Our legacy goes back to the birth of Rock n’ Roll itself. Since 1958 Rotosound strings have been an ever-present on some of the most famous recordings ever heard from The British Invasion to Punk, Metal to Grunge, we have helped artists make the music that defined their eras.
Scroll down through our story to travel through the highlights from over 60 years of music string history.
In 1952 James How, a violin and viola student with a diploma in engineering, fell in love with the sound of the zither after watching the film The Third Man and took to learning the 32-string instrument.
After hours of playing, James ran out of zither strings and using his knowledge of acoustics, harmonics, engineering design and construction he designed himself a winding machine. With the aid of two of the family turning handles each end of his machine, after five minutes of frantic exhaustion one Zither string was produced.
As the years went by James How invented and designed more and more strings, more machines and in 1958 James and brother Ron formed their own business in Blackfen, Kent called Orchestral & Jazz Strings. The first strings were branded ‘Top Strings’ which soon changed to ‘Rotop’.
Among the first clients were the Shadows, Beatles, Rolling Stones, London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, all strings for the Vox Organ Company, and for the Burns Guitar Company.
As more and more players sought the use of these roundwound strings James and Ron decided to create a new brand which summed up their innovation. Highlighting the strings’ distinct full, bright sound combined with the Latin verb for round, ‘Roto’, they called the new brand Rotosound.
Not content to rest on his laurels, James How patents even more string designs including the black nylon Tru Bass strings, created to reproduce the tonal qualities of an upright double bass.
John Entwistle begins a long association with Rotosound including helping to develop the RS66 Swing Bass sets. Entwistle recounts the story:
“It was in 1966 and I was looking for that Danelectro sound again. I tried everybody’s strings but the E and the A’s just didn’t work. It was the same with Rotosound but there was something about them that was almost there but not quite. To solve the problem I got in touch with James How and told him his D and G strings were great but the E and A didn’t vibrate properly. He told me to take my bass along to Rotosound and have some strings made until they got it right.
“After a couple of hours, we realised that the problem wasn’t in the wire winding, but in the core of the string. You could see that the strings vibrated in a big circle and that was wrong; the core needed to be thicker. We also made the overall gauges a bit heavier and they sent me away with 12 sets to use.
“A couple of days later they called and asked if I objected to them putting my name to the strings and selling them commercially. I told them I didn’t mind as long as they kept me supplied with free strings! But then we had to do the same with medium and short scale strings because I had loads of different basses by then. Those strings, the RS66 sets, were the first that vibrated properly.”
Rotosound’s Denmark Street shop with James How, Pete Wilshire, Alan Marcuson
Alongside the Rotosound string company James How opened a showroom in London’s famous Denmark Street. This store was to showcase some of the additional products that the company was now handling including Triumph amps and PA systems (installed in Liverpool’s Cavern Club), Image lighting (those groovy psychedelic oil wheels that were so fashionable at the time), Pro Mark drumsticks, Jenco Vibraphones, Marimbas and Celestes, and the Rotosound Rhythm Light which worked in sync with the music!
A booklet for the Rotosound ‘Rhythmlite’ unit
True to the spirit of the times, The Denmark Street shop sold Image lighting (those groovy psychedelic oil wheels that were so fashionable at the time), Pro Mark drumtsicks, Jenco Vibraphones, Marimbas and Celestes, and the Rotosound Rhythm Light which worked in sync with the music!
An original Rotosound Fuzz MKIII which belongs to Ant Macari
Rotosound began to augment the catalogue with other musical accessories including fuzz pedals which would go on to shape the sound of guitar from the sixties, seventies, and beyond. Built by Denmark Street neighbour Solasound, the Rotosound Fuzz went through various circuits and enclosures over a few years, following the Tone Bender blueprint.
Another pedal sold by Rotosound was the Growler, an eccentric pedal combining a MKI.5 fuzz with an independent wah-wah circuit. The user operated the way by rotating a rubber pad with their foot and there were no controls for the fuzz or level.
Jimi Hendrix & Noel Redding talk strings with Alan Marcuson March 1st, 1967.
Rotosound’s reputation for quality strings that delivered a knock-out tone brought in a number of new artists around 1967 and thanks to newly appointed marketing man, Alan Marcuson, we have these fascinating photos of rock royalty using Rotosound strings.
A visit to the Japanese Trade Fair in Tokyo found that Rotosound’s efforts to export to Japan over several years had now given fruition with 100 stores in Tokyo and a further 200 throughout the country stocking Rotosound.
Yamaha used Rotosound as the strings they use on their best instruments as well as many other famous Japanese manufacturers too numerous to list.
Herbie Flowers with his Walk On The Wild Side bass during a Rotosound 1990s shoot
Transformer by Lou Reed is released featuring Herbie Flowers using RS88 Tru Bass strings. As one of Britain’s best-known session bass-players, Herbie performed with T Rex, David Bowie, Al Kooper, Harry Nilsson, Cat Stevens, and George Harrison.
2018 saw Herbie playing bass guitar on the 40th Anniversary UK Arena Tour of “Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of H.G.Wells’ War of the Worlds” – which he also played on the original 1976 recording. His blue Fender Jazz Bass is still fitted with the black nylon and yellow silk Tru Bass strings.
An advert featuring Wilco Johnson from Dr Feelgood
With the explosion of punk, the music world once again focuses on London and the UK as a whole. Rotosound joins forces with some of the key bands of the movement including Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Stranglers, Sham 69, Souixsie & the Banshees, The Buzzcocks, and The Jam.
Rotosound employs the services of an exclusive USA distributor called Meisel Music in New York who have success in making Rotosound the top selling bass strings in the USA. Quite an achievement for an overseas company when the majority of the competition are all American brands!
The UK factory based in Bexleyheath at this time was working night shifts most of the time to keep up with demand.
Trade shows in Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles all helped to spread the word along with legendary bass players like Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius.
Superwound release a light-top, medium-bottom gauge of steel bass strings announcing that: “Mark King, Britain’s premier funk bass player, uses and recommends the Superwound 606F Funkmaster St, which is specially designed to meet the needs of his style and playing.”
Nickel plated 303 sets are also released shortly afterwards.
Working closely with Rotosound, Billy Sheehan helps to develop the BS66 set, which uses a 0.043″ G string and a heavy E string.
The Spacer strings are also launched as the RS6006 range: “A Patented Black finish is integrated into the surface of our Special Stainless Steel and combined with high output undercovers to produce a brilliant string with enhanced fingertip response and feel.”
Another new range of guitar strings is introduced – the nickel on steel Rotos. Rotosound had always been famous for its stainless steel strings but a lot of new players favour the nickel strings which are smoother to play.
The Roto range has gone on to become Rotosound’s biggest selling line of guitar strings ever. Advertising began in the form of ‘Planet Roto’.
Britpop bursts into the world and once again Rotosound is at the heart of an era-defining music scene. Bands are drawing inspiration from the sixties and groups such as Oasis, Suede, Pulp, Kula Shaker, Dodgy, Cast, Supergrass, Gene, and the Lightning Seeds naturally choose Rotosound strings to create their unmistakeable guitar tones.
One of the final Superwound adverts
Superwound closed in 1995. The necessarily large range – due to each gauge needing a variety of off-shoots to fit different types of instrument bridges – became unwieldy. The piano string design strings continue under the Rotosound brand as P.S.D. Bass and Super Bronze acoustic strings.
Picking up where his father left off, Jason How begins around 8 years’ of work designing, upgrading and building a completely new set of machines that now produce around 90% of the company’s output. These machines incorporate all the latest technology and ensure the company’s competitiveness continues along with unsurpassed consistency.
The introduction of new string making machines means that the company’s in a position to step up its exports, so takes on Zach Frederick to run Rotosound’s export business. This has proved very successful with the export turnover tripling since Zach and his team first came on board.
Productivity is now at its highest point in the history of the company. A more efficient production means that we can hold on to and control the manufacturing. All machinery is maintained to our highest standards and to our specifications. Many of which go back a long way in the companies history.
Rotosound develops its own coated strings in the Nexus range. The wrap wire in coated before being applied to the wound strings, which offers a far superior playing experience than other well known coated string brands. The Nexus range effectively replaces the Spacer range as the brand’s corrosion-resistant string.
An all new packaging design is introduced across the entire string range.
Even more new string sets are added into the product range, including British Steels, Tru Bronze and Pure Nickels. This is mainly due to demand and the capabilities now to produce a wider range of strings.
More accessories including guitar picks, guitar straps, guitar leads, tuners and capos are also added to the comprehensive string range.
British guitar virtuoso Guthrie Govan becomes an official Rotosound endorsee.
“I do some fairly barbaric things to my strings on a daily basis, so I’ve experimented with many different brands over the years, in a quest for maximum consistency, tuning stability, durability and all-round tonal splendour. After much research, the conclusion I reached was simply this: Rotosounds rock 😉”
An email from a gentleman in Arizona, USA sparked off interest in a dormant product that James How had only sold as prototypes back in the late sixties. The Rotosound fuzz pedal was originally manufactured to James How’s specifications back in 1967 as James was good friends with Dick Denny (who he was in the RAF with during the war) and Tom Jennings who was the Managing Director of Vox at that time.
This heritage has caused quite a stir so it was decided that upon close inspection we could reissue the original pedal with only a few small mods to bring it up to date along with a more usable spec. With help from Andy Brunt and Dr. Barry Pyatt we set to work on re-creating the original pedal.
The production run was limited to 2000 units. The first run was released in 2012 and sold out almost immediately.
Having invested in the tooling to make the Fuzz pedal it only seemed natural to bring out a complete range of other pedals. The plan was to replicate the ‘vibe’ of the late sixties and make the pedals very retro looking and sounding. John Oram (who was an apprentice electrical engineer at Vox in the late sixties) helps design six brand new circuits that are unique to Rotosound and the pedals are be manufactured at the factory in Sevenoaks.
Exciting times for us as we introduce our entire range of strings in colour-coded ball ends in new environmentally friendly airtight packaging with new artwork.
The innovative, air-tight packaging is made from foil and provides a moisture barrier ensuring strings will not tarnish or fade while in the packs keeping them factory fresh until ready for use. The packaging has also been reduced by 90% making the new packets incredibly eco-friendly.
Rotosound has always had a great connection with all its artists right back to the late fifties. To continue that tradition, Dom Fairbanks is brought in to handle all Artist Relations, keeping up with the newest bands and giving Rotosound a strong presence at all the happening festivals.
Some Rotosound endorsees at this time include… The Balconies, Temples, Peace, You Me at Six, Babyshambles, Boy Cried Wolf, Crystal Fighters, Fatherson, The James Cleaver Quintet, The Vaccines, Skindred, Arch Enemy, Treetop Flyers, Twin Atlantic, and White Lies.
Rotosound kicks off their 60th anniversary at the NAMM show by hosting appearances from bass legends and endorsees Billy Sheehan and Doug Wimbish.
The celebration comes at a significant point as the company branches out into distribution. Rotosound takes on UK distribution for Dutch music giant, The Music Alliance (TMA), with access to their full range of instruments and accessories totalling more than 17,000 products.
An old guitar of the Beatles’ George Harrison shows up at Sotheby’s Auction House with a pack of Rotosound strings in the case. The owner recollects this –
“…George gave me this Hofner President… in the summer of 1969, before the release of ‘Here Comes the Sun’. I’d gone to George to ask him to show me the chord I was missing from the song ‘Here Comes the Sun’ which I was trying to teach myself to play. George told me to go and get a guitar from his guitar room, which I did, he described this guitar as ‘Blondie’ and remarked that a Hofner President was his first good guitar. George showed me the chord then took the guitar from me, and told me, whilst smiling, ‘Play it up here at the seventh fret’, he then handed the guitar back to me telling me it was mine. He said it needed some work doing on it and gave me a set of [Rotosound] strings for it that he thought would be better for me than the ones on the guitar.”
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