Webster defines innovation as the “introduction of something new.” I like to think of it as finding a better way of doing something.
About three years ago, we hired VSA Partners in Chicago to help us with our branding and marketing. As part of the process, they helped define the DNA of our family and our business. One of the characteristics they quickly uncovered was that we are the “most difficult people to please.” The fact is we do come from a long line of malcontents. Perhaps this somewhat humorous characteristic stems from growing up with a father who was short on praise and long on criticism. Or from an obsession for making sure that what we are offering our customer is the very best we can do.
In the end, as painful and disturbing as this trait may be at times, it has led the D’Addario family and company to develop and maintain a culture of continuous improvement; a culture routed in curiosity. A culture where what was great yesterday is not good enough for today; helping us to create hundreds of innovations in music accessory design and manufacturing technology.
In the 1970s, our company was very small, with only a few dozen employees and limited resources. Yet somehow, unrelenting curiosity helped us to innovate. Sometimes the innovation may seem small or insignificant; sometimes the innovation leads to the introduction of groundbreaking products.
As we grew and gained more experience, we invested in building a “team” of innovators to explore and create new and better products and process solutions in every area of our business. With over fifty U.S. patents for music accessories, this passion for invention as helped us innovate in every one of our product categories.
It is not unusual to witness one of our engineers obsessing over the tiniest detail in a machine or product. Sometimes innovation spawns a “big’ idea.” But most great innovation is usually a long string of small, seemingly insignificant ideas that combine to generate a product or a process that in sum is revolutionary.
A perfect example of this type of relentless research innovation is our recent NYXL product launch. By literally studying every tiny process in the manufacture of high carbon steel, D’Addario engineers were able to create core and plain steel string wire with unprecedented strength and pitch stability.
A question we frequently get from visitors touring our factories is “How can D’Addario competitively manufacture music accessories in the USA, on Long Island, NY?” For us, it has always been the result of our never-ending commitment to innovate; to find ways to do things better, each and every day.
Webster defines innovation as the “introduction of something new.” I like to think of it as finding a better way of doing something.
For as long as I can remember, performing artists have been an integral part of the marketing programs for most musical instrument and accessory companies and our company is no exception. We are proud to have artist relationships with over 5,000 of the most talented and creative performing artists across all genres of music.
We also have a heritage of focusing on the future. Many of our products, like NYXL strings, were the result of a pioneering, curious spirit that is always thinking of the future. Our artist relations program is no different. For over forty years our artist focus has been broad but has always had a preference for artists who had the potential to command the attention and respect of their peers and fans in the future.
That kind of D’Addario curiosity is why we created the D’Addario Foundation to support music education and upcoming performing artists; why we have constantly signed artists before they were household names, and why we went to Rolling Stone magazine to assist in selecting the guitar heroes of the future.
What a different world we live in now. Anyone with a computer can not only record music, but they can release and promote it as well. The doors are wide open. There are more bands out there than ever before. There are also more great guitarists out there now than ever before, but how does one sift through all of the music to find the artists that might become their favorites?
To help answer that question D’Addario went to the penultimate list maker, Rolling Stone Magazine with just that idea - identify up-and-comers with the potential to become the next class of guitar legends; create a list meant to inspire new guitarists to get started on the instrument and to encourage those already playing to keep learning the craft. After all anything is possible.
Rolling Stone Young Guns 1-5 l to r: Guthrie Trapp, Derek Miller, Adam Granduciel, Jackie Greene, James Petralli
For thirty weeks starting back on May 1, 2014, Rolling Stone will introduce and interview a new “Young Gun.” Viewers will be able to experience their performances via video and audio clips. Additionally, many of these musicians have been chosen to participate in a D’Addario-sponsored jam tutorial video series with guitarist Matt Sweeney, a robust component that will also be posted within the Rolling Stone Young Guns hub.
Rolling Stone Young Guns 6-10 l to r: Marnie Stern, William Tyler, Chris Letchford, “Bombino” Moctar, Gary Clark Jr.
Look for the latest Young Gun selections at http://www.rollingstone.com/music/franchise/young-guns and on D’Addario’s social sites - Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Instagram | Google+ -. We would love to hear what you think of the selections and I am sure Rolling Stone would love to hear your suggestions for future Young Gun candidates.
What motivated D’Addario to re-engineer the manufacturing of steel music wire? cont.
Part of our Toyota Lean culture is to advocate for continuous improvement at everything we do. In 2010, we looked at our HCS wire mill production and realized we had a multi-faceted opportunity for improvement. In typical Toyota Lean fashion, we mapped out our current state. What does the process look like? Where is the waste? Where can we improve on the quality? What do the employees running the operations think? What are their ideas?
When we reviewed the current state, we then challenged our team to design a future state for HCS music wire manufacture. What would the ideal process look like? That future state included having little or no environmental impact, reducing scrap rates dramatically to control cost and improve consistency, and most importantly tighten tolerances dramatically so our wire and ultimately our strings perform better. We needed to create processes that were scientifically designed and easily repeatable. We needed to eliminate the ‘secret sauce’ syndrome.
It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t cheap. It didn’t happen overnight. As usual, it made us dig deep into our DNA to remember that we must remain ‘the most difficult people to please’. We also had to remember to have the courage to keep pioneering and not give up on something we believed we could accomplish.
Our team started by determining that all our wire drawing machinery, some from the 1930’s, needed to be replaced. I challenged them to find the most technologically-advanced wire drawing machinery solutions available to us. We interviewed suppliers from all over the globe. We did countless trials to determine who could build the best solution for us. None of the companies had previously made machines for the difficult task of making fine music wire.
We settled on a German supplier who, after 18 months of trials, had engineered the perfect solution for us. We took delivery of the first of five of these machines two years ago. Now, four are on line and a fifth will be coming soon. The vast majority of our old equipment is moth-balled for a museum someday.
Here are some examples of the impact this new technology has made on our process. Prior, our round wire tolerance specifications for diameter were +/-.0002”. That is two ten-thousandths of an inch. Not very much, but enough to make one string feel like it has more tension than the next. For example, if we were targeting to make a .010” round HCS wire for guitar string, we might start production on the low side of the tolerance at .0098” and allow the machinery to run until the dies had worn to .0102”.
If you are a serious guitar player, you can imagine that there is a significant tension difference between a .0098” and .0102” string; but this is what the industry has been living with for decades. With our new wire drawing machinery and processes, we perfected our die designs, our lubrication and filtration systems and incorporated laser micrometers in two axes to monitor diameter as we manufacture. The result is we are now holding a tolerance of +/-.0001” or better. So using that same example, the smallest string you will see with this process is .0099” and the largest .0101”. The result more consistent tension from string to string.
The most important benefit to these improvements has been in the temper of the material. Former manufacturing specifications from the ‘secret sauce’ era created material with a wide variation in tensile strength and ductility. This was what was common in our industry prior to NYXL. Our re-engineering enables us to zone in on much tighter tolerances and to move those tolerances to the higher end of the tensile strength spectrum with virtually no sacrifice in other properties. To the guitarist, it translates into a string that is stronger and holds pitch better.
As you can imagine, this was a very bold commitment and we would not have been able to make that commitment if we did not have encouragement and assistance internally and externally. Once we knew the magnitude of the re-engineering that was going to be required, we also knew we needed to have our extensive NY-based engineering and operations staff involved on a daily basis. Doing so remotely in Massachusetts became a challenge and a burden. We decided to move the mill from Massachusetts to New York.
We applied for assistance from the state, county and town. They looked at what we were trying to do and became just as passionate about the project as we were, giving us a vote of confidence by courageously backing our endeavor with tax credits over ten years that will help offset a portion of the cost of this investment. We could never have attempted this without their help.
So when people ask me why the name ‘NYXL’, it is easy for me to answer. D’Addario is a NY-inspired story. Our grandfather came to NY in 1905. But the name is also a tribute to the fact that New York State, Suffolk County and the Town of Babylon realized the importance of bringing this high-tech solution to our campus in Farmingdale, NY. They supported us as partners, not as tax collectors.
From this day on, each year, hundreds of millions of feet of the highest quality HCS music wire Made in NY will be shipped to every corner of the globe as music strings. And chances are excellent this will continue into the next century. So what motivated us to re-engineer music wire manufacture? We saw an opportunity to improve our string products, we knew we had or could rally the resources to do it, and our team had the passion to make it happen.
We acted fearlessly; now it’s your turn.
With the official launch of NYXL electric guitar strings around the corner, some of our customers have asked us why we decided to re-invent the process of making high carbon steel music wire.
The plain steel strings (unwound) and the hexagonal cores for wound strings are traditionally manufactured using a high carbon steel wire. High Carbon Steel (HCS) is a steel alloy with approximately 0.6% to 0.99% carbon-content. That’s less than 1% of the material in the alloy. Less than 1% doesn’t sound like a lot of carbon, but carbon content in this prescribed range makes for a material that can be drawn into the higher, spring-like tempers required for the core or unwound strings in a set of guitar strings. Anything under 0.6% carbon content is considered ‘medium to low-carbon’ steel; and while ductile and strong and useful for many applications (like the basis for the nickel-plated steel wire we wind around our HCS hex cores in our NYXL sets), it will not have the strength, memory and resilience to be used as a core wire or as an unwound plain string on a guitar.
Music string manufacturers have struggled for years to find the holy grail of high carbon steel and, unfortunately, have on occasion had to live with significant supply shortages. As a leader in the music string industry, we also have done extensive and quite expensive research to see if other materials like high-tech stainless and maraging steel alloys could be a higher performing substitute for HCS. All these efforts, while noble, have not yielded a successful substitute for high carbon steel, particularly for the unwound, plain strings on a guitar. While new alloys might meet and exceed some of the pull strength requirements, many are not ductile enough and fail when aggressively stretched or installed over a bridge saddle, nut, tuning machine or string clamping device. Nothing has been found to perform better than High Carbon Steel. We are constantly exploring new technologies and options and will continue to do so, but today HCS is the material of choice.
When I started my career at my dad’s company, Darco Music Strings, in the late sixties, pop music and garage bands were in the midst of an explosion like nothing ever seen. The sudden spike in demand for guitar strings and the wire needed to make them challenged the capacity of the few qualified specialty manufacturers of HCS wire.
At the time, the finest music wire (often referred to as mandolin wire) usually came from a handful of established suppliers in Worcester, Massachusetts. Worcester was sort of the ‘center’ for specialty wire drawing and finishing. The mills had workers that had developed trade secret processes to make very high quality HCS wire with beautiful tin coatings to prevent corrosion. These artisans were so skilled that they were able to make magnificent wire with antiquated machinery and tools.
In 1970, the EPA was formed and before long discovered that some of the processes being used, particularly in the tin coating of HCS, were quite hazardous. Dangerous chemicals like cyanides and hydrochloric acids in high concentrations were used to clean the wire before tin coating. Slowly as scientists and the EPA learned that these processes were hazardous, new regulations began to make it even more challenging for these artisans to produce high quality HCS, especially in the quantities that the market was beginning to demand.
All the factories making this material were, and many still are, using antiquated machinery, drawing die materials and inadequate quality control techniques. The result is that over the last 40 years, the music string industry has had to live with high reject rates of incoming HCS material and wide tolerance ranges in diameter, hexagonal cross-section shape (for core wires) and consistency of tin coating.
In 1979, D’Addario took a small interest in TruSpec Wire, a struggling startup HCS wire mill run by former employees of the National Standard Worcester Wire Works Company. Worcester Wire Works was the largest and most reliable source of quality ‘mandolin wire’ as they branded it. They had been in the process of making HCS for well over 100 years and were one of the bidders to supply the HCS for the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1870’s.
By the late seventies, their plant was rundown and EPA regulations were forcing them to re-tool and become compliant with all the regulations being instituted at the time. National Standard decided to move its Worcester Wire Works plant and after the move, they were never able to ramp quality and production up to where it was at their old plant.
The material shortage deepened and string makers were panicking to find quality suppliers. I personally took several trips to Germany and Sweden to try to develop new sources, but none of the plants there were equipped to draw, straighten and tin coat wire to the specifications we required. While learning a great deal, I was quite depressed at the state of all the vendors from which we had to choose.
As part owners of TruSpec Wire at the time, we began to incrementally improve their processes. In 1980, D’Addario did not have engineering or financial resources to accomplish what we have been able to accomplish today. However, we did make significant improvements to the process and managed to create a productive factory to supply our needs and the needs of some of our competitors.
As regulations became even more stringent, the manufacture of HCS became even more challenging. Recently, as several of our partners retired over time, we took full ownership of the HCS wire mill, which was still located in Massachusetts.
Ten years ago, an early win for us was switching from standard HCS raw materials to brass plated HCS raw material that is used in the steel-belted radial tire industry. The tolerances for automotive and aerospace tires being quite stringent, this material was far superior in grain structure and consistency and the brass plating improved our processes internally.
You probably never noticed, but look closely at our wound strings and those of our competitors. If you compare the color of the piece of core wire extending past the winding, you will see it is ‘golden’ in color and most of our competitors are tin coated, thus a silver-like color.
What keeps us motivated and where are we headed next? Check back to see Part 2 of Jim’s Blog Post to find out!
Fifty years ago anyone who liked music and was old enough to stay up and watch the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th had their head spun around. In fact mine was almost spun off. That was the day that changed my life completely. From that point on, I was obsessed with learning to play guitar and learning to play every Beatle song that was already released and was to come out for the next seven years.
I was 14 years old and suddenly the family business talk at the dinner table became more relevant to me. I wanted to sound like the Beatles. I wanted an electric guitar like George’s. I wanted a Vox amplifier. Learning to play guitar was the mission. All along the way, the goal of learning and performing Beatles songs (and Stones, and Kinks, and Yardbirds and Byrds…..) never changed. Suddenly “the dog ate my homework” almost every day as I snuck after school to my friend Bob’s house to practice with my friends. Eventually we started to sound like a band.
Unlike today we were able to earn money playing gigs. People didn’t pass hats around, they actually paid the band a fee to play a party or a school dance. Imagine that! After each dance, the money was counted and as soon as we had enough, we begged one of our Mom’s for a ride to Sam Ash in Hempstead to see what new or used gear we could trade up to. I probably saw Jerry Ash as much as I saw my parents at that time.
Part of the process was also testing string ideas my Dad would bring home. He was a tinkerer. He didn’t have the scientists, engineers, laboratory equipment or time that we have to devote to research today but he had the curiosity; something that runs through the veins of the D’Addario Company to this day.
What he was doing was not too different from what we do today. He tried everything that was available through trial and error processes. Today, we have scientific methods to qualify what we are hearing, feeling and experiencing and more. And now we have the resources to develop new and superior raw materials of our own!
In 1965, I bought a used Stratocaster at Sam Ash and it needed new strings. It still had the standard, dead-sounding, semi-flattened, pure-nickel, original equipment strings on it. My Dad brought home some of the electric guitar strings that he was making. They were a pure round-wound string with a nickel-plated steel winding; the same round-wound formula he used to make Danelectro’s guitar and bass strings, and I was blown away.
The guitar woke up. It was bright, brash and loud, but balanced and clear. Suddenly it was easier to cut through and be heard.
I remember when the Stones released “Satisfaction.” Effects pedals were just starting to be developed. We didn’t have one and we had no idea how they got that sound on the guitar. In fact, at first we thought it was a saxophone. We had an Ampeg Rocket amp that we would turn up all the way to 10 (it didn’t go to 11) and overdrive the hell out of it to get the distortion we needed. It actually sounded great. Later, we used the same setup to play “Think for Yourself” by the Beatles.
But the strings were a critical component to the tone. They made my dead sounding Strat come alive. My Dad experimented all the time and this formula was tweaked to be the nickel-plated steel wrap wire that would eventually be introduced as Darco Funky Strings in the sixties and ultimately become D’Addario XL’s in 1974. The formula would also be adopted by every significant guitar string maker in the future. The most popular competitors’ electric guitar strings are direct descendants of this string specification.
Over the years all the string companies tinkered with different string constructions and alloys. Flat windings, Half-RoundTM windings, stainless steel windings, monel windings; you name it, we have collectively tried them all. Some of them have gotten traction and are an important part of the string selection today. But none have had the impact of those nickel-plated, round-wound strings that John D’Addario, Sr. created in the early sixties.
Two years ago, we challenged ourselves to re-invent the electric guitar string and we have succeeded. We have created a new winding alloy, and have completely re-engineered the process of making music wire for the plain strings and hex cores of our wound strings. We didn’t grab something off a supplier’s shelf. With the help of the Town of Babylon, Suffolk County and New York State, we built a wire mill, right here at 540 Smith Street, Farmingdale, NY. You’re welcome to visit.
In the next few months, you will see the release of the next generation of electric guitar string. D’Addario NYXL, the strongest electric guitar string ever made. Named after New York because New York drive, determination and curiosity are what made it happen.
Recently we have sent out thousands of beta test samples tagged, #xlformula3. The consensus is coming in and the reaction is very similar to mine when I restrung my Stratocaster with Dad’s formula2 round wound strings in 1965. Check out the unfiltered Buzz yourself.
Soon the experience will be available to you. So standby as we fuel for the launch. Sign up for our newsletter so we can give you a heads up when they hit the street.