Dean Markley’s Bass String Breakthrough
Polo Jones could probably get into the Guinness Book of World Records. The highly-regarded bass guitarist (he’s played regularly with superstars like Eric Clapton and Paul Young) believes he has tried more bass strings over a shorter period of time than any other musician ever. His feat wasn’t performed on stage, but at the Dean Markley string factory in Kalamazoo, MI.
Jones was at the Markley factory for several weeks in the fall of ’91, participating in an intensive bass string development program. Not only did he try out an untold number of prototype strings under the watchful eyes (and ears) of Markley special projects manager Mike Connolly, plant manager Stan Randall, and other company officials, he also comparison-tested the new strings with competing products.
At times, recalled Jones, it seemed like he was trying out a new string every five or ten minutes, looking for “the design that combined all the right features.” His string evaluation often involved more than just playing. “Believe it or not, all of us carried microscopesat all times,” he told MMR. “If a string didn’t sound exactly right, we didn’t just say OK and discard it; we put it under a microscope and analyzed what would have to be changed to get the results we wanted.”
The exhaustive R&D effort at Kalamazoo grew out of a decision by Dean Markley to expand its presence in the bass string market. “We’re taking a new, more agreesive approach to bass strings,” said Karen Iamello, Markley’s marketing director. “We’ve brought a lot of new technologies to bear to address the evolving needs of the bass player.”
The first results of this new technology will be unveiled at the NAMM show, when Markley introduces two new lines: the SR 2000 series super-round bass strings; and FretMasters, “one of the few bass strings to actually receive a patent.”
Connolly, the special projects manager, discussed the new offerings: “We’re obviously very excited about them. The SR 2000 series features a special guage for four, five, and six-string bass guitars, designed exclusively for us by Will Lee, the bass player for the World’s Most Dangerous Band, which is featured nightly on the David Letterman Show.
“The FretMaster is the result of a very intensive R&D effort, and it’s really an incredible string,” he continued. “It gives you all of the qualities of a full round wound string, but it’s much easier on your hands and frets. A lot of bass players today will chew up their frets because of their agressive style, but the FretMaster will extend the life of a fret significantly.”
According to Connolly, the FretMaster is the result of a unique burnishing process developed by Dean Markley. “Through our R&D effort, we came up with a process that takes the edge off a string without removing any of the metal; so you have a string that feels softer, but has all of the metal and magnetic qualities and sound characteristics of a regular round wound.”
FretMaster is also said to produce a tighter intonation, punchier sound and less string noise. “There’s less buzzing between fret and string at the lower register, ” observed Jones. “This allows you to play a little lower at the neck so you can get a little more speed on the instrument.”
These features make the FretMaster ideally suited for contemporary bass players like Jones, who, no longer relegated to “background roles” in bands, are now stepping out into center stage and playing extended solos.
“Bass players can be much more expressive today, ” he said. “They’re using both hands; they’re playing more aggressively ; they’re using five and six-string insutruments and fretless basses. This has created a need for bass strings that have more harmonic content, more pliability and better tonal quality. As far as I’m concerned, Dean Markley as done an excellent job in filling this need.”
Indeed, it was in response to the changing role of bass players that Dean Markley decided to develop its new strings. “It’s no secret that bass players have assumed a higher profile in bands,” said Connolly, himself a professional bass player. “Dean Markley has always listened to artists, and lately, we started getting requests from bass players for strings that would fit in better with their more expressive styles. A lot of Dean Markley dealers and our OEM customers, the guys who make custom basses, were also asking us for a new generation of bass strings.”
Dean Markley was in a ideal position to meet this demand, contends Connolly, because of its experience in bringing new technologies to string-making. “We have a tradition of plling innovative ideas and techniques from other fields into this industry,” he remarked. “For example, cryogenics was used to improve the tempering process when hardening tools in other industries; then we brought this technology to music, and the result was our smash success Blue Steel strings. Perhaps our biggest challenge in developing our new bass strings was to pull all the various technologies from other industries into our production process at Kalamazoo.”
The Kalamazoo plant utilizes some unique equipment and production techniques that Connolly is understandably reluctant to discuss. “I can’t really talk about what we do in detail without giving away ‘trade secrets,’” he said. “But I will tell you we’re proud of the plant and its work force. Many of the people who work at the plant are veterans of the guitar and string business from the days when Gibson was in Kalamazoo, so they’re skilled at what they do. There’s a ‘Total Quality Control’ program in place at the plant; every single string is checked five times during the production process.”
Not only has Dean Markley paid careful attention to the process invovled in making its new bass strings, it has also devised an innovative strategy for marketing those strings.
“You can expect a lot of new ideas from us in terms of marketing the SR 2000 series and the FretMaster,” said Iamello, the marketing director. “We’re going to get our message our to bass players in a creative fashion to help dealers sell our strings through to their customers.”
Market support for the new bass strings will include point-of-purchase material, T-Shirts, in-store clinics by major bass players, consumer contests, ads in guitar magazines, and endorsements from players like Will Lee, and Polo Jones.
Both the SR 2000 series and the FretMaster will have all new environment-friendly packaging, made of recycled material. FretMaster will be available in three guages (light, medium-light, and medium) and will be aimed at players of all levels of proficiency.
“I’ve been playing bass for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like FretMaster or the SR 2000,” said Jones. “But even a relatively inexperienced player will be able to appreciate what these strings can do — they make even a mediocre guitar sound good.”
Jones also noted that the FretMaster works well with either a fretted or a fretless bass. “When you play a fretless bass, you’re looking for a growl, almost like a buzz, from the string meeting the wood. The FretMaster gives you this better than anything I’ve ever experienced,” he said.
Dealers shoud emphasize the quality of Dean Markley’s new bass strings, advised Connolly, by putting them on their display basses. “I think that the dealer who has a couple of bass guitars available with these strings on them will do a bigger volume, because all the customer has to do is hear how these strings sound, and he or she is sold,” he remarked.
“The dealer who does this will probably sell more bass guitars, because our string will make any instrument sound better,” continued Connolly. “We always hear people talk about the guitars or speakers that so-and-so uses — and these things are certainly important. But you have to remember that when you’re talking about any guitar, the sound begins with the strings. If you use inferior strings, you defeat the whole purpose of having a good instrument.”