continue to be a part of my growth as a craftsman and guitarmaker. Being a part of the larger
guitarmaking community is also a constant inspiration and education. I am a member of The Guild of American Luthiers and The Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (ASIA) and
I encourage anyone serious about this craft to become part of the community by becoming a member too.
Finally, there is my non-guitarmaking circle of friends. For almost 15 years now, I have been part of a group that has been meeting twice a week for coffee in Little Italy. It is comprised of artists, musicians, educators, philosophers, a few old-world studio rats and applied physicists.
Another of my friends is one of the leading designers and fabricators of recording studios in Canada. We regularly discuss what is happening in each other’s universe (we also solve the world’s problems weekly!). Their influence on my work is significant. As they do not live in my “box,” they inspire me to get outside of it. Having access to engineers, physicists and individuals with a profound understanding of complex acoustic systems when I’m trying to address a particular design challenge, has been invaluable to my understanding the guitar, its mechanics and acoustic properties. You have built a wide range of instruments.
GC: What would be your wildest dream build that you haven’t tackled yet?
MG: I am currently living my wildest dream by just being able to come to my workshop every day and build guitars! I do have a couple of new models on my drawing table for 2015/2016.
Nothing with 3 necks (yet), but fun anyway. As for anything really crazy?! I’m up for the challenge!These days, my focus is the acoustics and physical properties of the guitar. I am continuing to refine my voice and improve the quality of my work. I am working toward bringing out in my work, the voice/tone I hear in my imagination. I am really close but not there yet. I see guitarmaking as a never-ending, life-long journey. My mission is to continue to improve my work with each instrument I build, to make it better than the last. Accordingly, that perfect guitar should be the last guitar to leave my workbench.
For more information please visit:greenfieldguitars.com

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