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May 2014

Builder Profile: Greenfield Guitars

Builder Profile: Greenfield Guitars

The Black Cherry was commissioned by Jacques-André Dupont for the Red Guitar Collection, and it features an alpine spruce top, bigleaf maple sides and back, and ebony fretboard and bindings. The intricate inlay work was done by Larry Robinson.
“So [using fanned frets is] a better way to build a guitar because of everything we’ve just said. Each string has its own scale length, and as the notes get lower, the scale is a little bit longer and the fundamental of those lower notes will be better supported.”

Despite popular belief, Greenfield says fanning frets is not intended to address intonation issues. “People think they play in tune better—and they do,” he says, “but what’s really going on is that, for those radically altered tunings that folks are using—even if they are using a fat string—the guitar has been set up properly for it. The scale length is there to support the notes.” That said, Greenfield happily admits it’s not a design element every player needs. “If you play in standard tuning all the time, or just drop-D, is it worth spending the extra money? I don’t think so. But for DADGAD, double dropped- D, C tunings, G tunings, and folks who are playing contemporary repertoire, it’s a really good thing.”

For guitarists who’ve never played a fanned-fret guitar before, one of the first questions is whether that style of fretboard is more difficult to play. “If you look at your hand, it naturally wants to splay that way. With the average fan, most folks just sit down and play. There’s nothing to get used to. The very severe fans do take a little bit of time, and you may have to adapt your repertoire—because some folks have these insane stretches. But that really is very, very rare. And if somebody needs such a radical fan, they’re playing crazy music anyway,” Greenfield says with a laugh.

Tight as a Drum
Greenfield also laminates the sides of his guitars, which is another time-consuming endeavor. “When I was doing repair work back in the day, dealing with all the jazzers in town, there were guys who were collectors. There’s a guy here in [Montreal] who plays L5s, but only those from after 1963, when they were using laminated backs. It’s the sound. And we all know cats out there who play ES-175s, which also have the sound. Those are laminated guitars, too. Linda Manzer makes amazing archtop guitars, and she offers a laminated guitar, because there are guys out there who want an onboard pickup, not floating, and they want a laminated top and back because that’s the sound.”

But Greenfield doesn’t mean “plywood” when he says “laminated.” He uses two sets of sides, sands them down, bends them, and then glues them together. “As soon as you glue two pieces of wood together,” he explains, “they can’t move. Under tension and compression, they won’t slide against each other. That means my rim sets are much, much more stiff. Essentially, the guitar is a drum.”

And he’s not just being clever when he makes that comparison. Greenfield has studied drum construction closely, and he really does view a guitar’s top and back like the top and bottom heads of a drum. “In a drum, you want to take the sides out of the equation,” he explains. “You don’t want them to influence the modal vibrations of the top and the back membranes. That’s why I’m laminating the sides of my guitars—and it’s a lot more work, a lot more expense, and takes a lot more time.”

The process of building a rim set— sanding and hand-bending two sets of sides, then lining them up exactly and gluing them, and laminating the linings as well—takes about two weeks. “There’s a crazy amount of stuff that goes into it,” Greenfield says. “My sides end up being quite thick—around an eighth of an inch. I build a heavy guitar on purpose.”

The Harp Highlight of His Career

Andy McKee’s Greenfield HG1.2 harp guitar has a Lutz spruce top, ebony fittings and bindings, and koa sides, back, and neck.
Among the most complicated and unusual “tall order” instruments Greenfield has been asked to build is the harp guitar (model number HG1.2) he recently built for Andy McKee. After the two had been friends for several years, McKee asked Greenfield to start making guitars for him. One night, over dinner, McKee upped the ante and asked for a harp guitar. “I just didn’t want to go there, so I said, ‘No, no, no, no,’” Greenfield recalls. “Eventually, he asked me one more time, and I said, ‘Okay.’”

McKee wanted six bass strings and six regular guitar strings. “We talked about the tunings that he uses, and basically, he doesn’t go all that radical, because you’ve got all those bass strings. So if you want to hit low notes, you don’t need to take it from the regular guitar neck. Because he’s used to playing fanned-fret instruments, we made the regular neck a subtle fan—just to deal with some of the more normal tunings he uses on that neck. And then there was the harp.”

During Greenfield’s repairing and restoring days, he worked on some old harp guitars, never imagining he’d ever build one. “I had them in my hands, and other than looking at them and saying, ‘Wow, this is cool,’ I never took any measurements or did any drawings. So I had to go back and do all the research. But what I did learn from those early years was that the Dyer guitars and the Knutson guitars were the most successful—to my ear—as musical instruments. They worked really well, and they sounded really good. And most of the harp guitars made today by my colleagues are sort of based, one way or another, on those original two lines. So that was my starting point, too. I knew I wanted a secondary harp arm, and then I took a left turn and went crazy— which is what I normally do.”

One of the innovations Greenfield built into the HG1.2 was a fulcrum-style bridge like those you’d see on an archtop guitar. The strings are harnessed to the end of the guitar with a tailblock, and they pass over the harp bridge at a very low angle. “I did that for two reasons,” explains Greenfield. “First, I wanted to reduce the amount of tension on the top. Those six harp strings, when they’re tuned to pitch, have some- where between 180 and 200 pounds of tension. When it goes over the bridge that I’m using, it works out to about 25 or 30 pounds of down push. The regular guitar neck is pulling up on the top and torquing it like a regular guitar works, and the bass arm is pushing down to give it a counterbalance. I didn’t have to over-brace the guitar because of that. I could go lighter than I would have normally built it.”

The other major reason Greenfield split the bridge was to get some real separation between the pickup signals from the guitar side and the harp side. He worked with K&K to design a custom pickup system for the instrument. “Not to do a commercial for K&K, but my experience has been that the K&K system is a really natural- sounding system that works really well for fingerstyle guys,” he says. “It sounds like a guitar that’s been mic’d. So, using the split bridge, I was able to use the soundboard transducer on the guitar part of the instrument, and a custom-made undersaddle pickup under the bass harp strings.

“The next thing was that I wanted it to look funky. But I really wanted the guitar— especially knowing who it was going to—to be easily serviceable. So a lot of the parts on that guitar bolt on. Both harp heads are bolted on, the tailpiece is bolted on, and the neck is bolted on. So if something fails, it’ll be easier for me to repair it.”

The entire process of building McKee’s harp guitar took about two years. “Obviously, I didn’t work on it constantly, but it took over a year of design. I made a few drawings, hung them up on the walls to live with them in the room for six months. Every time I passed them I would doodle something else or sketch something or put a new line in until I got to the point where it all made sense.” Greenfield also spent a lot of time researching, talking to colleagues, reading, looking at the old instruments, and finally making some accurate drawings. “Then I had to figure out the mechanics of how I was going to build it. That was the hard part. Because once you have all that figured out, the rest is just guitar making: You’re setting a neck, you’re gluing on a bridge, you’re voicing a box—it’s really all very much the same.”

It took about eight months to build the guitar, which Greenfield worked on between other projects. “Delivering the guitar this past summer to Andy at the Montreal Guitar Show was very, very emotional for me. It was two years of my life! I had just given birth to this crazy thing with two heads, and there was this man who just picked it up and immediately tore into it and started making beautiful music with it. It was certainly a high point in my career.”

Andy McKee’s harp guitar features an ebony headstock and harp heads,
with a smaller piece accommodating the harp strings’ sharping levers.

Greener Pastures?
Although Greenfield didn’t tag “so far” onto the end of the previous sentence declaring the McKee harp-guitar delivery the highlight of his career, it’s prob- ably safe to say there will be many other notable moments that could very well rival that. We’ve only touched on a fraction of the types of instruments he offers here, so be sure to check out greenfieldguitars.com to see delectable renditions of nylon-string and archtop instruments, in addition to a wide variety of steel-string guitars.

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