An Interview with John Wunsch of Strings by Mail

This is the first in a series of interviews and stories about MGW scholarship sponsors. I interviewed John Wunsch about his career as a guitarist, educator, and most recently, the owner of Strings by Mail, a mail order business that supplies stringed instrument players of all stripes everything from strings to sheet music to every imaginable accessory.

Top row: Stu – Bruce – Rick – Matt – Eric – Ben Bottom row: Kelsea – Jaci – John – Jessica – Karen

ALEX: When did you take over SBM, and what have been some of the challenges and joys of taking that on?

JOHN: That happened in 2009. It really just fell in my lap. Two of my former students owned it and it was growing too big for them to handle and also continue their playing careers. The beauty of it is that it came at a time when some health issues had made continuing my musical career impractical and this was an opportunity that would keep me involved with the music community and allow me to contribute to and support the process of making music. The challenges have been extensive. First, owning and running a business with the financial and documentation requirements was daunting, then realizing you also carry the responsibility of having employee’s depending on your business for a living is sobering. But I think the biggest challenge is keeping up with the evolving world of Ecommerce and its particular world of digital marketing. It is a very fast moving and dramatically changing environment.

The biggest challenge came when a number of huge competitors moved into our market, especially guitar strings, in about 2014. Suddenly in addition to the usual competition with other mom & pops, and a few really huge music companies, we now had Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy and others in direct competition with us, and getting serious about it too. But in the end, all this just made us better. So, succeeding in bouncing back after that setback was a great source of fulfillment. On a more fun side, being in the midst of great new products and great musicians looking to us to help guide them through sorting out all the options is very satisfying.

But I think the most fun aspect of the business has been the inventive and creative process of constantly improving how our site interfaces with our customers and our staff. A web site is really a very architectural thing, and I see composition as also being architectural. So, it really felt very familiar to be working to customize our site to make it better for our staff and our customers. I see it like an orchestra or band. Our staff of 10 are the players, the site is the composition and our customers are the audience. I think we have been creating some great performances over the years, and much of it due to great audience feedback.

ALEX: What has motivated you to become a Mendocino Summer Guitar Workshop scholarship sponsor.

JOHN: In the big picture it is an excellent opportunity to support the musical culture which inspires us and enriches our lives. We are motivated to do this for the same reason we are motivated to sponsor artists, to do what we can to enhance the musical art form. But the roots of my specific interest in Mendocino go back to a conversation I had with you in the mid-1990s about what we saw, and still to a large extent see, as a deficiency in serious higher-level education options for acoustic guitarists in comparison to classical guitarists. The Mendocino setting is not a college style program, but it is an opportunity for players to benefit from studying with great guitar artists, Alex de Grassi and Andrew York and others. They have and can share the kind of artistry that one encounters in top notch higher education setting. It is a great opportunity for any player to lift their vision and their skills.

ALEX: You have become an enthusiastic advocate for both classical and steel string guitars. There’s a lot of new directions happening on both instruments, where do you see the future of both instruments in the field of education?

JOHN: I hope to see more university and eventually even conservatory programs integrate steel string study into the music major curriculums. That could lead to some healthy integration of the two approaches. I would like to see young steel string players ascribe to creating music that is compositionally and harmonically as evolved as a classical composition, especially in terms of progression and modulation. And I would like to see young classical players ascribe to finding and playing or creating music that reaches out to a broader audience, as the steel string repertoire does. Over time I think that can happen, through the musical market place calling for that. But if we could see more university or conservatory programs include steel string players in their programs, it would happen sooner. And it might lead to a more fulfilling integration of the styles for audiences and players alike.

ALEX: You mentioned earlier in this interview that SBM also sponsors some guitarists. How many guitarists are you currently sponsoring and what is the nature of the sponsorship? (Disclosure, I am one of those sponsored artists)

JOHN: We are currently sponsoring 13 guitarists, and while there are variations in details the essence is that we provide additional exposure for them and some degree of modest financial support, normally in the form of an annual credit at SBM.

ALEX: Any other programs that you are involved in that you’d like to mention?

JOHN: We recently started supporting a program for healthy technique aimed primarily at orchestral musicians, called the Grossman Method. The founder, Hal Grossman, is a sponsored violinist at SBM.

ALEX: Thanks John, and thanks for your continuing support of the Mendocino Guitar Workshop!