The world of guitar building is one that’s not short of competition, but what sets Canadian luthier, Michael Greenfield, from the rest? Is it the three-year waiting list? The five thousand dollars just to be on that list? Or the fact that Andy McKee, Keith Richards and Don Alder all own a Greenfield? We find out the real reason…
It’s become something of a cliché in recent years to talk about the current golden age of lutherie and when one does so, it seems inevitable that the names of well-known makers from the USA spring to mind. And rightly so, you might say. It seems to be historically appropriate that the country that gave birth to the steel-string guitar continues to nurture its development and growth. However, world-class North American guitar-making also has a strong base in Canada. In many cases influenced by Jean Larrivee, respected Canadian makers include Sergei de Jonge, Grit Laskin, David Wren, Marc Beneteau and, of course, Linda Manzer. Some of the most extraordinary guitars I’ve ever played have come from the workshop of another Canadian maker, Michael Greenfield, and it was an immense pleasure and privilege to meet him on his recent visit to the UK.
Michael’s route into guitar making was a little unusual, though it began conventionally enough. Having started playing at the age of six, he was a professional player by his mid-teens. It was the seventies and there was plenty of both live and studio work for a good player. During this period Michael took a Les Paul to a local repairer for a re-fret. When it came back it was unplayable. This experience prompted him to learn how to maintain his own guitars. During the mid-seventies Michael was still playing professionally, but had begun to develop another, very different, interest in food. ‘When you play in hotels, musicians never come in through the front and we usually ended up coming in through the kitchen,’ he says, ‘Because of this, I got to know the head chef at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, the premier hotel in Montreal at the time and he took me under his wing.’ During his time as a player Michael saw many musicians develop problems with drugs and alcohol, something that made him reconsider his future. ‘I really didn’t want to find myself in my forties and just sitting at the bar in between gigs,’ he says, ‘so I decided to seek a new career.’ Under his friend’s guidance, he took up an apprenticeship as a chef. His training took him to some of the finest restaurants, including a three Michelin-starred restaurant in France. He eventually took a degree in hotel management and opened his own restaurants and a fine food shop. His career progressed into consultancy and he found himself working for the Hilton group in the Middle East. He wanted to take some time off after this assignment and decided to stay for a while. His intention was to stay for two or three months, but in fact, that turned into two or three years. During this time he found that, with all the corporate activity he had been involved in, his interest in food had waned.
By now it was 1992 and Michael found that he really missed being involved in music. It was very different from the seventies and much tougher for working musicians. He found himself a job at a local music store, doing set-ups and a little repair work, whilst playing live in the evenings. As time went by he saw an opportunity to develop a real profession as a guitar repairer. ‘I became involved in a lot of guitar repair and restoration,’ he says, ‘and I formed associations with some very prominent collectors and dealers. I worked on a lot of early 20th century guitars, real museum grade instruments. I was really an electric guitar player and I was a little concerned about working on these extremely valuable acoustic instruments; so I took a course on acoustic guitar making. That gave me a real insight into the construction of the acoustic guitar.’ In addition to this formal training, Michael had developed a network of friends who were restorers and makers, and sought advice from them to supplement knowledge gained from his training and experience. As time passed, Michael found that he enjoyed making guitars more than repairing them and chose to concentrate on building instruments. ‘I started by reproducing classic American guitars – the OM, the dreadnaught, the advanced jumbo, the J200,’ he explains, ‘but one day someone brought in a 1929 OM-28 for repair. The sound stuck in my head and more than fifteen years later I’m still chasing that sound and voice.’
It was around 1998 when one of his friends suggested that Michael should make something of his own design, as an alternative to simply copying classics. Rather than modify existing steel-string guitar designs, he took the classical guitar as his starting point and expanded it to give the profile for the G1. At 15 3/8” (approximately 390mm) wide this guitar is a little larger than a typical OM, and its profile clearly reflects its classical guitar inspiration. ‘Slowly I developed my own voice for my guitars and they got better and better,’ says Michael. ‘In around 2001 I met Ervin Somogyi at a guitar show. He invited me to study with him and that changed my life! By this time I had already developed my radial bracing for the backs. I’d learned the importance of the back of the guitar while studying archtops with Tom Ribbecke. That experience got me thinking about the back and its function as a secondary soundboard.’
Somogyi was the first luthier who was able to answer some of Michael’s questions. His answers were based on an understanding of the physics of the guitar. ‘But I also share an interest in old-school manual woodworking with Julian Borges,’ he adds. ‘It’s really important to me to engage in conversation with my clients to understand what they really want and make certain that is what I build and deliver to them. I’ve learned a lot, particularly from classical players. They seem to be able to articulate their needs well,’ he maintains. ‘Then there are the players who are of the school of Michael Hedges and Don Ross, who have had so much influence on contemporary fingerstyle playing. I have a kind of catchphrase – “it’s all about the music”. This isn’t lip service. I left a good career in consultancy to make art. I’m passionate about music and about the guitar.’
Inevitably the conversation turns to the subject of wood. ‘East Indian rosewood is a great wood,’ he says. ‘It’s consistent and sustainable. The trees are large, so it tends to be well cut. I won’t be ordering any more Brazilian rosewood after I’ve used my current stock. The stuff available today is generally not good,’ he adds. ‘Tonewood makes a difference, but not in the way people think. A good quality piece of wood is important, but bass and treble don’t really come from specific species of woods, but really come from the skill and aptitude of the maker. The soundboard gives 75% of the sound. The back and sides colour the sound; they affect the impact and decay of the note. I get a little tired of the “Mr Potato Head” approach to guitar-making, the “pick and mix” of woods and so on. You don’t find that in the violin world!’
Our discussion turns to the voicing and sound of Greenfield guitars. ‘I used to describe it as piano-like,’ says Michael. ‘Now other people do too. It’s not really a traditional voice. It’s more contemporary. I look for even balance; string to string and note to note, everywhere o the fretboard. But a great guitar sound starts with great trebles. Too many makers focus on the bass. But if you get the trebles right, everything else follows. My sound has fat, present trebles, with a strong fundamental on each note. I also look for presence above the body joint, along with volume and definition, particularly on the top two strings. The high A on the 17th fret of the first string should have the same volume as the open A on the 5th string.’ Michael’s face lights up when I tell him that I still vividly remember the sound of the G1, which was the first Greenfield I ever played. ‘So you get it,’ he says with a smile.
As well as making guitars himself, Michael is passionate about teaching. He takes on apprentices, mostly from Bryan Galloup’s school of lutherie. ‘Teaching is a great way to learn,’ he comments. ‘My guitars have gotten better since I started teaching.’
One of the things that Michael Greenfield is best known for is his fanned-fret or multi-scale length guitars. ‘I’ve been experimenting with fanned-frets for about fifteen years,’ he says, ‘though the idea is easily 150 years old. They’ve become increasingly popular and now about half the guitars I make are fanned-frets. I created a specific fan-fret version of the G1 for Tony McManus. It’s designed specifically for DADGAD tuning.’
This brings us nicely to the subject of players. Greenfield guitars are played by some of the most revered fingerstyle players, including Tony McManus, Andy McKee, Pierre Bensusan, Melissa Greener and Brooke Miller. I can’t resist asking him about one of his clients, Keith Richards. ‘That came about by coincidence,’ he says. ‘I know someone who was connected with Mick Jagger. I built Keith a G2, because the slightly longer scale length suits his preferred open G tuning. He really liked the guitar, so much so that he ordered a G3, too.’
Most organisations have a mission statement these days and although I doubt he’d describe it in those terms, Michael Greenfield seems to have one too. His website describes it with the words: “My name is Michael Greenfield and I am passionate about tone. Great tone. fat tone. Squeezing every last molecule of tone out of my instruments. I have also been a player for over 45 years. So perfect feel, buttery-smooth playability and road-worthy stability are what my instruments are all about”.
As a mission, I’d say that’s a pretty admirable one for a guitar maker. As our time together drew to a close I listened to Michael Watts put a G4 through its paces and once again was reminded of the truly extraordinary qualities of Michael Greenfield’s guitars. Mission accomplished, I think.