An attachment to strings

News Posted 09/04/18
A love affair with the zither, a relatively unknown musical instrument made famous by the soundtrack of the 1952 Orson Welles film The Third Man, led James How on a fascinating career path which started 60 years ago.

James How was an accomplished musician, but discovered on taking home his zither that half of its 32 strings were missing. His search for replacements led him to form a company which now has worldwide renown as specialists in the music industry, exporting strings to more than 70 countries.

I visited the Rotosound factory, an unremarkable square brick building on an industrial estate in Sevenoaks, and meet James’s son Jason, who now runs the company. He is rightly proud of the reputation earned by his father’s high-quality engineering work and is continuing the family business with similar passion.

Jason explained how the company was formed: “When my father first started playing the zither, strings were practically unknown in London, so he used substitute ones – some from a cello, some from a guitar – until a reasonable balance was reached. He also found a very able zither teacher in Hertfordshire and would make the journey once a week from Bexleyheath. This was to go on for some two years, at the end of which my father had collected more than 300 zithers, acquired inexpensively at sales and from advertisements.”

Then James hit a problem. Where was he to get the authentic strings to provide the right sound for his zither? The answer? He had to make them. He was an able engineer and using his ingenuity he designed and built a winding machine, raiding Singer Sewing Machine shops across the South East for vast quantities of nylon yarn and electrical stores for fuse wire.

Using two members of his family to frantically turn a handle at each end of the machine, James produced one zither string and his business was born. It took more than three years to fully develop the 10ft machine to produce strings from stainless steel, with ebony and ivory fittings. They could be adapted for a wide number of stringed instruments, including violin, cello, double bass, harpsichord or even a hurdy-gurdy organ.

In 1959, a year after the company was formed, James took on six people to help on the production line in Blackfen, including his brother Ronald and sister Joan. Over the next 10 years, James fine-tuned the machine process, experimenting with various materials including steel, nylon, gut, silk, bronze and silver – even pure gold.

In the early 1960s, James opened a showroom in Denmark Street, London, which is how his fame spread. As the first rock and pop groups burst on to the scene, musicians were desperate to find quality instruments and equipment at the right price. He soon found he had a line of rising stars queuing for his strings, amps, PA systems and “image lighting” – oil wheels which synched with the psychedelic music of the era. Among the first customers were The Shadows, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Rotosound had arrived.

As a sideline, James and his team began building zithers, auto-harps and other special instruments, manufacturing every part. But the major focus was in developing ever better quality strings. Export trips abroad included a stand at the Japanese Trade Fair in the 1970s, where James, his son Martyn and his general manager Charles Higgs were delighted to discover that 100 stores in Tokyo would be stocking Rotosound strings. They are still the top-selling music string in that country.

The company outgrew its Blackfen works in 1979 and moved to Sevenoaks. James How died in 1994 and the company was taken over by Martyn and Jason. Since then, Jason – also a trained engineer – has spent years designing, upgrading and building new production machines, which use the latest technology.

Jason is now company chairman and his wife Kathy is in charge of production. Forty staff all work on site in Sevenoaks, producing the strings on about 60 machines, packing them and dealing with orders across the world.

Pictured: A close-up of the string ball ends made by Rotosound

Tweets from @SEBmagazine