Guitar.com presents, The Tone Chain: our on-going series of interviews with tone-makers, tone-generators and tone-insiders, revealing the secrets, and obvious facts, of great tone and how you can achieve it. It's not as simple as it sounds but have the fun of finding your tone, is the steps along the way that lead you ultimately to your tone.
We started by speaking with note producer Alex Perialas (Bad Religion, S.O.D., Overkill, Testament, Anthax), who shared his many thoughts on tone in the studio and what steps you might take to better achieve that result. Next we talked to Billy Pirie from Fender who shared some of his thoughts about everything from pickups to picks.
In this next installment, we have a chat with Jim D'Addario, CEO of D’Addario & Co, to talk about strings and their affect on the Tone Chain. You'll be surprised as how much you don't know about strings, as not all guitar strings are created equally!
Guitar.com: Hi Jim, we’re very happy to have you here. Let’s start off with a bit of history. How did the D’Addario get started in the string world?
Jim D'Addario: This particular company started in 1973. Prior to that, there were several other iterations of our family business in America. My grandfather came to this country in 1905. He started with importing strings for a short while, then started manufacturing harp and violin family strings in his basement in Jackson Heights, walking distance from La Guardia airport. It stayed that way for a couple of decades. In the 1930’s, my dad joined him and they changed the name of the company to C.D’Addario & Son. My dad started to branch out into making guitar strings as the guitar started to become popular.
In the 1930’s my dad became friendly with John D’Angelico and the two of them worked out the string specs that would become the standard for many string manufacturers, and that are still used today. In 1959 my grandfather retired and my father took over the business and expanded it, changing the name to Darco Music Strings. Darco was primarily a private label and OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) manufacturer. We were making the lion’s share of Martin strings, all of Guild’s strings, many other brands, as well as supplying bulk strings for guitar making factories. We sold very little under the Darco brand itself.
I started working for my father in 1967 or ’68 when I was in college, my wife and I working together to improve the marketing of the product. We didn’t know much about marketing but my wife was a graphic artist so we experimented with various artwork and package designs. The company was then sold to Martin in 1969. From ’69 to ‘73 we were all working for the Martin company running the Darco string division. I soon took on more responsibility and became the Martin sales rep in the metropolitan area, which was extremely educational. I continued to work on packaging, finally starting an in-plant printing shop. The companies we were using to print our packaging were just not cutting it; they were using old letter press type methods and the print quality on the package envelopes was just horrendous. So we bought our first printing press. In fact, the night we were engaged, my wife had to sit and watch me get trained on that press. Afterwards, we went out to celebrate our engagement. That printing workshop was a pet project of mine, and it eventually grew to 3 or 4 printing presses with 2 to 3 people working under me.
When I graduated college and started working for my father full time, we realized that it was time to take the company back from Martin. My father and brother had a 5-year contract with Martin, that would expire in 1974, so my wife and I left to start our own printing company. We made a deal with Martin to buy those printing machines, and we began with doing all the printing for Martin, as well as bringing in other non-music related projects. I was in the printing and advertising business for about a year. During that time we became experts in printing string envelopes, and even competitors like Ernie Ball and E&O Mari (Labella Strings) were buying all their envelopes from us. But I missed the music business. In fact, I missed one NAMM show, in 1973. Since then, I haven’t missed any.
When their contract was up, my dad and John (Jim’s brother) joined me and my wife Janet, and in August of 1974 we started making and shipping strings under the D’Addario brand. It was the first time we’d use our family name on the string package.
Guitar.com: You’re D’Addario’s CEO, but it’s widely known in the industry that you’re a “hands-on” guy. Can you share with us what that means in your eyes?
D'Addario: Well, as you can see, I like to tackle problems hands on. Much like the printing problem we had when I was a 20 year-old kid, I went out and found solutions, stuck to it, and adapted them until I got it to work. Being a tinkerer all my life, having a shop in the basement when I was a kid, making speaker cabinets and amplifiers, I always enjoyed that part of the business.
Guitar.com: And you’ve also designed all your string winding machines, so that no other string manufacturer makes strings the same way D’Addario does, is that right?
D'Addario: Yes. In the beginning of the business, when I was out on the factory floor running things, I started to realize that the winding machines that were available at the time had many shortcomings. I began with rebuilding and improving the existing machines, then getting into designing so that within a year or two, 1975 or ’76, we started building our own machines.
Literally, every machine in the string winding department and printing department has been designed and built by us. We had some machines that were built by third party manufacturers, but they have since been completely gutted and rebuilt to become our machines, or just thrown away. Everything that is custom to making a string or a drumhead at Evans, or a reed at Rico, we design in house. We have 11 mechanical engineers that just design machines and fixtures and 2 that design products.
Guitar.com: So that’s what really sets D’Addario apart from the rest?
D'Addario: Yes, it does, and I think that’s been the key to our success; we’ve engineered our own solutions. We’ve been able to make strings at a lower cost than our competitors by bypassing the third party companies that they’d have to use, and, more importantly, we’ve been able to make a higher quality string because we’ve been able to design elements that we felt were very important to making a better string.
Guitar.com: Strings are critical, yet often overlooked as having an affect on the tone and performance of a stringed instrument. Let’s talk about the technology and materials that go into string manufacturing.
D'Addario: There are different materials fundamentally used for making different types of strings. For example, a classical guitar string uses a synthetic core. Initially, everyone used nylon, and now there are hybrid polymers that are used that give us better performance. We use a PEK material. We worked closely with the Zyex company to develop that material, for which they have a patent on, and for which we have an exclusive license for. That’s used in our Pro Arte composite strings and in our violin strings.
Acoustic and electric strings use a high carbon steel core. High carbon steel is a very difficult commodity to manufacture for music strings because it’s a very, very high tensile material that’s on the verge of being brittle. If it’s not very hard and almost brittle, it would not hold pitch and stretch and not have the tone we like. There’s a fine line to making wire that has the tensile strength and hardness to stay in tune and sound nice and bright, yet not break when we twist it to attach the ball end, or not break when someone aggressively uses a tremolo.
Over the years there have been only a handful of companies that can make a high carbon steel wire that would be acceptable to making a good quality music string wire. It’s essentially the same high grade raw material that is used for making steel belted radial tires. But in order to make it a music string, such as our plain strings, we have to coat them with some kind of plating so that they don’t tarnish or rust. The process of coating a very tensile high carbon steel wire is a very difficult one, getting the proper adhesion and so forth. They still use a hot tin dip process, that resembles a soldering, to coat the steel.
95% of the steel wire that we use is made by a company we own in Massachusetts called Renaissance Wire. It’s a small company started by employees of Worcester Wire Works from Worcester, Massachusetts. Worcester Wire Works was a specialty wire company that made the best musical string wire. In fact, that wire was distinguished as “mandolin wire”. They were one of the pioneers in making steel wire, but union problems and an antiquated plant led them to close down in 1978 and move to an upgraded facility in Mountjoy, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, that new facility couldn’t make the same quality music wire. We make round wire for plain strings and hexagon shaped wire for the core wire used in all our electric and acoustic wound strings.
The wrap material that is wound onto the core wire is a subject that can take hours and hours to discuss. My dad was a pioneer in wound strings going back to the 1930’s when John D’Angelico was trying to get more amplitude from his guitars before the days of electric instruments. The Big Bands of those days needed the guitars to have a driving, rhythmic sound, so he was building his guitars to have the most volume and projection possible. He realized that in order to get the tone he was looking for, the strings available at the time, by such companies as Black Diamond and Gibson, needed to be improved.
Now, strings in the 1930’s all had very heavy cores and fine wrap wires. Silver plated copper wound strings were the best selling product of the time. Black Diamond’s 754 set was the #1 seller and was a silver plated copper wound on a round high carbon steel core. In order to make the wrap wire hold on a round core they would have to grind it with a grinding stone to rough it up, then hammer the tail end of the string to create a flat surface. That string really didn’t sound very good. They were wound with incorrect tension parameters, they were either dead out of the package, or they would die quickly, and a thin silver plated copper wrap on a heavy steel core does not make a good sounding string. John D’Angelico drove my father to make a better sounding string. In about 1938 or ’39 they started to use 80/20 brass, which is known as “bronze” today. That material sounded better than silver plated copper.
Then they started to experiment with the ratio between the core and wrap wire. They started to reduce the diameter of the core string and found that the lower they went, the more pronounced the fundamental note would become and the greater the bass projection would be, while still maintaining the highs. John D’Angelico also realized that not everyone had the same tastes, and that not everyone wanted to play with the same string tension. They had heavy and medium gauge, and they developed light gauge, and eventually extra light gauge. D’Angelico strings became best sellers, known as the best sounding, best projecting acoustic guitar string on the market, up until we stopped making all of their strings in 1970 when John D’Angelico passed away. But, together, my father and John D’Angelico hit upon some things that were revolutionary at the time, and that are still in use today, over 70 years later, by all string manufacturers.
In 1969 or ’70 we pioneered nickel plated steel as a wrap wire. Nickel-plated steel gave a brighter sound than pure nickel and became big sellers because of the popularity of rock n roll. Over the course of the ‘70s all the other string manufacturers started making nickel plated steel. In 1974 we developed the Phosphor Bronze string. It sounded different than 80/20 Bronze, and it had a little more life. We also developed Stainless Steel strings for our Pro Steel line, we have a line of pure nickel strings, and we also grind pure nickel strings to make our Half Round strings. These were all materials we discovered as we experimented with trying to find new tones for guitar and bass players.
Guitar.com: You mentioned that you use a hexagonal core for your wound strings. Can you explain what benefit that would provide?
D'Addario: If you look at a cross section of our core wire, you will see it has a hexagonal shape. The six sides of the core bite into the wrap wire as you’re winding it, securing it to the core. Some people might think, then the string isn’t really round. Well, those flat surfaces are very small in proportion to the size of a finished string so that by the time you’re done, that string is round. Using a round core today is taking the risk of having a loosely wound, or dead, string. We don’t see a reason to do it, and using a hex core makes a better sounding, more consistent string that we know will last longer. A big part of manufacturing any product is in eliminating the variables that are responsible for affecting the quality of that product. A loose winding will make a string that is dead, that won’t intonate properly, that will buzz and make a poor string overall.
When you wind a string, the tension that you apply to that wrap wire as it goes on the core is one of the most, if not probably the single most, critical variables affecting the quality of the string. Other variable include the temper and tensile strength of that wrap wire, which is all precisely defined and tested in house for variables. But I feel the most important variable in making a string is how much tension is applied in the winding process. Initially, when strings were made by hand, people fed the wrap wire onto a lathe like machine while the core was spinning. They were responsible for pulling on that wire to apply the right amount of tension to make a good music string. There’s tremendous variable there: an operator can pull more at the beginning of the string than at the end, or pull more in the morning that when he or she is tired towards the end of the day, one operator pulls more than another, etc. There’s no way of controlling that.
The first automatic winding machines had to have some kind of tensioning device to apply the wrap wire onto the core. Initially they could be things like a felt pad on a spool and a spring, with a knob to tighten it down. Later on, pulleys were used. We utilize hysteresis brakes, which are a non-contact, electromagnetic device, and the current that we apply to that brake gives a very uniform and even tension to the application of the wrap wire. We then monitor that tension with a load cell, much like what’s found in a bathroom scale. We measure the deflection of that wrap wire tension as we apply it to the string. A computer then automatically adjusts that tension to the precise spec we’re looking for. That process is a very, very important quality difference.
So by controlling all those variables, from inspecting the wire when it comes in to computer controlled tension in the winding process, we are able to raise the level of consistency and provide a higher quality string for musicians everywhere.
Guitar.com: I think as a guitar player, we take a great deal for granted when we open a package of strings and put them on our guitars. A great deal goes into making a guitar string, much more then I think I've imagined. We're certainly glad someone has! Thanks for your making a great product and for your time, Jim. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you.
For more information on D'Addario String - please visit: D'Addario.com
Here's something a little extra on D'Addario's effort to bring jobs back to the US - featured on CNN: