Designer John Woodland has become one of Wilco's most trusted luthiers. Based in the Twin Cities, he is creator of the Mastery Bridge and worked with Jeff Tweedy to create the newly launched 00-DB Tweedy Edition Martin guitar. We sat down with John last month to ask him about, well, guitars.
How long have you been working with Wilco?
I've been working for Wilco for four years now, but it seems longer and it's never really felt like work. I first met Jeff in New York at a club called Tramps right after "Being There" was released in 1996. The next time we crossed paths was in Memphis two years later when I was working on guitars for the Golden Smog "Weird Tales" record. One important thing for me that came out of that session was that I had brought my personal 1963 Jazzmaster to Memphis for the band to use and Jeff showed me things you could do on that guitar I never knew were possible. I’ve been devoted to the Jazzmaster ever since and designed the Mastery Bridge a decade later.
Tell us about your career pre-Wilco.
I attended a trade school for guitar construction when I was 19 and apprenticed under Roger Benedict for four years. Benedict's was the coolest guitar store in town at the time. I met members of the Replacements and Soul Asylum there and soon started doing repairs for them. When I was 20, it was those guys telling others, "This kid is good," and it just snowballed after that. Those connections eventually led me to Jeff and Wilco.
I've tried to calculate how many guitars I've worked on the last 21 years and I'd say it's around 15,000. I haven't actually done much repair-wise the last four years. Mastery Bridge, which launched in 2008, has since taken over my career.
Tell us what you do exactly ... for example, How many guitars have you repaired for the band? What sorts of repairs and maintenance do you do?
Wilco loves guitars; new additions are constantly being added to the family and you're able to watch how guitars can influence recordings.
I go to the Loft seasonally as guitars naturally shift as well as when recordings are made. The last thing a guitarist should be worrying about while performing is the stability of his or her guitar, so it's my job to make sure they're not thinking about that and are able to concentrate on the performance. Repair-wise, I'll do everything from simple adjustments to refrets to gluing braces and cracks: whatever the guitars need. They have a lot of trust in me so I usually just get the guitars and do whatever I feel needs to be done.
You worked with Jeff on designing the new C.F. Martin 00-DB Jeff Tweedy, the first Artist Series Martin made with wood that is 100% FSC Certified. Can you tell us a bit about the process? Are you happy with the result?
Knowing what Jeff likes and dislikes in guitars, we sat down with about 20 different acoustics and I just kept handing him guitars and asking him questions like "how does this feel in your right hand when fingerpicking" and so on. I took specs from Jeff’s comments and based it around a deep-bodied, 14-fret 00 size as I always find Jeff acclimating between smaller bodied guitars and guitars that produce a deeper tone. I worked with Chris Thomas at Martin on the specs and it went back and forth for over a year. Jeff loved the idea of doing a 100% sustainable FSC Certified guitar, and after sustainable guitar tonewoods were all in the news last summer the idea was pushed through. We're all very happy how the guitar turned out.
What's the best guitar you've ever seen / heard / worked on?
That's easy. The 1948 Paul Bigsby guitar made for Merle Travis. I disassembled it and took specs at the Country Music Hall of Fame museum a few years back for the "Story of Paul Bigsby" book I worked on with Andy Babuik. That single guitar started a revolution in the industry which, in turn, transformed how we've heard popular music the last 60+ years. If there's one guitar you can point to the last century that's made the most impact, it's that one, and no one had taken it apart since Bigsby made it in 1948. It was thrilling. I still get butterflies thinking about it.
Any recommendations to players that are looking to get a guitar sound like Wilco?
Wilco uses so many different guitars within the group so it's hard to nail down one thing. If you like Jeff's acoustic sound live, he uses a Sunrise pickup in the soundhole in conjunction with a passive Fishman piezo pickup under the bridge saddle. That's run with a stereo cable out to a nice tube Avalon stereo preamp. Nels is obviously synonymous with the Jazzmaster but outside of that, electric guitar-wise it's all over the board, especially with all the effect pedals that are on stage. I've never even really looked hard at those because it's just not my thing. I don't understand amps and pedals much, so I stay away from them and the band knows it. The crew is very on top of all that which is great. Wilco hires really well and I've often heard from people who see the operation for the first time that they're amazed at how well the organization functions. It's a synergy unlike most other experiences in rock… and I've worked for some pretty dysfunctional bands in the past.
Check out the Mastery Bridge here