Stephen Bennett takes on the Greenfield GF – a performance-level, luthier-built instrument without the more ornate appointments (and price tag) of Michael Greenfield’s custom order models.
There’s a line from an Ian Banks novel that says, “She was so far out of my league, I couldn’t even speak to her, let alone ask her out”. First encounters with the finest examples of modern luthiery conjure similar sentiments but all sense of fumbling inhibition falls away when it becomes clear that, as with people, the really classy ones always prove the most immediately friendly and accessible. So it is with the Greenfield GF.
If we really are in a golden age of guitar making, Canada (though the Bay Area crew may well argue) must be its El Dorado, with Greenfield seated prominently in a raft of high-end builders (Manzer, Laskin, de Jonge, Wren et al) all of whom can trace a guide-line of inspiration back to the work of Jean Larrivée.
From his state-of-the-art workshop in Montreal, Michael Greenfield’s one-build-at-a-time guitars have found their way into the hands of suchlike-string luminaries as Keith Richards, Andy McKee and Tony McManus, forging a reputation along the way for power and richness of tone as well as an exquisite finish that’s rarely matched even at the very highest level. He’s an acknowledged master of fan-fretting and multi-scale fingerboards and a keen advocate of any ergonomic, design tweakage that might increase comfort for the player; bevels, in particular – arm, palm and rib.
This GF is, rather amusingly, regarded as Greenfield’s “stripped-down” model. Relative, one imagines to his various “dressed-up” options and something akin to Ferrari offering a base model Dino. The “basics” here constitute Ziricote back and sides, the colour spilling from rich, dark chocolate into a burnished, Jaffa Cake amber flash, under a creamy-pale Adirondack spruce top. These woods are a recent upgrade. GFs were originally only offered in Indian Rosewood or mahogany with Sitka tops but the menu now includes cocobolo, Amazon rosewood and moon-harvested Swiss spruce (cut on the shortest day of winter, since you ask, when the sap is lowest and in keeping with ancient and exacting lunar-cyclic tradition) all with or without Florentine cutaway. Here, though, the one-piece mahogany neck is finished with ebony heel-cap at one end and at the other, Gotoh G10 tuners with a toothy-looking bone nut that’s nicely complemented by the pin-less, ebony bridge. Perhaps the only major adornment – and even that’s subtle – is in the glowing, chesnuty warmth of a spalted maple rosette inspired by late-19th century Spanish classical patterns. Beyond that, as part of the cost-trimming exercise, the ebony binding has been left plain (though looks none the worse for it) and there’s no back-of-headstock veneer.
Greenfield’s aim with this “production” range is to rethink the build process from scratch. The GF is a fundamentally different animal from his half-as-much-again top line. While it retains many of the familiar Greenfield appointments; same headstock (with magnetic truss-rod cover for ease of access) and that offset, Steve Klein-influenced bridge design, it’s braced and built differently from his bespoke one-offs; the implication being that the time and money is being saved on the inside to preserve the overall aesthetic (however simple) and finish on the out.
On which note, give the ordinary bloke in the street a kitchen full of the finest ingredients and he won’t necessarily produce a gourmet banquet. Greenfield, on the other hand, probably would – he’s also a renowned and highly skilled chef. Working now with tonewoods as his current “milieu”, he’s keen to debunk the accepted wisdom that the choice thereof means the job’s already half-done. Wrong. Only a proper chef can blend those ingredients into something this tasty. Certainly, better woods offer better response and stability but Greenfield, as any genuine luthier would be, is adamant that qualities of bass, treble and sustain are functions of the build not the wood and that today’s buyer is too readily seduced by fashionably arcane and often spurious wood-lore. We tend to forget that while the back and sides are more about the sonic “colour” of the instrument, it’s the top of the guitar – the soundboard – that delivers over 75 per cent of the sound.
Construction mysteries notwithstanding, the real eye-opener here comes in the playing and (though dressed in the most demure of sheep’s clothing) the GF’s a real beast. From some deep and hidden vault of luthiery magic, it conjures huge volume from its compact body; the player could nod off waiting for the sustain to die out, even from the highest notes.
One concern, especially with smaller-bodied instruments, is the voice (again, as with people) will become less articulate the louder it gets. That’s not the case here. There’s no danger of the GF overpowering itself as the “headroom” (how loud you can get before the guitar starts to complain, basically) seems limitless. The distortion-free clarity remains. Greenfield believes that great trebles make for a great guitar, so he focusses on that aspect primarily on all his instruments. Those high notes have to be fat, round and “present”, especially above the body-joint, where the volume needs to be consistent with other notes on the fretboard. His goal is to produce a high A at the seventeenth fret of the first string that has equal volume and resonance with the open fifth string – something (so far, at least) way beyond the range of mass production.
So the question arises; here’s a beautifully responsive, effortlessly playable instrument ringing up £10,250 (with an extra grand for further upgrades) at the till – so why buy a Greenfield “workshop” guitar when the GF “production model” is this good? The answer is simple; the workshop models are even better – but then we’re talking in degrees at a very high level of quality. Besides, price-wise, comparisons with factory-made guitars can distort the buyer’s thinking (it certainly distorts the market). With a great orchestra-quality violin or cello costing up to $100,000, maybe it’s a case of the guitar world finally starting to catch up.
The GF is, indeed, simple when judged by Greenfield standards. The workshop models will have had more work put into them, they’ll be bigger, fuller, braced differently and have more elaborate appointments. By contrast, the GF dispenses with anything that’s not essential to the delivery of its amazing sound. As marriages of form and function go, it would be almost impossible to beat. Though if that marriage sounds a wee bit unromantic, rest assured, you and the GF could probably spend a lifetime making beautiful music together.
Need To Know
Retail Price: £10,250
Body Size: G1 body shape / Grand concert
Made In: Canada
Top: Adirondack spruce
Back and Sides: Ziricote
Tuners: Gotoh G10
Nut Width: 1-3/4”
Scale Length: 650mm
Strings Fitted: John Pearse
Gig Bag/Case Included: Custom fit Mainstage flight case
The North American Guitar