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Rose Augustine, 93; Firm Developed Nylon Strings for the Classical Guitar

May 02, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Rose Augustine, who with her late husband developed and manufactured the first nylon guitar strings -- a post-World War II innovation that revolutionized classical guitar playing -- has died. She was 93.

Augustine, a former New York City high school chemistry teacher who became an influential patron of budding classical guitarists and sponsored concert series and competitions, died of natural causes April 21 in Manhattan. Albert Augustine Ltd., the small Manhattan company she and her husband, Albert, founded in the basement of their four-story home in 1947, is one of the leading makers of classical guitar strings.

Rose Augustine became president of the company, whose factory produces about 2 million six-string sets a year, after her husband died in 1967.

"You ask any classical guitar player anywhere in the world and they know Augustine strings," said Stephen Griesgraber, editor of Guitar Review, a quarterly journal founded in 1946 by Rose Augustine, who served as publisher and senior editor.

In the past, the classical guitar's three treble strings were made of animal gut, which was prone to fraying and even breaking during concerts; the three bass strings were made of silk thread wound with thin, metallic wire.

The longer-lasting nylon strings produce a louder sound, are more consistent in tone and hold their tuning more accurately than gut strings.

"It really revolutionized the classical guitar because it became the standard," Griesgraber said. "I'm of the younger generation, and I've never even seen those old gut strings."

As is often the case, necessity was the mother of invention.

Albert Augustine was a luthier -- a maker of stringed instruments -- who made a small number of high-quality classical guitars each year.

But during World War II guitar string makers were faced with a shortage of gut, which was being used for medical sutures.

"My husband was a desperate guitar maker," Rose Augustine recalled in an interview with the industry publication Music Trades in 1997. "I remember his finishing an instrument and trying to put second-rate strings on it, and they kept snapping all the time. He couldn't even hear the instruments he was building."

Albert Augustine began experimenting with an alternative: nylon fishing line he found in a city trash bin.

But the idea of using nylon for guitar strings went nowhere until Spanish guitar virtuoso Andres Segovia commissioned a guitar from Augustine in 1946.

While examining Segovia's fingerboard measurements, Augustine noticed a nylon string on the guitar. Segovia, who had been equally frustrated by the gut-string shortage, said he had gotten a string of nylon from the DuPont Co., which had tried to sell nylon for guitar strings. He said he was happy with it and encouraged Augustine to "start making these new strings."

Rose Augustine told Music Trades that she and her husband "surprised" DuPont with their request for nylon. "They didn't want to sell to us because they said they had already canvassed all the string companies and were told nylon was undesirable," she recalled.

But because of Segovia's stature, she said, "we were able to set up a meeting with DuPont personnel to demonstrate the superiority of nylon.... DuPont was so pleased with the sound of nylon that they gave us their immediate support."

The Augustines rebuilt a war-surplus grinding machine used for making binoculars and set it up in their basement to begin grinding the DuPont nylon string into the proper thickness and consistency for guitar strings.

Griesgraber said Rose Augustine would teach chemistry by day and help her husband make guitar strings at night.

"She used to joke that she'd be so exhausted after teaching chemistry, she'd have to drink whiskey to keep herself awake while she made strings in the basement," he said.

Segovia, who lived on a floor of the couple's home for 11 years beginning in the late 1940s, became the biggest booster of the Augustines' nylon guitar strings.

In fact, the company's packaging still bears Segovia's picture, endorsement and signature.

"Overcoming every obstacle, little by little [Albert Augustine] evolved from the plastic material the strings which were to replace the gut strings with incalculable advantage in durability, caliber, sound and ease of action," Segovia told Guitar Review in 1954.

Born in New York City in 1910, Rose Augustine grew up in the Bronx and received a bachelor's degree at Hunter College and a master's at Columbia University.

Griesgraber said Rose Augustine "really built the company" after her husband died.

"She had an incredible amount of energy," he said. "She could be -- I have to watch myself -- but she could be aggressive. She was a very strong personalty. She knew what she wanted. She valued loyalty and hard work and had high expectations of others."

The couple had no children.

After her husband's death, Rose Augustine started the Albert Augustine Foundation, which underwrites classical guitar competitions and concert series, including a long-running series at the 92nd Street Y, a Jewish community and cultural center.

"I can't think of anyone that Mrs. Augustine didn't help present, including John Williams and Julian Bream," Griesgraber said.

The foundation has commissioned original works for guitar and provides scholarships for guitar students at the Manhattan School of Music, the Mannes College of Music and the Juilliard School.

In 2002, the Guitar Foundation of America presented Rose Augustine with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

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