Samick Motherlode

December 2014

Builder Profile: Greenfield Guitars

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Builder Profile: Greenfield Guitars

The Greenfield Holocron features a fanned-fret design and an angled bridge that goes from a 25" scale on the treble side to a 27" scale on the bass side. The top is made of Adiron- dack spruce and the back and sides are Brazilian rosewood. It also features Laskin arm and rib rests and a bass-side sound port.
Like many builders, Michael Greenfield wandered into the craft almost unintentionally. While he was working as a gigging musician in Montreal in the ’80s, he became frustrated after leaving a guitar with a violin tech—the only stringed-instrument tech he could find in town—and the guitar came back unplayable. He decided immediately to learn whatever was necessary to do setups and routine repairs, just to keep his own instruments in shape. That quickly led to other guitarists bringing him their instruments, and he soon became a much-sought-after repairer/restorer.

Restoration and repair became something of a hobby for Greenfield, and after a stint in the restaurant business (he’s also a trained chef) and some consulting work in the Middle East, he returned to Montreal to think about what he really wanted to do with his life. He had a great desire to make music the center of his life again, so he took a side gig doing guitar repairs in a local music store around the peak of the vintage-guitar boom.

“Electric guitars were fine,” he says, “but, all of a sudden, people started bringing me these museum- grade, pre-war Gibsons, golden-era Martins, and some really antique Martins—and I didn’t feel too comfortable working on those. Other than re-fretting a guitar or making a saddle, I had very little experience working on acoustic guitars. So I took a guitar-making course with Bryan Galloup in the early ’90s.”

But Greenfield quickly found out building instruments and repairing instruments are not the same thing. “I don’t want to say they don’t have anything to do with one another, but they’re really very different. They employ different skills and techniques and ways of thinking about things—although anybody who makes guitars will do a lot of repairing, with all our screwups. Like things get dropped on the floor.” He pauses for a beat. “I’m not saying that ever happens, but it might.”

After learning to build guitars, Greenfield became so enamored with the idea that he kept at it. Once he got up to six guitars in a year, he made the decision to close down the repair/restoration side of his business and pursue building exclusively. “I closed down the repairs in 2000 and just slowly built the business to where it was doing a dozen guitars a year,” he explains. “That was as many as I could handle in my old shop.” He moved to a new shop in 2007, and has since built as many as 16 guitars per year.

And 16 is a remarkable number, considering how much customization is involved in virtually every guitar he makes. “By choice, I’m not tooled up at all. So every guitar is pretty much a one-off.” He notes that many small makers concentrate on one or two models, and some even con- tract construction of certain parts and processes to other builders. “There’s still a lot of woodworking to be done [for builders who do that], and they’re still carefully voiced—I’m not talking negatively about my colleagues,” he says. “They’re a lot smarter than me, because they can make as many guitars as I do much, much easier. My guitars keep getting more and more complicated to make, and they take longer and longer.”


The Greenfield Phoenix has a bearclaw western red cedar top, quilted Honduran mahogany back and sides, and an ebony fretboard. The ornate headstock and fretboard inlay is by Larry Robinson.
So much for the old joke: “How many luthiers does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Only one, but he’s got to make a jig first.” Greenfield laughs, not exactly ruefully. “It’s a lot of fun, and it gives me the freedom not to be afraid when somebody calls with a tall order. Or not so tall of an order.”

Greenfield has become known as “a fanned-fret guy,” and depending on the year, sometimes half or more of his production instruments incorporate that feature. “Even those fretboards are slotted here, in house, by hand. Most of them are made differently in order to accommodate the needs of the player, based on their repertoire, their playing style, and the tunings that they use.” In fact, Greenfield developed a fanned-fret model specifically for DADGAD, a tuning near and dear to many contemporary players’ hearts.

“It’s a really versatile combination of scale lengths that work well across the board, so I’m happy with that one.” So happy, in fact, that he’s actually considering standardizing it. “I sort of hate to... the problem with the fan fret thing is, if you change the neck width, everything changes. Or if you change the string spacing at the bridge, all the angles change. So I’ve gotten used to working without jigs and fixtures, and I like it that way.”

Why Fan?
Fanned-fret guitars are not a new idea. They’ve been around in one form or another for about 150 years. Ralph Novak of Novax Guitars is the modern-day builder who is most often thought to have rediscovered it. “Ralph Novak stumbled upon it and modernized it and brought it into what was the 20th century, and I think it’s important to give him credit.”

Greenfield describes the rationale for the design this way: “The guitar is really a funny instrument. Look at a pipe organ—as the notes get lower, the pipes get longer. But here you have this guitar, you have six strings, and each string gets lower and lower in pitch, and the strings get fatter and fatter, and we tilt the saddle a little bit, and expect this thing to play in tune. And as we push on the string, we’re stretching it and compressing it. Some players pull the string sharp or flat. It’s really a very imperfect instrument at best, notwithstanding any intonation systems people use. What people forget is that players play in tune, not guitars.”

He continues, explaining that as the scale length of an instrument gets longer, it supports the lower notes much better. “Look at a mandolin, and then look at a contrabass: The mandolin has a very short scale, and to try and get the low note of a contrabass out of a mandolin—no matter how thick of a string you put on it—it’s not going to work. And vice versa.”

Many players who use radically altered tunings—say, dropping the 6th string to a C, B, or in some cases an A—use heavier strings, sometimes anything from a .060 to a .080. “But the compensation [on most guitars] is calculated for a standard set of strings. All of a sudden, you throw on this big, fat string that’s not in the normal progression, you tune it really low, and as soon as you try to fret it above the 3rd fret it goes out of tune.” Many players believe they need very heavy strings to get low notes, but Greenfield has discovered that, with the correct scale length, a thinner string will speak more clearly and sound a lot better.
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