Based in the heart of Derbyshire, on the edge of the Peak District, Newtone Strings make handmade strings and offer a custom service where players can define exactly what they want from their strings.
Acoustic Review Editor Ben Morgan-Brown spoke to owner Neil Silverman about what makes Newtone Strings handmade approach unique and how being a small boutique manufacturer allows them to offer a bespoke service.
Thanks for taking the time out to talk to us – could you start by giving us a brief history of Newtone Strings?
Newtone Strings was started in 1985 by Malcolm Newton. Although he wasn’t musical himself he worked in the wire industry and, through an ex-colleague, he had the chance to work as a franchisee making strings under another name, which eventually led on to him striking out on his own and starting Newtone Strings.
He just started out doing his own thing: working with musicians and responding to their needs, developing his own way of working, without really following trends and built up the business over the years.
In about 1999 I came into the firm out of college and started working with Malcolm, and then, when it came to the time for him to retire, I took over the business in 2015.
And how many people work for Newtone Strings now?
There’s three of us so just a small team. It’s not like a big machine where someone just does one job and then passes it on – you learn to be a string maker, you put the ball ends on, you cut the wire, wrap the strings, pack the strings – everyone needs to know the whole process from beginning to end.
How exactly is a handmade string made?
A string winding machine is a bit like a lathe – it’s got two spinning ends and you attach a piece of plain guitar string between them. Then the wrapping wire is dragged onto the core that’s spinning, but it’s fed on by hand – you’re controlling the tension to make sure it goes onto the strings smoothly.
Unlike a large manufacturer where they’d set the machine up to run a few hundred strings and then just monitor it, each string is individually made so it’s not really going out of our way to make something one-off, and that’s where the handmade aspect really comes into it.
How many strings are you making on a weekly basis?
It varies because of the nature of what we do – sometimes you’re making lots of custom sets and sometimes you’re making a batch of fifty standard sets but it’s roughly 300 sets of strings a week.
And are you selling direct to customers or through retailers?
We used to supply a lot more retailers but a couple of years ago I started to focus on selling direct, because it allows us to push the custom side of things – it makes it a lot easier if you’re dealing directly with players rather than through a shop.
Getting the website set up and fine tuning how to communicate with the customer cuts a lot of time down, which means we can spend more time making strings and hopefully get a little more profit out of the product as, being handmade, time is probably the most costly part.
Your website now allows customers to put together their own custom sets through your string configurator…
Being able to do that online makes a big difference – people can go to the website and specify the gauge, the wrap material, whether they want a round or hex core, the lengths they need – there’s no need to ask ‘can you make this?’ as they can just tell us everything they need on the website.
You must get some pretty wild requests?
Yes! We get to do lots a weird and wonderful things – sets for 13 string basses, multi scale instruments, etc all sorts of unusual things -there’s always the one off instrument that somebody has had built and didn’t think about how long the strings needed to be and where they can get them from.
We’ve also got customers such as Jon Gomm who plays in an open tuning but wanting to vary that tuning for each piece so they need a very custom set of strings for a specific purpose.
And of course there’s the heavy metal market with your Dingwall basses and everyone wanting to tune lower and lower and still have set of strings that works!
Do you supply any other manufacturers?
We deal with a lot of individual luthiers – Unicorn Basses in Sweden, AC Basses in Scotland, a local luthier RH Guitars, Turnstone Guitars – when a customer comes along wanting a specific instrument made they don’t have to limit the customers ideas to the strings you can get because they can talk to us and we can make strings for that instrument.
Is there also an appeal to being a ‘Made in Britain’ brand?
It does pull a lot of customers in being British, but we sell all over the world. It’s us and Rotosound as the only British manufacturers, but we don’t really try to compete with them because we’re offering something different and unique, and could never compete with their mass production.
When we started putting the website together for the custom configurator that’s always been the idea and trying to aim at that market rather then going down the mass produced path – that’s the key thing to get across to people – we do offer a standard range, but it’s a very wide standard range that can be completely customised because every artist is an individual, every guitar itself is individual – each artist is looking for something different out of their strings that’s why we offer a multitude of options.
And of course the strings are so crucial to the tone – they’re literally your first point of contact with the instrument!
Yes, definitely! With acoustic and bass players, because you’re dealing with a purer tone, they understand that the strings can make a big difference – especially the acoustic players, if you’ve got a good guitar the strings are really the only main aspect that’s changeable.
We started off with more acoustic customers but the bass and electric players are coming along now, particularly because we can cater to their specialist needs – the extended scale lengths, fan fret basses, drop tunings – that’s what’s attracting those players, it’s because we can offer such a wide range of gauges.
And the internet has made it easier for those players to find you …
Definitely, with all the forums and so on – whereas before people might have been doing something on their own, or thinking they’re on their own, and dealing with a local shop that only stocks a certain range of strings, now you can go online and, not only buy more, but they can talk to players who’ve tried that before and they can suggest ‘try this, try that’.
Is there anything you do specifically to let people know about Newtone? Are you reaching out to players and endorsees or do they tend to come to you?
Generally players come to us – they hear about us and approach us because they’ve got specific requirements and that’s what often pulls artists in.
Obviously we’re active on social media as well as attending a few guitar shows to rise awareness of the brand, but we’re only three people so I have to limit how much I push things – there’s only so many sets we can make in a week and we don’t want to get to a point where we’re getting behind with orders.
People are expecting to be able to get a set of strings shipped out straight away so sometimes you’re fighting that aspect as they might need to wait a few days for us to make their strings.
It can be difficult to keep up with demand, which I suppose is good in some ways, but it can be a bit frustrating for customers and for ourselves knowing that we can’t send them out any quicker.
With that in mind, and assuming that you’re importing some of your raw materials, with the doubts over what will happen with Brexit and trade at the moment are you concerned? Do you think it will slow business down?
I’m not sure – our core wire is supplied by an American firm so, if we get a trade deal with America that could be a good thing for us.
We don’t actually buy anything in from Europe – the wrapping wire comes from a UK company – so that’s not going to interfere with anything, and it could potentially improve things with our supply of raw materials, but may interrupt selling back into Europe – but everything is still ‘ifs, buts and maybes’ – nobody’s quite sure what’s going to happen.
So you’re not stockpiling just in case?
No we’re not stockpiling – there’s the question of where to put it for starters!
The core wire comes in drums that weigh 20lbs, with a few hundred miles of wires so that’s a several thousand strings on a wheel, that can last us quite a while.
I can’t see any problem as it’s coming from outside the EU – no one has mentioned to us the potential for delays but I don’t know.
So what are your future plans for Newtone?
It’s mainly a case of carrying on as we are, that’s the plan for the near future – increase and improve output.
There’s something hopefully coming along next year which might help that but we’ve always got our hands tied in one sense as the biggest step up would be automating production, but then you get totally away from the business that we are and that’s not something we will ever consider.
Where can people go to find more information on Newtone Strings?
There’s as much information as I can think of at www.newtonestrings.com but I’m always on the end of the phone if you’ve got any questions for us.