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.
Unlike most industries, stringmaking flourished during the war years. From the beginning of the Treforest operation, a Welshman, Trevor Meridith joined the Steins and today he runs the production of General Music Strings as Works Director.
"Business was very, very good for all sorts of strings during the war," he recalls, "Entertainment boomed during the period and the company was able to consolidate and expand.
After the war business naturally slowed for a while and while the country was gradually reequipping and trying to recover from the blow of a global war, GMS marked time, still producing strings for the finest orchestras and popular musicians of the day.
Like every company involved in the music industry the 1956-1966 boom re-paid all investment and diligence. Trevor Meridith: "When the skiffle boom started we had been producing guitar strings for many years so we were able to respond quickly to the demand. The guitar craze got so big, however, that the years at the end of the fifties saw the most production doubled or trebled each successive year during the period."
By this time Alfred Stein was in charge of the company and in the family tradition was an engineer as well as being a master stringmaker. With Trevor Meridith he designed and produced string-making machines that vastly increased the output facility.
"I think one of the things that I'm most proud of is the way we managed to increase the efficiency of the machines," says Trevor. "50 years ago a man and a machine could produce about 1½ to 2 gross a day. We then managed to get the same machines up eight gross a day. With the new automatic machines we have we can now produce 50 gross a day. The automatics produce many different strings but they can't yet produce bass strings and some bowed strings."
With the vast increase in business GMS was able to expand in many directions. The company had always preferred to print to meet their own requirements for string packets, advertising literature and so, but expansion allowed them to change from small hand-operated machines to large sophisticated colour presses that are able to produce high quality print work — much of it for outside clients. The printing division has now branched off entirely and is called Estate Printers and only a few years ago a new engineering company called Peter and Nicholas was founded to manufacture hardware for the music industry — microphone stands, disco stands and so on. The company is named after Peter and Nicholas Stein — Alfred's sons. The other member of the third Stein generation is Connie who is currently studying at college and working her way around the factory floor learning about the various aspects of string manufacture.
Peter made his first string when he was eight. He's all set to continue the family tradition of string making and is also at college while studying the company operation. Nicholas has already entered the business.
The GMS operation is spread over three main buildings centred around the main factory. Huge stocks of raw material — British and Swedish steel etc. — are carried and the company is proud of making exotic strings as well as the more usual types. Balalaika strings are available in three gauges for example.
Guitarists will know GMS through their brand names. These include the famous Monopole, Picato, Ambassador and Red Dragon names and the GMS catalogue includes almost every conceivable type of music string.
James How Industries make Rotosound strings — amongst others. The string has found great popularity among the superstars and is now a great favourite with American players as well as their European counterparts.
James How arrived in the string business in a rather peculiar way. He'd always been musical — as a violinist he'd studied under many well-known masters — and in the early fifties he was captivated by the zither "boom".
Entering the industry by way of the zither "boom" is rather like saying Eric Clapton became a guitarist because of the trad boom. There wasn't any real boom in zither music, as such, but the Third Man film sparked off a whole series of zither bands and zither numbers and James How got caught up in the enthusiasm.
"When I managed to get hold of a zither I found I couldn't get any strings for it so I had to find another zither to get enough strings for the first one. Eventually I wound up with a house full of zithers just to get enough strings."
Despite being an accomplished musician, James was a tool-maker by trade, and it was because of his training that the idea of making his own strings occurred to him. Soon — working almost totally by hand — he had restrung all his zithers and was able to supply friends.
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.
Since the beginning the company's been centred in Caerphilly — about eight miles outside Cardiff — and the birth of the M4 and M5 has made the area really excellent as a distribution centre. Today the CMS factory is the largest of all the British string makers. That's not to say that the operation is the biggest, but CMS has more space under one roof than the others. The factory is light and airy and obviously a pleasure to work in. String-winding is by the usual assortment of hand and automatic winding machines and the company concentrates on high volume production runs.
The Sound City name for the new range of strings from CMS only hints at the degree to which CMS has become established. As all musicians will know, Sound City has been a name familiar to amp users for quite a few years and it was when the Dallas Musical empire collapsed in March this year that a company called British Music and Tennis Strings became available for purchase. This company was the oldest established British string maker of all and it is unfortunate that the collapse of it's parent company, Dallas, forced it to go up for sale. The company has been completely taken over by CMS and all it's machines, other equipment and stock have been moved to Caerphilly. Through this acquisition the name Sound City became available and George and his production manager Mike Blunstone started working to produce a string worthy of such an established name. Readers will notice that an introductory offer on these strings is being made to IM readers this month.
As the CMS operation has expanded so has the market place for the strings produced. The range now includes Cathedral, St. David, Londoner and Summitt and many countries around the world are purchasing these strings in large quantities. Guitar manufacturers buy the strings in bulk for fitting to their instruments "ex works" and George Ostreicher spends much of his time in Europe, America and the Far East attending to overseas business.
In the UK, Alan Marcuson pursues his highly individual marketing campaign. Dealer incentives are the order of the day and seeking new and better methods of display and promotion are all part of his lot.
Hohner are now carrying out the main distribution of CMS strings in the UK and some indication about price and variety in the London range is as follows: London Slimmy Rock 'n' Roll strings sell for around 65p with gauges of .009, .011., .015, ,023, .031 and .041. inches. The super light version of the Slimmys are on average three hundredths of an inch thinner on each string and sell for around 80p. As may be imagined the usual folk and country and western sets are also available in different gauges.
Like other string makers CMS undertake all their own printing and engineering. The highly specialised work of the string maker demands in-house printing facilities and CMS have an entirely separate print plant situated in a building adjacent to the main factory. Here letterpress machines undertake work for outside clients as well as in-house material and an envelope folder produces the millions of tiny string packets needed. The engineering shop for the organisation is in yet another separate building next to the main factory and here the string-making machines are turned out and serviced.
A few miles away on another trading estate is a giant warehouse filled with the most enormous stock of guitars, microphones and general accessories. This is the WMI/Kay part of the operation and from this centre massive shipments of all kinds of musical instruments are made.
CMS is the cornerstone of this particular empire and Londoner and Cathedral the material from which the bricks are built. New Sound City strings seem set to become a major force in the string world and improve the fortunes of CMS still further.
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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