|An Interview with
by John Watson
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to do an interview with Professor String. We met at the Atlanta International Guitar Show and struck up a conversation during the exhibition. In my twenty-six years of the music business, I found Professor String to be perhaps one of the worlds most visionary experts on guitar strings. He is clearly a top leader on the subject, but how did it happen? His story is rather interesting, and I wanted to get it into print. Here is a transcript of our discussion.
So, how did you get started with your interest in guitar strings?
It all started with a very expensive electron microscope, thirty years of playing, and a Ph.D. My first job out of college was with an large engineering company that had one of the world's best research and development labs. We designed magnetic sensors and studied the metal targets they sensed. The company had recently spent close to a million dollars on a cutting edge electron microscope. I was assigned the task of managing it and becoming an expert on it's usage. One day I had brought in a string off of my guitar and a string from my bass. I was curious to see what an old worn out string looked like under the microscope. I was instantly fascinated. From that moment on I started to bring in all kinds of strings in my spare time and observed how they looked under the electron microscope. There were some amazing things happening to the strings at a molecular level. I also tested the strings on our alloy purity station, and on an 220 ksi Instron servo-hydraulic tensile strength tester. For the cryogenic strings and precious metal plated strings, I used a Baldwin compression tester and a Black Lydian slate to perform streak testing.
How much time did you spend studying the various strings under the scope?
Sometimes I would be in the lab all night until sunrise. I don't believe anyone, who is sane, has spent as much time studying guitar and bass strings under an electron microscope as I did! [laughs]. Most of us in the lab had doctorate degrees. Pretty soon my co-workers started calling me Professor String.
What would you see under the electron scope?
A mess. I would buy brand new sets of strings from various manufacturers and look at them under the scope. I even asked the local music store to save their used strings for me. There were big differences in material qualities, workmanship, windings, wraps, cores, gauge deviations...you name it. It's funny how we think of strings being stainless steel or nickel, and yet nobody asks about the quality of the steel or nickel being used. The most shocking thing I found were some of the better well known strings didn't always look so good under the scope. Clearly, there are some string companies too focused on image and money, and not enough focus on making the quality strings they advertise. In the end, it is the guitarist or bassist who suffers on stage, or at practice with a broken string. It's kind of sad.
If a string did not look good under the scope, what did that mean in terms of sound and playability?
I would look at the string under the scope, and then string it on an instrument I had in the lab. There was a direct relationship between what was being seen under the scope, and how the string sounded and played. Often, I would put the strings under material density and tensile strength tests. Again there was a direct relationship to sound and playability.
You also have an impressive background in various magnetic and piezoelectric sensors. How has this helped you with strings?
Yes. Much of my engineering background was in sensor design. Many of my patents are in this area. I had to design sensors to detect ferrous targets and other moving metal objects. This is basically how my background in guitar and bass pick-ups evolved, and how the strings played a role.
Do you work with any string companies?
We do consulting. Our group also gets many calls, emails, and resumes from folks who work at musical instrument companies.
What would you recommend to a guitarist or bassist for strings?
This is the number one question I receive. I have answered it on our website under our "Recommendations" section. In short, I recommend educating yourself about strings and making your own decision about which strings to use. Just because a string brand works good for someone else, does not mean it will work good for you. I do weekly and monthly articles about strings and the guitar string business. Most players think that strings are fairly simple: 1. Select them. 2. Buy them; 3. Install them; 4. Play them; 5. Replace them; 6. Repeat when necessary. Remember, string companies are businesses. Like any business, they are in business to make money for the shareholders. The less you know, the easier they can sell to you. Players over simplify string knowledge. For example, if you only buy strings by the gauge, metal type, winding type (i.e. roundwound), then you are missing out on some serious tone and playability improvement opportunities. Strings have more impact on the sound of a guitar than any other component. Certain strings work better for a variety of factors beyond what the string companies lead you to believe.
Earlier, I saw you playing some tricky stuff. Who were your influences?
I've been playing both guitar and bass for about thirty years. On guitar, I like the chord melody players Johnny Smith and Joe Pass. I'm fond of how Wes Montgomery introduced new ways of playing. My interest in bass is very different than guitar. On bass, I like Marcus Miller and Brian Bromberg. They are truly innovators.
Those sound like jazz players. Do like other types?
Oh yes! Santana, Stevie Ray, Satriani, Nuno, Nathan East, Ray Brown, Bootsy, Larry Graham, Glen Cambell, Chet Atkins and Metallica are also in my musical melting pot.
What strings do you use?
My own! [laughs]
What do you think the future will be for guitar and bass strings?
There are big improvements to be made in the reliability and tone of guitar strings. Technology will continue to play its role in the evolution of the guitar string. I believe there are many things that can be done to improve the basic string, but string companies will be hesitant to implement the changes. As long as they make strings that break and wear out, they are in business. So, developing a string that lasts a lifetime, or never loses its sound would be a death kill to their business. Another thing that will come into play is the world market. The price of steel, nickel, phosphor, and bronze continue to go up as the demand for these metals climb with the development of Asia and other Western countries. We are already starting to see this happen with oil. This also means the quest to get access to the ultra premium grade alloys will be a future struggle for some string manufacturers.