Interview:Meet Jim D'Addario

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Meet Jim D'Addario
By Scott Tribble

Jim D'Addario didn't invent guitar strings. Nor did any D'Addario, for that matter. But, as the latest scion in the first family of string-making and as president of his clan's business- Jim has overseen substantial innovation, leveraging the latest research and technology to produce strings that play better, last longer, and cost virtually the same as they did 25 years ago.


Along with his father and brother, Jim launched the current incarnation of the family business-J. D'Addario & Co.-in 1974, but the origins of the family trade date back three centuries earlier, when Donato D'Addario, a native of the small Italian town of Salle, began crafting strings for lutes, harps, and violins. For centuries, the D'Addario family toiled as string-makers until an earthquake nearly decimated Salle in 1905. Jim's grandfather subsequently migrated the family business to American shores and eventually passed it along to his own son, Jim's father, who navigated it through the early years of the rock and roll explosion.


Jim assumed the presidency of J. D'Addario & Co. in the early 1980's and guided the company through rapid expansion and the acquisition of several major brands, including Kaplan Musical String Company, Planet Waves, Evans Drumheads, and Rico Reeds. The company currently occupies a total of 190,000-sq. feet in its headquarters in Farmingdale, New York and also has satellite offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, Australia, Japan, France, and Hong Kong. Last month, MI SalesTrak proclaimed J. D'Addario & Co. the number-one-selling fretted instrument string brand in the United States.


Jim recently took time to chat with and reflect on his many years in the string-making business. Among other topics, he discussed how mechanization has contributed to a longer-lasting, more reliable product, as well as how he has maintained the identity of a family business through years of corporate growth. Jim, we appreciate your taking the time to speak with us today. I wanted to start with your childhood and get a sense for what it was like to grow up in such a musical family. What are some of your earliest music-related memories?


Jim D'Addario: Probably my earliest recollections of music would be seeing Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show in the late 1950s. Then, seeing the British Invasion and the Beatles in the early 1960s got me interested in the guitar. Prior to that, I was taking classical piano lessons...I still play piano, but seeing the Beatles on TV and listening to their music got me interested in the guitar, and I started teaching myself to play.


There was always a lot of music around my house-my dad would listen to the big bands, standards, [Frank] Sinatra and classical music, so there was always good quality music being played. Music's been a big part of my life-a major part of my life. It's what drives me to do my job. I like making stuff for people who make music. Did you take much interest in the family business growing up? Did you see yourself doing it for a career?


D'Addario: Yes and no. I was always extremely interested in what my father did in making strings, particularly after I started playing guitar ... I'm a tinkerer, a mechanical guy-I was always building things, taking stuff apart, and rebuilding. When I used to go to my grandmother's house, the string factory shop was in the basement, and I'd always go down there. There was an old hand-winding machine, and I'd try to wind the strings. I learned a lot about machinery just hanging around there.


I was always interested in the business, but I don't recall, as a child or as a teenager or even in college, [thinking] that I was definitely going to go into this family business. It just kind of happened. I was actually going to college to get a degree in music education. I was teaching 25 guitar students a week when I was in college, and I thought I was going to make a career out of trying to play music and teach. Then, realizing that I wasn't quite good enough to do that and that I wasn't getting the satisfaction I really wanted out of teaching that I thought I would, I started to change direction and work for my dad part-time. So I kind of morphed into, evolved into working for the family business ...


I used to be the R&D [research & development] string tester whenever they tried a new wire or type of winding ... My dad would bring the strings home and say, "Here, put these on and see what you think of them." I was one of the first people to be testing strings. That always interested me-how subtle changes in material made a difference in the sound of strings... I always was interested in it-I just didn't know that I would make a career out of it until I was midway through college. What was the string-making industry like in the 1950s and 1960s? Did it consist entirely of smaller, family-type businesses like your dad's or were there any larger companies?


D'Addario: I think there were just a handful of large companies, but they were there. CBS bought Fender in the late 1960s. There was also the Norlin Group, which consisted of Gibson and other brands; they were a big conglomerate of music divisions. I guess Yamaha was around, but they weren't a significant force in the marketplace at that time. I can't recall too many other large companies. The band and orchestra companies looked like large companies to me, but today I'm not sure they would fall into the category of the Rolands, Meinls, or Peaveys. So, we do have more larger companies today, but I think the flavor of our business hasn't changed all that much. Were machines and automation techniques used in the making of strings at that point or did hand-making still rule the day?


D'Addario: You really have to define what automation is-there are various levels of automation. Our definition of a hand-wound string vs. an automated-wound string is whether or not a human is guiding the wrap wire onto the string. You're really making a string by hand when you're feeding the wire on yourself That would be our definition of a totally-manual process, as opposed to some kind of process where a carriage is feeding the wire.


I believe that the National Music String Company in New Brunswick, New Jersey [ed. Note: manufacturers of Black Diamond strings] had semi-automatic machines feeding the wire as early as the 1930s. They weren't very good at it-they didn't make a great string-but it was something that was being done. Real sophistication and control of the string-making process, where we actually control every variable involved, didn't really start to get going until 1976, when [J. D'Addario & Company] really got into building our own machines and taking that automation to another level. Like I said, there are just varying degrees of saying, "What is automation?" It's still not that automated a process when you think about it. We have 750 people here in Farmingdale making strings and drumheads. It's still a labor-intensive product to make because one person can run maybe two or four spindles, feeding the core wire on and starting the wrap wire-the machine takes over from there. So, it's still a semi-automated thing. Are we more automated than our competitors? Most definitely.


It isn't so much automation for saving money as for control of the process, so that you make a consistent, reliable product over and over again. That was our first goal when we started to make the equipment more sophisticated. In 1974, I think half of the companies were making strings by hand, and half used some semi-automatic, crude devices that might have been feeding the wire with poor tension control. These mechanical devices were spring-loaded tension devices, instead of electronic. Today, when we wind a string, the angle that the wire is being fed at is controlled by a computerized motor. We were doing that in 1979 and paying $5000-6000 a machine just for the motor that would drive the carriage. That was more than what some people paid for their whole machine. But we retrofitted every machine in our factory with that technology when we developed it because we saw it made a superior product. I think our competitors are just catching up to that now. So, in 1974, I think it was very rudimentary-string making was not what it is today. Did the industry take much interest in innovating when it came to the strings themselves?


D'Addario: I think the market, at that particular time, was just kind of accepting what was available. That trickled down even to what materials were available to the string-maker ... You were always buying very small quantities of material, which made you completely uninteresting to any vendor that drew wire or made nylon or anything of the sort.


We had to take materials that were stock materials available commercially and try to make strings out of them. As we became more demanding, we said, "You know what, those strings are going dead faster-what can we do?" In 1974, we introduced Phosphor Bronze, which was a longer-lasting string. Now, Phosphor Bronze was a wire that just wasn't easily available at the time-it was being used for wire-cloth screens that paper mills used on paper-making machinery. These mills were switched to synthetics, and there was this extra capacity out there, so these people were looking to sell wire. I tried some of it, and it worked. We were able to coerce them into making small quantities in all the different sizes we needed, and we put out a better string. It evolved slowly because we weren't big enough to go to a vendor and say, "Hey, we've got an idea for a better string, how about if you made it out of this material?" It just wasn't possible-you just couldn't get the stuff. People just weren't thinking much about innovation.


In 1974, we were kind of an infant company. By 1976, when we were really starting to grow and we realized that we were really making an impact in the marketplace, it slowly became easier for us to get the attention of vendors to actually try a different process or a new material. We also did as much innovating as we possibly could on our own factory floor-things like controlling the tension of the wire going on the string electronically, instead of mechanical things that wore out...All those things-we realized they had an effect on the string quality and thought, "How can we eliminate that variable?" That was the innovative thinking that we put in place. As simplistic as it may be 25-30 years later, it was innovative at the time. I don't think everybody was thinking that way. As you raise the bar, the quality of the string or, really, any product, everybody else comes along, matches it, and tries to outdo you. Suddenly, cars are better, stereos are better, speakers are better, and strings are better. Innovation breeds innovation. Prior to 1974, I don't think much was being done, no. What was your first official role with J. D'Addario & Co.?


D'Addario: My dad sold his company [Darco Music Strings] in 1969 to The Martin Guitar Company. When my family sold the business, I started working for Martin while I was still in college. I was the New York-area rep and called all the dealers as a part-time job. I also worked for Martin as advertising coordinator once I graduated. My dad, my brother, and I worked there for five years from 1969. Actually, in 1973, I left and started this company; in 1974, my dad and brother joined me. They had a five-year contract that they had to stay at Martin. I didn't, and so I left and started the company up as a printing company first; then, we introduced our strings in August of 1974. I was the vice-president of the company in 1974. My dad was the president until he retired in the early-1980s. Why the split from Martin?


D'Addario: It was very difficult for my dad to work for somebody after he'd worked for himself all his life. He was the vice-president of Martin, and he didn't see eye to eye with the decisions and the way they were running the business at the time. They were on a bit of an acquisition binge; they bought Vega Banjos, Fibes Drum Company, and Darco Music Strings. Darco was the most profitable division, including Martin Guitars at the time. We had a backlog of orders, and we needed to buy more equipment. We couldn't get the budget because they needed to spend the money on the drum company, that kind of thing. So, the politics of being involved in a slightly-larger organization weren't appealing to us. We decided it wasn't worthwhile for us to stick around in that environment-there wasn't a future for us there, and we decided to start over. I'm sure your dad gave you a lot advice over the years with regard to running a successful business, but does any of his advice stand out as particularly memorable and relevant to you today?


D'Addario: Integrity is key thing that I learned from my grandfather and my father. Paying your bills on time, doing what you tell people you're going to do, and coming through-whether it's [with] a customer or a vendor or a consumer. Coming through with what you say you're going to do is the key thing. That is what we base the culture of our business on, and it's what's made us grow.


I'll give you a little story ... When we started, we had no money because my dad sold his business for stock in The Martin Guitar Company. He really didn't see the cash for the stock until 1994, so we had no money. We didn't have the money to buy equipment, materials, or anything. But my dad's reputation for paying his bills by return mail enabled us to go to vendors and say, "We're starting over. Can you help us out?" We had two key wire suppliers say to us, "Look, you just order whatever materials you need, and you pay for it when you can. We know you'll pay for it. You can pay for it a year from now, and it's OK. We know you're going to be successful, and we know you'll make good on it." That kind of integrity-that lesson that you learn early on when you're like 22 or 23 years old-makes a very strong impression. That's something we live by today. If you don't have integrity with your vendors and customers, what good is it? It doesn't mean anything. That's what drives the business. I think that's probably the most important thing I've learned from my dad. Over the past 20 years, you've acquired a number of other brands, including Planet Waves, an accessories company. Why the decision to move beyond strings?


D'Addario: New challenges and new horizons. Being a little bored with doing the same thing. Wanting to be more important to our customers. That's a very, very important thing today ... if you're just one brand, you're not as important as you are if you're five strong brands. We're a more valuable supplier to customers. We like to be important to our customers, and we like our customers to be important to us. We like to make that playing field even. By expanding our stable of brands, we [hoped to] become a more valuable supplier, and we have done so. The primary motivation really was new challenges and being more valuable to the customer. As the company expands, do you risk losing the identity of a family business?


D'Addario: That's a very, very tricky challenge-it was one where I felt, two or three years ago, that we might be losing it. After taking very, very proactive steps to change the direction of where we were heading, I feel that we live by the culture of what our family business was meant to be more than ever before. We've done that through really proactive family business counseling, management retreats, and seminars. We spent almost three weeks drafting our company vision, which is just a couple of sentences, so that everybody understands what we're about. That is a big challenge, but I think we're doing a really good job at keeping the culture that we had before. It makes it fun.


We just acquired Rico [International]. We went there to show people what we are, to show them what we've done with our other brands and companies and what we plan on doing with theirs. They got excited to be part of that culture because it's a culture of growth with integrity-not just a numeric growth thing. We're trying to make the very best product; we're trying to make musicians be able to make music more easily and make better music, yet at the same time we're trying to make a profit. That kind of culture, I think, is appealing to a lot of people. We've been able to attract good employees and keep them for a long time. As challenging at it is, it's rewarding to see it happen. Does the next generation of D'Addarios have interest in guiding the business, like previous generations?


D'Addario: Absolutely. It's a big part of what I do now-helping with the succession and the mentoring of the next generation. All four of my brothers' children work here, and my son and son-in-law work here. We work with a family business advisor, who comes in almost-monthly, to work the family into the business end and make sure that we don't discourage non-family members into thinking that they might not have any future or growth because of nepotism. We're trying to make it that everybody earns their own way-whether they're a family member or not a family member-so that we have one cohesive team. There's a keen interest in the next generation-they're interested in the business, and they're very capable, working very hard and getting along real well. I'm very optimistic about that. Let's focus on the strings themselves for a bit. When choosing a set of strings, what sorts of questions should guitar players ask themselves about their own playing to help narrow down the choices available?


D'Addario: I'm not sure that there are broad generalizations ... because the field is so broad. What might be the right answer for a classical player or a folk player or a steel string finger picker, as opposed to a bluegrass flat picker-they all might find something different in the same string. I think your own playing style and what you like to hear is such a personal, subjective thing that you have to trial-and-error play different strings.


You could gather some knowledge by reading our website, our catalog, or our competitor's catalogues, as to what different string materials do to the sound or feel or playability of a string ... If you read that, you might be able to identify what it is you're looking for in a particular string with your style of playing ... I don't think there's a set answer or answers to directing somebody specifically to a particular string based on certain characteristics of playing-it's hard to do. There are things we can define-we know, for sure, that an 80/20 has a little bigger bottom to it; it has a crisper treble and a fuller bottom, but it's a little weaker in the mid-range, compared to a Phosphor Bronze string. We can show that with test equipment. If that's what you like on your guitar with your style and the way you pick the strings, it's hard to say. Some people shock me that they like one or the other [when] I would think they would like something different. I tend to shy away from recommending to somebody specifically what they want until they tell me what they don't like and what they like about a particular string. It's a tough question. Even harder for violinists. I'm not thinking of Steve Vai or Al DiMeola here, but, in your opinion, does the average celebrity guitar player-the one you see on MTV, for instance-appreciate the nuances in string types and their affect on playability?


D'Addario: I would think that the majority of people overlook it and don't really realize that playing around with their accessories-whether it's a cable, string, or different cuts of reeds-can actually enhance or affect their performance in a major way. We always encourage people to experiment and get a little more educated just by trying different products out and seeing what works. It's amazing how many people just buy whatever string the guy on the other side of the counter recommends. You see it all the time ... .They should be a little more discerning.


I'm a golfer, and, because I'm a discerning musician, I'm very fussy about what golf ball I play. There are some people who don't care-they'll just hit any golf ball that they find on the golf course. I think a good part of the golfing public and playing musician public is very similar. They don't quite understand the differences and don't care to really learn about them. However, they will know when a string goes dead or when they can't tune it. There are basic things that they're going to understand that might draw them to a particular brand-that could explain why we have a little more popularity than some other brands. But whether they know the difference between an 80/20, a Phosphor Bronze, or a nickel, as opposed to a stainless steel string-I bet you if you asked nine out of 10 people, they probably wouldn't know. They might say, "Yeah, I've been playing some D'Addarios, and they're pretty good and reliable," but they may not know why


It's a marketing challenge. In the beginning of the introduction of the brand D'Addario, we were known for our technical ads. We really preached the differences between the strings-half-wound, stainless steel, and all that made our strings different, better, and innovative. It worked very, very well back then. That same type of ad campaign does not work as well today. It's a different customer today. The market was smaller and made up of people who were real aficionados and were really, really interested in the details of everything about their guitar. Today, it's a faster-paced environment. Ads with a lot of copy don't get read. People just don't seem to take the time to learn as much about what they're using as the people who are going to read this article that you're writing. It might be a select minority that actually takes the time to read it. For the benefit of those who do take interest in string-specifics, can you explain why your company prefers hexagonal core geometry to round core?


D'Addario: At the cross-section of a hexagonal wire, the points are not as dramatic as you would think they are ... You can wind a wrap wire on a hex core and get the same perfectly-round outer string as you can when you wind on a round core. Now, when you wind on a round core, there is nothing adhering the wire to the core. The wire will slip right off. You have to crimp or rough up the surface of the core wire at either end to hold the windings. That is a very dangerous thing-you're going to get many more dead strings if a guy trims a string past the crimp or sanded area before he puts it on his guitar. It's going to come loose. There is no viable advantage to a round core string.


In blindfold tests, which we've done many times-round core versus hex core-no one can tell the difference in sound. There's no advantage not to use hexagonal wire. We feel very strongly about that and haven't used round wire as a core since the beginning of our company. We have the tests to prove it. It is a significantly better product with the hexagon core. You're holding the wrap wire at every turn and at every rotation around the core-six points grabbing the wrap wire. That just makes for a better, longer-lasting string. There's no question about it. What are some of the other factors that help make strings like EXP last longer?


D'Addario: Most deterioration of the sound of the string is due to contaminants and corrosion taking place. If you've got a copper-based alloy like 80/20 Bronze or Phosphor Bronze, it's susceptible to corrosion very, very quickly, as opposed to a nickel-plated or a stainless steel guitar string, which is not impervious to corrosion, but lasts significantly longer because it's not going to tarnish. Those copper-based alloys, when they begin to tarnish, corroded material-oxidized material-actually starts to hamper the vibration of the string because it's in-between the windings. Dirt and other things that come off your fingers get in between the windings too and will kill a string. Preventing corrosion enhances the life of the string dramatically. We coat the wrap wire-before we wind it- with a very, very thin layer of urethane ... We do tests of coated vs. uncoated strings, and the results are dramatic. EXP strings just stay perfect-looking, and regular strings come out looking like rusted buoy[s]. The fact that the string doesn't corrode is what really makes it last longer. One final question-given the nature of the medium and given that we're not dealing with robots playing in a vacuum, are we going to start seeing diminishing returns on innovation, eventually reaching a point where we simply can't make a string last any longer?


D'Addario: I think we're getting there right now [laughs]. It's kind of like your personal computer. How much faster does it have to be now? When they first came out, every new processor-Mac or PC-it was so much faster than the one you just had. I would venture to say that, if you had a computer that was four years old and you bought one today, unless you were doing CAD engineering in 3-D, you wouldn't notice the speed difference even though the [new] machine might be dramatically faster. The amount of difference you're going to notice in the incremental improvement in strings is diminishing because they're about as good as we can make them already. Unless we come up with some really unique alloy or material that does something magical, which I don't see on the horizon, having a major, major innovation is going to be difficult. [Changes are] going to be incremental and harder for people to notice. You're absolutely right.


We're reaching a point of it becoming almost difficult to last longer because there's a certain amount of debris in the skin and dirt and grunge that's going to get inside the strings and make those strings go dead, regardless of what kind of coating or material you made it out of. It's just going to happen. You're absolutely right-we are going to get to the points of diminishing returns soon.


Innovation takes place here, but the type we're going for is to reduce manufacturing cost. We have to reduce the amount of labor that's in our product, so we don't get knocked off by offshore competition ultimately. We're designing fully-automated machines now that will do almost 70% of the function, so, ultimately, we'll make more strings without having to hire more people. Our goal isn't to reduce headcount-it's to put more strings out with the same number of people that we have [now]. That's innovation that, as a consumer, you wouldn't notice, except that you do notice [it] in the price of the strings. We haven't raised our string prices in four or five years. Actually, in 1980, the street price for a set of XL guitar strings was $3.49. Today, it's probably $3.99. The reason those prices have stayed there is because of innovation. Like, when you buy a receiver for a stereo-it's less today than it was 20 years ago, and you get more for it. That's innovation, even though it may not be making the product better. You're making it more capable for people to afford it because you kept the price down. A legion of guitar players undoubtedly would thank you for that. Jim, thanks again for taking the time to speak with us today.


D'Addario: Thank you.