The Innovators: Jim D'Addario

In the music business, a company that’s been around for 50 years is considered venerable.
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In the music business, a company that’s been around for 50 years is considered venerable. But D’Addario & Company traces its history back to Donato D’Addario of Salle, Italy, who was a cordaro (string maker) in the 17th century. His descendants emigrated to Queens, New York, early in the 20th century, where they began making strings by hand in a small shop. Over the years, members of the family carried on the trade, making private-label strings for such companies as Martin, Guild, and Gretsch, as well as directly marketing them under various brand names. During the ’60s, business took off under the leadership of John D’Addario Sr., and his sons—John Jr. and Jim—soon moved into management positions.

The first strings bearing the D’Addario brand name entered the market in 1974, and the company has grown remarkably since then. Now, it offers not only music strings but several other music-related product lines, including Rico and D’Addario reeds, Promark drumsticks, Evans drumheads, and Planet Waves accessories. D’Addario’s string-making operation is based in a 110,000 square-foot facility in Farmingdale, New York, that produces some 700,000 strings a day. Jim D’Addario is CEO, and he is still actively involved in R&D. “I’m a tinkerer, and I’ve always been involved with manufacturing,” he says. “We engineer all our own machines for strings. We’re always trying to raise the bar on the design and quality of our products.”

Making strings is a complex process that has benefited greatly from improvements in both materials and machinery. Gone are the days when most bass strings were hand-wound. “When you’re making a string that way, you’re putting the tension on the wrap wire with your hand,” Jim explains. “It takes a real craftsman to make a good string every time. We’ve designed machinery to do it better. We’ve put controls on our machinery that eliminate all these variables [from handwinding], so our strings are consistent. That’s something we’re very proud of.”

D’Addario offers a full line of bass strings in roundwound, flatwound, and half-round configurations in four scale lengths, made with different wrap wires and coatings for 4-, 5-, 6-, 8-, and 12-string basses. D’Addario XL sets have been very popular with bassists since their introduction in 1975. Interestingly, the origin of these nickel-plated steel roundwounds can be traced back to D’Addario’s development of strings for Danelectro. Jim tells the story: “In the late ’50s, when Danelectro first started making guitars and basses, my dad was making a string for them that was fully roundwound. He had found a wire made by Bethlehem Steel that was called Bethanized steel; it was a lowcarbon steel wire with a zinc coating, and it made an unbelievably bright-sounding roundwound string. When Bethlehem Steel shut that plant down at the end of the ’60s, you couldn’t get this zincplated wire anymore, and that’s when my dad developed nickel-plated steel, which everybody uses today.”

The latest innovation in D’Addario bass strings is the NYXL series, introduced early in 2016. The key difference, compared to the standard XLs, is a new type of steel wire used for the core. It’s made in D’Addario’s own plant, across the street from the string factory. “The wire is about ten percent stronger, which enables us to lower the diameter of the core in relation to the wrap,” Jim says. The wrap wire is also different, with less nickel, so it’s more responsive to magnetism, yielding a boost in midrange frequencies. Overall, Jim says, the combination makes the NYXL “a really flexible string with a completely different sound and feel.”

The NYXLs are just one example of D’Addario’s ongoing commitment to product development. The company has a full-time engineering staff, and they are constantly evaluating materials and improving manufacturing methods—and listening to feedback from musicians. “We’re always doing beta tests with both artists and serious amateurs. The serious amateurs are a core part of our market, so we want to hear their opinions.”

For more about D’Addario, go to daddario.com.

Jim Roberts was the founding editor of Bass Player and also served as the magazine’s publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How the Fender Bass Changed the World and American Basses: An Illustrated History & Player’s Guide (both published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard).

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