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”.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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