A Musician’s New Tune

Strings1The heart said play music. The hands said no. So the head took over, and John Wunsch exchanged his guitar for guitar strings, purchasing Strings By Mail.

“I had done political organizing and thought I might be a good businessman,” said Wunsch of TraverseCity.

The musician, composer and instructor found inspiration in the business world just as he had the music world. “As an artist I had the music and the audience. Now as a businessman I have the website and the customers.”

Wunsch bought the company in 2009 from one of his former guitar students, Brad De Roche, and his brother Scott, and moved it from Ann Arbor to a facility near his home on the Old Mission Peninsula.

At the time, the company was selling around $600,000 annually in guitar strings and accessories.

For Wunsch, the timing was perfect. He was suffering from spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that can result in compression of the spine and nerves, which in turn can cause pain, weakness, and numbness in other parts of the body. In his case, it had affected his right arm and hand. He also dealt with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease related to multiple sclerosis. At the time, he was also guitar instructor at Interlochen.

“The spinal thing made it clear I couldn’t play,” said Wunsch. “I was talking to Brad, and he wanted to play more. I wanted to be closer to home, rather than driving 45 minutes to Interlochen. It just seemed too good a fit.”

Since taking over, Wunsch has increased sales dramatically. “We’ve more than tripled revenue, from $600,000 to more than $2 million,” he said.

The company has also taken over more of the building, tripling its floor space. Inventory has mushroomed from 4,000 products to more than 11,500 and the business employs eight.

“We have the largest collection of guitar strings in the world,” he said.

Wunsch said the company has always been driven by customer needs. “When Rick Cyr started the company, he wanted to offer custom sets,” said Wunsch. That enabled customers to blend string sets from different manufacturers or even different types of strings, whether nylon, steel, round wound or flat wound, from D’Addario, GHS, Ernie Ball, Dean Markley or numerous other companies.

“We’ve taken it to another level,” Wunsch said. “We ask customers what guitar they use, which strings, why they like it.” If a customer wants something Wunsch doesn’t have, he said all they have to do is ask. The company will find it and then continue to stock it.

The company serves musicians from across the world, including jazz star John Pizzarelli and renowned classical/new age guitarist Alex DeGrassi. Bruce Springsteen’s guitar tech bought some strings a few years ago, and the company also sponsors up-and-coming players such as Gohar Vardanyan and Matt Palmer.

In addition to strings, the company sells accessories such as guitar straps, stands, CDs and DVDs (both performance and instructional), and stocks more than 4,000 sheet music selections. It has its own dedicated YouTube channel, featuring lessons, stringing instruction, performances and inspirational videos.

Strings By Mail is now branching out into the orchestral world, selling strings for violin, viola, cello and bass.

Wunsch first made his mark in the music business as a performer. The Traverse City native returned to his hometown more than 20 years ago after playing in and around New York City, recording albums with his atmospheric jazz band C’est What? with fellow axe-slinger Matt Balitsaris and working with classical and jazz musicians alike.

“The music … is what I was all about till I was 58,” said Wunsch.

All the employees are also musicians, most of them guitarists. They know or learn what works, what works together, and why.

Wunsch said the company is dedicated to service because he and the staff know that one performance can make or break a musician’s career. He noted that a band in Brazil had ordered strings with a month of lead time, but they called on Wednesday before a Saturday concert and still hadn’t received the strings. Strings By Mail shipped them out that day by Federal Express and they arrived in time for the show.

Another time a student with an upcoming audition called in a panic as he hadn’t gotten the strings he’d ordered. Wunsch immediately sent another set. “You can change someone’s life or career path,” he said.