Anyone who plays acoustic stringed instruments, and fretted instruments in particular, is familiar with the feeling that “they just don’t make them like they used to.” Especially those of us old enough to recall the times when prominent factory builders like Martin, Gibson, and Fender had allowed their standards to drop so far that their new products bore very little resemblance to the glory days when they won their hard earned reputations.
Fortunately, these companies have made radical improvements in recent years, and now offer both lower costs instruments as well as the high end, professional models that serious players demand. They were prodded in this direction by competition from dedicated small shop builders who proved that it was still possible to make banjos, mandolins, and guitars that hold up to pre-war scrutiny.
P.K. Pandey is a lifelong musician with a serious career pedigree, that came to a similar conclusion about strings. As a studio owner and consultant, and a gigging guitarist, he had both his own anecdotal experience, plus the evidence on his studio recordings, to back up his contention. His interest became a fascination, then an obsession, and finally a new business dedicated to manufacturing strings that sound and feel like he and his many friends in the music world remember from when they started playing in the 1970s and ’80s.
We had the opportunity recently to speak at some length with P.K. about his research, his new string line, Sonotone, and his ongoing plans to bring this new level of quality and consistency to other instruments. At present, they only offer strings for acoustic and electric guitar, but are prototyping sets for both mandolin and banjo at this time.
Pandey explained a bit about his background…
“My history is in the recording world, and I’ve been playing guitar for 40 years. I remember that the strings used to be better back in the ’80s. They seem to sound dead right out of the package these days. So I got together with other pro friends (like Joe Perry of Aerosmith), to see if we could figure this out.
My ‘day job’ is to build and set up recording studios, and we can really hear the difference in contemporary strings, and in how short a time they last.”
P.K. invested his own time and money trying to recapture the sort of sound he remembers, trying out all sorts of different core wire and wrap materials. He had custom strings made up in small batches, staying away from any sort of coatings, because the response and feel he was after was what he got before such coatings were available.
“I just wanted to let the pure elements of the metal be what rings. I experimented, and failed a few times at first, but eventually found a recipe that worked.”
These early experiments were conducted on electric guitar strings, and when the first production run was made, the results were even better than expected.
“Initially, I made 120 sets and Joe Perry took them out on a tour. He loved them, and gave some to his friend, Jeff Beck, who immediately ordered 75 sets.
All of a sudden, I have a guitar string company! It’s a very uphill battle, and a cut-throat business. I only make about 150,000-200,000 sets per year, and I’m not interested in scaling up. I was just trying to get some guitar strings that would sound good in my studio.
And these sound and feel better.”
Once he was confident that he had a set for electrics, Pandey figured he could do the same thing in the acoustic guitar world, where he had also noticed a decline in tone and response in the studio. His research there led him to believe that the switch to phosphor bronze for wound strings was part of the problem, so he made some from the old brass alloy that used to be the standard. The phosphor bronze is indeed harder than brass, but P.K. feels that its resonant qualities are not nearly as pleasing.
“D’Addario developed phosphor bronze for strings. But when we record with the historical brass strings, you can really hear the difference. They sound more balanced, responsive, and beautiful. They really ring, and are loud.”
That research has led to the creation of the Sonotone Concert Series for acoustic guitars, made with this historical brass. He also offers a Symphonic Series as well, for players who prefer the phosphor bronze. Each is available in three gauges.
These days, P.K. is experimenting with strings for banjo and mandolin, and hopes to be able to offer them for sale soon.
“I’m starting to learn the mandolin myself. We can make strings for banjo and mandolin. The ring – the bell tones – are immaculate. We should have them available within six months.”
As you might have guessed, with boutique quality comes boutique prices. But Sonotone believes that a market exists for high end strings, and he has so far been proven correct by selling through all the sets they make. The Concert Series strings sell for $18.99/set, and are only available directly from the manufacturer.
“My other business pays me well, so I don’t need to make a bunch of money on this. If the strings don’t satisfy everyone, so be it.
My ‘secrets’ are proprietary, and I have things set up so none of my suppliers actually know what I’m getting from other suppliers. Much like the way DuPont protected their nylon product, no one vendor knows what we use to finish these strings.
There are human beings actually winding and wrapping the strings. They are all made in the US, and it’s very labor intensive. We’re staying with the old school recyclable plastic envelopes. It is more expensive, which is OK with me, because the people who will appreciate this will get it.
Sonotone is being funded by my other ventures, and I have sunk a quarter million dollars in development. I have no partners; just myself and my wife. But at least I’ll always have strings for myself and my best friends.”
Since they aren’t being made by any of the large US string manufacturers, he feels like his secret is safe.
P.K. is in this for the long haul, and he guarantees his strings.
“We guarantee our strings. If you break a wound string, we’ll send you a new one.
When you email us, the message comes directly to me.”
You can learn more about Sonotone, and order their strings, online.