The Greenfield G4.2 represents another level in hand built guitars. It’s the Holy Grail, the guitar of the gods, an otherworldly music-making machine, but it’s £23,500. Let’s put it through its paces.
From his workshop in Quebec, Michael Greenfield turns out around fifteen hand built guitars per year. His instruments are played by an eclectic mix of some of the most revered guitarists in the world, including Don Alder, Pierre Bensusan, Andy McKee, Tony McManus and Keith Richards (yes, that Keith Richards!). On his website, Michael introduces his guitars with the words “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”. Those words will be music to the ears of any serious player (if you’ll excuse the clumsy pun). They’re bold claims to make, but can this G4 live up to them?
This is a ‘no expense spared’ guitar in terms of its construction. The top is made from master grade Adirondack spruce, with a tighter grain than most of the Adirondack tops I’ve seen used in recent years. This is one of the Holy Grail woods for guitar players, revered for its tonal properties and used on those pre-war Martins that, in many ways, set the standard for steel-string guitars. In specifying this guitar, Michael has wisely chosen to exercise restraint in terms of its decorative features and allowed the woods to speak for themselves. The only decoration is the soundhole rosette, with a ring of spalted maple, bordered by abalone on each side – tasteful and elegant. The smooth ebony bridge is carved in Michael’s trademark asymmetric style and is home to a substantial bone saddle. When I first encountered a Greenfield guitar I hated the bridge design, for both its chunkiness and its asymmetry. However, I quickly overcame that initial response and now I find it rather appealing. You’ll notice, too, that the bridge is pinless (like a Lowden, for example).
The premium class top is paired with equally splendid back and sides made from African Blackwood, with a fine dark grain, lifted a little by lighter streaks. Although this is a true rosewood (dalbergia melanoxylon, for the botanists amongst you), its dark appearance and relatively high density have led to it being mistaken, occasionally, for some form of ebony. Its use in guitar making is relatively recent, but African Blackwood has a long association with musical instruments, being the wood of choice for some of the finest woodwind instruments and Highland or Northumbrian pipes. Legend has it that it used to be used as ballast in sailing ships and pipe-makers collected discarded ballast as a free resource. Nowadays, African Blackwood tends to be more expensive than Brazilian rosewood and is highly regarded by many makers and players for its tonal qualities. Peeking inside the guitar reveals Michael’s distinctive approach to bracing. The fan bracing and circular ‘tone halo’ seem to draw on classical guitar construction (which Michael also makes) and, no doubt, contributes to some of the tonal characteristics discussed below.
I really didn’t get on with the neck profile on the first Greenfield I played, but Michael has changed his standard profile since then and the Cuban mahogany neck of this G4 has a comfortable rounded profile that should suit most players. The ebony fingerboard is silky smooth, with perfectly finished, hardwearing Evo gold frets. The characteristic Greenfield headstock is adorned only with Michael’s ‘g’ motif in pearl and is home to a set of Gotoh 510 tuners with ebony buttons.
With its 17” (432 mm) lower bout and 4 5/8” (117.5 mm) maximum depth, this is large instrument and beyond the threshold of what I’ve found comfortable to play in the past. However, as you will have noticed from the photographs, this guitar features rim bevels in several places, designed to improve comfort for the player, particularly where the guitar meets the rib cage and where the player reaches over the lower bout. There’s also a bevel where the player’s hand meets the body of the guitar at the twelfth fret or above. These features are very effective and made the G4 more comfortable to play than I was expecting.
One final constructional feature to discuss, that is, perhaps, the most obvious, is the fan fretting. Michael Greenfield is regarded as one of the pioneers of modern, fan fret or multi-scale guitars and the first instrument of this kind that I played was a Greenfield (a G4, in fact). Although this may appear quite off-putting if you’ve never encountered it previously, in reality I found that I barely noticed it after the first couple of minutes of playing. The range of scales covered by the G4’s fan fretting is a proprietary one, allowing a little more tension – and therefore bass definition – on the lower strings, without compromising the sweetness of the notes on the higher strings.
This is a big guitar and with its African Blackwood back and sides, not the lightest, but within seconds of starting to play it I was immediately struck by its responsiveness. The sound is positively orchestral and the phrase ‘commanding tone’ might have been coined for guitars such as this one. As you might imagine, it’s not difficult to coax a huge sound out of the G4, with a powerful bass underpinning the fat trebles and a touch of warmth in the low mids to fill out the sound. That warmth doesn’t imply any loss of definition, though and there’s just the right amount of sustain and overtone content to make it perfect for slow airs. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that it responds equally well to a gentle touch, with the sweetness of the trebles coming through and an almost classical guitar quality to the bass. This is a guitar that responds well to the dynamics of the players touch, something that was perfectly demonstrated as I watched Michael Watts, renowned for his expressive playing, put the guitar through its paces, with a series of pieces in DADGAD.
I’ve played several Greenfields over the years, the first being a G1, the memory of which lives with me to this day. This G4 reinforces the impression of Greenfield guitars as truly world class instruments. Michael’s claim to making guitars with ”Great Tone. Fat tone…buttery-smooth playability” is entirely justified. Of course, all this comes at a price. At £23,500 this is hardly going to be an impulse purchase and will be well beyond the reach of many Acoustic readers. Making judgements on build quality and tone are simple – both are stunning – but value for money is a much more difficult issue and we need to be careful. This guitar is at the high end of Greenfield’s price range and represents the very best of the materials in his workshop. Finding a two-piece set of African blackwood of this quality, for a 17” wide guitar is a tall order and reflected in the price of the woods. The same is true for the Adirondack spruce top. The bevels and fan fretting are further additional cost items. Then there’s the $2000 case; and the import duty and VAT that accounts for at least 25% of the price too. As important, is the fact that Michael builds 12 to 15 guitars a year, which indicates the man-hours that go into each instrument. It’s unfair to compare such instruments to those produced on a larger scale and a fairer comparison would be to professional quality violins. A friend of mine trained as a classical player at a conservatoire. He saved hard to buy a suitable violin, which cost him £37,000. His tutor’s evaluation was that it would “do until he could afford something better”. Viewed in this light, £23,500 looks like an absolute steal. I’ve thought long and hard about this subject since I reviewed a similarly priced Somogyi guitar a little while ago. Clearly, if you want a campfire strummer or even a decent gigging guitar, this isn’t going to be the most sensible choice and there are much more appropriate options at a range of price points and budgets. However, what we’re actually talking about is the equivalent of a professional quality violin or some similar instrument. Nowadays such instruments cost considerably more than this guitar. In addition, instruments from Greenfield, along with those from Somogyi, Manzer and others actually appreciate in value, with the rare examples that come up for sale on the second-hand market usually selling for more than their original price and the star rating reflects this. As I’ve said once before, value is in the eye of the beholder. You could spend this much and more on a BMW and it would depreciate and cost more to run than this guitar ever would. If I had the money I know which I’d choose!
Pros: The best of everything, in terms of build quality, super playability and tone to make you weep.
Cons: Sadly, a price to make you weep too!
Overall: This Greenfield G4 is a truly world class instrument.
Manufacturer: Greenfield Guitars (Michael Greenfield)
Made In: Montreal QC
Body Size: 17” Jumbo
Top: Select Adirondack Spruce
Back and Sides: Mastergrade African Blackwood
Neck: One-piece Cuban Mahogany
Frets: Evo gold
Tuners: Custom Gotoh 510s
Scale Length: DADGAD multiscale
On-board Electronics: None
Strings Fitted: Elixir PB 13-56
Left Handers: Available
Gig Bag / Case Included: Accord Custom Carbon Fibre