The landscape for guitar gear has never been more varied. We’ve moved from a time when you got to choose which Boss pedal you wanted to play now when there are literally hundreds of options for every single possible effect plus there are hundreds of new effects being created every year. It’s a magical world out there!
In sharp juxtaposition to this is the guitar string industry, there really hasn’t been much movement over the last couple of decades in what we’re offered as far as strings are concerned. Ernie Ball, DR, D’Addario, and co have the majority of the market share and haven’t really been doing much other than changing the branding of premade sizes to fit current music trends (Detune with these nu-metal kids!). It’s interesting to see a company putting in the effort to look at this type of status quo and question how they can do it better. Stringjoy are that company. I was very skeptical of their claims for the last year or so and finally decided to give them a try and see what all the hype was about. Just for clarity, I paid for these myself and have no ties to the company at all. They are great strings and I highly recommend them, but that isn’t really the point of this.
Carrying on, over the last few months, I’ve been signing up my F&E email address for as many pedal manufacturer newsletters as possible. It’s cool to see what people are releasing and what’s coming down the pipeline from everybody. This works out pretty well as I get some interesting news a couple times a day from a bunch of different companies. I did not think this plan through very well. I forgot that Black Friday existed and was thoroughly bombarded with every single company sending out news about their once a year sale. Among the clutter of all of these notifications was an email from Stringjoy. This particular email stood out to me because it wasn’t about a sale – it was the opposite of that. It was Scott, the founder of Stringjoy letting everyone know that they’d be a few days behind in shipping things out and also would not be offering any Black Friday deals because he was giving the whole team time off to be with their families. This is one of the first email newsletters I’ve ever responded to – I shot off a quick note saying kudos for doing awesome things and asking if he’d like to talk about said things on this website. That brings us up to today.
I asked Scott a few questions about business, the concept of reinventing an old technology and specifically about his Black Friday choices. I hope you enjoy these questions as much as I enjoyed reading his answers!
First of all thanks so much for taking the time to do this, I know you guys are slammed this time of year. Can you give a quick intro on who you are and what you do for those who may be unfamiliar
Absolutely! My name’s Scott, I’m the founder and president of Stringjoy. We’re a boutique guitar string manufacturer in Nashville, TN.
Starting a string company in 2014 is a pretty crazy idea, starting a string company in 2014 in Nashville is even crazier. What led you to take on this type of endeavor?
Yeah, strings are a pretty crazy game to get into. I’ve been a guitar and bass player for as long as I can remember, and a nerd for even longer. I’ve always been the type of player to nerd-out on my gear, whether it’s effects pedals, pickups, tubes or whatever, I’ve always been looking for that one thing that would help me get closer to the sound I had in my head.
A decade or so ago I realized that I had modified practically everything I could on my rig, but I was still using off-the-rack 10s for strings. So, I started experimenting with custom gauges, piecing together strings from a few different sets to build a set that would do what I wanted it to. Fast forward many years later I was working at an artist management company and had the itch to go off on my own with a project and thought maybe there were other cats out there who were trying to customize their strings and had a headache finding the right gauges, and having to buy three sets to turn into one. So, I opened up Stringjoy, initially as just a custom shop for other people who were trying to do more with their strings than what you could get from strings you bought off the rack.
Now many years out from that custom work is just a small part of our business and we’re more known for the quality, innovative design, and customer service that we’ve honed along the way, but the ability to give players a set of strings that will help them get closer to the sound they hear in their heads is the core of what we do here, whether that’s through a custom set or not.
As mentioned in the intro of this article, you decided to not participate in Black Friday madness and instead give your team a paid day off – that type of creative leadership is rare and makes me very curious about your background. Do you have a traditional business background or is this all something you’re inventing as you go?
Well thanks, man. Yeah, so definitely not a traditional business background, though I’ve pieced together a lot of lessons along the way. I did a lot of organizational leadership work in college at Vanderbilt and learned a lot from my time in the artist management game, but honestly more of what you’re talking about comes from the hospitality world.
I got my first restaurant job when I was sixteen and was always waiting tables or bartending in some capacity from then until Stringjoy turned two or three. With a bar, your people are your product. If you take care of them, they’ll take care of your customers, and I think the same can be said for any industry.
The idea of seeing a gap in a market or a lack of a specific tool and acting on it has become a bit of a theme in these interviews. Identifying that you want better strings is one thing, but actually moving into learning how to produce your own at scale is another. How’d this process happen?
In the very early years, I found a manufacturer to make me some of each gauge I was offering and then I would get an order from a custom set, coil up the requested strings, and send it all out as a set. But as I mentioned before, I am a nerd, so it didn’t take long before I was calling him up asking endless questions about how a string is made and why, getting him to change around certain variables and make test batches, and eventually being just incredibly particular about the specs of how each and every string was made. Well, he got sick of all that pretty fast and ended up selling me a few machines so I could make them how I wanted, and he could have me off his back. It turns out that as much as I thought I knew about what makes great strings back then, it was nothing compared to what I would figure out once I was able to do everything in house.
Along the way, I’m sure you guys ran into some roadblocks or issues, what’s been the biggest hurdle for you as a company so far?
Well, there have been millions of little things of course, but on the whole, I think we’ve been pretty fortunate. We’ve grown by at least 60% every year we’ve been in business and don’t show any signs of slowing down. But that said, strings are an uphill battle. You have a couple companies that do half a billion in revenue a year, and going toe to toe with companies that have that kind of scale and are that deeply embedded in the industry is not easy. But we’re confident that at the end of the day, we make a better product, and that even though the big guys can outspend us on marking by 1,000x, at the end of the day, most customers can tell the difference between quality and hype.
I love the idea of a company president posting his email directly on the company website, replying to random nerds via email marketing, etc – This feels very “silicon valley startup” to me which seems odd in a manufacturing space. How intentional was this?
Very! I’ve always loved the accessibility and innovation you see in more upstart companies, but I dislike how disconnected most of those companies are from the actual manufacturing of the product. For us, we’re always trying to walk that line between being a modern, forward-thinking brand, and being an old-school quality, small-batch maker company.
What does the creative R&D process look like in developing “new” strings? I love the idea of revisiting something that has been stationary for so long. Can you outline how you guys look at product development?
I think in a lot of ways we feel like explorers on a new continent. Imagine if you were a chef who got transported to a dimension where all the restaurants just served bologna sandwiches. There’s so much with strings that have just been taken for granted for so long.
Industry-wide “new” strings are usually the same strings with a slightly different wrap wire material, or a coating or treatment slathered on them. For the most part, how a string is made is kind of overlooked, and that’s really what we focus on.
So for us, it’s less than we’re coming out with a new space-age alloy you’ve never seen before, it’s much more that we’re constantly improving the product we already make or learning a new trick while working with a different alloy that changes our perspective on how we work with one of the alloys we currently utilize.
A lot of people don’t realize it, but a set of Stringjoy strings in 2019 is totally different from a set from 2015, 2016, even 2018. I think we’ve been making some of the best strings in the game for years, but we’re still constantly finding ways to do things even better, and I hope we never stop.
Most small companies see the founders, who generally have an in-depth technical knowledge moved out into more managerial roles – have you found this as well? How did you deal with it?
Sure, a certain degree of that is inevitable. A year ago I was still managing every employee directly and it felt like I was always caught up in minutiae and never able to focus on the bigger picture. Now, I have division managers underneath me who I trust endlessly to get the job done, which frees me up to tackle whichever issues I feel like I can have the biggest effect on in a given day, whether that’s R&Ding a new string line, redesigning our winding machines, or just organizing the space to keep everything as efficient as possible.
The CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, wrote a book in 2013 called “Conscious Capitalism” that talks about how companies need to exist beyond just maximizing profit. You often refer to the Stringjoy “Family” – how do to balance running a profitable business and also taking care of your family?
Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I actually think of profit as waste in a system. This is incredibly simplistic, but a product company at its core creates an exchange: a worker gives his time and energy to make a product and receives money in exchange, a customer gives his money and receives a product in exchange. Generally, when more money is involved in the transaction, the product quality is higher because the worker can spend more time to make the product, and vice versa. Well, in my book when too much money is being extracted from the transaction as profit, either the customer is getting a lower quality product, or the worker isn’t getting compensated fairly for the product they’re producing, or often, both.
I think of Stringjoy as a holistic system; we need great people to make a great product to keep great customers happy. So finding that right balance between product quality, employee wages, and cost to the customer, while having enough left over for a rainy day is key.
Thanks so much to Scott for taking the time to answer these questions. For more information about the company, check out their website at www.stringjoy.com and give their strings a try if you are so inclined.