Monday, April 27, 2009

Jim D’Addario Anecdotes

Collaborate to Succeed Part 1 – John D’Angelico

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind too), those who learn to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

In reading that statement, one could assume it came from a musician or athlete playing team sports. But in actuality, it was the naturalist Charles Darwin that penned the line.

For musicians, collaborating and improvising is a way of life. Many times when people look at the success of a musical group or an enterprise, they inaccurately assume that success is the result of the efforts of one or two individuals. The fact is even the most astute entrepreneur gets nowhere if he/she does not learn to collaborate and improvise. Finding the right partners to collaborate with is the key.

I learned a lot about collaboration and running a business when I joined my first band at age 13. The first thing that was abundantly clear to me was that we sounded much better as a group than we did individually - provided we all practiced our parts. Later on in my career as business challenges presented themselves, I would always look for collaboration partners, reaching out to someone with more experience to help with the specific challenges that we faced.

In 1905, my grandfather Charles D’Addario emigrated from Italy to New York. He brought with him the family trade of making strings, which dates back hundreds of years to 1680. By coincidence, the very same year a Czechoslovakian luthier named Ladislav Kaplan also moved his family from Europe to America. At the time, there was a shortage of quality musical instruments and strings. Both gentlemen bought the American dream and lived it.

Soon after arriving in America, Ladislav discovered that he was having trouble getting good strings for his violins, violas and cellos. A trained craftsman, he discovered he was also a very, very talented mechanical engineer. Soon after, he began making his own strings and before long the Kaplan brand of gut bowed strings was well established.

Charles and Ladislav were friendly competitors and exchanged raw materials and know-how on occasion. Accounting ledger books from 1922 show Charles and Ladislav frequently exchanging material for payment. In the true European family business model, the Kaplan family ran their little string business out of a garage in their backyard in Norwalk, CT from 1905 to 1981. The D’Addarios ran theirs in the basement of their Jackson Heights, NY home, a short walk from what would become LaGuardia airport.

In the 1930’s, John D’Addario, Sr. joined his dad, Charles, and his young inquisitive mind was immediately energized by the world of the guitar. The guitar was yet to be amplified and was for the most part used as an element of the rhythm section of the big bands that were popular during that era. Guitar makers like Maccaferri and D’Angelico worked hard to make their instruments project acoustically over entire bands or orchestras.

John, Sr. (my dad), befriended John D’Angelico towards the end of the 1930’s. Their collaboration would be a key to the success of D’Addario guitar strings some 35 years later. D’Angelico was looking for someone to improve on the quality of the acoustic guitar strings that were available at the time. Dad was lucky enough to enter the picture at the right time. The art of string making at that time was exactly that - an ‘art’. Most developments were by accident or by trial and error. The major string brands at the time, National Black Diamond and Gibson for instance, did not make a string with the low end output, sustain and the projection in the upper register to satisfy D’Angelico.

I had the good fortune to meet John D’Angelico on several occasions as child when my dad was delivering strings to his shop on Kenmare Street in Little Italy. I can tell you personally - D’Angelico had golden ears. My dad’s collaboration with him yielded the acoustic guitar specifications that we, by and large, still use today. In fact most successful competitive brands have emulated the very specifications that the collaboration between D’Addario and D’Angelico yielded. All the D’Angelico packaged strings made prior to John D’Angelico’s passing (1964) were made by our family. Similarity in the names and his respect for John D’Angelico were key reasons why Dad never used the D’Addario family name on his strings until we did so in 1974.

My dad often spoke fondly of how well they worked together. Dad would make a variety of samples, with different core sizes and whatever different alloys of brass, bronze and silver plated copper that he could get his hands on at the time. John would test them and together, using their ears and their minds, through trial and error, they advanced the art of guitar string-making. Their first epiphany was determining the optimum size ratios between the core wire and the wrap wire for each wound string on the guitar. Later, they realized that the 80-20 brass (referred to as bronze most of the time) needed to be softened prior to winding. Eventually, after many trials, they landed on some great-sounding string specifications.

D’Angelico made instruments for all kinds of different guitar players. Many times the guitarist would not be satisfied with the instrument he ordered when he came to pick it up. While D’Angelico could make adjustments in the set-up of the guitar to sometimes satisfy the particular want of each player, he quickly realized, with all these string samples lying around, that many times just changing the string tension would do the trick.

Prior to their collaboration, strings were sold in one gauge. They pioneered the idea of Light, Medium and Heavy string gauges. Later, as the electric guitar took hold, players would demand even lighter and lighter string gauges. Back then, most guitars were outfitted with pretty heavy gauge strings.

As the guitar string business grew and my grandfather’s retirement age was approaching, my dad began to lose interest in bowed string manufacturing and focused more and more of his attention on fretted instrument strings. In 1959, Charles retired and for a few years, my dad and his team continued to make bowed strings for various private labels and under their own names Puccini and La Rita. Around 1964, after the British invasion and the advent of the real guitar boom, D’Addario totally abandoned bowed string manufacturing and focused all their energy on fretted instrument strings.

Dad and his partners (two other gentlemen from the same town in Italy) sold their company to C. F. Martin & Company in 1969. In 1974, after a five-year employment engagement, a newly-formed company (our present entity) introduced fretted instrument strings for the first time, bearing the D’Addario family name. Joined by his two sons John D’Addario, Jr. (my brother) and me (Jim D’Addario), the D’Addario family began on the journey of establishing the D’Addario brand name utilizing many of the string innovations discovered through the collaboration of John D’Angelico.

More on collaboration to come. . . .
My next article will discuss the acquisition of Kaplan Music Strings in 1981 and the re-entry into the bowed string business through our collaboration with Dr. Norman Pickering.

Jim D’Addario

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