In the late 1600s, the tiny, rural Italian village of Salle was known for having two traditional occupations: farming, and string-making. The rich countryside was ideal for growing delicious fruits and vegetables, and also for raising pigs. The type of musical instrument strings made in those days are known as “gut” strings, and were made from the intestines of the pig, a laborious and messy process that would take up to a week from start to finish. One of Salle’s residents was Donato D’Addario – his occupation, recorded in 1680 on a baptismal form, was “cordaro”, Italian for “string maker”. The family would continue making strings in that small community for over two hundred more years, and would maybe be there still today if it were not for a 1905 earthquake that prompted Charles D’Addario to pack his bags and immigrate to Queens, New York. This is how the story of D’Addario strings in America began, the humble family roots of what is now the biggest musical instrument string manufacturer in the world. Today, the factory where they make strings and also produce nearly all their own packaging is in Farmingdale, Long Island, just a hop, skip and a jump away from The Music Zoo. We recently got the opportunity to tour their amazing facility, which now employs more people every single day than the total population of the Italian village where it all began. Come with us as we get an inside look at what goes into making a world-class instrument string.
One of the first things we encountered at the plant is this original string winder from 1917 used by Charles and Rocco D’Addario to wind violin, viola, and cello strings. The machine was powered by a flat belt connected to a central electrical motor used to run all the machinery in their Astoria, NY shop. The string cores were made of gut and were mounted to the spindles by hand, tension was applied via varying weights and the wrap wire was hand fed onto the core. After winding, the string was polished manually and colored silk was spun onto each end and secured with glue. Gut cores have now been replaced with steel and nylon, but the concept of making strings today is largely the same as it always was. D’Addario has built their empire on their own innovations of producing these wrapped strings more accurately and efficiently over the last century. We will see in nearly every step how they strive to make production more efficient, less wasteful, and as “in-house” as possible.
All strings start with the core, the hexagon-shaped wire that is usually high carbon steel, or sometimes nickel. In this area of the plant these coils of wire are stored, labeled and dated. D’Addario doesn’t produce their own raw core wire, but instead imports it from different foundries from around the world. Part of what makes the company more efficient today is on display in this room – each box or spool has a sticker on it with a date, and is specifically intended to be used in a narrow time frame. D’Addario produces over 600,000 strings every day, and only keeps the absolute required amount of material on hand at a given time in order to keep warehouse costs down.
After being viewed under a stereo microscope to verify the hex shape, and the diameter is measured using a digital micrometer, all the core wire used for strings must pass both a tension test and a torsion test. Here, an engineer is testing the tension bearing ability of this core sample. The machine will digitally record the distance the wire stretched before breaking, as well as the pressure required to cause it to fail. In the torsion test, the wire’s ductility is tested by wrapped around a hook and spun at high speed until it breaks. The number of turns are recorded by computer. The core wire that passes the test will become strings, the wire that does not will be recycled.
The heart and soul of the D’Addario process belongs to the engineering behind the actual string winders themselves. This machinist is working in the wing of the plant where much of this machinery is built and maintained. All the work that takes place in the machine shop is proprietary – this was the one of the only pictures we were allowed to take here. Even the PC boards that run the electronically controlled string winders are designed and built in the machine shop, allowing D’Addario to completely control what their machines are capable of. Not only does D’Addario sell OEM strings, and “white label” strings (which are rebranded, but actually made by D’Addario) the company has also sold quite a few of their actual string winders to other big name string makers.
This is the main floor of production for steel wrapped strings, mostly used for electric guitar and bass applications. Over six hundred people work at D’Addario, including office, and production is in effect 24 hours a day. The factory floor is an immensely busy and noisy place. Notice the sound deadening throughout the ceiling – its the only thing in the room not working very well, unfortunately.
This machine is automatically building the string core, by attaching a ball end to the core wire. D’Addario was the first company to use color-coded ball ends to make it easy to know which string gauge in a pack is which. This machine will cut the core wire to the right length, and then attach the ball end. It precisely wraps the string around the ball end and performs three neat lock twists, a D’Addario innovation that is instrumental in ensuring that the string not come unraveled under tension. This happens too quickly to see clearly with the naked eye – just a blur and it’s done.
Here, the string is going to be wrapped. Different metal alloys are used for different types of strings; XL electric guitar strings are wrapped with nickel-plated steel wrap wire, while acoustic strings are often wrapped with phosphor bronze wire, 80/20 bronze, or 85/15 bronze. This worker is wrapping steel strings on this machine, one of only a couple left in the factory originally hand-built by John D’Addario Jr. in the 1970s. This string winder is archaic compared to the digitally controlled winders used throughout the rest of the factory, as it uses a volt meter to consistently control the speed at which the core wire is spun while the wrap wire moves down the winder carriage. One worker might be running more than one winder at a time; each string needs to have the wrap wire attached to the ball end by hand, then the winder will make its run down the string. While the winder does its thing, she can attach the wrap wire to the ball end on another machine, and repeat the process.
These are the high-tech, state of the art guitar string winders, built in house at D’Addario to be the best in the industry. The speed of the winder mechanism is computer controlled, and the station allows for multiple strings to be wound simultaneously by one worker. Those “tank treads” visible on the back are flexible covers for the wiring that is connected to the winders, and the red/yellow/green indicator lights at each station show the status to floor managers.
On the other side of the enormous factory floor is this winding area that is dedicated primarily to bowed instrument strings such as violins, cellos, and double basses. Because some of these strings are very long, the winder machines are bigger, and they take more time to complete their job.
Here we see a worker feeding pre-cut nylon strings into a machine that will determine the tension that players will feel on their guitar. These unwrapped nylon strings are used for the high strings in a classical set, and D’Addario sells sets with light, normal, hard, and extra hard tensions. The wrapped nylon strings that round out the rest of the set use a stranded nylon core wrapped with silver plated copper wrap wire, and are wrapped in much the same way as the metal core strings, with the exception that they have a natural loop at the end instead of a metal ball end.
These finished electric guitar strings are grouped together by gauge, then are spooled into their final package shape and combined with the other five strings of the set. As with the other processes we saw in the D’Addario plant, a surprising amount of this work is done by hand.
These electric guitar strings are finally done! They have been grouped together by hand, placed in a corrosion proof bag, and then put in a recycled cardboard pouch. This very lightweight package reduces package waste by over 75%. D’Addario even owns the color Heidelberg printing presses that create these packages across the street. Nearly all the package design and print ads are created by their own marketing staff. This “keep it in house” mentality helps D’Addario to stay very efficient, and control their costs very effectively. This same approach is in effect at all the other divisions of D’Addario; Planet Waves, Evans Drumheads, and Rico Reeds all benefit from in-house know-how and streamlined production. To us, that means greater value for musicians who use these products and we appreciate that. We really enjoyed learning more about the processes that are behind the world’s most famous strings, and would like to thank D’Addario for inviting us and taking the time to show us around.