Rotosound Celebrates 50 Years of String Manufacturing
There are many entry points to the musical products business, and often they are surprising routes. Perhaps none is more unusual than the story of James How, founder of Rotosound, the UK string manufacturer which celebrates its 50th anniversary in manufacturing this year.
Although he had a music background in playing violin and clarinet, after service in the Royal Air Force (RAF) as an armorer (bombardier) in World War Two, How settled into a career in London as an engineer. His professional path seemed clear until he went to see a movie, the 1949 Orson Welles classic, The Third Man. How’s reaction to the movie is unknown, but it spurred an intense interest in the zither, the featured instrument in the film’s most memorable tune, “The Harry Lime Theme.”
While continuing with his “day job,” How essentially gave himself over to the zither in his free time: building zithers and collecting and playing the instrument. Eventually, he set to work on his lunch break building a machine to make zither strings.
James How’s avocation became a small business in 1958, with orchestral and jazz strings as well as guitar strings joining zither strings under what became known as the “Ro-Top” brand.
Like other English start-up companies such as Marshall, Vox, and Burns Guitars, there was an explosion in the making by the early 1960s as rock ‘n’ roll took off across the UK, soon spreading to the U.S. in what is now fondly remembered as “the British Invasion.”
“Dad started getting requests for strings from a lot of those guys, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and his band, which included Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell,” says Jason How, who today serves as managing director of Rotosound. “Our first endorser was John Entwistle. “My dad asked him if he could include a note in each string pack pointing out Entwistle played Rotosound. John said that was no problem as long as Rotosound kept him supplied with strings. And that’s been our policy since then: we’ve never paid an artist for an endorsement.”
The business flourished during the rock heyday of the 1960s and ’70s and beyond, with the Rotosound catalog growing to include an array of strings and accessories. Today the company markets strings for electric guitar, bass, acoustic guitar, and classical guitar as well as for traditional instruments, orchestral instruments, and OEM. Accessories include straps, plectrums, cables, connectors, guitar stands, drumsticks, and wearables.
With James How’s passing in 1994, the family business continued under he direction of his sons Jason and Martyn, Jason’s wife Kathy, and longtime executive John Doughty. Like his father, Jason How put his engineering background to good use redesigning and updating the string-making equipment at Rotosound headquarters southeast of London. Martyn How concentrates on the sales and marketing side of the business and is known to many in this US from his stint heading American sales in the 1980s and ’90s while based in the States.
Martyn How is working out of England again these days, with Rotosound USA sales in the hands of Dan Roeber at Rotosound’s West Hollywood, Calif. offices. Outside the UK and US, the company’s sales are directed by Zach Frederick and the Frederick Export team.
Jason How reports that despite some sluggishness in guitar sales of late, Rotosound’s business has been flourishing, with string set sales up some 40% over the last three years. In the UK, he says sales are “nicely balanced” with bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and classical sets leading the way. In the US, Rotosound continues to be best known for its bass strings, which account for 90% of its American trade. Electric bass strings are of course the lion’s share, but Rotosound has also established a niche among rockabilly and jazz players with its double-bass products. “We still hear people in the US say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you made guitar strings,” he notes with a laugh. “But maybe that situation is okay because the profit in bass strings is better and it’s not such a cut-throat business.” He adds that the ongoing strong pound/weak dollar situation has not affected his stateside business. “We were never the cheapest, and players appreciate the quality and value that’s built into our strings,” How points out.
It’s noteworthy in an era in which the buzz words are “outsourcing” and “going offshore” that string manufacturers like Rotosound and its counterparts in the United States and Europe are resisting this global trend. Jason How comments on this apparent anomaly:
“I suppose [offshore manufacturing] could happen, but there is so much knowledge and skill involved in machinery design and technique passed down from father to son, and that’s certainly true here and I’m sure it’s the same with the American companies. There’s a degree of passion involved, I think. In my case, I like to have the control that comes with having the factory right downstairs. To move everything overseas, well, what do I have left? Now I’m a box-shifter, and not to knock box-shifters, but my interest is in manufacturing. Also, I’d feel like I was conning my customers and our high-profile endorsers. They’d know straight away if we were making our strings somewhere else.”