In this edition of The Journey, we have a chat with string maker Gabriel Tenorio talking about everything from what makes a good string to some of the people using his handmade strings.
Tell us a little a bit about your company, and how you got started making strings
The Gabriel Tenorio String Company sounds huge. There are more syllables in the name than employees. Ok to be honest, It’s my intern, Lyndon (the Lyntern), and me. It is basically an outgrowth from the Guadalupe Custom String Customlab. That is, it was something started by the founder of GCS, Francisco Gonzalez, who also co-founded Los Lobos, that we continue today. We decided it was wiser to split the business this way, I work at and think a little differently so my vision brought me here. It is a much more productive and happy place.
I was a client of Francisco’s in his early days. I was from the same neighborhood/region that he and the Los Lobos guys were. I got my guitars made by the famous luthiers, Candelas Guitars in Boyle Heights, who were the builders for the Lobos. We visited him one day and were completely floored by the process. We learned so much about instruments and strings in one day, especially that we really didn’t know shit and what we though we knew was also bullshit.
Jacob Hernandez, my former partner at GCS, and I took over the business in 2008 just as the economy tanked and as the business was just about to fold. Our job was to rebirth the business, make it more efficient, and bring up the quality to an even higher standard than ever before. That was quite a task and one that is never ending. It involved a lot of brain busting, some lean years of living in the various shops, some shouting and hair pulling, then the breakthrough.
The metals strings that I was using on my instruments I had designed without ever having touched a lathe. Soon, however, there was not enough time for the other string makers to make my stuff and I had tons and tons of ideas. I also was the one that happily took custom orders or orders for the more exotic or novel things that passed through our shop. Finally, I just started making some of the stock stuff to fill orders, then I really dug in and started personally reworking techniques, concepts, and quality control methods for the business all the while rebuilding the business up from scratch. We took it over because it was on the verge of being sold to a shop in Texas and it would have meant the end of GCS, the end of the variety of strings, and the plateauing of what was becoming a tradition. So once we tightened up our ship, things really began to sail. That’s when I began to develop the line of roundcore electric and acoustic strings.
Once folks found out what I was doing and how long they lasted and how great they sounded, the genie was out of the bottle.
What are some things about your strings you are really proud of?
I am proud of the twists, which are tighter and stronger than machine made ones. I started making long twists to deal with some of the issues I had with some of my guitars and then when they worked on offsets, I knew I was on to something. I love that even the aesthetics have function. My Artist Series, made mainly for arch tops, bigsbys, offsets, anything with a tailpiece, feature a silk wrap or chenille that I learned from working on gypsy jazz guitar strings.
I hear they last a long time. I always took that for granted and never made that a selling point. Their sustain and strong signal were also a bonus, again I took that for granted for years. I think I am proud of having the opportunity to bring our tradition to the market while not compromising on what made me fall in love with hand made strings. And that is love. i love the strings i make.
I feel like I am getting better, knowing more and applying it every day. More than anything, I love that they have garnered responses such as, “I haven’t enjoyed playing this much in a long time,’ or ‘I never knew a set of strings could make such a difference!”
Without going into any trade secrets, what are some advantages to the way you make
I learned from making Bajo Sexto and the ManoucheTone strings was how to approach the ideas of tension and diameter differently. So my formulae are different, even from what Francisco left us, to most of what is out on the market. I can make strings that are better fitted and more comfortable. I also take into consideration the things that stress out guitarists from novice to pro, as I too have been there. I know what it is like to be broke and break a string or to be on tour breaking strings every night. So I do everything possible to make the experience as rewarding as possible. That includes spending lots of money on the best materials, taking time to do it right, small batches… I throw away quite a bit of metal every session (not frivolously, but you know what I mean) If I find a burr or a kink in a core, or if something caused a wrong vibration that created a node I have to throw the string away and start anew. It will make a huge difference, at least to me. The handmade thing is really hard to convince folks that it isnt just a moniker or a new fad. Our tradition started over 25 years ago and we have never deviated from our hand made process, we’ve only strived to make it better. Folks say that a handmade string can’t be as precise as a machine. A hex core string is already flawed, and now a company has spent over $100k to develop and build each machine they employ that includes so much programming and inherently allows for deviation (even as consistent as folks think they are). The materials never come perfect. Drawn wire can have a kink or a flaw. I find burrs on core wire all the time. My hands can feel that. I can stop for one string and start over. A machine along with the technicians are working toward volume with a certain amount of allowances for errors. I am a string maker, not a machine operator, or developer, or builder. I develop tools and techniques for my trade. I employ one machine and that is it. My body, my hands, my ears are programmed to know each core and wrap wire’s idiosyncrasies.
Who are some customers/guitar makers using your strings you’d like to highlight?
Mason Stoops, Josh Smith, Adam Levy, Salvage Custom, Keeley Electronic, Earthquaker Devices, JHS, TC Electronic, Strymon, Nystrum Guitars, Ayers Guitar Co, Scero Guitars, Schoen Guitars, Echo Park, Michael James Adams, Porter PIckups (!), Rhoney Guitars, some custom work for Kauer,Walsh, BA Ferguson, MIlkman Sound
Ive made strings for Ry Cooder, Rick Vito, Nels Cline, George Benson, Johnny Depp, Paul Frank, Septeto Nacional (cuba), La Familia Valera Miranda, Daniel Donato, Creston Lea
As you’ve ventured further into business, is there anything you wish you could go back
in time and tell yourself?
Believe. Don’t doubt. Do the due diligence.
What are some of the challenges and rewards of owning a business?
Non string making/martketing activities are the worst. Administrative due diligence in terms of licenses, permits, and taxes. The rest is super fun. I am glad to have started a new company. My time at GCS was drawing near as I was developing my line and preparing for my son’s birth. I like the independence, the ability to work on solely things that I am vested in. It makes the due diligence doable…
What are your thoughts on the current state of the gear market? Do you see any new
trends or things coming down the pipe that you are excited or alarmed about?
Firstly, I feel that it is a tough business to break in to and to sustain oneself. Many of us have either been around or began around the time of the recession and that crucible forged our positions currently and set course for the future. This means folks you and me have seen some lean years, have used those years to lean in and grow, and now have the confidence as well as experience to move forward. I see a trend in boutique everything that is really behind the curve. It is a marketing strategy that feels really disingenuous, to say the least. Terms like “handmade, crafted, boutique” have become meaningless and in due to the duplicity of many folks in many industries today (like that Mast bros debacle over chocolate). Secondly, I find the level of access to knowledge game changeing, but the lack of perspective and application of that knowledge has given rise to an age of entitled misinformation. That is, more than ever, it is incumbent upon a builder, string maker, craftsperson etc, to inform and guide their public. I believe in being as transparent and non gimmicky as possible. I don’t make claims that I cannot substantiate. I let my clients’ posts and opinions speak for themselves. I also know that quality has an affinity for quality and I find myself surrounded more and more by qualified folks. I am indeed honored and motivated by it.
When you’re not making strings, what do you like to do with your time?
I have a three month old and a sixteen year old daughter who needs a chauffer from gig to gig or event so I really mainly kick it with my family. A lot of cooking and I get spells of bookings to play with my band for private and public events. I am a registered artist in the County of Los Angeles. I used to ride my road bike and do crosswords obsessively, but I am pretty obsessed with string making right now. Im also on a brief hiatus from my improv/gardening themed punk rock bank called CoffeePot. I play a small synth and we literally improvise around pre written poems about urban gardening.
Are most of your strings custom or made to order? We noticed you tailor electric strings
to guitar types (Bridge, scale length etc)
My early business was made exclusively to order, but along the way I developed standardized sets and was able to sell them to the public. I had experimented and tested on so many guitars with many different techs and players that I knew making a better fitting product was integral to a successful exchange with a customer. Also, I found that scale lengths and even types of tremolos or bridges mattered. Every time during the testing process a formulation worked, it was incumbent upon making the string fitted for each guitar. I also had to take into account the pitfalls many players or thechs face when having to deal with roundcore strings. I make each section of the string: the twist, the vibrating length, and the tail all within a range for most of the guitar types out there. So yes, it is still a customized product, but I am doing the work as opposed to forcing a customer, who has little experience with a handmade round core string, to decide on what string to make and what gauge and how to reach that diameter of that gauge.
For people that normally spend less than $10 for strings, what will they notice most about your strings in particular. (More so from an electric perspective, since thats our main audience. )
Firstly, the package (not because I’m shallow but it literally is what a customer experiences first). It is handmade, all hand stamped, I sign each set and most of the time I write the customer’s name on the box. I started doing this out of habit in labeling sets for clients, I just wrote their names on the packages and I thought it looked neat. Especially when I did it for Paul Rhoney. He took a pic of the boxes and it resonated with the guitar consumer in me. Also, very few words, claims, or technical info. But I hope a customer feels like someone gave a hoot about the money they just spent on a set.
They will notice the construction of the strings, the silver ball ends, the long twists or silk wrapped twists, the smooth D strings, the spring in a coiled string . All these things that indicate a product that was produced with intent and care. Once on the instrument, I think they will first notice how sonorous their instruments are acoustically sans amp. Mason Stoops was the first to tell me about this when he first started using my strings. Folks in the control room were asking what he had done to make his guitar louder like that without the amp and he said nothing, its the strings. The harmonics should be jiving with each other and there should be a crisp clear tone with decent sustain. Once a player plays through a few chords and melodies, they should be able to notice how easy they are to play in spite of diameters and how responsive they are. A client at Strymon commented that he hadn’t felt so motivated to play by a set of strings before, but it made him enjoy his playing time even more. Thats a great thing. Again, I always avoid making claims. I just respect the craft that way. I don’t want to ever give the impression that these strings are God’s gift to gear. They are more about honest tone brought about by honest and transparent methods, quality materials, and dedication. I care as much about the way folks sound as they do.
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