Exploring the Mastery Bridge

With the support of Deimel Guitarworks (Berlin, Germany) I finally got hold of a Mastery bridge, which arrived by mail today.
Since the packaging was as interesting as it was surprising, I thought I might as well start a little documentation of my usage of the bridge and if there really is a difference, compared to my trusty and very well set up workhorse Jazzmaster.

With the support of Deimel Guitarworks, Berlin, Germany* I finally got hold of a Mastery Bridge, which arrived by mail today.
Since the packaging was as interesting as it was surprising, I thought I might as well start a little documentation of my usage of the bridge and if there is a difference compared to the stock-bridge (well, not really stock, I added a mustang-saddle years ago on the low e-string) on my trusty and very well set up workhorse Jazzmaster.

Updates

Please be sure to read the updates below.

The Arrival

After opening the box and removing several layers of shredded paper, a not-so-tiny metallic cylinder surfaced, along with a piece of paper with installing instructions and a list of what to expect inside the tube:

  • 1 Mastery Bridge
  • 1 .050″ allen wrench (small)
  • 1 5/64″ allen wrench (medium)
  • 1 3/32″ allen wrench (large)

While I will never get used to the inch-based system of measurement, the small, medium, large I’ll understand, thank you very much :-)

Ok, let’s open the tube. More stuffy stuff – some brown, tobacco-like material and hidden somewhere inside a little cotton sack. On the sack there’s are a stamped Mastery-logo, a handwritten date and a two letter handwritten sign.

And finally, inside the sack: the holy grail of Jaguar/Jazzmaster-style bridges, or at least supposedly according to the hype around it. It is very well presented, I must admit. Oh, and the allen wrenches are there, as well. Good.

The bridge feels very solid, heavy, no-bullshit-like. The screws and springs and moving parts are very well fit and the finish looks also top-notch. It breathes craftsmanship. First impression: well done!

Can’t wait to put this thing on my trusted old Jazzmaster, which up to now is fitted with it’s original bridge, with a mustang saddle at the low-e-string position and had only minor rattling/moving issues in the last 15 years of playing.

Update 1 – March 9th 2012

The Assembly

Hi again and sorry for the delay, it has been some busy weeks since the first round here.
What has happened in between in regard to my Mastery Bridge Adventure?

Well, I’ve had several rehearsals with the bridge and a gig.
The bridge really added more sustain to my old Jazzmaster, an yes, it is recognizable even with the guitar played dry, not plugged in.

Due to the fixed string-spacing, the guitar “feels” a bit foreign to me (see update below*). I used to have a rather spread-out spacing with the original bridge, esp. the high-e-string was really near the fretboard’s edge, so that it was centered with the neck pickup’s polepiece.
Now the spacing is a tad bit narrower, and it took me a while to get used to that.

As you can tell from the pictures, there’s nothing wrong with the new spacing, in fact it may be closer to what it was meant to be in the first place, but it is different to “my” old spacing. Maybe due to the different distance to the treble-pole-piece, maybe due to the increased sustain, maybe due to the combination of both, the guitar sounds different, especially on the neck pick-up. It’s really subtle, but it has a different “voice”. Again, not bad or wrong, just slightly different to the way the strings did run on my bridge.

Update:
*) Let me get this straight: The spacing on the Mastery Bridge is not “thinner” or “wider” than the stock bridge’s spacing.
The strings are perfectly aligned with the polepieces of both pickups, a result of the thorough research and prototyping with lots of different original bridges.
The gooved barrels of the original bridge allow for a very individual, even “wrong”, spacing. In fact, if you have a certain combination of bridge- and saddle-height, chances are that you cannot have the “correct” string position on the original bridge, because the intonation-screw will contact with the string exactly in this position – causing buzz or making it unplayable in that position. That was the case with my setup. I had to set the hight e string very near to the fretboard’s edge and since I had installed a mustang saddle at the low e position, I had to position the rest of the strings evenly between these two positions, resulting in a spacing that was different to what may be expected as “normal” (and sitting slightly off-set to the pu’s polepieces).
/Update

The montage was really easy, the setup instructions are easy to follow and with a little bit of knowledge of the principles involved and the “feel” in the fingertips it’s easy to get the right setting (back) after swapping to the Mastery Bridge (*please see the update below, with the help of John W/Mastery Bridge I was able to get more out of the bridge. My first attempt, to recreate the settings and the position of my stock bridge, was not optimal).
Setting the intonation is not difficult, but it takes some patience and I think it’s ok to say that as a “best practice” one should start with the center-position strings of the two saddles – since the saddles each share three strings you’ll be in setup-hell if you start with one of the outer strings – it’s intonation will be affected by the position of the other two strings. If you start with the string in the middle position, chances are better, that this position will still be ok after setting the outer strings. You need to take care that the intonation screws have some tension or pressure on them. It’s easy to set them too loose, since the pressure of the strings will hold the saddle in place and there is a mini-distance in which the screw will not pull or push the saddle, but will slightly come loose – this will result in buzz. This is nothing special to the Mastery Bridge, the same happens with Tune-O-Matic style and the stock bridge.

The Handling, The Performance

I dind’t swap the strings to fresh ones, because I wanted to hear the difference to the stock bridge.
Well, as said before, the Mastery Bridge really adds sustain, and the treble strings sound “beefier”. That is to say, played unplugged. My old Jazzmaster is a very “loud” guitar, unplugged. Even so I can hear the difference.

So I was very keen to play it together with the band and amplified. It was a bit of a mixed situation; while the guitar sounded as if the volume was dialed up a bit, I had difficulties to adjust my fingers to the narrower spacing. My band-mates didn’t hear any difference, but they are used to me getting on and off excited about my sound (some nights the amp and guitar sound incredibly good, other nights, with the same setup kind of lame…) :-).

My overall impression after two band rehearsals – yes, the bridge alters the feel and sound of the guitar. I’m not sure, if the slightly more aggression is to my liking or not. Definetly takes some time to get used to it. But I had the same “mixed” feelings after the refret some years ago. It takes some mileage to get used to the new feel.
see update below

Then I swapped to new strings, the night before the concert. I revised the setup and the intonation, not much to change. I had a slight rattle somewhere that I couldn’t locate, but it was gone after some trem-usage. With brand new strings, the acoustic sound is very impressive. The strings sound very “even” (don’t know how to put it, but I sounds very ballanced, and it’s fun to play it unplugged).

Regarding the livegig: The bridge seems to hold the tuning better than the original one. Since I don’t use the the trem too hard, I really can’t say, but swapping to dropped-D and back and having stagelights warming up the setting was no big deal, tuning-wise.

Fast-forward to the day after the gig.

As you may can tell from the pictures, the bridge had one of the saddle-screws come loose, lowering the saddle in the middle, which led to a slightly detuned guitar in the middle of a song and something which I never encountered with the stock bridge.
I guess that’s the price for having brand new equipment, the threads on the screw and the saddle may be too smooth and will set in after a while of usage. A bit of loctite will work wonders, I guess. I must admit I didn’t expect this, but with the increased pressure and all the vibrations going on, it’s the way how physics work. Well, the stock-bridge never had issues with screws come loose, but it has some 30yrs to wear in and all that rust may have helped a bit in that regard.

Conclusion

Since the manufacturing of the bridge is really solid, and the audible sustain-gain is a winner, I will continue to use the bridge, but my stock bridge is still a close follower if I won’t get used to the narrower spacing, even if this seems to be the “correct” spacing.
Years of using the “wrong” spacing are taking their toll :)

I’m not sure if the benefits over the stock bridge are worth the price. (Mind you, I am not saying that the bridge is too expensive regarding the craftsmanship and quality of build). But to be honest, everytime I grab the guitar and play I’m amazed how it sounds. Maybe the price is worth it after all :).
Or, looking at it from another angle: For the price of a stompbox (how many you’ve been through in recent years trying to get more out of your sound?) you’ll get the mechanical means to really hear what your guitar is able to deliver – for good or for bad. In my case, if the screw hadn’t come loose, I would happily recomment the bridge like totally. The changes to the sound are subtle, but noteable. And the longer I play, the more I like it.

It’s a pity that you can’t “try before buy” to see/hear if the changes are worth the investment to you, sound-liking being such a personal thing.
(Update: They offer a 30day return policy: “We are so certain that you’ll be completely satisfied with the Mastery Bridge that we back it with a 30-day unconditional money back guarantee. Try it on your guitar for a month, and if for any reason you’re not completely satisfied, simply return it for a full refund. This guarantee does not cover products that have been altered by the consumer. Products must be returned in their original packaging.”)

I think the bridge has many advantages like the increased sustain, the tuning-stability, the feel while palm-muting, the not-slipping strings, and some disadvantages (or better: compromises) like the fixed spacing and the not-so-easy intonation setup with 3 strings over one saddle, but to me the sonic improvements win.
I mostly play in standard tuning, with an occasional dropped d. I think if intonation required that the a or the b string needed to be placed ‘out of line’ with the neighbouring strings, this would not be possible. I don’t know if there are alternate tunings or string combinations out there where this would be the case. On the other hand, Sonic Youth are using these bridges, and they use alternate tunings galore. Maybe they don’t care about 100% intonation, maybe it’s not a problem. If you are using alternate tunings and a Mastery, please comment below about your experiences.

Update 2 – March 9th, 2012

The Support

One thing I did not mention before; the guys at Mastery Bridge are incredibly helpful. If you have some issues, they’ll respond with a thorough reply and assistance. This is a small business and they take it personal. Woody (the man behind the bridge, so to say) took his time to respond to the “issues” mentioned above, offering some tips and suggestions how to further improve my experience with the bridge. On thing he recommends: Unlike with the stock bridge, the Mastery Bridge should be set up with the base as close to the body as possible, and getting the height for the action with the saddle-height adjustments. I’ll try this and will update this text accordingly.

Update 3 – March 11th, 2012

The Refinement

As said before, the support of John “Woody” Woodland is amazing. Looking at the pictures I made and seeing how I set the bridge, he suggested that I lower the base as far as possible and then get the action needed by raising the saddles. This added even more sustain, just like he predicted. We discussed my setting a bit further and it seems that my Jazzmaster has an issue with the nut – to get the right intonation with the low e and a strings I had to put the saddle all the way back – this is not the regular position and I think it may be a result of me having the original bridge pushed all the way back towards the trem and maybe that was the postion when the nut was reworked after the refretting. If you have a look at the Mastery Page, you’ll see that most of the bridges there are set lower than mine and the saddles have room for forward/backward adjustment.
I have not taken off the neck yet, maybe there’s still a little shim or some paint/wood chip left that is causing an angle, so that’s why my bridge is set a bit higher than normally needed.
Regarding the “compromises” mentioned above: these are little compared to the improvements the bridge will offer. Purists may be put off because the bridge cover will not fit and I think a Jaguar with the mute-device in place may be a bit problematic (anyone tried this? please comment below).
Regarding playability and sound the bridge is definitly an improvment to all the solutions I came across so far (Mustang saddles, taped bridge stems, adding a shim, Tune-O-Matic bridge, buzzstop device).

Update May, 14th: The long run

The bridge is now on my Jazzmaster for about three months, and I’m sure it will stay there.
After the over-critical phase right after installing the bridge and the very sceptical “does it sound different, is it different, what does it do to my guitar…” inspection detailed above I have to admit that there’s no looking back.
I really dig the improvements, and the small issues I had initially were caused by a combination of individual quirks of my guitar, and an attempt to re-create the settings of my original bridge (and thus not getting the best out of the MB bridge).


*) Disclaimer: I paid for the bridge and this documentation/review is not biased by any offerings by the manufacturer or the distributor. The only “deal” that’s going on is between me and Frank Deimel – he sold me the bridge at prime cost plus VAT and shipping, and in return I link back to his website.

Redesign in progress - made with <3 by webrocker.de