By Adam Levy
Guitar players are living in a sort of golden age, equipment-wise. It used to be that big-name manufacturers offered the only serious options for acoustic and electric guitars (and amplifiers and effects pedals as well). Nowadays, however, there are lots of cool guitars being built by relatively small companies, crafting instruments one at a time, often by hand. More and more players—from full-time professionals to weekend warriors—are giving up their assembly-line guitars in favor of custom-made or small-batch instruments. It’s interesting to note, however, that even the most gear-obsessed players don’t seem to mind equipping their beloveds with mass-produced strings. It’s not that players actually prefer the sound of commercial strings so much as that they may not realize there’s another option.
The Los Angeles-based Guadalupe Custom Strings offers what may be the only truly “custom” guitar strings on the marketplace—Gabriel Tenorio and his small crew wind their strings one at a time. Guadalupe was founded 20 years ago, long before Tenorio came onboard, by harpist Francisco Gonzalez, one of the original members of Los Lobos. Gonzalez launched the company as a solution to a lot of people’s problems, which was a problem he had, too: finding high-quality strings for Latin-American folkloric instruments.
Guadalupe was founded 20 years ago by harpist Francisco Gonzalez,
one of the original members of Los Lobos.
“Francisco got together with Robinson’s Harp Shop and learned how to make strings,” Tenorio says. “I think the string machine that I use today is the first machine that he used, which he got from them. Once he figured out harp strings, Francisco began making strings for classical guitars and all these instruments that nobody would makes strings for. Or, if they did make them, the strings weren’t very good. I don’t mean to bash any other string company but they don’t do the job that we do, in terms of research. Also, we actually play the music that we make the strings for, so we understand what the needs are. Our motto has always been ‘made by musicians, for musicians.’”
Built to Suit Your Style
Tenorio admits that he didn’t fully appreciate that credo until he started making strings himself. He was a client long before he joined the company. “A friend of mine,” he says, “kept telling me, ‘There is this crazy genius guy from Los Lobos. He makes these amazing strings, though you probably won’t like them.’ Well, anytime someone tells me don’t, I get more curious. I had to meet Francisco.”
The meeting was momentous, Tenorio recalls. “Francisco sat me down and said, ‘Tell me about what you do. Show me what you play.’ Next thing I knew, he started making strings for me to try out. I told him what I liked about his strings and also where I might want some adjustments. He taught me something from the get-go, which is that a lot of times we think we want more tension but that can actually make the guitar sound worse. We can really see this on a Mexican guitarrón—the big acoustic-bass instrument you see in mariachi bands. Traditionally, they’re built from a wood called Tacote. It’s very porous, which allows the instrument to flex. It actually makes the top tighter when the instruments flexes. Francisco figured out the right balance—enough string tension to help the instrument speak loudly but not so much that it makes the sound opaque.”
In 2009, Tenorio took over the shop, as a manager at first, then as a winder himself. He has continued in the same tradition.
If you visit Guadalupe Custom Strings in person to buy a few sets of their bespoke strings, it’s not a quick-and-easy transaction. Tenorio will want to get to know your playing style and he’ll ask what kind of instrument you plan to put his strings on. “For example,” he says, “the scale length of a Fender Telecaster is 25-and-a-half inches. A Jaguar is 24 inches, Gibson guitars are 24-and-three-quarters. If a tech is doing the math on an instrument and figuring the angles—which frets will work, the fretboard radius, and all that—the string has to intonate true when it hits the 12 fret. How can the same standardized set work on every guitar? It can’t.”
So, Tenorio has designed specific string sets for electric guitars of various scale lengths and with varied bridge types. (A string set for a typical string-through-body Telecaster, for instance, is slightly different from a set designed for top-loading Tele or one outfitted with a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece.) Similar considerations are true for acoustic-guitar strings, of course.
Doing Away with Hex-Core
Another thing that sets Guadalupe Custom Strings apart from most other string manufacturers is their dedicated use of round-core wire—as opposed to hex-core—for their wound strings. “When you wrap wire around hex-core,” Tenorio says, “that basically crimps the wrap wire. Have you ever put on a set of guitar strings and felt like you can’t get a good readout on the notes? That’s what hex-core does. We experimented with it for awhile but ultimately got rid of all the hex-core. Then everything all of a sudden sounded better, more in tune.”
Tenorio, an accomplished guitarist, admits that right-on intonation was something that he took for granted in the past. “Now,” he says, “with better intonation, I find I get a bigger sound out of my Tele and I can play with more ease. These things make a big difference in how the player feels and how the guitar starts to react. A guitar is like a living thing. It will acclimate to you and to the string.”
Guadalupe Custom Strings offers two winding formulations for steel-string guitars: brass and phosphor-bronze. As a player, Tenorio is partial to brass. “Nobody uses it anymore, but I love it. I put a .012 set of our brass strings on my Taylor 314 and kept them on for a whole year. They never lost tension and didn’t stop being in tune.”
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Tenorio knows that as long as Guadalupe is making strings one at a time, they can’t compete with the major string manufacturers, but that’s not his goal. For him, it’s all about making a superior product that musicians will appreciate. “A machine,” he says, “can’t make the twist [at the ball end] the proper length. It can’t do what a human body can do. When I make a string, I’m pulling the wire this way and that way. It’s a flowing thing, because nothing is consistent. There may be a small difference in the core-wire diameter at some point. An experienced winder can feel that. The machines that do it automatically can only do one thing, whereas I can change things any which way—you know? It leaves me freer to do a better job.
“It’s sort of like being a tailor, but not working with cloth. Working with some impossible material.”
UPDATE: Gabriel Tenorio now has his own brand of custom-made strings, the Gabriel Tenorio String Co., making different lines of hand-wound steel strings and electric strings.