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more... GearBuilder ProfilePickups & AccessoriesJuly 2014Nels ClineMastery Bridges

John Woodland: Mastery Bridge Mastermind


The Mastery M1-V kit solves the tuning and stability problems associated with classic Jazzmasters and Jaguars.

How did you get interested in the history of the American guitar?
My mother was a nurse, and she ran a home for elderly people. The old people would talk with me about their lives and experiences, and then they would die. It was like the people were gone, and their stories were gone too. It seemed their legacy was somehow lost on me as a 12 year old, not to be heard again. I think that’s the core reason I obsessively sought out everything I could find about Paul Bigsby and John Deichman, and why I wanted people to know about what they did for the guitar community. Bigsby was hugely important. Everybody knows about the Bigsby Vibrato, but many people don’t know he was the first to do the six-in-line Kluson tuner. Bigsby took the bass side of two sets of the then-new, closed-back tuners and ground down the mounting side so each screw would hold two sets of tuners. Had he not done that and used the whole tuner, it would have changed the top angle of the headstock. That’s an example of a very small innovation that affected so much of the guitar world. Fender obviously took this—and never credited him. Spec’ing out the Merle Travis Bigsby and doing all the tracings was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done, guitar-wise. It’s the first modern electric guitar. When we were working on the Bigsby book [Andy Babiuk’s The Story of Paul A. Bigsby: The Father of the Modern Electric Solidbody], I insisted on going to the Country Music Hall of Fame to go over it. It took some work to set that up—the glass case alone is so massive that it took four people just to open it up.

What about your interest in the history of the dreadnought?
I got interested because it was the most influential acoustic guitar design in the world, and no one really knew of its origin. Dick Boak [of Martin Guitars] told me that there were a bunch of papers locked in the attic of North Street Martin building. I climbed up there and found thousands and thousands of documents that had not been opened since the 1920s and ’30s. It was unbelievable! I was pulling months-long chains of letters from people like Jimmie Rodgers that no one had seen since they were written. Each document I found led to 10 more questions, and eventually to the story of John Deichman, the man who actually drafted the dreadnought. My focus started with Martin and with the guitar itself, and then it became more about Deichman the man. Lots of people want to know about the bracing patterns, truss rods, and top thicknesses of these guitars. I’d spent my whole life repairing and building instruments—that part wasn’t as interesting to me. For me, the way to understand the guitars was to understand the people who made them.How they looked to things. Their work ethic. Their perspectives on life. All that research also taught me that I needed to leave my own stamp in the community, another reason Mastery Bridge probably happened.

Nels Cline on John Woodland

Nels Cline (Wilco, the Nels Cline Singers) installed a Mastery Bridge on his most precious guitar: a 1960 Jazzmaster purchased from bassist Mike Watt and nicknamed “Watt.”

“I was breaking things all the time on my ‘Watt’ guitar. Mastery Bridge saved my life. Another luthier—a very good one—had advised me to retire the guitar. The rosewood on the fretboard was so worn that it was scalloped in places, and he said that one more refret would be its last. John had asked me to send it to him, but I kept putting it off because I was nervous about shipping it. When I finally did send it, John said, ‘This guitar has plenty of refrets left—go play it.’ [Woodland used rosewood dust to fill the hollows in the fretboard.] John is the best. He can make everything perfect. He knows about these guitars, loves them, and has respect for me and my music.” —Nels Cline

What projects are you involved in now?
The Mastery Vibrato was just released. I worked on the design for a year, and when we released it we thought we had enough stock for two months, but it sold out in one day. My goal is to grow Mastery Bridge slowly and to keep it manageable. I like to be hands-on, so I don't want it to be a huge operation. Right now we’re looking at a somewhat bigger space so we can do more things. I’m also working on another part of the guitar. It’ll probably take over a year to get it where I like it, but I think it’s going to be amazing. I might build a few guitars in my garage, but for now Mastery Bridge is my focus. I feel a responsibility to do what I can to improve the guitar and to help guitar players progress. That’s why I designed the FSC Jeff Tweedy OO Martin Guitar. I thought it was important to show that a guitar can be built of sustainable woods and still sound and look great. I’m working on a project with Sean Lennon and Martin Guitars right now. It’s going to be the most important artist model guitar that I'll ever design. It’s going to be amazing!

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