Hello my friends, I would like to welcome you all once again to “BISCUIT’S BASSMENT. “In this July 2011 issue of Bass Musician Magazine, I am not so much concentrating on a certain individual who plays the strings this month, but rather on one of the largest companies who actually make them for us all.
It was at the London Bass Guitar show during the second week of March this year at the Olympia Conference centre in London, that I had the pleasure of meeting up once again with the son of the man who has created one of the biggest string manufacturing companies in the World today and certainly more likely than not, the most popular manufacturer of the Bass guitar string for sure, and it was at this time that I had the idea of bringing you the inside story from Rotosound via the head man himself and his partner at the helm. So please join me in a warm welcome to Mr Jason How and his right hand man Mr John Doughty at ROTOSOUND.
I had been up since the early hours of Monday, 23rd of May, as many a low end tune spun round and round in my mind planting seeds in my head for possible new tracks that I could potentially use and reveal them as proper finished songs at a later date. This meant I needed to record those ideas as soon as possible as they would surely disappear with the arrival of the following dawn. So there I was recording and writing in the wee small hours and onwards into what was to be a very hot Tuesday during that last week of May. While I was working inside on some of those latest idea’s for new material for my solo project, I began wondering just how on earth I was ever going to get things completed with my head on “fire” between those headphones in such heat. I decided it was time for a break, and so I got a coffee and gathered some bass reading material and found a nice cool shady spot in the garden and sat myself down for a well-earned break.
While flicking through the various bass literature, I found myself coming across many Rotosound bass string advertisements, featuring their artist’s such as Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, Billy Sheehan of Mr Big and many other projects including his own of course, and the mighty Chris Squire of YES and also Duff McKagan of Guns ‘n’ Roses as well. Now, instead of contemplating an interview with any one of these guys, which may still follow at some later date hopefully, It kind of struck me that the readers here at BMM may be quite interested in hearing about just what goes on within the walls of such a well established and highly respected bass guitar string manufacturer. So off I went straight back inside and sent an email to the Chairman of Rotosound, Mr Jason How. Jason kindly responded within a few hours and invited me down to his Rotosound factory for this review. In his position as Chairman, Jason also deals with all of the advertising; Artists support, distributorships, and also has a very “hands on” approach on engineering side too, so I felt honoured to be invited as a guest by such a busy man.
It was now Wednesday, 1st June 2011, and a beautiful warm sunny day was to accompany me as I set of at 9.30am for an hour’s drive from Essex (South east UK) over the Queen Elizabeth II bridge and into the county of Kent, which is also known as the “Garden of England” in the UK, and onto the Rotosound factory in Sevenoaks.
After about twenty minutes I approached the door of the reception and was met by Jason’s How’s secretary, Coral Lynn, someone I had only known by name and via email previously when ordering my strings, so it was nice to meet her in person for the first time and discover first hand just what a wonderful Lady she is. As we entered the building Coral was telling me that she had spent some considerable time at the company and in fact would be completing thirty two years of service at Rotosound this coming November, which is quite some length of loyal service I think you will agree. I offered Coral deserved congratulations on her dedication and loyalty as she guided me through the corridors, and led me up some stairs to the first floor, where I could now see Jason through the window in his office.
It was very reassuring to see a smile of recognition on his face, and as soon as he saw me…he beckoned me inside right away. No sooner had I sat down at Jason’s desk, a cup of coffee arrived which was gratefully received and we were ready to go…. Hospitality at its finest I thought.
It was now time to get down to business, so I began by confirming that the reason for my request for a visit in the first place was to find out just how a company such as Rotosound functions, and to cover the company from an inside perspective for the readers of Bass Musician Magazine. Jason said that he was more than happy to oblige and in between sips of coffee, he began to reveal all.
He began by telling me that the Rotosound Company was first conceived by his late father James How who came from an area called Bow, in London’s tough east end. Records held by Jason show that his father was working on building a string as far back as 1953 but as a company that was to produce the very first “round wound” string it was actually pioneered in 1958. James designed his own machine using his vast knowledge gained as an engineer and set up in his own shed at home where he worked on his idea’s initially and then went on to gain the first proper company premises in 1958/59 in Sidcup, south east London/Kent borders followed by Bexleyheath two miles down the road where he had his own purpose built factory. A smaller satellite factory was also acquired just a short distance away at Welling for medical wires and later strings. By 1978 he started up a second and third manufacturing operation in Sevenoaks, Kent that, remains to this day. James wanted to call his new company “Top Strings” in the beginning but could not get the copyright, so he called it “Rotop” instead, which finally became Rotosound in 1965. The first Rotosound logo was circular in shape and it was not until the 1980’s that the design was to be changed to the familiar Diamond one that we all instantly recognise today
Among his very first customers were Jimi Hendrix, and John Entwistle of the “WHO” and it was John who was the first “Real” Endorsing artist for Rotosound bass strings when he approached James with his own specific string requirements. The fabulously talented Jaco Pastorius also became a Rotosound user as well, so I think you will agree with me that it was indeed not a bad start all in all for James How and his newly found company.
Sadly, after forty one years of building the company up from scratch, James unfortunately died in 1994 which left the company dealings all in the lap of his son Jason, who found things very tough to deal with on the outset. With the uprising of the overseas competition and just having to deal with his father’s recent death, these were going to be very tough days ahead for him indeed, and this may have been enough to have made some people give up, but that was not to be.
Jason How was found to be made of sterner stuff, and not to be beaten he just gritted his teeth and loaded his own car with vast amounts of strings and personally began the hard slog on the road in the form of a rep for his father’s company to keep the name of Rotosound alive and maintain it’s growing reputation and back up all of his father’s former hard work…. It really was a sink or swim situation, and although it was a real slog for many years, Jason managed to turn the Rotosound “Ship” around, point her in the right direction, and once again get her on to full steam ahead.
Jason and I were joined by Managing Director John Doughty, who very enthusiastically joins in the conversation between Jason and myself and kindly offers to show me around the factory a little later and explain exactly how things work, and would show me the whole process of the string manufacturing side of things. But for now, it’s time to drink up that coffee and be taken downstairs by Jason to meet his wife Kathy.
Kathy How is the production director, and her responsibilities require very long hours and total dedication to her work, which includes a very sharp eye for detail. She covers everything from the packaging inspection side of things right down to the final despatched product, and everything in between. She also deals with all staff issues and their idea, which will always be taken into consideration, as this is a really close hard working team indeed, and staff members here are greatly valued.
Kathy is a very big Cog in this massive “machine”, and is Indeed a fundamental part of Rotosound on a daily basis, and by his explanation of his wife’s role in the company and the look in his eyes it shows that Jason is very proud and appreciative of her mammoth efforts in keeping the Rotosound factory running smoothly at all times. It also has to be said that managing director John Doughty is equally as appreciative of her much valued contributions as well.
This is, and has always been a family run business. Most of the staff has been at Rotosound for so many years that they cannot always remember the exact time period, but that just goes to show what a tight and happy team they have at this company. To produce the extraordinary amount of high quality work that they do requires absolute dedication and commitment from all corners.
After a most interesting chat with Kathy, Jason informed me that this might be a suitable time for him to return to his busy desk for a while, and catch up with the daily task of running the company, so I was left in the more than capable hands of Managing Director John Doughty, who is himself a Chartered Engineer. John’s duties among many other things include being responsible for Technical support, sales/relations, employment, Engineering, Health and Safety, and also the legal side of things, so he is a very busy man indeed and has spent most of his life at Rotosound working together with Jason and his father James before him, which makes him a perfect right hand man to accompany Jason at the helm.
I was now on my second cup of coffee as John began to guide me around the factory floor and explain just what is involved in the manufacturing process. As we began the factory tour, John informed me that the current Sevenoaks factory where we find ourselves at the moment covers some 7500 sq ft and that there is also a “sister” operation in North Hollywood USA which covers 1000 sq ft where Rotosound has been exporting to since 1972, and the combined factories employ a total of fifty staff members in the UK and overseas, which is quite a change from the One hundred and twenty workers that John once managed in the earlier days before the fully automated/ mechanised system came into force.
He went on to explain that it was not only the bass guitar that Rotosound catered to, and that they actually make strings for all stringed instruments, including Double bass, Cello, Violin, Viola, Banjo, Bouzouki, Mandolin, Ukulele, acoustic bass and guitar, and of course the six string electric guitar which amounts to five guitar “Families” and eight Bass “Families” of strings in total, all of which are packed and dispatched to thousands of retailing outlets and distributors in over sixty different countries worldwide, and will soon also be available directly through Amazon as well. So there are a total of thirteen different types/families of string manufactured by Rotosound, and the flat wounds as mentioned earlier are all still made especially by hand.
Included in the Rotosound range is their best seller to date which are the Swing Bass RS 66LD used by Geddy Lee, John Paul Jones, and Billy Sheehan among so many others too numerous to mention. Other favourites among the bass range are the Bronze Bass 44 (Acoustic) the Solo Bass 55(Great for Fretless) also the Funkmaster (Slap specials) the Jazz Bass (Flat wound) and the UN silked, and the less expensive but equally high quality Rotobass sets.
There are also Specialist sets which include the Nexus electric guitar and bass range with a black polymer coated dressing which are made from a special material called type 52 alloy, which contributes to making them the most expensive string manufactured by Rotosound to date, but are worth every penny due to the special materials used and the very high quality of the end product. There is also the Nexus NXA acoustic guitar range with clear-coated phosphorus bronze windings. There is also the Drop Zone (for drop tunings B and F#) and also the Tru Bass (For that “upright” sound) and also the Steve Harris (Flat wound) and the Billy Sheehan (43/65/80/110) signature packs.
John goes on to explain the process of the string making in detail. He says that with regards to the materials, there can be anything in the region of ten tons of wire in the factory at any one time. First, the Core has to be made and then held in store eventually to be distributed along with the correct cover wires in a “Workbox” for each individual operator to be carried out for the following day’s session. Initially, the brass balls are attached to the ball end of the core by virtue of purpose built state-of-the-art German ballender machines of which Rotosound has five, costing in excess of £400,000 …three for guitar strings and two for Bass, and each machine can do the work of six workers.
The next step is to apply the covers or wraps which are to be wound around the core, which must be matched to the correct core before commencing the machining (winding) process, which is carried out on British made string winders of Rotosound`s own design. This is then followed with the application of the Silks which, are imported especially from Italy to be applied at both ends of the strings before trimming the ends.
Each operator can work on two to three machines simultaneously, so great skill and that eye for detail is paramount when making the strings, especially the Flat wound’s which are still made totally by hand using a material called Monel 400, which is a Nickel/Copper alloy and is very expensive indeed, so the skill of the workers is of great importance, and the guys I watched working on the flat wounds were particularly highly skilled and made it look so easy, but then they have been doing it for seventeen years!
All strings are made differently by each manufacturer and the machines used at Rotosound are all of a multi spindle design and have unique features, such as a magnetic “Clutch” system which controls different winding tension for each appropriate gauge of string being worked on at the time, and a special weight arrangement for assuring correct core tension which must be concert pitch. Every single string made by the string machine operator attracts a bonus, and have their own work sheet and rack for their personally finished products gathered at the end of the days session.
These completed strings will then be thoroughly checked in the packing/inspection department for any problems and defects, and once “passed”, are then coiled, placed in packets, and packed into storage boxes to await the set packing procedure a little later on. Only one set type and gauge is worked on at any one time to avoid errors.
At Rotosound, there is a strict three-point quality check code to give you consistently high end performance from your strings of choice. On arrival at the factory, the raw materials and wire are checked for tensile, wire gauge, and diameter surface finish. And while the strings are in production, they are checked at three stages of the winding process by the factory quality assurance team under strict supervision. Finally, when they are being packed, every single string is hand checked for consistency of winding, length, colour, feel and general quality before being finally “passed”, packed, and despatched. Rotosound manufactures millions of sets of guitar and bass strings annually worldwide, so I am sure you’ll agree that’s an extraordinary large amount of packing and dispatching to be done. Now that’s what we call a 100% inspection!
Rotosound also provides many other accessories, including Picks, Cable ties, Capo’s, Straps, and leads and wearable’s such as T Shirts, Fleece’s, Beanie hats, and Flying jackets…just check out the links at the bottom for more information.
Among the many major Bass players around the world today, Rotosound’s Artist list is very extensive and includes such great names in the music industry as Billy Sheehan, Steve Harris, Chris Squire, Duff Mc Kagan, Doug Wimbish, Geddy Lee, James Lomenzo, John Paul Jones, and Bruce Foxton and Martin Turner to name just a few, and the ever growing “family” of new Rotosound string users will help to maintain the company’s top status by keeping it young and fresh and retain its number one position in the Bass string manufacturing market for sure.
Well after the thorough tour of the factory, it was now time to pop back upstairs and thank Jason for his kind hospitality and say my farewells. I had spent almost three and a half hours at the Rotosound factory and enjoyed every minute in the company of some of the nicest people I have ever met, and so I would like to take this opportunity in thanking Jason How and his lady wife Kathy, and also John Doughty and all the front line workers for making me feel totally at home and enabling me to experience and appreciate all the hard work that goes into making those strings that we all take so much for granted…well, I used to!!
As a footnote, I would like to also personally thank Jason and John for inviting me as an official endorsee/Artist for the Rotosound “Family” this year. I had been using Rotosound strings for eighteen years, before being approached by another major string company for which I used their strings for a year under contract, and were of a very high quality. But I have to say that from my heart and my fingers, nothing for me will ever quite match up to the high quality and individual tone of a Rotosound string… It’s Great to be “Home” again Guys.
Thank you all on behalf of all the readers at Bass Musician Magazine, and my respects always…………….
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