BY GIACOMO FIORE | FROM THE WINTER 2015 ISSUE OF UKULELE
“There he goes again,” an old-timer in the Italian town of Caldogno, north of Vicenza, comments to his friend. Across the street, a man is backing away from his workshop, carefully drawing a polymer string with a pair of pliers. The year was 1997, and the man was Mimmo Peruffo, master string maker, on the verge of introducing a new kind of musical instrument string.
Born in the central Sardinian town of Arborea, Peruffo combined his artistic inclination with technical training from an early age. He built his first guitar with help from his grandfather, a carpenter and band director, following instructions by day only to undo the work and follow his own intuition by night. Peruffo’s early interest in the guitar gave way to a passion for the lute, leading him to befriend esteemed Italian luthiers such as Enrico Pacini and Ricardo Brané.
Brané was still trying to optimize the sound of the instrument’s lower register at the time of his death, and Peruffo, a chemical engineer by training, was entrusted with extending his late friend’s research. Consequently, beginning in 1983, he took his first steps in the ancient art of string making. Over the following decade, Peruffo established himself as an international authority on the history and manufacturing of gut strings, producing calibrated sets for a wide range of historical and contemporary instruments under the Aquila Corde brand.
Animal gut, the material of choice for most European stringed instruments well into the Industrial Revolution, provides excellent acoustic properties—despite its fragility, susceptibility to humidity changes, and laborious manufacturing methods. Though Aquila quickly rose as a market leader for gut strings, Peruffo kept searching for ways to improve and modernize the product, while still retaining those timbral qualities that captured the imaginations of generations of musicians.
“I become obsessive over ideas. Sometimes I follow a single thing for months at a time,” Peruffo tells me via Skype. “When I do, it’s not always best for the company, but eventually I come out of it and sometimes the idea works.”
Other times, innovation follows a single moment of inspiration, as was the case with the development of Aquila’s trademark material, Nylgut. After mixed success trying to “load” nylon with metals, in order to make it denser and thus closer to the physical characteristics of gut, Peruffo began collaborating with local manufacturers of various kinds of threads. “These were companies producing bristles for brooms and toothbrushes. They were used to working in terms of hundreds of pounds of material, and sometimes I felt that they had little patience for my experimental requests.”
One day, Peruffo picked up a loose strand from the factory floor, put one end in his mouth, pulled it taut, and plucked it. “It was a simple gesture that I think nobody else had thought of doing,” he recalls. The material—a kind of polyester—sounded promising, and its specs were also aligned with those of gut. By adding a matte-white coloring, it even looked like its animal-derived counterpart.
And so, in 1997, Aquila began producing sets of Nylgut strings for classical guitars, as well as lutes and other early instruments.
The next step in Aquila’s development also came in serendipitous fashion. One of Peruffo’s Japanese clients suggested he look into the ukulele, an instrument that was regaining popularity across the world, but still lacked recognition in Italy. The Italian string maker noticed the nylon or carbon strings that were generally installed on factory models had no real vibrancy to them and often suffered from poor intonation. He figured out the gauges for a soprano Nylgut set and sent the strings for evaluation to Roy T. Cone, owner of an online ukulele retail site. After several weeks, he received an e-mail from Cone, thanking him for the strings—and putting in an order for 1,500 sets.
“I was taken aback,” Peruffo says. “I explained that I had only made those four strings, and that we still pulled and rectified the material by hand. We were nowhere near ready to be able to fill that sort of order, but Mr. Cone insisted we were onto something and that we should step up our game. So we did. We designed a packaging label in a week and ramped up production by setting up 16 mechanical tables to pull the string, so that I wouldn’t have to do it by hand with the pliers.”
From that point on, Aquila experienced an exponential growth in orders. The company partnered with several uke manufacturers—Leolani and Bushman as well as industry giants like Hohner and Kala—to provide factory-installed strings on instruments of all levels. The increase in business was made possible by the acquisition of its own extruder, a machine that took several months to figure out and adapt to the rigors of string making, but eventually could produce between 50,000 and 100,000 strings a day. (Today, Aquila’s factory runs four additional extruders.)
Then came the crash.
“In 2011, we lost 80 percent of our sales, almost overnight,” Peruffo explains. Aquila’s distinctive Nylgut look had become a recognizable—and easily copied—asset, and counterfeit strings threatened to compromise the company’s success. Instead of fighting through legal channels, Aquila decided to adapt: it opened a sales office in China to deal with the instrument manufacturers directly and tweaked the look of the strings to a pearly sheen that was more difficult to reproduce. That was not the only issue connected to the color of the strings. Several customers had complained to Peruffo that the traditional black carbon uke strings were representative of Hawaii volcanic beaches. “I’ve never seen a black beach in my life; I was born in Sardinia, and the sand there is white like pearls,” he says with a chuckle, “but eventually we made a dark grey series to satisfy the traditionalists.”Mimmo plays a PukanaLa PAK-T at Musikmesse
The cultural implications of an Italian string maker working with Hawaiian instruments (often made in China) is not entirely lost on Peruffo. “I think the contemporary rise of the ukulele is a terrific phenomenon,” he says. “Here I am, making strings for a Portuguese-inspired instrument that comes from halfway across the world. Yet if somebody brings out a ukulele at a party, there are no barriers, musical or otherwise. It’s like a very addictive, but very safe drug.”
The portability and adaptability of the instrument are only two factors that contributed tothe uke’s resurgence in popularity in the 21st century, according to Peruffo. “I count three factors: YouTube and the ease of information exchange; the improvement of Chinese manufacturing standards; and the introduction of Nylgut. If you compare an entry-level ukulele strung with nylon versus Nylgut, it’s like the difference between a novelty and a real instrument. Nylgut simply sounds better. It plays ‘true’ and in tune across the whole range—it does not sound like a toy.” He may be biased, but sales numbers suggest there may be some validity to his theory.
Rather than rest on his laurels, Peruffo continues to innovate. When Kala introduced the U-Bass in 2010, he noticed that the short-scale bass strings were simple polyurethane bands. Inspired by Peruffo’s research on historical strings, Aquila developed a new elastic product imbued with copper powder, which is now the stock offer on most of the short-scale bass ukuleles on the market.
Another recent innovation is Aquila’s Red Series, which uses metal-infused Nylgut for all strings. This solution allows for an accurately calibrated set that maximizes harmonicity, projection, and brilliance.
“You’re not going to choose these strings for floating around Hanalei Bay on your canoe,” says Peruffo, “but as the ukulele enters other genres like folk and bluegrass, the Red Series provides a very convincing and useable bright tone, closer to that of metal strings.”
With one foot in the past, Peruffo continues the tradition of his predecessors and preserves a craft that is dangerously close to becoming extinct. Yet, his other foot is planted firmly in the future. He considers himself a musician and explorer, rather than an entrepreneur. “I’m not in this for the money. Several of the things we did—and still do—make no sense in terms of economy of scale,” he explains. “I love the music and love to innovate. I must cross the Pillars of Hercules and always go further. If I had been born at a different time, I probably would have died in a shipwreck. I am fortunate to do what I do, and to have learned from generations who came before how to work with my hands.”