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Could you please introduce yourself to our readers. How long have you been building guitars?
I was born in Metz, France and when I was a young boy my mother brought me to the USA to start a new life for us. It was 1965. We later also lived in Spain for a while and I bought my first guitar in Madrid when I was sixteen. It was a classical guitar and it was my only guitar for many, many years. In 1981 I had settled in California and I thought that I should get a solid body electric. Rather than buying a guitar from a store, I decided to try to design my own. I spend hours and days on my knees drawing it life size on graph paper rolled out on the floor. I then found a very good guitar builder who built it for me and when he delivered to me I soon realized what a crappy guitar it was. It turned out to be a very bad design, very hard to play. An expensive fiasco! But instead of giving up, I realized how much I liked designing guitars and I started building my own. Then I got a part time job in a guitar shop. I worked for Chandler doing some custom guitars at first. Then we were relocated into a bigger shop and I was doing guitar necks and setting up all these guitars coming in from Asia. By then I was completely bored.
What was for you the most interesting guitar that you have built?
The most interesting one was a six-string guitar I started in 2000. It took me almost two years to complete it because I spend a lot of time building a bridge for it. For some reason or another I have always built my own bridges. Then when I was finally done with the bridge, I had the first prototype of the Hannes Bridge. It has saddles made out of Alaskan fossilized walrus tusk! The guitar has a bubinga body with a Brazilian rosewood neck. When I first strung it up, I was surprised at how good it sounded and I thought that the bridge definitely added something.
Do you have a favorite type of guitar (shape, construction, wood combination, etc…)?
Yes and no. That’s a tough question. People are designing new things all the time. Therefore my favorite guitar might be the one I haven’t heard or seen yet. You can always depend on the classic designs like the Tele but who knows what the future will bring. If I was told today that I could have only one guitar, I would pick a semi hollow Tele with mahogany body and neck, Brazilian rosewood fingerboard, flamed maple top, Fralin single coil at the bridge, Fralin P90 at the neck, no pick guard and of course the Schaller Hannes Bridge. I say that because I don’t have this guitar and I really want one.
What was your first impulse to design the bridge?
When I was doing the bubinga guitar I spend hours trying to figure out what to do about the bridge. Most of the woodwork was done, the guitar was ready and it just needed a bridge. I wanted one with separate elements similar to the ABM or the Ralph Novak designs. Adjustable bridges need at least two mechanisms, one for adjusting the intonation and the other for adjusting the action. The mechanism for adjusting the intonation had previously always been done by moving the saddle over its fixed base. I started looking into the possibility of having the saddle move together with its base for the intonation adjustments. It is a very simple concept but it changed everything about the structure of the bridge. Now I could really have some fun with the overall design and, in particular, with the design of the saddle which no longer needed to have threaded holes and which could be mounted with a simple open hinge mechanism. The saddle could also have a better height adjusting mechanism because I could use a screw with a big, domed head that gives you much more contact between the string and the guitar. This mechanism is usually the weak link in transferring the sound from the string to the guitar because it is a micro-coupled mechanism.
How did you design the bridge and what did you do with the design?
The first one with the walrus saddles was done by hand. I didn’t have a drawing and I was experimenting with my Dremel tool. Then I finally completed the first of the six elements and it took me another fifty days to do the other five. By the time I was done, my Dremel tool was completely fried. After that I needed to draw the bridge and I bought a CAD program. I must have done a hundred drawings before I had the final version. I applied for a patent in the US and in Europe, and I had a prototype built by a local machine shop. It was made out of cheap plastic and I needed to find better materials. I was already familiar with Graph Tech replacement saddles which I used on one of my guitars. So I contacted them and asked them if they could supply me with blocks of their Tusq and String Saver materials. Before long, I had a new machined prototype which now looked like a real product. Soon after that I went to my first NAMM show with a friend of mine who kept on encouraging me. I met Dave Dunwoodie of Graph Tech. He liked the bridge and he was very supportive. He agreed to have molds made so that I could mass produce the bridge. I had this illusion that I could have it manufactured and then market it myself. I did manage to do about fifty bridges which I gave out as samples and the response was very good. But I soon realized that it was unrealistic for me to oversee the manufacturing and the marketing. I was out of my league.
How does the bridge affect the sound of the guitar in comparison to other bridges? Does it use some of their properties?
I think that the main property that it shares with other bridges is that it has six separate elements. I was aware from the start that by doing one element per string you would eliminate string crosstalk. When you have a common and shared base for all the strings, the vibrations from any string will trigger the other strings because the base also vibrates. Some of the overtones will be exaggerated and others will be diminished. The sustain will decay sooner because of the non-harmonious vibrations which cancel each other out. Besides that, I think that my bridge is much more efficient than other bridges when it comes to transferring the energy of the strings to the body of the guitar, because it is macro-coupled as opposed to being micro-coupled. Just look at a typical bridge which has two frontal height adjusting screws and a rear intonation adjusting screw. How does the energy go from the string to the guitar? Through the microscopic contact that the three screws have with the base. Obviously, this has not stopped people from getting some great sounds out of their guitars and I am not saying that other bridges are worthless. But maybe they could be better, and at least now you have the option of using a much more efficient bridge which emphasizes the acoustical properties of the instrument. If you want an even, clear sound with great sustain and pronounced harmonics, then you’ll probably like the bridge. And on top of that, the bridge is much more comfortable than other bridges because it has an almost completely smooth, rounded surface. It just feels great to rest your hand on it while you pick the strings. It might even affect how you play the guitar.
For what type of instruments or for what type of players do you recommend the bridge?
I don’t see why the bridge should only apply to certain guitars or guitar players. I used to think that it would be perfect for semi-acoustic guitars and that ,for example, jazz players would appreciate it more than others because jazz players tend to use fewer sound effects. For them, the acoustical properties of their instruments are predominant. Much to my surprise, however, there have been a lot of heavy metal players who are crazy about the bridge. I guess that if you start with a better signal, whatever else you do with that signal will also be better.
How did Schaller Electronic become part of the story?
Each year I kept on going back to the NAMM show to showcase my bridge. It’s a long, gradual process before you get anywhere. One day I showed the bridge to Nik Huber and he told me that he was more interested in traditional bridges. He thought, however, that I should show it to Claudio Pagelli since he was more interested in modernistic designs. I contacted Claudio and I sent him a couple of samples. He immediately liked it a lot and he was very enthusiastic. He told me that he knew the people at Schaller and that I should show them the bridge. I sent Claudio more bridges which he forwarded to Schaller. It’s always better to be introduced by someone else. When you send somebody a new product and they don’t know you, your product will probably end up at the bottom of some drawer. At the next NAMM show, I think it was my fourth, I met the people at Schaller and they soon thereafter decided to take on the bridge.
Are you planning other versions of the bridge?
Oh yes! I love the designing process, but it’s really up to Schaller to decide what to do next. I’ve gotten lots of emails inquiring about a 7 string version, a bass version or a piezo version. The 7 string would be the easiest to do. The piezo version shouldn’t be much of a problem either since both Graph Tech and Schaller have a lot of expertise in that field. Doing the bass version would be another story, however, because you have to redraw everything. That’s where the fun starts and I’d like to have more fun.