Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Maccaferri Plastic Guitars

There once was this fellow that made a fortune manufacturing plastic clothes pins. This all happened back in the 1950’s following World War II.
This fellow was a famous Italian classical guitarist and master luthier who had immigrated to the United States after spending most of his life living in London. He was keenly aware of the product shortages in Europe.
This fellow was making a living by producing musical instrument reeds and France was the source of the cane that he used for this purpose.

Keep in mind the world’s finest clarinets, saxophones, oboes and other instruments were made in France by Selmer and Buffet.

So the inventive Mr. Maccaferri geared his factory up to produce plastic clarinet reeds through injection molding. Initially the reeds were well received, as they would not chip like wooden reeds. However the plastic reeds were not actually that great. However Maccaferri was able to get an endorsement from Benny Goodman.
They sold well at first, but wind players preferred cane reeds. He had the injection molding equipment and diversified and used his manufacturing capabilities to produce necessary household items.

These included bathroom tile, clothespins, grills for air conditioners, clothes hangers, acoustic tiles. If we look at a later era, his company made plastic housings for 8-track tapes and cassette tapes.

We haven’t mentioned Mario Maccaferri in this blog yet but we certainly will look at the unique guitar he created for Selmer Musical Instruments to produce. He was the man that designed the famous Selmer-Maccaferri guitar used by Django Rheinardt and his brother. His guitar design is still being copied today by ten or so overseas manufacturers due to the popularity of hot jazz or Gypsy jazz music.
Arthur Godfrey was a very popular radio and television host. Godfrey seemed a little cranky and had an annoying voice, but he sure was popular. Godfrey did live ads on his television show. He would hold up the product and tell of its wonders and good flavor and folks believed they couldn’t live without whatever it was he was selling. Godfrey never had a script. He was somewhat like the cranky, annoying uncle that many of us had in our family.

 Aside from having a television and radio show, Arthur Godfrey did two things. He was a pilot and flew a small airplane and he played ukulele while singing in a baritone voice. I remember watching Godfrey played the ukulele and singing on his TV show.


Mario Maccaferri gave Arthur Godfrey one of his plastic ukes. Godfrey was delighted and suggested that he make a $2.00 uke out of plastic and together they could sell a million of them. And they did!
In fact, Maccaferri and Godfrey sold over a million Islander Ukuleles through Godfrey recomendation on his shows. Maccaferri the took the ukulele a step further.
For a extra price the musically challenged who didn’t want to take time to learn how to play chords, there was a device that fit on the ukuleles neck that caused chords to be played automatically when you pressed one of its buttons. The uke actually sold for $5.95.
We have already discussed the Mickey Mouse Guitar. In that article I talked about the little plastic Mickey Mouse toy guitars with the crank on the side that played music through turning a rubber belt that struck a series of plastic tines. Guess who designed and manufactured that! Mario Maccaferri did and sold another million.
Maccaferri went on to sell many other musical products made of injection molded plastic in a company that he owned. This company once known as the French American Reeds Manufacturing Company was changed in 1964 to Mastro Plastics Corporation.

Due to extensive legal and patent issues, Maccaferri got out of the plastics business in 1969 and sold his injection molding company and patent rights to Carnival Industries.

Emenee Tiger Guitar

But not before a deal that he struck up with Emenee Toys to design the Tiger Guitar and the casing for the Poly-chord Electric Piano Organ.

Mario Maccaferri retired in 1981 however he continued pursuing his interest in plastic musical instruments and went on to develop a plastic violin that was actually played in a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1990. Maccaferri passed away in 1993 at the age of 92.
At heart Maccaferri was a guitar luthier and he set his sites on manufacturing an affordable, yet playable plastic guitar. He came up with two versions. The G30 flat top guitar had a round sound hole with a retail price of $29.95 and the upscale G40 with an arched top with a price of $39.95.

The guitar featured violin style F holes and the bridge and tail piece were similar to his original Selmer design.

On the plus side this guitar had a warp-proof neck, perfect intonation, adjustable action and faux-rosewood back and sides. On the other hand, it was rather fragile and the sound the guitars produced did not have much depth and bass response. But compared to comparable inexpensive mass produced instruments of the day, Maccaferri's plastic guitars were far superior in playability.
The ukes and later the guitars were made out of a plastic product called Styron, produced by the Dow Chemical Company. The guitars debuted in the spring of 1953. The introduction was extensively covered by The Music Trades probably due to PR efforts of Dow Chemical (better living through chemistry).

The plastics used in manufacturing the instruments took the Dow over two years to develop. It was a combination of two different plastic formulas.

Mario Maccaferri at work
As for endorsements, Maccaferri got some of the best people he knew to say nice things about his plastic guitar. None other than Andres Segovia praised the guitar and his friend Mario Maccaferri.

Additionally composer and guitar player Harry Volpe stood behind the instrument as a breakthrough and Rey De La Torres, the famous Cuban guitarist made glowing comments as well.




The neck of this instrument was a very unusual and unique design. It was bolted on the guitar instead of the usual set neck design. This actually predate Fender’s bolt on neck.

The outside of the neck was composed of two pieces of plastic, one of which was the fingerboard that had strategic holes in it, the frets and peg head top. The other part was the backside which also housed the back of the peg head.

Inside of the backside were the position markers, which served to line up the back with the fretboard by use of the aforementioned holes in the fretboard. The inner part of the neck contained a metal sheath, called the armored neck.
This sheath was built around a core of wood. The inner core was quite interesting because it was a neck through design, meaning the core ran through the body of the instrument and attached to the endpin.
An extraordinary feature was a metal plug that could be accessed from the top of the guitar. This allowed threaded bolts on the core to be turned through use of a screwdriver, thus allowing adjustment of the neck tilt and action.



In today’s vintage market, Maccaferri’s forty dollar plastic guitars are commanding prices in excess of $500 USD.









 


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Craig said...

FYI, "Better Living Through Chemistry" is the slogan (actually, part of the slogan) of DuPont, not Dow.

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