British String Manufacturers
Buy a Les Paul, buy a Fender Telecaster: or a Guild, or an Arbiter, or a Ned Callari, or a Rickenbacker or any guitar you like — the sound you get is first made by the strings on the guitar. Idiots will spend £300 on a guitar and keep a rubbish set of strings on it for a year. Even without adopting such an extreme example, it's possible to visualise many instances where two identical guitars bear no relation to each other either in sound or in "playability" because one is well strung and the other is not.
Players have strong string loyalties. From discovering a string which suits their first guitar, many remain with the brand through successive instruments regardless of its suitability to the changing demands.
Buying British is a little unfashionable today — a situation probably produced by some sort of national cussedness because we are continually being urged to buy British. But one important area where British is most certainly best is in string manufacture. British music strings are renowned the world over and the companies manufacturing in the UK are presented with an export market of incredible potential.
There are four companies in Britain who take raw steel (and bronze, brass etc.) and make finished strings — three established companies and one terribly keen newcomer. It's hard to say which company is the biggest, or the best; there are many hidden factors to cloud the issue. The three successful and established companies are, Cardiff Music Strings of Caerphilly near Cardiff, General Music Strings, of Treforest Estate, near Cardiff and James How Industries of Bexleyheath in Kent. The newcomer is another Welsh contestant called Nashville Music Strings who are currently in production in Pentre, Glamorgan.
String making is a unique business. It's so highly specialised that other types of manufacturers don't even attempt to tack stringmaking facilities onto their operation.
All of the makers share some common methods. All have their own printing facilities — because string packets are difficult and fiddly to print — and most have their own engineering facilities to build the complex string-making machines.
The number of strings produced annually by the British manufacturers is absolutely phenomenal — perhaps in excess of 50 million — and they are constantly seeking to increase their already dramatic share of the overseas market — the home market has long been theirs.
General Music Strings was the first to be established in the UK. A Viennese citizen called Michael Stein fled from Germany in 1938 with his wife and son Alfred. The family managed to get onto the last refugee boat to leave Hamburg and six hours after sailing, the Nazis were storming the house that had been the Stein family home in Vienna.
With the help of some friends, the Stein family managed to bring with them six music-string making machines and the equivalent of £100. The Steins belonged to the European group of families that controlled the music instrument industry since the middle 19th century and the name Stein had become synonymous with music strings.
When the family arrived in Britain they were offered a factory building on the Treforest Estate just outside Cardiff. At the time it was a depressed area with an unemployment problem and, with a little assistance from the authorities, Michael Stein was soon producing strings again.
At that time the output of the factory was almost solely strings for bowed instruments although items like Ukele and guitar strings were also available. Materials at the time were exclusively steel and gut and it's an interesting point to note that British guts are universally considered the best for string manufacture.
Selling the zithers he no longer needed, helped Jimmy to build a string-making machine to his own design and the whole thing snowballed from there. He had designed all his own string-making machines — it took a couple of years to finally evolve an efficient and reliable one — so when the great boom in guitars came along he was able to pitch in and produce strings in reasonable quantities.
His engineering ability enabled him to produce a machine he claims was the first semi automatic string-winding machine to be used in this country. Soon he was producing strings for Vox, Burns, Hagstrom, Hoyer, EKO, Guild, Goya and Watkins instruments. An early order around this time was for 80,000 sets of strings from Milan — a consignment which weighed half a ton.
At this time James How and Co. — the Co. includes his brother Ron and (today) son Martin — were working from three converted garages in Bexleyheath. They were all working flat-out not only to keep production going, but to build new machines to produce strings.
If this all sounds like a fairy story rise to fame — there's also the classic heart-stopping scene as well. Just when things were going really well the company premises were destroyed by fire — twice! On top of that floods hit the factory four years ago.
Only with the greatest difficulties were these obstacles overcome and by purchasing stock from other sources the company was able to continue selling until production could be resumed.
Today the main offices and factory of James How Industries are situated in a new office block in Uplands Road, Bexleyheath. The company employs about 80 people — both in Bexleyheath and at the company's other factory in Kent — and a very large part of the string production fulfils export orders.
Rotosound strings achieved a big breakthrough in America when Meisel Corporation took on US distribution of the strings. America is a huge market for the company and has done a lot to place Rotosound in the position it is today.
As an offshoot to the musical string-making operation, a healthy medical section has developed within the company.
"A surgeon from Harley Street came to see me and asked me if I could make a certain fine tube for him," recalls James How, "I looked at the details of what he wanted and I told him that, not only could I make the tube he wanted, but I could make some considerably better."
The medical section now specialises in producing tubes and wires for medical use and these highly flexible and controllable wires are coated with teflon to be almost friction-less.
Rotosound has been particularly successful because of the endorsement of many top stars who have used — and liked — the strings. Perhaps John Entwistle is the best known Rotosound endorser — he's long advocated Rotosound bass strings — and only last month Greg Lake decided that he would like to have acoustic and electric sets of Rotosound in addition to his bass strings and next year the company is hoping to launch their new range of Greg Lake Rotosound strings.
The company produces many strings that are not intended for guitars. Instruments often strung by Rotosound include, double basses, violin, viola, cello, mandolin, banjo, ukelele autoharp, harp, harpischord and clavichord.
Perhaps the most exciting recent string to come out of the James How company is the Super Bass — a string that uses the piano idea of tapering off before it passes over the bridge to allow the string greater freedom to vibrate.
Cardiff Music Strings came into being about eight years ago. It's the brain child of George Ostreicher, a young man who has spent much of his life around Cardiff.
George is very much a marketing man and he's rapidly built up string brand names for strings in different price categories. Well-known strings produced by the company include Londoner and Western Gold and an exciting new range just launched by the company is Sound City.
"We have no competitors, only followers" is a typical statement from Alan Marcuson — Sales Manager of the CMS organisation. He likes to be known as "Mr. String" and he has as much right to the title as almost anybody as he's spent many years in the string industry pioneering new and improved marketing methods.
CMS is an associate company of WMI — the organisation that distributes Kay products in the UK. It's a very useful link because one product obviously pioneers trading areas for another product and with a range of musical instruments and strings the CMS-WMI organisation offers a very full catalogue.
George Ostreicher went into partnership with two others in 1967 intent on producing music strings. Like any other business it's not easy to succeed and his partners fell by the wayside during the first couple of years. Guts and determination saw George through and only by repeated efforts to sell overseas did he manage to get sufficient orders to keep the small company going.
Eventually he landed the company's first sizeable order — for Kay guitars in the States and that was the beginning of a link that was to grow.
Nashville is a name which conjures up images of recording studios, Chet Atkins, Grand Old Opry, country rock and a whole host of musical pastimes. It's a name that has become synonymous with music, especially guitar music, and it was obviously for this reason that a new stringmaking company decided to adopt the name.
To call Nashville new is an understatement in these days when new is usually meant to mean "better", or "improved" or some other virtuous term. With Nahsville it means new — like a few weeks old.
Jeff Jeffries is a well-known figure in the world of strings. He's worked over ten years in marketing strings for another string maker and Nashville is partly his attempt to put his own ideas into practice. It's also a similar attempt by production men Davy Jones and Douglas Yeo who have also spent many years manufacturing strings and were anxious "to do it their way."
Nashville isn't in Tennesse of course. It's in a tiny mining village half way up the Rhonda Valley in Vales. Here the company have taken over a grey stone-built house that has been derelict for three years in the High Street of Pentre (said Pentra). The house has five floors and because it's perched on the side of the mountain enjoys the privilege of having two ground floors — one entered at street level from Ystrad Road and one entered via the back door two floors below.
Whilst Jeff Jeffries is travelling the world attempting to get sales moving for the new company, Davy and Doug are seeing little else but the inside of 213 Ystrad Road as they make a round the clock, "weekends included," effort to re-write the map so that Nashville appears close to Tom Jones' birthplace.
When the company started they had nothing except determination and sufficient finance to give them a sporting chance. Personal visits to the suppliers of raw materials helped to get fast deliveries and personal physical endeavour managed to get the necessary lathes and machinery on which to start building those specialised string machines.
At the same time the house needed "slight renovation." An estate agent might have described it in that way, but the reality of the situation is that walls had to disappear from one place to reappear in another and floors and ceilings had to be replaced. So with one hand the staff — around 20 — were making strings and, with the other, they were holding a nail for someone else to hammer home.
But the company insists that their aim to make "better strings" has been helped rather than hindered by having to start the whole thing from scratch. That way, they believe, they get everything exactly how they want it.
String production is already slightly ahead of target and the first batches of Nashville strings were dispatched some weeks ago. In string-making it is the skilled maker who brings the necessary experience to make good strings. String-makers are hard to find, of course, so Nashville have the job of training their own makers to make strings firstly and then to make strings the Nashville way.
Shelving and office fittings have still to arrive on the premises so stock control and dispatch is still quite basic with neat piles of strings on the floor.
As may be imagined, the range of Nashville strings is still quite limited in comparision to the varieties of instruments using strings. The current catalogue lists electroylitic wire wound strings in medium gauges, rock'n'roll, light gauge and super fines, brass-wound strings in extra light, light, medium and heavy, silver-plated wound strings in light and medium, nylon classic strings in brass and silver plated, nylon flat silver-plated 12 string guitar sets in brass and silver wound and madolin, banjo, tenor banjo and ukelele.
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