Talking Heads – Interview with Jason How of Rotosound
The Rotosound Company has been manufacturing and selling guitar and bass strings for over seventy years. In that time, it has built its reputation for consistent high quality, a vast distribution network supplying national and international instrument retailers, and an enviable list of endorsees from the most famous bands in the world.
The company was started by James How, a violin and viola student who was also an engineer, who decided to manufacture strings for the distinctive zither, an instrument he heard played on the theme tune to the 1950’s spy thriller film The Third Man.
The idea developed into the Orchestral And Jazz Strings company, selling its brand of Top Strings, which became Rotop. The company appeared just as the boom in pop music started, and early clients included The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Shadows, as well as The London Symphony Orchestra, The Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Vox Organ and Burns Guitar Companies.
James How went on to patent the company’s unique rotowound strings, including the patented Black Nylon Tru Bass strings used by Paul McCartney.
Renamed Rotosound, the company went on to develop a peerless reputation for the quality and sound of its guitar and bass strings. Its reputation for consistently high levels of quality manufacture and its network of music retailers carrying its strings, has made Rotosound a world leader in the design and creation of top-quality guitar strings for rock and pop bands.
The company’s Chairman is Jason How, son of founder Ron, and he spoke with MIN’s Andy Hughes about the company philosophy, and its plans to develop and expand ever further.
Rotosound has developed and enhanced its reputation for consistency was that at the forefront of your mind when you took over the running of the company?
Absolutely, yes. Increasing the quality of the products, and the production, and the sales, they are all essential elements that have made the company successful. There was a lot to do when I took over in the mid-nineties, and there still is quite a bit to do, but the big bulky jobs have mostly been done now.
What sort of tasks were you faced with when you started running things?
Well, the first thing I wanted to do was to update and refine some of the manufacturing machinery, to bring things up to date and streamline the production side of the company. Because my background is engineering, I took on that job and it has been a ten-year project to get it completed.
Did you build from scratch, of re-jig some of the existing machines you were using?
A combination of the two. Some of my dad’s ideas that he had started working on in the 80’s and 90’s came in, and I designed some new machines for bass string manufacture which we hadn’t had previously. It’s something engineers can do, I can look at a machine and think about ways to improve it and make it more efficient, and I can also think about designs for brand new machines to do things more efficiently and more cost-effectively. It’s all about making things as efficient and consistent as possible.
Rotosound also have a highly efficient distribution system in place as well.
That’s right, we sell into about six hundred music retailers around the UK, and we have a staff of five sales reps who look after that side of things.
And you are moving into additional accessories as well. The Rotosound brand and reputation must help considerably there as well.
We are, we have a range of guitar stands, straps and tuners. Obviously, it’s much easier to branch into those areas if you have a known name like we do. We are always going to find it easier to find outlets than if we were Fred Blogg’s Music Accessories, not known to anyone.
Are you considering expanding the accessory side of the business?
Not really, no. We are always very busy with the manufacture of guitar strings, that’s the core of the business, that’s what pays the wages. We may look at designing and building some new production machines, but we are not looking at getting into more accessories. A number of companies have gone down that road, and it has not ended well for them. I do think there is a lot to be said for sticking to what you know, keep to what works for you, and don’t wander too far from it.
How much more can you improve on string design and manufacture?
Well, the string design is probably where it’s going to stay, apart from minor adjustments as we think of things to improve on. But the manufacture, the production output, that’s something that we continually look to refine and improve.
Is it something you think about all the time?
It comes down to how often I am in the mood to think about designing new machines, and spending time in the workshop sorting the ideas out. I don’t always have the urge to build a new machine, and there are other demands on my time as you can imagine, so it’s a matter of time, and desire, in the right combination, for new designs to be looked at.
How long does a machine design take?
I’ll give you an example. In 2002 I started working on a new machine for bass string winding. I built two new machines, and they took me two years to complete. I ran them in the factory for another year to see what needed improving. Then I tweaked them and got them running how I wanted, and I built another ten machines to a similar design, and that took another two years, so the whole project took five years from start to finish. Designing and creating machines is a long and continually ongoing process.
Going back to the 1960’s you had two wonderful musician endorsements, from John Entwhistle from The Who for your bass strings, and Jimi Hendrix for guitar strings.
We did, and they were proper endorsement deals, we were one of the very first companies to do that. That’s why we have pictures of the musicians visiting the factory, that was part of the endorsement deal. We have a great roster of endorsements now, and that’s a very good advertising tool for the business. We don’t actually actively seek people out, although of course we keep an ear open for new talent coming through. To be honest, people will know about our strings, if they haven’t tried them and liked them by now, the probably never will.
Do you make strings for any other instruments?
Some, but we do focus on guitar strings, for acoustics, classical acoustics, basses and electrics. The problem is, if you go into less popular instruments, it means shorter production runs, less retail options, and the sales don’t always justify the time and effort involved. As I’ve said, we believe in staying with what we do best, and concentrating on that, for all areas of the business.
As the ‘go to’ company for guitar strings, is there any major competition for you out there?
Oh yes. There are a lot of companies selling guitar strings, not so many manufacturing, but a lot of companies retailing. There are probably about fifty companies around the world, names you wouldn’t hear over here, but when you get into Europe, there are other brands out there. We have the well-known American brands like Ernie Ball and D’addario. In the US, there are quite a number of South American brands that sell into North America, and in Europe you get companies like Galli, Pirastro, Savarez, Hannabach, but they don’t tend to sell over here. We are in those markets as well, we probably sell to around sixty countries worldwide.
Given the size of the company, is it hard for you personally to keep a handle on everything that’s going on?
It is, but I am pleased to have an excellent staff who are specialists in their own areas. We have around forty staff, thirty of those are involved in the manufacturing side, and we have admin support for the distribution, and accessories, and our reps to keep in touch with our retailers.
Do you oversee everything?
I try to, I think it’s important to be around as much as possible, and know what’s going on, so you hear about things first-hand, it gives you a much better idea of what is going on. I probably do more than I used to years ago. One of the company directors, John Doughty, retired a couple of years ago, and he was involved in areas like wire purchase, so now I have more to do with sourcing materials, and I do look into our suppliers and that side of things now as well.
Is there such a thing as a ‘typical’ day for you?
Not really. Sometimes I am in the office doing stuff here, and other days I can be in the factory looking at machines and seeing what’s going on. I make sure I keep in touch with our endorsees as often as I can, they are the eyes and ears for me out there, I can hear what’s happening from them. I had Mark King from Level Forty-Two in the phone this morning for a chat.
What do you see coming along for Rotosound in the next five years?
Well, we are always looking ahead, which you have to do in today’s climate, you have to plan and anticipate. We will probably be adjusting some machines, maybe building some new ones. We may look at refining our accessory ranges as well, and we are always looking for ways to improve production because that helps us to remain profitable.
Do you get a buzz of excitement when you see a player using your strings on a video, or at a live show, or on television?
When I see Paul McCartney using our Black Nylon strings on the Beatles’ Get Back documentary, it doesn’t get any better than that!
Continually at the cutting-edge of groundbreaking music, Rotosound strings have become synonymous with the British Tone having been used on era-defining records from The British Invasion, Punk, New Wave, Brit Pop, and Indie. A commitment to making quality strings at an affordable price has seen musicians of every generation choose Rotosound strings time and time again.
From Pink Floyd to Guns ‘n Roses, Queen to Nirvana, the best players in the world have chosen Rotosound strings. The iconic company has famously collaborated with many rock legends to develop their strings, including Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris, Billy Sheehan, and The Who’s John Entwistle.
Rotosound has produced instrument strings and accessories for more than 60 years from its family-run factory in Kent, England. Innovating the roundwound bass guitar string and igniting the sound of rock and roll, they’ve been at the forefront of making music since 1958.
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