Jim D'Addario’s family has been making music strings since 1680. His Long Island factory has grown in recent decades to become the largest manufacturer of music strings in the world, with 700,000 of them produced per day. And D'Addario has recently launched a new type of guitar string, NYXL, inspired in part by the cables holding up the Brooklyn Bridge.
It’s been a long road for D'Addario to reach this point. When Jim D'Addario’s grandfather arrived in the states in 1905, he began importing strings from his family in Italy; when importing became difficult during World War I, he started manufacturing here. The company went through a few different names and iterations, until Jim D'Addario decided to “start over” in 1974, restructuring the business and locating the headquarters in Farmingdale, New York. He also finally named the business “D'Addario,” jettisoning his forebears’ squeamishness over whether an Italian name might be discriminated against in the U.S. market. The company grew from just three employees in 1974 to 1,200 today.
Strings are the company’s bread and butter, but D'Addario also makes musical accessories of all kinds: reeds for saxophone and clarinet, drumheads and drumsticks, guitar straps, capos, tuners, and so on. The company often works with designers to create patented technologies, like the “Pro-Winder,” which combines a peg-winder with a wire cutter, for mounting strings and trimming excess quickly. “We try to innovate in every category we’re in,” says D'Addario.
How did D'Addario create what he says is the strongest guitar string on the market? It took operational shifts, aggressive negotiation, and technological innovation.
The project kicked off in earnest almost four years ago, when D'Addario felt that he was running into supply problems--the company was simply rejecting too much of the high-carbon steel it brought in to make strings. “Either it wasn’t strong enough, or it was too brittle,” he says of the rejected material. D'Addario wanted to work with a higher-quality supplier, but D'Addario was traditionally seen as too small of a company to be worth the hassle.
D'Addario made a full-court press to convince this major industrial supplier to work with him. “We had to go in there and say, ‘Please, will you do this for us? We’re willing to give you years’ worth of orders. We’re willing to pay you much more money for it.’” Finally, the supplier (whom he prefers not to name) relented; D'Addario is able to tag along on the ends of runs for larger clients. “We had to beg, borrow, and steal to get them to cooperate,” he says.
Next, D'Addario moved a mill that the company owned in Massachusetts down to Long Island, and the company began to innovate on the process. “We literally threw out every wire-drawing machine we had,” he says. D'Addario purchased a new series of German drawing machines. “We realized right away that what we were getting off the machine was infinitely better,” he says.
D'Addario and a team of engineers further tweaked the machines, perfecting the shape of a series of 20 “dies” in the machine that draw the wire thinner and thinner. “It’s progressive,” D'Addario explains. “You can’t just stick a piece of wire that’s a 16th of an inch thick and draw it down to 10 thousandths of an inch in one shot. The wire would break. So you gradually draw it down, a little at a time.”
After years of work, the NYXL was ready to debut. D'Addario subjected it to all kinds of stress tests, and he says it outperformed its competitors. He says that in a survey of players, about two-thirds agreed that the pitch was “more stable than anything they’d played before.” Major artists who use D'Addario strings include Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow, and John McLaughlin.
At the end of the day, all that innovation doesn’t run cheap: $10-$12 a set. But if you’re an aggressive player, says D'Addario, you'll come out ahead with all the saved headaches over snapped strings, or strings that rapidly lose their pitch.
[Image: Flickr user Greg Neate]