The world of building guitars, or luthiery, is one full of competition. There are guys all over the world that will build you a guitar to your specifications for a variety of prices, and I only see this as a good thing. The downside can be seen when you draw a parallel to any other craft, most people can change a fuse in a plug, but it doesn't mean you'd hire them as an electrician. I cook my dinner everynight, but you wouldn't pay me to cook for you. I've watched CSI, but I'm not a forensic investigator. Building guitars is the same, just because you can put some pickups in a piece of wood, it doesn't make you an artist.
Now give a thought to building an acoustic guitar? Where do you start? What makes a good instrument? Well Michael Greenfield has this down to a fine art. Players like Pierre Bensusan, Charlie Hunter, Pat Martino, Andy McKee and Guitar Idol winner Don Alder all choose to play Greenfield guitars. Michael Greenfield isnt just a guitar maker, he's a true artisan.
Now I should preface this by telling you that Michael's guitars dont come cheap, there is a 3 year waiting list with a deposit of $5000 just to be on it, but after talking to Michael on a chilly morning in Pall Mall, you might just begin to understand why. Michael's guitars really are second to none on the acoustic scene, and if you have a musical need, I'm certain that Michael can help you meet it.
First of all I should welcome you to the country and thank you for joining us on Live4Guitar - can you tell us a little bit about why you're on this side of the Atlantic?
Well I've entered into a relationship with the folks at The North American Guitar who are my exclusive agents for the EU for my custom guitars. So for anyone interested in commissioning one of my guitars you can now speak to the people at The North American Guitar. This is their first anniversary and they've been terribly successful, and we entered into our agreement last summer at the Montreal Guitar Show, and my list is such that it's generally 3 years out, so this was the first opportunity I could get an instrument to them. We talked and timed it to coincide with the first anniversary of the company and this is the official launch.
You make some incredibly high quality (and profile) guitars, and it only takes a quick browse to see the passion and quality craftsmanship of you work. Where did you learn the art of luthiery?
*Laughing* Oh I'm still learning! The abbreviated version of a very long story is that I started of in guitar repair and restoration, and during the peak or the height of the vintage guitar market in the early 90s I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of very exclusive collectors and dealers of vintage instruments. I was mainly an electric guitar guy back then and people started bringing in these museum grade. Many tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of guitars, which I did not really feel comfortable working on.
I took a course in acoustic guitar making to become a better repairer and restorer, I had been doing it already for about 20 years at that point. Repairing and restoring really aren't the same, having said that, I did gain a more profound understanding of the guitar and how it works and how it went together, which did help. I think I just fell in love with the process of guitar making and from that point on I just began to slowly swing my business from the repair and restoration of vintage instruments into building guitars full time.
Had it ever occurred to you to make guitars?
Oh to make one? No, not at all. I'd been playing the guitar since the age of six, which is at least 20 years now laughing, and I'm just a guitar lover myself. I was really happy repairing and restoring them and when I fell into the vintage acoustic world, it was really cool. You get to see all these golden era Martins, early 20th century Washburns, Dyer Harp guitars and certainly the pre war Gibsons! There were a lot of old guitars and I just wanted to know more about them, because aside from a being a repairman I was an appreciator and admirer.
It's interesting that you said you were primarily an electric guitar player – is that something you've dabbled in?
Early on I built a few electric guitars, and they're floating around out there still. Mainly Strats and Teles, nothing original.
That's all you'd want though!
Yeah! Leo Fender got it right in 1949 with the Tele and the 54 Strat is pretty much perfect in design. Was building guitars something you've always been keen on, how did you start out?
I'm lucky enough to know some really experienced luthiers, and I know the thing that sets a professional apart is the passion for woods and tone. What would you say your favourite species of woods are for crafting guitars and why?
My favourite wood? Well first of all I find that the guitar is all about the soundboard, so if you're going to invest money and time searching for quality wood, then that's where your efforts and money need to go. For tonewoods for back and sides? It really depends sonically and musically what sound you're looking to achieve. In my view there are three basic families of wood, the rosewood family, the mahogany family and the maple family.
In the rosewood families we have some of the Ebonies like Macasser Ebony, and there's African Blackwood, Indian Rosewood, certainly Brazilian Rosewood and the list just goes on and on. It's all those high density woods. In the middle we have Mahogany, Walnut, Koa and there are some other woods coming out of Brazil and South America that are of that medium density range. Then we have all sorts of Maple and Sycamore, Spanish Cypress, which they use on Flamenco guitars. They all bring something sonically to the table. In the Rosewood family, myself and many of my colleagues and some of the greatest guitar makers in the world, particularly classical guitar makers, use Indian Rosewood, that would be my favourite. I think it's the greatest tonewood that's come along. Most of the Brazilian Rosewood and other exotic woods that are being used now aren't the best quality. Just because it's a piece of Brazilian Rosewood – and I pick on Brazilian Rosewood because it's what everyone talks about online – it does not mean it's a good piece of wood, and it wont necessarily make a good guitar. The other thing is, everyone is building with Brazilian Rosewood and there are a lot of mediocre guitars out there, it's not just the piece of wood that makes for a good sounding guitar.
When I go out and look for wood, no matter what species it is, I concentrate on the quality of the wood and the cut of wood. My standard joke, though I'm not really joking, when I approach a new seller of wood is “Please pick out your 100 best soundboards and then send me the 10 that I'm not going to return to you.” They always laugh and send me 10 or 15 soundboards and I keep two and send the rest back. That's not out of spite it's just “No, I'm sorry, this isn't what I asked for.” I know specifically what I want as experience has taught me. Makers of fine instruments know what they're looking for when they're looking for tonewoods. Sadly everybody and his brother is a luthier today but not everybody and a profound understanding of what makes good tonewood. So I guess what I'm saying is, I look for great tonewood before a great species.
People say “oh it's got to be Carpathian Spruce” or “It must be Italian Spruce” or “It's got to have Adirondack Red Spruce” and who wants that? Give me a spectacular piece of Sitka Spruce and it will make an amazing guitar. Much more so that picking a set of 60 year old European Spruce that came from some obscure mountain peak in Bavaria that is not a particularly great piece of tonewood.
I'm really at a point in my career where I'm trying to reduce the amount of woods that I offer. Look at the great classical guitar makers, and anyone from the viol family, they're using Maple and Spruce, that's it – two choices. The great classical guitar makers like Daniel Friederich and Robert Ruck, it's Rosewood and Spruce, or Rosewood and Cedar and Indian Rosewood. Those are your choices and I think there's a lot to be said for that. Right now I offer a couple of woods from the Rosewood family, a couple from the Mahogany family and a couple from the Maple family. I think that's more than enough.
How would you describe your own approach to luthiery? What is your mission statement when building?
Well, first of all, the guitar has to address the musical needs of the repertoire and the playing style of the person who commissions it. Each customer has to be absolutely thrilled with their guitar.
My mission statement is pauses It's really important to me that when I put my logo on the headstock and sign the soundhole that it's the best guitar that could possibly leave my shop. I'm fortunate enough to only craft 14 or 16 guitars a year. That's why my production level is so low, because everything is as close as possible, including the human error factor, to craft a perfect guitar.
What can you say about the LACEY act and the United States' approach to protecting endangered woods? Do you see it becoming a problem?
Well the US has it's own situation because of the regulatory agencies and certain legislations that have been recently introduced. I think, as with most governments, it's just something the people have to deal with. I think the idea behind some of these recent legislations is a noble thing, there has been a lot of illegal logging, and the pillaging of the rainforest and I think things can absolutely be managed is a sustainable way, and that's noble. I have a tremendous respect for these precious materials, some major manufacturers are like “well this one's no good” and they throw them away. I pick through my woods carefully, last time we went out I looked through 500 fingerboards and we came home with 10, so every wood in my shop is extremely precious. I think everyone needs to have that attitude towards wood because it's not a finite resource, but in order to grow a tree large enough to get a soundboard, you need 400 years.
Trying to encourage a responsible approach to forestry is a noble thing. What the government in the US failed to do is to plan ahead on how this would be implemented, how it would be enforced at the boarders for import and export and how it would effect people livelihood. These legislations don’t just effect instrument makers, they effect flooring makers, people who make wood for the construction industry, furniture makers; there are people who use enormous amounts of wood, tens of millions of board feet per year. The statistics are that instrument making community internationally, including Asia, the Pacific rim and all those people, use less than 1% of the total harvest of wood, and when you think of the handmade guitar community? We're not the problem. Having said that, we have colleagues out there who have been collecting in ageing woods for 30-40 years, who would have thought to keep a receipt? I have a colleague out in South Africa named Mark Mainguard, and he bought a load of Brazilian Rosewood in the 80s, as many of my colleagues did, and it was 100% legals and not even CITES restricted. He got as many board feet as he could, he found a good deal and the wood was exceptional so he bought it. Now fast forward to 2010 when you the wood is restricted and, well... you can imagine. Now long story short, he actually found the sales receipt and proved he got it before the CITES restriction and now all of his wood has certification, but most people don’t have their bill of sale from 30 years ago! Therein lies the problem.
I have 10 or 12 sets of Brazilian Rosewood left, it's all high quality and has certification. When I bought it several years ago it was a restricted material and I make a living crafting guitars and shipping them all over the world. I'm not interested in having a guitar confiscated and destroyed! Laughs It's a pain in the butt to do all of the paperwork, but it's something you have to do. The reason I won't be ordering any more is that although it's available with paperwork, these days the stuff that I've seen, unless you spend an obscene amount of money as there is 60 and 80 year old Brazilian Rosewood available, I just don’t see the point in spending that money on wood that isn’t going to make a better sounding guitar. Mahogany makes a wonderful sounding guitar, so why spend 10 or 15 or even 20 thousand dollars in an up charge for a piece of wood? That's why I won't be reordering. The stuff I've seen as of late, just isn’t what I'm interested in building with. I'm interested in building with boring stuff laughing straight grain, no swirly bits, no knots, just perfectly quatersawn straight grain wood which is boring... to look at, but sonically.... wow.
How about your thoughts on hardware, do you have preferences for things like fretwire, nut material etc?
Yeah, I'm currently using tuners by the Gotoh company, everyone uses them. It's their delta series, 21:1 ratio. They're sublime. There may be tuners that are more expensive, Rob Rodgers makes amazing tuners, but not everyone is interested in paying $1200 for a set of tuners. They're beautiful, like little pieces of jewellery, they're hand crafted and are spectacular. I do have clients who commission them. I think at this price point, I haven't found a tuner that works better, and because of that, they're what I choose to put on my guitars. I have recently made a deal with Gotoh and now all of my tuners have my logo on, which is kind of cool laughs. First and foremost, they're superlative tuners and that's why I use them.
The fretwire on my custom order guitars is made by Jescar. It's a titanium copper alloy and has a gold colour, so they're glistening. It's also the finest fretwire I've found. It's machined to incredibly precise tolerances. Being a player for so may years, I'm fanatic about how the guitar is played, and having done setups and fretwork on hundreds and hundreds of guitars over the years, I’m a fanatic about fretwork. Beside perfectly preparing the fretboard to take the frets, my fretwork is precise to 1/1000 of an inch. With the Jescar stuff once I’ve prepared and dressed the fretwire and hammered in the frets, there's no fret dress needed. Normally fretwire is extruded, but as the dye gets older there are more anomalies that get transferred into the fret when machining. Often with high quality fretwire you can get a discrepancy of 1 or 2 1000ths of an inch, which is negligible, but its something I take care of in my initial fretdress. With the Jescar stuff, it's perfect. That means guitars leave my shop with more fretwire which means it lasts longer. The other thing is that with the titanium alloy it's a much harder alloy, not as hard as stainless steel, but as a carer I know that not everyone is equip to deal with the maintainable of stainless steel frets. If one of my artists is out playing in the middle of nowhere and a fret were to pop loose or they develop a buzz, I think that any competent repair man or luthier should be able to address it. This stuff is a little more work than the more common nickel silver alloy, it can be easily addressed by any skilled craftsman.
As far as nut and saddle material go, I’ve tried everything and I keep coming back to high quality bone. So it's all bone nuts and saddles. I know that people say that it's a natural material and there are all kinds of natural anomalies within it. I guess it's arguable when using an under the saddle pickups that there could be a deadspot, but I build acoustic guitars and amplification is a secondary thought. These softer materials I find to be a problem for the nut because with these contemporary fingerstyle players they're changing tunings so often that six months in you need a new nut. I have artists like Andy McKee who have been touring with a guitar for 4 years and he plays more than anyone I know and he's getting a new guitar in a few months but as far as I’m aware, nothing has been done to that original nut. Bone has served us well for several centuries and I think it can probably hold up for a little longer.
Acoustic luthiery is a true skill and a world away from making an electric, what would you say are the hardest parts of building an acoustic?
Well to do anything well is hard. There a re people who build fantastic electric guitars, but not every electric guitar is created equal. I think a great electric guitar maker understands the importance of a great fitting neck joint, great geometry, finding great wood for the neck and perfect density wood for the body. Those guys understand these things and it's why their guitars are better than anyone else. Yes, building and acoustic guitar isn’t just about bending woods and gluing them together. There are lots of elements of acoustic physics involved in getting them to sound good.
How do you go about learning and using that?
Well first of all, go to a museum. You want to learn about musical instruments, go to a museum, they have lots of them and it's already been done, there's nothing new. The reason the golden era Martins (1928 – 1942) sound so good is that they were made by skilled craftsmen. They were musical instrument makers. Today they make around 85000 guitars a year... so not so much. They had already been in existence for almost a century at that point so they already had a century of empirical experience to refine their craft. It was centuries of German musical instrument building that was passed down to old man Martin, and so even they weren't doing anything new.
Many years ago, I was at a guitar making convention of one of the many organizations I belong to, called ASIA (Association of stringed instrument artisans) there was a class in guitar voicing from a scientific perspective by Alan Carruth who is one of the foremost authorities on freeplate methods of tuning where they use chladni patters, they excite a freeplate (in this case a soundboard) and excite it with a frequency generator and they put some glitter or sand on it so you can see the modes come into being at various frequencies. It's something that great violin makers like Carleen Hutchins and members of the Catgut Acoustic Society have been using to great success for quite a while now. There are some members of our community who are starting to do this for the guitar and Al Carruth is one of those people. Another person who I've had the pleasure of working with on the design of my own C3 classical guitar is Dr Evan B Davis who has a PhD in acoustic physics and works for the Boeing corporation, but he's a closet guitar maker and guitar junkie. He's worked with me and a few of my colleagues like Linda Manzer and we all like to talk about the guitar, its mechanics and how it works. So these two gentlemen are giving this brain melting talk with loads of equations and formula and it was brutal, when I came out, everything from my neck up hurt. I was sitting with another gifted luthier named Judy Threet and after we came out shaking out heads, and I said to Judy “So, what do you think?” and Judy has a PhD in philosophy and is one of the most brilliant names I know and she just said “The science explains what we already know intuitively as guitar makers.”
We have this tradition where over the last 3 or 4 centuries that people have been figuring out how to make great guitars through trial and error. I wanted to make my instruments sound good, so I went back into the past to see what they were doing.
The one guitar that did it for me was a 1929 OM-28 and to this day, that voice is still ringing in my head. It was one of the best guitars I've ever heard. While I make a very contemporary instrument that is very different sounding instrument to a Martin, the qualities in a spectacular guitar are present no matter what its voice. I have been studying those old guitars and chasing those qualities since that guitar came across my bench. That's the end goal. You just need to read everything you can, I've studied with Tom Ribbecke, William Laskin and many of the great makers of our craft. Some are versed in the physics of our instrument, others are more touchy feely and it's all valid. Through discussion and comparing notes regarding the voicing of the guitar, you forge your own path. I'm only approaching my 200th guitar and what I tell people who apprentice in my shop is that we don’t do anything magical, you just have to do it well over and over. If any maker is careful about their craft and takes copious notes and measurements and record the data from instrument to instrument, after just 10 guitars you'll start to see some trends. If you look at the numbers for those guitars you find that some of the parameters are almost identical. You pick those three and work on them, you stark playing those parameters, and after 50 guitars you suddenly realize that your guitars sound better.
You incorporate some beautiful design ideas on your guitars, what can you say about the bevels?
The bevels were invented one of my mentors, William Laskin, who is also arguably one of the most famous inlay artist in the world too. He did this in the early 1980s as an ergonomic feature. There's very little new about the guitar, but this is one of those things. At some point one of my clients asked me if I could include one of these bevels on the guitar for him and I said “let me check into it”. Within our community, one of the big problems is the ex-procreation of information, another word for it is ripping of other peoples ideas, and it's getting tiring. So when you get one of my guitars it comes with a Laskin arm rest. I called William up and asked him about the arm rest and said “I've had a few people ask for this, would you mind terribly if I use it?” and Grit said “you know what? Come to my workshop and i'll teach you how to do it.” So I went over to his workshop and he walked me through it, afterwards he said “all I ask for is a tip of the hat”. You see, no one does this in our industry to get rich, all we ask for is recognition.
This guitar has 3 of them, and they all serve a purpose, they're functional art. They eliminate the hard edge. This is a 17 inch guitar with the arm rest and a bevel on the back so it doesn’t dig into your ribs. It also has a third bevel in place of a cutaway as many of my artists say a cutaway takes away from some of the tone. This way when you slide up for the higher frets it's not as hard on the hand.
You offer a wide range of instruments from traditional 6 strings to baritones and fanned frets (even dabbling in harp guitars!) what do you find are the most commonly requested specs and are you noticing a change in trend?
It's hard to say. I'm only really interested in building a successful instrument. I'm sensitive to the fact that my guitars are not inexpensive, and because of that it's imperative to me that each guitar is the best that it can be. When clients come to me with crazy ideas, sometimes I have to say to them “you know what, I’m not prepared to do that” because if the guitar doesn’t blow everything else in its category away then I’ve failed. If I’m going to charge what I do then the guitar has to be that good, so I stick to what I know is tried and true. I don’t offer all of the options other people do, wood wise, bling, bells and whistles, so perhaps I’m not as exposed to it as some of my colleagues are. As far as the bevels go, I'd say 19 out of 20 of them have a bevel. I would say that over the last 15 years since building my first fanned fret instrument, I've become one of the fanned fret guys in the acoustic community. Up to half of my yearly production, laughing a whopping seven guitars, are usually fanned fretted. I think with fashion trends rather than people asking me for certain bling, people will come to me with a particular musical need. I've developed a reputation as a guy who builds a lot of one offs, they want to come to a place where there's a greater probability of success. I tend to get crazy requests much more than for the latest fashion.
And how about that elevated fretboard?
Well the elevated fretboard has been around for many centuries, look at any violin or a mandolin. It's a vehicle which affords greater access to the upper register. There was a well respected classical guitar maker who recently passed away named Tom Humphrey who created the millennium guitar. Which is an elevated fretboard with a negative angle. The negative angle drives the top like a harp, it pulls up on the body and sound great. They tend to be a little bit louder, that's just a by product. I never tried to make a loud guitar, I don’t see the purpose to it, we live in the age of amplification.
Gibson were making elevated fretboard with a negative angle in 1927. I recently saw a century of progress 1936 LOO and it had an elevated fretboard and a negative neck angle. So it's nothing new, just go to a museum.
You're making a restricted amount of guitars per year and have a 3 year waiting list so it would seem things couldn't be better - what would you say the future holds for Greenfield guitars?
Yeah, there are a couple of things, the guitars have become so intricate and complex that 16 is the most we've ever made in a year. Having said that, for those of you that have visited my website, I've introduced a new model and I'm just waiting for the pictures to go up. It's not a custom made guitar, It's still made in my shop by myself and my staff, it's just not a custom order. I hope to be offering a few of those too. They will be available for purchase from my website, and they will be considerably less expensive.
The plan for the future is to continue what I'm already doing. My love is making these wonderful custom order, purpose built guitars for people who are looking for the finest instrument they can find.