INTERVIEW: Mark Dronge of DR Strings

Mark Dronge with Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead

Here at I Heart Guitar we (and by we I mean me) are just as geeky about gear companies and the people behind them as ‘we’ are about music and the people who make it. And it’s always enlightening to hear from those who are behind the gear that helps us to make music. Mark Dronge, president of DR Strings, comes from a family with an important musical heritage: his father Al Dronge founded Guild.  So I Heart Guitar would like to know…

Tell us a little about your background. Your father founded Guild – what was it like to grow up around the musical instrument industry?

Growing up I was always aware of music especially piano and guitar. I am older than most people on the planet. I liked listening to music in my home…Broadway tunes, classical music, jazz. But I remember hating music on the radio. It was so bad until I was in high school. Elvis Presley’s music was the first listenable radio music. And then in the 60’s everything exploded…thank goodness. So what do I like now? Not one thing. I would not buy a heavy metal CD, but I love the energy of a heavy metal live concert. Great guitar music is always great to listen to, as are wonderful vocalists. Stefan Grossman of finger picking fame is an old favorite. And of course when I first heard Adele I was as excited as the first time I went to a Grateful Dead concert back in 1967.

When Al Dronge, my father, was building Guild from scratch he was like any other businessman on a mission. The job was all-consuming. For my sister and myself it did not feel like we were growing up in an especially musical milieu. Rather we saw our father leave early, and come home late, and were more than aware of the effort it took to build a business, a factory, a world class guitar company. The only difference was we all played an instrument. My father played the guitar, my stepmother played the saxophone, my sister played the flute, and now and then on a Sunday morning we all gathered round with our instruments while I accompanied them on the piano. I did not start playing guitar until I was in college.

What kind of music are you into? I’m assuming you play? What gear do you use?

Since I only play acoustic guitar, I do not have much in the way of equipment. But I do have a few choice Guilds, and play only Guilds. A Rosewood D-55, an F-40 natural maple, 2- F-20s from the first factory in NYC, a pearwood Mark IV classical, a mahogany Mark 3 classical, a Mark 2 classical that my daughter sat on when she was 2 years old, and a lovely F-312 Rosewood 12 string that is kind of my favorite. There are a couple of other nice instruments around that I do not play…a Carl Thompson 5 string bass, a Supro single pickup Samsonite guitar, and a Guild Tele Roy Buchanan model signed by all of the Rolling Stones in 1986.

Mark Dronge presenting a Guild guitar to The Beatles

For the uninitiated, what’s the difference between bass strings and guitar strings from a manufacturing standpoint? Are bass strings just ‘upsized guitar strings’ with different ends, or are there additional factors to consider once the string size exceeds a certain point? 

Essentially there is no difference between the way we make guitar strings and bass strings. They are both hand wound. The main difference is the materials…nickel plated steel and pure nickel for guitar, and stainless steel, and nickel plated steel for bass…as well as the number of windings. A guitar string is wound with one wrap around a hex or round core. A bass string may be wound with 1 wrap, 2 wraps, 3 wraps, or even 4 wraps.

The internet has helped players to become so much more aware of the finest details of their gear. Does this influence what you do? Are today’s players looking for something different to players pre-internet?

Players are both more aware of developments and trends because of the internet, as well as more misinformed because of the internet. From what I have seen, and read, there seem to be far fewer players who get excited about a new product (like strings or guitars or amps) and are very positive and informative to other players, than there are negative folks. Yes, we have had, and still do get a lot of players excited about our new NEON strings. These folks can’t seem to get enough photos of themselves up on the net as the NEONs are a lot of fun. Yet, at the same time we see comments, not just about our products, where you just know someone has not even tried a product and is commenting in a negative fashion. But, maybe that is simply a reflection of life magnified. There are some interesting new projects being developed which should vastly improve communication amongst guitar interested folks. Greg DiBendetto, the past publisher of Guitar World and founder of Guitar Aficionado is working on one such project to come out as an app. I believe the working title for the new venture is called Music Aficionado. The plan is to have lessons, product info, interviews all up and streaming, and be a one stop content driven source of information.

Has string-making changed much for DR over the years?

String making at DR has remained essentially a handmade proposition from day one. We have improved our methods, our inspections, our standards significantly especially over the past 10 or 12 years. We like to say that when you put a set of DRs on your guitar you can immediately feel and hear the difference between a handmade string and a computer driven machine made string. And of course we hope you like that difference. What you like is very subjective. But, there is no doubt that you can feel and hear the difference right away.

What are the challenges you ran into in developing DR NEON strings, and how did you overcome them?

Developing NEON was more costly, time consuming, and difficult than we like to think about. But we had no choice. About 10 years ago or more we started to wind strings with color. We still think that is a rather attractive idea for any player. However, the company we bought the color-applied wire from had a lot of difficulty supplying DR with wire that was up to our standards for sound, durability, and adhesion of color. The problems with that old wire caused us to walk away from color altogether for some time. Then we were fortunate enough to run into K3 coating. We now own the rights to the K3 process, have patented the process. We are now able to produce very high-grade quality strings in amazing colors, and clear coatings with remarkable sound. The K3 coating is the first high performance coating. We call it a dynamic coating, as it does not degrade the sound of the strings, the K3 coating adds to the sound. For example the Dragon-Skin bass strings…. Dick Lovgren of Meshuggah said the sound “cracks like a whip.” Every other company’s coating on the market is referred to as being very thin, and almost as good as a non-coated string. The problems were manifold. The involved having to perfect the process, and custom build the machinery and equipment necessary to produce NEON and clear coatings. But the results are well worth all the trouble we went through. We do not like to get too specific about how we go about producing the coating as the patent has been applied for, but it has yet to be issued.

Who’s buying NEONs? I’m sure there’s a huge market for 80s-style hard rock players, and the strings were recently included on the new Ibanez 25th Anniversary neon RGs. Are there other genres or styles of player who seem to really be latching onto these strings?

The market for NEON strings varies widely. If I had to guess which is the biggest market for NEON I would say young people. The whole world is filled with color. Guitars are colorful, clothing, cars, whatever you buy is colorful. Everything but strings…until DR started making colors and now NEON colors. Lots of older, established players love the colors too. Bootsy Collins, KORN, the bass player and guitar player with Lil Wayne, Vernon Reid with Earth, Wind, and Fire, Prince’s bass player. And there are many others.

Obviously the trend for drop tuning influenced the development of the DDT strings. Can you tell us why DDTs work so well to lock in tunings?

We did develop the DDT line for drop tuning. No doubt about it. And the very first guitar who played them said, “this is the first time I could drop tune, and my band mates could hear what I was playing. In the past all the notes were garbled.” DDTs are made with a patent applied for construction difference. Again, we do not like to talk about what we do as the patent has not yet issued. But it is quite a distinct and unique construction process. Further, the DDTs disprove the idea that you need very heavy gauges to drop tune and stay in tune. First of all the heavy gauges do not stay in tune when dropped, and they are not fun to push around.

You have signature string sets for Dimebag Darrell, Alexi Laiho, Bootsy Collins, Jonas Hellborg, Marcus Miller. What did those players require in their strings, and what was the development process?

Lots of us play at DR. I play acoustic, and particularly like bass as well. Our sales people play, our factory manager plays. So we are very sympathetic when an endorser, or pro player approaches us and say something like…”can you do so and so.’ Of course we usually tune in to what they are saying, and that is why we have so many different models. Not one is a duplication. They all feel and sound different, serve different needs and provide different means of expression.

Zebra Acoustics are a great idea – nobody else seems to be designing strings to cater to acoustic-electric players. Please tell our readers how you achieved this.

Zebra strings were based on an idea that is quite old. A very good friend, who helped us get started, made something similar many, many years ago. Why he stopped he was never clear about. We originally designed Zebra strings for acoustic-electric guitars. However, lately we hear that arch top guitars fitted with pickups sound pretty darn good with Zebras.

LINK: DR Strings, DR Strings at Dominantmusic.com, DR Strings Australia Facebook

DR Strings, one of the last truly handmade strings