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BilT Guitars, based in Des Moines, Iowa, was the first builder to use the Mastery Bridge as original equipment hardware. Shown here is a Volare model. Photo courtesy of Chicago Music Exchange.
It sounds like you completely redesigned the classic Jazzmaster bridge.
There’s a difference between redesign and design. I think most people try to improve on existing designs by taking prior art and making it the best it can possibly be: That’s redesign. Design is different. It involves looking at a problem in an entirely new way, and Mastery Bridge is just that. When I do a design, I want as few parts on the guitar as possible, and I want those few parts to do a lot of things. I look for a simple and meaningful solution. For instance, our four saddle-height adjustment screws do what other bridges use 12 screws for. For five decades, those bridges have frustrated Jaguar and Jazzmaster players—it was not a new issue at all. The classic design was based on the idea that a rocking bridge would be an advantage, but it caused more problems for most players. I didn't want the bridge to rock. The design had to work on all offset guitars without drilling or modifying the guitar’s body. After a lot of experimenting, I got prototypes to where I liked them enough to send them on tour with Wilco and Sonic Youth. They beat the hell out of them, but it worked—the guitars came back stable, like how I left them. A high school friend put up a website, but we didn’t run any ads at all. It just exploded. We couldn’t keep up with the demand.
Mastery Bridges have unusual chrome plating. It looks great, but is it more than cosmetic?
I chose a hard chrome plating that is usually used only in industries that require extremely hard plated surfaces, like aircraft landing gear and piston linings. When a player uses the vibrato a lot, the movement of the strings causes friction, and the resulting heat makes the guitar go out of tune. The very hard plating on our saddles is self-lubricating and helps to guide the string over the saddle without generating a lot of friction and heat.
Bill Frisell on Mastery Bridges
Bill Frisell with his current main guitar: a JW Black tele with a Bigsby Vibrato and a Mastery Bridge.
“I learned to play on a Fender Jaguar, so I have a soft spot for those guitars, but they are notoriously difficult to get to where things aren’t falling apart. The original bridge design had so many little moving parts, little screws, and little Allen screws, right where the bridge is transferring energy to the body of the guitar, and the bridge balances on just two posts. There were so many places things could rattle and fall off, and the strings could slide off the side of the bridge. It was so temperamental! So when Nels Cline showed me the Mastery Bridge on his Jazzmaster, that totally took care of the whole deal, and in such a simple way. The fewer saddles you have, the more tension you get transferred to the body. The design has only two saddles, and they’re uniquely adjustable. When Woody [John Woodland] designed a bridge that works with a Bigsby Vibrato, Jay Black [of JW Black Guitars] got excited and built me a tele custom with Woody’s bridge and a Bigsby. That’s basically the only guitar I’ve been playing lately.” —Bill Frisell
You said that one day you had an inspiration and drew the design for the Mastery Bridge in a few minutes. What kind of previous experiences enabled you to do that?
My mother, grandfather, uncles, and cousins all played country music from the ’40s and early ’50s— Roy Acuff to early Carl Smith stuff. My grandmother played organ. My grandfather played mandolin and banjo. He played behind his back, like a vaudeville artist. So my first exposure to music was in my own family. I got my first guitar when I was 4. I took lessons when I was 5. When I was 13 or so, I started taking more serious interest in music. I had a Lotus Les Paul copy, and later my cousin, who was playing with Badfinger, gave me a nice handmade tele. One day the only other kid in my high school who played guitar was at my house, and he took the whole guitar apart when I wasn’t looking. I think he thought it would be good for me to learn about it—some kind of Zen thing. Anyway, I was forced to figure out how to put it back together again and I did. That probably started my interest in working on instruments.
After high school I went to lutherie school in Red Wing, Minnesota, and after that I worked for Roger Benedict for four years in Minneapolis. We built a lot of guitars together. He used to say, “Perfection is in your own eyes. It’s your idea of what the guitar should be like and look like,” and he emphasized the importance of doing all the steps necessary to achieve that level of perfection. After Roger died, I worked as the tech for Soul Asylum for a couple of years, which was essentially just adult day care, so I didn’t care for it much. I left and started the repair department at Willie’s. I actually drew out the initial Mastery Bridge design there, and my coworkers were the first to see it. The working name was “Bridget,” so after about six months of us all calling it Bridget I walked into the store one day and said, “I have a new name: Mastery Bridge.” They hated it, so I figured it would work.