Founded in 1958, Rotosound has become one of the foremost string makers in the world. Noted for their bass guitar strings, Rotosound also produces numerous acoustic sets. Here, we tour the Kent facility and talk to CEO Jason How about their acoustic range.
When we come to restringing our beloved acoustics, we have two options: coated strings or uncoated strings. Elixir or Martin. D’Addario or Ernie Ball. We’ll find our favourite set, and no doubt stick to that sound. It was with some surprise that we were invited to the Rotosound HQ in Kent to tour their facility – “they’re bass strings” we hear you shout. Much like we, as acoustic players, will head straight to one of the aforementioned market leaders in the acoustic string market, bass players will head straight to Rotosound – and have done for the last 57 years. In rock music, Rotosound helped shape a sound with humongous names on their roster (The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Guns N’ Roses). However, their acoustic output was never quite what its bass – and electric guitar – output was. How many of you have tried their acoustic strings? I’ll wager a few of you have, of course, but it’s time we all gave them a go.
You’ll find Rotosound HQ in Kent, southeast England – the place it’s been since 1958. It was founded by James How, the father of current CEO Jason How, as a small, family-owned and operated company – and, crucially, UK-based. All of Rotosound’s string output is manufactured in the UK, something that sets Jason’s company apart from the plethora of string makers one could choose from. Those core values are little changed today.
‘We’ve made acoustic strings since the early 1960s – the late John Renbourn was a great advocate of those strings. He was one of our first endorsees. My dad touched on the bass string thing and he got Roger Waters, John Paul Jones, John Entwistle – all these top players – on the bass strings and that side of the business was a lot more profitable than the acoustic side of things, so of course he was going to focus on that. When he died, I felt it was important for Rotosound to be known right across the board and not just as a bass string company. There’s a lot of competition out there, and I guess one way of getting the brand out is to get the product into the hands of younger players.’
Both Jason and his father came into the business from an engineering background with a vision to not just create the best strings possible, but with one to create the best machinery to optimise string making, keeping the operation in the UK, and not having to out-source to the Far East due to financial constraints.
Jason works relentlessly to invent new state-of-the-art machinery and contemporary technology – along with new components such as foil packaging instead of the traditional cardboard packaging.
‘When you’re manufacturing a product, it almost doesn’t matter what you’re making, it’s all about the speed at which the machines can make the stuff,’ Jason starts. ‘Whether it’s nylon or steel, you have to be able to make the stuff efficiently and to a high standard. The machines my dad designed have been developed over the years to make sure we’re using the most up-to-date machines to make the best product, as quickly as possible. We don’t buy any of our machines – they’re all made by us in-house. None of our production is out-sourced. It’s important for us to make the product here – for example, the Chinese do not want a Chinese-made guitar string. I don’t know why that is for other string makers, but for us, people love the British element to it. We don’t praise our own homegrown stuff as much as the overseas produced stuff. I think that’s a problem. It’s important for Rotosound to have a strong home market and keep things British made. Our heritage is so important to us. If I couldn’t make the strings here, with our team, I wouldn’t be interested at all. My passion is getting down onto the factory floor and making the stuff. We have the skills and machinery here to make a great product and export it all over the world.’
Do you find it hard to build up a name for Rotosound as an acoustic string manufacturer because you’re so well known for bass strings?
Yes, I do find that the case. We’ve become so well known for bass strings that it’s a bit like Marshall trying to sell bass amps. I can’t just sell bass strings – so it’s important for us to push the acoustic range.
Where does Rotosound buy the component parts for string making, such as the wire?
It comes from a number of different places. In the 70s there used to be a lot of wire manufacturing in Sheffield. That no longer exists, of course, so we buy what we can from the UK, but we also get some from Sweden, France, Switzerland, and the US. For making music wire, there aren’t a lot of companies that do it. It’s a tiny part of the industry. On the newest set, the Nexus strings, that wire comes from a company called Bridgeport Wire and it has a polymer coating on it.
One of the biggest current trends in both guitars and strings is the quest for vintage tone. People want their new guitars to sound like old guitars. What is Rotosound doing for those people?
I think the Jumbo King set is the one for people who are after that kind of sound. This set goes back to the 1960s and the string specification has stayed the same. My dad came up with the specs back in the early days, and they’ve not changed to this day.
How important is the packaging of your strings? Rotosound recently switched from cardboard to foil…
We’re so pleased with where we have got to with the packaging. What we’ve managed to do is get away from cardboard and paper completely because paper holds moisture, and when moisture touches the wire on the lighter, unwound strings, it produces signs of corrosion. This problem is because of the paper. We’ve done such a lot of research on all of this. Some people are foil packing their strings, but they’re still using paper envelopes. Anything with card or paper will suck in moisture and eventually affect the wire of the strings. We wanted to come up with something from an eco point of view too. When we ship strings in foil, it weighs much less than when we did it with paper and card. When you get your strings, what’s the first thing you do? Your throw away all of that paper and card. We wanted the not just the simplest packaging, but the least packaging too.
Rotosound strings are sold in more than 80 countries worldwide – yet the majority of these string sales are bass and electric guitar strings. Despite the role Rotosound played in shaping the sound of rock music, it’s time they made that same impact on the acoustic world. And how are they going to do that? Well, to start with, they’re going to give us a run through of their entire acoustic range and give us some samples to test.
There four sets of steel acoustic strings on the Rotosound roster: Nexus, Jumbo King, Tru Bronze, and Super Bronze. Much like the overall ethos of the company, the specifications for the flagship set – the Jumbo King – haven’t changed since the 1960s.
‘The oldest set is the Jumbo King, and that is phosphor bronze,’ Jason says. ‘Then we do a Tru Bronze, and this set is an 80/20 bronze set. We then have the Super Bronze set which is a phosphor bronze with contact core. The contact core is the bare core at the ball end of the string; the winding will begin slightly down the line. That distance should be a quarter of an inch between the bridge and the start of the winding. The core of the string is then resting on the bridge of the guitar and this allows the string to vibrate a little better. Due to the contact core, the Super Bronze set is the brightest sounding string we do; it has great sustain and vibrancy and volume. Then we have the latest set of strings we’ve launched called Nexus; this set is our long life polymer coated set. If I were using a set on my acoustic, I’d go for Jumbo King or Tru Bronze. The phosphor bronze of the Jumbo King gives a lush warm sound. We do of course have the classic lines of strings, too – the CL1 has a ball end because a lot of younger kids can’t thread and wrap the nylon too easily. The CL2 is exactly the same set as the CL1 without the ball end. The CL3 is the same string as the previous two sets only wound under a higher tension so it’s stiffer, leading to more attack and sharpness when you play it.’
Click through to the next page for our review of Rotosound’s Tru Bronze, Super Bronze, Nexus, and Jumbo King string sets.