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D’Addario & Company’s Brian Vance

Christian Wissmuller • December 2019Upfront Q&A • December 4, 2019

This June, D’Addario & Company, Inc. launched the XT line of strings with high carbon steel cores and advanced corrosion treatment, offering unparalleled durability, break resistance, and pitch stability. MMR recently spoke with Brian Vance, vice president, Fretted Strings & Accessories at D’Addario & Company, Inc. about the innovations behind these exciting strings, available for electric guitar, acoustic, classical, mandolin, and banjo.

Can you discuss the genesis of D’Addario’s XT Line?

D’Addario has been making EXP coated strings for nearly 20 years. While we have made significant improvements to our EXP products over the years and optimized the technology as far as the process would allow, we continued to explore alternate materials and equipment. If you have any understanding on how we function as a company, you’ll know we are always looking for ways to improve and differentiate, so after exploring a number of alternative materials and processes, we developed a completely new coating technology that can be run in-line with our wire drawing machinery. D’Addario actually manufacturers our own wire in our Farmingdale, New York facility.

By combining wire drawing and coating into one process, we not only improved the quality and consistency of the coated wire, but we now maintain full control over the process ensuring the utmost consistency. XT coating is thinner than EXP, which has tremendous benefits to the player in terms of delivering a natural tone and feel. The tone and feel of an EXP string was very close to an uncoated string, but XT strings sound virtually identical to an uncoated string. We can measure this scientifically through acoustic testing, and what we hear matches exactly what we see in those test results. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, this new in-line process allows for us to efficiently and effectively coat the plain steel wire, something that we are not able to do with our EXP coating technology. Lastly, the new XT coating process is environmentally friendly, which is important to us, so there are many advantages that this new technology has to offer.

So, the decision to migrate to a new technology was just the beginning. This created an opportunity for us to evaluate the entire string portfolio with a forward looking perspective. We decided to leverage the benefits of our strongest high-carbon steel (the same that’s used in our NYXL strings) with the XT coating technology to deliver strings with the ultimate benefits in terms of string life, tuning stability and tone. I guess you could call XT a “super string” but NYXL still stands on its own given that it features a proprietary wrap wire that offers very distinct and advantageous tone for electric players. We also understand that there are uncoated and coated players, so now they have the choice of having a high performance string in coated and uncoated varieties.

How did you go about testing materials and developing what would become the final XT product?

Testing a coating is tricky because some of it is quantitative and measurable and some parts are qualitative in terms of evaluating what the human ear can perceive. We have an advanced R&D and testing lab here in Farmingdale where we can test the effectiveness of the coating as a corrosion inhibitor, measure the durability of the coating when being plucked or rubbed over time, and evaluate the effect of the coating on the string’s harmonic content and decay characteristics, which relate directly to how bright the string sounds. Once we had the manufacturing technology figured out, and felt confident in the technical performance of the strings, we conducted various rounds of player testing to get real world feedback. From there, we made refinements until we were confident enough to put the product into launch mode, which encompasses all of the elements of marketing and channel enablement, from packaging to content to advertising, et cetera. 

In terms of production, did you have to acquire or develop any machinery or other gear to facilitate the new design?

Literally everything about XT is new, from the ground up. New materials, new machinery, new processes, new packaging, so yes, we designed some machines and made modifications to others, then adjusted our factory to accommodate all of the above. It was a pretty substantial project and commitment.

Have you been noticing the increased price-point has been scaring off some players?

Premium priced strings aren’t necessarily something new, but they’re somewhere between 10-40 percent of the market, depending on the string category and if you’re looking at units or dollars. But, since the advent of coated strings in the late ‘90s, segments of the market have become comfortable paying more for advanced technology strings. Today, most brands now have some form of premium priced strings, but in order to be successful in premium strings long term, there has to be a value proposition. You might get a player to try them once, but if they don’t realize the benefit, there is always plenty of value for the money in a standard string and they are likely to go back to what they were using before.

It’s interesting, strings kind of buck the inflation trend. In broad terms, if you look at the price of milk or a gallon of gas 30 years ago, they were roughly one third of what they are today, meaning today’s price is triple. A set of strings, however, are only slightly more expensive (maybe a dollar or two) than 20 or even 30 years ago. All the while, materials have gone up, labor has gone up, overhead has gone up, so companies have been forced to be more efficient and reduce costs, charge more and risk losing market share, take less profit – or a combination of all of those – or better yet, innovate and create more value for the customer. In order to survive, let alone thrive, you have to be continually investing in your business and future. It’s a constant process.

I would consider NYXL a success story for D’Addario. We completely re-engineered the electric guitar string from the ground up in terms of materials and process. As a result, from the market feedback and our sales, it seems that players appreciate the real benefits of a string that stays in tune better, holds its unique tone longer, and provides confidence that their strings aren’t going to break in the heat of battle. From that standpoint, we’re confident that charging a premium price is acceptable as long as there is fair value and a meaningful benefit. At the same time, the majority of players still choose to stick with “standard” strings, which today are made better than ever. The value proposition for a $5.49 set of electric strings hard to beat.

If I had to summarize, I’d say that there is a growing market segment who is willing to spend more money and who will recognize and appreciate the benefits, but there remains a majority of players who are perfectly comfortable with and happy to use legacy products.

What’s been the reaction to XT Nickel Plated Strings – from both dealers and players?

So far, so good. While XT is available for acoustic, classical, mandolin, and banjo, the response from electric guitar and bass players, in particular, has been amazing. Given NYXL already has a lot of recognition and loyalty from electric players, there is a high level of curiosity and interest in XT electric. However, to be clear, XT is not a coated NYXL string. As mentioned, NYXL still has its own proprietary wrap wire, which delivers a very distinct, harmonically rich tone that is different than XT. The biggest advantage and differentiation with XT is the coated plain steels. There is a huge benefit in having the plain steels treated with a durable, imperceptible coating which will extend the life of the entire electric string set. Combine that with the tuning stability of our high carbon steel and you have a really unique product.

How important are endorsing artist relationships to D’Addario? Have any players come on board as “official” XT endorsers?

Artists are always an important part of both product development and marketing. When you have the wide assortment of products we do it can be challenging to bring in a new product since so many players passionately love what they currently play. In the case of XT, we quickly on-boarded a lot of players across all instruments and genres.

Any other developments in the world of electric guitar strings on the horizon that you’d like to share with our readers?

We’re super pleased with XT as a product and with the adoption so far. We have plans to expand the XT line into other instruments, gauges and will be offering single strings sometime in 2020, so stay tuned for more on that. Out of the gate, XT promises to be another long term success, but you’re only as good as your last hit, so we’re keeping the fire stoked and have other new innovations in the works, as always.

Expectations for the strings market segment in the coming months?

Overall, the string business is pretty solid and we expect to grow healthily next year, even if we didn’t have new products to rely on. There are fluctuations in some export markets due to economic conditions and political environments, but overall strings are pretty stable and our segment doesn’t have wide swings back and forth as the electric or acoustic instrument categories sometimes do. D’Addario strings are OEM for a lot of instrument brands, so we also have that foresight into what instrument makers are projecting for future demand of their guitars, which seems positive at this time. Between our branded business and OEM we’re expecting to have a great year.

You mentioned the response from dealers to XT and I’d like to follow up on that. I can’t say enough about the support that retailers have demonstrated for both NYXL and now for XT. D’Addario would like to take this opportunity to say “thank you” to every business owner, buyer, and salesperson who has supported us on our mission to reposition strings with new technologies and price points. We wouldn’t be successful with these product lines without your support and it is our commitment to continue to provide the highest quality, most innovative strings that you can stock and recommend with confidence and pride. We realize a happy (not just satisfied) customer is the best thing both of us could plan and hope for, so thank you!

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