Sterling slump hits right note for guitar string maker
Brexit is offering a family business that’s been behind the best of British rock a chance to take on the world.
Jason How’s father worked with the Who to create their signature sound. The Who were on the verge of becoming one of the world’s biggest bands in the mid-1960s, but John Entwistle, its bass player, was struggling to get the right sound. Fortunately, a Kent-based family company saved the day and the rest is rock’n’roll history.
Rotosound, a guitar string maker, worked with Entwistle to develop a set with the weight, thickness and tone he was looking for and began a long association between the two. The Who went on to sell millions of records, the likes of My Generation and Pinball Wizard, while Entwistle’s seal of approval helped to cement Rotosound’s position as one of the best-known brands in the music industry. Since then, it has become a world-beater in its field, selling its products in more than 50 countries, with exports accounting for about two thirds of its £3 million-plus annual turnover.
Rotosound found success after being endorsed by John Entwistle, second right, of the who the business dates to the 1950s when James How, an engineer by profession, was learning to play the zither and could not find spare strings. Experimenting with nylon sewing yarn and electrical fuse wire, he devised a winding machine, using a single filament for lighter strings and wrapping them in a thread-like wire for heavier strings. Within a few years orders were rolling in and in 1958 the Orchestral and Jazz Strings Company, later renamed Rotosound after one of its most popular ranges, was founded.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Pink Floyd were among the bands that endorsed Rotosound, followed by Queen, The Jam, U2, Duran Duran, Oasis and others. In 1994 the company’s foudner died and his son Jason, who had trained as an engineer, joined the business. He spent eight years upgrading machinery, designing and building computer-controlled equipment to introduce more automation, increase production speed, improve productivity and ensure quality control.
Mr How, now 51 and chairman and chief executive of Rotosound, recalls: “I designed and built all-new string winding machinery, which basically meant we could keep the manufacturing in Britain. We still use some of dad’s machines from the 1960s and some strings are still made by hand. About 80 per cent of production is automated now and it gives us a competitive edge to export and compete with other string brands.” Three decades ago the company employed 150 people; today the workforce numbers 40 and its modern 10,000 sq ft factory in Sevenoaks is bulging at the seams.
The slump in sterling since the Brexit vote has helped. “As the pound is heading to its correct level of parity against the dollar, so we are becoming a much more viable source for a lot of our distributors. And it’s probably making some British customers start thinking that it’s time to support British manufacturing as all the imported stuff is going up in price.” Even before June’s referendum, the company had expansion plans. In July it agreed to become UK distributor for The Music Alliance, a Dutch-based distribution company with a catalogue of 18,000 products. “We are becoming a major wholesaler. We are still grappling with it, but it has been a good start. Our catalogue has suddenly gone from 200 products to thousands.”
Under the supervision of his wife Kathy, who is production director, the company buys wire by the ton from a handful of specialist producers and turns out steel, alloy, nylon and nickel-wound strings to suit the type of instrument and the musical tastes of the player. Though it has been among a slow moving industry’s less conservative players, recently switching from paper and card packaging to foil, Mr How is careful not to change things radically. “Lots of specifications for strings have stayed the same since the Sixties and we haven’t messed around with them. The last thing guitarists want is for you to change something. They’re very conservative people, guitar players.
“In terms of quality, we have stuck to the same parameters for many years, about how strings should feel, how they should sound, how they look.”
If guitars and guitarists have changed little over the years, the industry has been transformed by the internet. Rotosound has embraced the web for wholesale and distribution, but deliberately has avoided selling directly to the public, maintaining a team of regional sales reps in Britain and France. Overseas sales have risen since it appointed a dedicated export manager in 2005. One member of staff is focused on artist relations so that Rotosound can be associated with new talent, just as it was half a century ago.
Among the present crop of bands that endorse its strings are Drones, Jonestown, The Soapgirls and Black Orchid Empire, though Mr How, himself a keen musician, admits that his tastes favour some of the older names on its roster, such as Buzzcocks, Stone Roses, the Who and Pink Floyd. “I am still listening to the old stuff.”
This article was Written by Peter Cunliffe and appeared in The Times