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Mario Maccaferri and Plastic Instruments

Mario MaccaferriMario Maccaferri (1900-1993) and his custom molding company Mastro Plastics Corporation, founded by Maccaferr i in association with his French American Reeds Manufacturing Company, introduced the first Maccaferri plastic guitar, made of Dow Styron (polystyrene) in 1953. Production continued until 1964.

Maccaferri was among the most successful inventors able to create music from plastic. He was a musician, inventor and entrepreneur who developed, produced and marketed a plastic reed to replace cane in wind instruments, and beginning in the 1950s he designed, manufactured and popularized plastic string instruments, such as plastic ukuleles and to a lesser extent guitars such as this.

Born in Cento, Italy, Maccaferri was trained as a classical guitarist and in 1926 became a professor at the Conservatory of Music in Siena, while maintained a concert career until 1932 when he injured his hand. Meanwhile, he developed a second career designing and manufacturing musical instruments including the first "gypsy jazz guitar" for the Selmer Co. of France, a guitar made famous by Django Reinhardt. Maccaferri founded the French American Reed Company in Paris and moved the firm to New York City in 1939, escaping from France just before the German occupation. In America he developed a plastic reed for wind instruments, which he patented in 1942. Among its users were Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Jimmy Dorsey.

Maccaferri developed the plastic ukulele, made of Dow Styron polystyrene, beginning with the Islander Ukulele, which became wildly popular after its introduction n 1949. Priced at only $5.95, Maccaferri's company shipped over nine million ukuleles between 1949 and 1958 and went on to develop other plastic musical instruments: guitars, banjos, drums, trumpets, and saxophones (the company was also the largest manufacturer of injection molded wall tile).

Maccaferri introduced this styrene plastic guitar in 1953 and continued to produce these in arch top and flat top models until 1965. On April 29, 1953, Maccaferri introduced the guitar in New York and described its origin:

"I have always promised myself that one day I would make a good guitar at a popular price. I had no idea that I would end up by making a plastic guitar. But when I realized that plastic would offer me the chance to make a perfect instrument with none of the shortcomings known in the wooden guitar, it did not take long to decide and satisfy my life's ambition. So, I went to work. ...This all-plastic guitar wasn't an easy job, as you will understand, we had a lot of engineering problems and it represents quite a costly venture for us . . .It has beauty and it is easier to play (than wooden guitars) it produces music in perfect pitch, and has good tone and plenty of it."

In March 1964, Maccaferri and Mastro also introduced the "Beetles" line of plastic instruments at the New York Toy Show, capitalizing on the popularity of the Beatles' visit to America. These inexpensive instruments included four-string guitars, six-string guitars, plastic bongo drums, and banjos. In 1969, however, frustrated by the decline interest and sales Maccaferri sold all rights to his plastic instruments to Carnival Industries, which did not continue the line. At the time of his death Maccaferri was working to perfect his plastic violins. Maccaferri was posthumously inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame in 1996.

Though Maccaferri's plastic guitars never caught on with professionals, plastic guitar picks and strings have been common for decades, beginning with cellulose for picks, and then nylon for strings and picks.

The connection between plastics and music dates to the very beginnings of the plastics industry, when John Wesley Hyatt, patented a method for using his recently invented Cellulose nitrate plastics (Celluloid) for the manufacture of piano keys. Plastic continued to be used as replacement materials for certain instrument parts. In the 1940s Melville A. Clark, working in conjunction with DuPont engineers, painstakingly developed the technology to use nylon for harp strings. Similar technology was used for guitar strings and tennis racquet strings. Nylon proved less effective for strings that needed bowing, but nylon was developed as a material for violin bows.

Also in the 1940s, Finn Haakon Magnus developed a simple and inexpensive and easy to make plastic version of the harmonica that was mass produced to supply U.S. military troops during World War II, and then remained a staple in the toy market through the 1960s. Magnus also used plastics to produce a variety of wind instruments including reed organs and toy bagpipes.

Plastic has also been used for the creation of wind instrument parts since the 1950s, notably recorder and clarinets, especially for the student market. These remain widely produced and popular items, supplementing more expensive wood clarinets.

Plastics have also been plentiful in a wide variety of percussion and keyboard instruments, including concert instruments of the highest quality.

Sources:

  • Hoover, Will. Picks! The Colorful Saga of Vintage Celluloid Guitar Plectums. (San Francisco: Miller Freeman books, 1995).
  • Kaiser, Linda Pembroke. Pulling Strings: The Legacy of Melville A. Clark (Syracuse: Syracuse Univiversity Press, 2010), pp. 54-61.
  • "Maccaferri Reeds," http://www.frenchamericanreeds.com/historyfull.htm
  • Sheets, Arian. "Mario Maccaferri's Styron Revolution: Alternative Materials for Stringed Instruments," National Music Museum Newsletter, vol. 37: 2 (August 2010). On-line at: http://orgs.usd.edu/nmm/News/Newsletter/August2010/StyronRevolution.html
  • Museum of Making Music, "The Ukulele & You Online Exhibition - An Introduction," on-line at: http://www.museumofmakingmusic.org/ukulele/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=30:introduction&catid=10:history&Itemid=44