Sunday, July 24, 2016

Black Diamond Strings

Ed Sullivan and the Beatles 1964

In 1964 the Beatles made their first United States appearance on the Ed Sullivan television show. At that time I was 13 years old and like kids of that era I had to have a guitar.

Harmony Patrician

My Dad relented and bought me a late 1940’s era Harmony Patrician archtop acoustic guitar from a local pawn shop for $20.00. The salesman that sold it to Dad said, “Well you need a couple of things to go along with that guitar. You need a pitch pipe to tune it and you need an extra set of string, ‘cause that kid is going to break ‘em.” For an extra two bucks I got a pitch pipe and a new set of Black Diamond guitar strings.

Larry Cordel "Black Diamond Strings"

I had not thought much about those strings until last week when I turned on a local radio station that plays a variety of diverse music. That day they were playing Country music by some unfamiliar artists.

Black Diamond Strings Set
One song caught my ear since it was called Black Diamond Strings. It was all about how much joy they brought to guitar players back in the day.

Which is odd, because I recall how difficult it was to play guitar with those thick heavy guage old Black Diamond strings.

The strings on the neck on that old Harmony were probably a good half and inch above the neck at the 12th fret.

And when I put them on my first electric guitar, a late 1950’s Fender Stratocaster, the bridge saddle and block raised off the neck, which was great because the vibrato pulled up and down. But bending notes was another thing with those heavy strings. And talk about sore fingers and calluses!

Black Diamond Set
However Black Diamond Strings were available everywhere. You could get them at a drug store or a five and dime store. If you broke a number one E string you could get another for 20 cents. A pack of six new Black Diamond strings cost around three bucks.

1960's Gibson Guitar Strings

I was not aware that both Gibson and Fender sold their own brand of strings until a few years later. And it would be another ten years or so before Ernie Ball started putting string sets together with light and ultra light guage strings.

As we were kids, we had no idea that professional players were discarding the sixth string and replacing the first string with a .009 banjo string  and then using the remaining five strings.

Bell Brand Strings
After hearing that song I was very curious about Black Diamond Strings and there origin. I learned that the company that made them got started in 1897 when a merger occurred between three different companies; the Rice Musical String Company of New York, which was owned by Thomas Nelson Jr which made Bell Brand strings and the Standard Musical String Company of Connecticut.

The Standard Musical String company was owned by a Mr. Alexander Paul, who had already been making his own brand called Black Diamond strings. The last partner was a Mr. George Dow Emerson, who owned yet another a string factory in New Jersey. These men got together to form the National Musical String Company

National Musical String Co. 1898
The first step was the purchase of a factory building in Brunswick, New Jersey on Georges Road and the cities boundary. This structure was designed by a Mr. Ben C. DeKamp in 1897 specifically for this company. In fact it still stands in that same place to this day. The following year, 1898, the business started up.

NMSCO office

Interestingly enough advertisements for employment went out looking for mostly women employees. By 1899 the partners purchased another manufacturer called the American String Company.

Black Diamond stamping plates
It was in 1917 the last remaining partner, George Dow Emerson sold his shares to a Mr. William R. McClelland. Fifteen years later McClelland died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

This was in 1932 and the National Musical String Company was then bought by C. Bruno and Son Incorporated and James and Frank Gibson, who owned the Gibson String Company (which was not associated with Gibson Guitars).

From C. Bruno catalog - U of I library
Let me pause here because the history of C. Bruno or Charles Bruno is very interesting. Way back in 1837 Bruno was a bookseller. The following year he entered into a partnership with Christian Martin (yes THAT Christian Martin). Martin would manufacture guitars and Bruno would sell them.

Christian Martin

The partnership only lasted a year and both men went their separate ways, with Martin building guitars and Bruno selling musical instrument as a wholesaler.

C.Bruno and Son catalog
In 1851 Charles Bruno established another partnership with a man named Cargill that lasted for two years after which Burno brought his son, Charles Junior into the business. The company sold not just guitars and banjos, but all sorts of band and orchestral instruments, accordions, drums, harmonicas, music boxes and children's toy musical instruments. They became one of the largest music wholesalers and importers in the United States.

Bruno and Son was eventually purchased in 1970 by the Kaman Music Corporation (Ovation Guitars) and renamed the Kaman Musical String Company. The business was moved from New Jersey to Kaman’s headquarters and factory in Bloomfield, Connecticut.

National Musical String Co - today
However in 1982 the original National Musical String Company building in Brunswick, New Jersey was declared a historic landmark, as it was one of the oldest standing buildings in the state and it was placed on the list of national landmarks. Since then it was renovated for commercial space on the first floor. The upper floors house 38 residential apartments.

Black Diamond Strings - circa 1965

As I recall Black Diamond strings were sold in a black cardboard container with six individual reddish packs, each containing a string. The gauge of the string was not listed on the box or the pack, but instead it said B or 2nd Steel or E or 1st Steel. All I can say is they were heavy strings.

Individual strings
The container and each pack bore a quadrangular logo in the upper left corner with the company’s trademark stating NMSCO (National Musical String Company).  Some of the guitar strings would say silver plated steel while others would say silver plated copper wire. By far the most popular Black Diamond Strings were the silver plated stainless steel versions.

The National Musical String company made strings for guitars, Hawaiian guitars, banjos, mandolins and other instruments. I have also come across Black Diamond electric guitar strings that were made in later years.

Display Case for individual strings.

Back in the mid 1960’s most players that I knew did not purchase a new complete set of strings. More often than not if a string broke or sounded dead, we went to the music store and bought an individual string and those stores all stocked individual Black Diamond strings.

I was not certain if Black Diamond strings were still available and being curious I learned that in 1930 Ed Wackerle of Chicago, started a company to manufacture strings for bowed instruments. He was upset with the quality of strings being offered at the time. To achieve quality he put together an endorser panel; a group of players that would test the strings and suggest improvements. He came up with stainless steel strings and marketed them under the Red Label brand.

Then in 1967 John and Vincent Cavanaugh purchased the company and continued to manufacture Red Label strings. They moved the business to Sarasota, Florida

By 1972 a research and development department was set up to further enhance the strings quality. Out of this came the Old Fiddler Line of strings for Country, Western and Bluegrass players.

Improvements were made on cello and bass strings with the Supreme Line. The business was renamed the Super-Sensitive Musical String Company. In 1997 the grandson of the company’s founder took over the reigns and introduced computerized manufacturing.

John and Jim Cavanaugh

And in 2001 the Cavanaugh family purchased the name and trademark of the National Musical String Company/Black Diamond Strings. Once again, Black Diamond Strings are available, although under a new manufacturer with a high quality than ever before.

Current version Black Diamond strings
Black Diamond currently offers three different sets of electric guitar strings, including flat-wound strings and four sets of acoustic guitar strings, which include the original silver plated steel strings (.013 to .056) as well as 12 string guitar sets. These are available directly from the manufacturer

A special thanks to Chris of the Mudcat Cafe for some very interesting information on the history of the National Musical String Company.
©UniqueGuitar Publishing (text only)

This was written by the late Guy Clark in honor of Rodney Crowell's father


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