Mario Maccaferri Plays Classical Guitar

Mario Maccaferri was born in 1900 in Cento, near Bologna, in Italy. At the age of 11, he became apprenticed to the Italian master luthier and renowned musician, Luigi Mozzani. The young Maccaferri assiduously followed his master’s footsteps, bearing his influence for the rest of his life. While learning lutherie, he concurrently pursued the study of the classical guitar. In 1916, he entered the Conservatory at Sienna, remaining there for ten years and graduating with the highest diploma and all honors. Subsequently, he abandoned lutherie to fully devote himself to a career of concert guitar performance. To critical acclaim, his touring took him across all of Europe. Maestro Mozzani, a superb guitarist and composer for the instrument in his own right, was quite proud of Mario Maccaferri, whom he regarded as a master luthier, musician and peer – an honor never bestowed upon any other of his many protégés.


These two MP3s are the only suriving recordings of Mario Maccaferri:

MP3: Bach

MP3: Granados

In 1929, Maccaferri settled in London where, amidst his touring schedule, he taught guitar. Ever passionate about lutherie, he dreamt continually of a more ideal, more sonorous guitar. Before long he generated several new prototypes. Presented in London at the dawn of the 1930’s, these were the progenitors of his most lasting contribution to lutherie.

Upon being shown these latest creations, the Davis brothers, who managed Selmer’s London dealership, in turn introduced Maccaferri to Henri Selmer himself. With their assurances and in consideration of Maccaferri’s formidable lutherie background with Mozzani, Monsieur Selmer accepted the idea of constructing guitars within the Selmer manufacturing facility at Mantes-la-Ville, near Paris.

Soon enough, the atelier was begun under Maccaferri’s direction. He drew up the plans for the guitars, had molds and jigs made. Numerous workers, for the most part Italians, took part in the building of the shop and received training from Maccaferri in his production techniques.

On the sixth of May 1932, patent #736,779 was registered in Paris, entitled “Perfectionnements aux violons, guitars, mandolines et autres instruments à cordes.” Its résumé proposed:

    “The joining to guitars, violins, mandolins and other 
    musical instruments of an internal resonating box, affixed to 
    the vibrating top of the instrument…”
In typical convoluted patent language it went on to describe the physical details of the resonating chamber inside the soundbox of the instrument in question.

During this brief but revolutionary epoch the first Selmer Maccaferri guitars were produced. Maccaferri supervised the fabrication of each model. Even the cases for the guitars were made there.

By 1933, with production completely operational, Mario Maccaferri was increasingly less in evidence at the atelier. It seems there was a dispute with Henri Selmer which led to a peremptory departure from the firm some time late in 1933. Was it a contract problem? The Selmer company remains discreet on this subject to this day.

A consummate guitarist, Maccaferri longed to return to touring, to travel and perform once again around Europe. During the summer of 1933, however, a freak swimming accident badly injured his right hand, bringing his concertising career to an end.

Yet his life continued. During his time at Selmer, he had discovered and learned the technique of making reeds for saxophones and clarinets. Maccaferri oriented himself from then on with the making of reeds, creating his “French-American Reed Manufacturing Company.” In 1935 he filed for a patent for his shaping of reeds. In 1938, he set up a branch of that business in New York, moving there the next year in order to flee the war in France.

Surmounting yet another setback, when the primary source of reed making cane from southern France was cut off by wartime shipping problems, Maccaferri developed a viable plastic reed, the Maccaferri Futurity reed. Endorsed by Benny Goodman and others, his reedmaking enterprise survived the hazards of wartime shortages and propelled him into a thriving business in plastics.

With his plastics business on firm ground, offering clothespins, bathroom tile and a host of other injection-molded products, it wasn’t until many years later, in the fifties, that the irrepressible luthier in him surfaced once more. Alas, his Maccaferri plastic guitars, while conceived as a serious musical instrument, were not a market success. Nonetheless, he handily recouped his guitar losses with the famous plastic ukes with the Arthur Godfrey Chord Finder. Through his long and colorful life, Maccaferri’s unique brilliance never diminished. At the time of his passing in May of 1993, he was at work perfecting his plastic violins.


Drop the name “Maccaferri” to most guitar buffs and more than likely the response will involve plastic guitars and, if you’re lucky, something about Django Reinhardt. For a lifetime’s devotion to music that literally spanned almost the entire 20th Century, such a reduction might be viewed as sadly ironic. However, given the creative genius that infuses Mario Maccaferri’s brilliant career, including his remarkable plastic guitars, it may just be the greatest tribute of all.

Whether or not you agree with such enthusiasm for Maccaferri’s plastic guitars, the fact remains that Mario Maccaferri lived a long full life and achieved far more than most could dream in the pursuit of his passions, passions which never strayed far from music.

A lot of parts of the Maccaferri story have been related over the past few years, mostly focusing on his early contributions, often at the expense of the less politically correct plastic parts. However, like most good yarns, the story of the guitars which endeared the late famous and indefatigable luthier Mario Maccaferri to guitar lovers has a lot more to it than just some remarkable plastic fabrication. Indeed, the tale of Mario Maccaferri is one full of amazing artistic, business and engineering achievement, and not a little romance and adventure woven into its twists and turns. Here, for the enjoyment of guitar aficionados, is the full Maccaferri story, complete with some brief forays into 19th Century guitar history, and including a detailed accounting of the plastic guitars.

Origins in the Po River valley
Guitarmaker No.15, a story which also ran in an edited form in The beginnings of the Maccaferri story go back to the dawn of the century – or before – in northeastern Italy. Mario Maccaferri was born on May 20, 1900, in the town of Cento, which lies in the plains along the Po River halfway between Bologna and Ferrara, an area fertile with guitar activity. As related by Dick Boak in his article “An Unabridged Visit With Mario Maccaferri” (Acoustic Guitar Magazine), Mario was one of seven children, the son of Erminio, a carpenter, and Demetria Maccaferri. He attended school until the age of nine, whereupon, diploma in hand, he held various jobs including dish washer and apprentice carpenter. Fortunately for us and the world, such career paths were quickly abandoned by the youthful Maccaferri for the call of music. In 1911, several years before Europe would erupt in the War To End All Wars not that far from Maccaferri’s home, he was apprenticed to guitarist and luthier Luigi Mozzani, who had established a school of lutherie in Cento.

Luigi Mozzani

To understand the achievements of Mario Maccaferri we have to know at least something about Luigi Mozzani, one of guitardom’s unsung heroes, and touch on a nexus of long-standing technical and political issues related to guitars, all of which you directly tap into when you pick up a Maccaferri plastic guitar!

Luigi Mozzani was born in Faenza, Italy, on March 9, 1869. He was drawn to the guitar early on and began studying music under Professor Castelli at the Conservatory of Music in Bologna.

That interest in guitars should occur here was no accident. Bologna had been the home of another famous Italian guitar virtuoso, Zani De Ferranti (1802-1878), who had resettled into his birthplace following a successful European career as a classical guitarist. Another name associated with this region of northern Italy is the guitarist and composer Luigi Legnani, who had been born in Ferrara in 1790, and who maintained a long friendship with the great violinist (and guitarist) Nicolo Paganini, touring the Continent and for sometime sharing his home in nearby Parma with the fiery fiddler. During his career, Legnani had been associated with Johann Stauffer in Vienna, the legendary luthier who trained C.F.Martin. Legnani died in 1877, after devoting much effort to the problem of guitar construction, in Ravenna, Italy.

Mozzani, following an aborted start as an oboist in a traveling orchestra, which toured North America in the 1890s, switched to classical guitar and began a celebrated concert career. Based in Paris, Mozzani concertized throughout Europe and became a much sought-after teacher in fashionable Parisian society.

Like many another guitarist at this time, Mozzani became increasingly dissatisfied with the limitations of then current guitar design, and turned his attention to lutherie. This was an era when classical guitars were very small-bodied, figure-8-shaped “parlour” guitars with simple transverse bracing and bearing gut strings. No way to fill Lincoln Center. This is the situation which the renowned luthier Jose Antonio Torres had been addressing in Spain. Eventually, Mozzani moved back to his homeland to study guitar construction, finally establishing lutherie schools in Bologna, Cento and Rovereto.

Aside from the fact that Mario Maccaferri would become his star pupil, two other issues attach themselves to Mozzani which relate here: playing technique and instrument construction.

Mozzani and the thumbpick

The first is the question of classical guitar technique, which was a hot issue among guitarists desiring to be heard by serious audiences of the day.

Actually, the technical issue in question dated back a century earlier (if not much longer, if truth were ascertainable), and involved fingernails. Modern classical guitarists generally play using a technique promoted by Andres Segovia, striking the strings with a combination of carefully shaped fingernails and the flesh of the tips of the fingers. This was not always so.

(Sor vs. Aguado)

Among the technical debates which engaged the attention of early classical guitarists was whether the guitar should be played with fleshy fingertips or with the fingernails. Advocating the former position was the great Spanish virtuoso/composer Fernando Sor, who participated in a public argument with another famous Spaniard, Dionisio Aguado, who favored use of the nails. (Later in his career Aguado compromised and switched to using a nailless thumb on the bass.) This technical disagreement continued through the 19th and into the early 20th Century, even after Francisco Tarrega solidified modern technique, with Tarrega’s pupils Miguel Llobet and Emilio Pujol advocating nails and flesh respectively.

Mozzani’s solution to this technical dilemma was novel. He performed – and taught – using fingernails on the fingers and a metal thumbpick, pretty much like those in use today by some bluegrass musicians. This was the technique taught to Mozzani’s student, Mario Maccaferri, who would build his respected career using a thumbpick.

Mozzani and the lyre-guitar

The second matter important to the Mozzani/Maccaferri connection involved experiments in guitar construction. Mozzani was a tireless innovator and held many patents, but perhaps he is best known (or probably “best unknown”) as the inventor of the guitar-lyre or lyre-guitar, a large instrument which combined a standard guitar with an extended bass-side soundboard and a number of extra, non-fretted bass strings to increase the instrument’s range. This contraption received some limited acceptance early in this century and gave rise to variants such as the harp-guitars offered by Gibson and other makers in America and played perhaps most famously by the early folk revivalist Richard Dyer-Bennet. For part of his concertizing career, at least, Mario Maccaferri would play a Mozzani lyre-guitar or variants designed by himself.

Luigi Mozzani passed away in 1943.

This probably feels like a meandering picaresque novel by now, but this rather lengthy diversion sets the stage and brings us back again to the main narrative of Mario Maccaferri.

Mozzani and Maccaferri

Young 11-year-old Mario Maccaferri joined Mozzani’s school in 1911 as an apprentice and rose to become Mozzani’s premier disciple, learning to make guitars, violins and mandolins and eventually supervising other apprentices. Accounts differ about Maccaferri’s tenure with Mozzani. Although he was listed as “Senior Instructor” for Mozzani from 1920 to 1928, confirming a continued relationship as a technical advisor, Maccaferri actually struck out on his own in around 1923. And indeed, Maccaferri advertised himself as a maker of all fretted instruments after 1923, offering nine different guitar models, seven various mandolins, as well as violins and cellos.

Gold Medals

Clearly Maccaferri had learned his craft well, because in 1926 he won Gold Medals for his violins at both the Rome and Monte Catini expositions, another Gold Medal at the Fiume exposition of 1927, and 2nd place in violin making at the 1927 Rome exposition. A promising career as a luthier loomed, but that was not, strictly speaking, the path Mario was pursuing.


Among the guitars which Maccaferri made during these early days were some fascinating lyre-guitars, built in conjuction with his Professor, Mozzani. These lyre-guitars had dramatically extended upper and lower horns which stretched up to the headstock, and which included extensions of both the spruce soundboard and hardwood body. Soundholes were a variety of interesting patterns between the neck and the bridge. In addition to the added “wings,” these had six-string necks and an additional three, unfretted sub-bass strings which were basically intended to allow playing lute repertoire on the guitar. To compensate for the different string gauges, Maccaferri used three-piece saddles.

The bodies of these lyre-guitars consisted of either figured maple or burled walnut, carved on the back with an outer relief not dissimilar to what is known as the “German carve.”

Most interesting were the necks. Several of these guitars had solid ebony necks. Their profile was extraordinarily thin for the time, 3/4″ thick at best. Most curious of all, they were bolted on. A regular slotted headstock was bolted to the upper horn connection, while the heel was bolted to the body. As a result, the neck was uniformly thin all the way up, for very contemporary access. Furthermore, the heel was connected with two bolts which attached to the body in an open cavity accessible from the back. Through this cavity the neck-tilt angle could be adjusted.

I’ve personally played these Maccaferri guitars and can attest to their excellent bass response and well-articulated trebles. They balance well on the leg, and are a pleasure to play.

Professor of Guitar and Music

While Maccaferri studied lutherie at Mozzani’s school, he also applied himself to learning classical guitar performance, and it was as a concertizing guitarist in the long northern Italian tradition that he intended to build his career.

In 1916 Mario Maccaferri began studying music a the Conservatory of Music in Sienna. Maccaferri began to build his reputation as a performer by giving recitals from 1920 – some reports say as early as 1919 – until 1923, while he was still with Mozzani. In 1926, Maccaferri was named “Professor of Guitar and Music” from the Conservatory, and within the year had begun touring throughout Europe, performing as “Professor Maccaferri.”

Maccaferri in London

One of Professor Maccaferri’s tour stops was in London, where he performed at prestigious Wigmore Hall. Like so many classical guitarists before him, he found London a receptive home, and decided to settle there, performing and teaching guitar.

During this period, Maccaferri performed on a variety of instruments, often built by himself, using the Mozzani trick of playing bass notes with a thumbpick. Because this allowed Maccaferri to keep his thumb parallel to the strings (as opposed to diving into them with the thumbnail), he was reportedly able to develop remarkably facile tremolo technique. One of his treasured pieces was the Sor’s beautiful “Mozart Variations.” His performances were infused with his strong, romantic personality.

Among the instruments Maccaferri played were his nine-string lyre-guitars.

It was during this period, in 1926, that Maccaferri met and became friends with the other young lion of the classical guitar world, Andres Segovia.

During these early days of the century, Maccaferri was regarded by contemporaries as being on a par with the late Segovia, ranking right behind the Maestro in popular appeal in European guitar circles. Had events not transpired as they did, we might today regard the two as seminal influences on modern classical guitar, but history, for bettor or worse, had other things in mind.

It was also during this period in London that Maccaferri began to work out some new ideas about guitars and build prototypes, some of which would eventually become legends in guitardom, and mark a portentious change of direction for the still young Maccaferri.

A free-standing guitar

One of Maccaferri’s novel ideas was not exactly new, but curious enough to relate. Maccaferri is reported to have once told Andres Segovia that he found playing classical guitar rather undignified and that a classical guitarist looks “like a monkey scratching his belly,” an amusingly accurate observation! It was Mario’s idea that a guitarist ought to be able to stand up in front of an orchestra as a soloist. To that end, in 1931 he invented a free-standing guitar. Resting on a stand, the guitarist was free to play standing up. In the interest of increased sound, this instrument was a resonator guitar. It had a floating membrane soundboard mounted on an L-shaped body which ended in a bunch of different-sized resonator tubes. Whether or not this guitar ever made it to performance is unknown, but it does seem to be a long way around to a guitar strap!

Curiously enough, the guitarist Dionisio Aguado had invented a stand to hold a guitar almost a century earlier, though without the resonators.

Another of Mario’s experiments included a harp-guitar with seven strings on the fingerboard and an additional five unfretted bass strings. However, Maccaferri will be most remembered for his work with six-string guitars during this period of his life.

The sound chamber

Clearly, Mario – like almost every other progressive luthier at the time – was thinking hard about increasing the sound volume of the guitar. This experimentation led to the development for which Maccaferri’s wooden guitars are best known: the internal sound chamber.

Basically, Mario’s idea was to isolate the vibrating back of the guitar’s sound chamber from the damping effects of the “monkey’s belly,” as the guitarist clutched the instrument to the abdomen. To address this, Maccaferri built a separate free-floating sound chamber inside the guitar body, which attached to the sides at only four points. A reflector plate was mounted diagonally above the soundhole to project the resulting sound outward.

Selmer & Cie

Through his contacts in London’s music world Maccaferri was introduced to Ben Davis, the director of the London office of Selmer & Cie. Selmer, at the time, was primarily a maker of wind instruments built in France. It was through this connection that, in 1931, Selmer asked the “Professor” to design a line of guitars for it, which Maccaferri proceeded to do.

Basically, Selmer gave Maccaferri carte blanche to do what was necessary to set up a guitar operation, which he did in a remarkably short period of time.

Maccaferri’s official relationship with Selmer was actually relatively brief, lasting approximately from 1931 to 1933. During that time, Maccaferri exhibited his genius as an equipment designer, personally designing and building the jigs, fixtures and machines needed to produce his guitar designs at the Selmer facility in Mante La Ville, a Parisian suburb. Maccaferri then proceded to build the first prototypes. Once the specifications for the guitar line were established, Mario hired Italian craftsmen to build his Selmer guitars.

New ideas

The guitars Maccaferri designed for Selmer were based on the designs he’d worked on in London and included the internal sound chamber and several other innovations. Among these new ideas were the first sealed, lubricated, self-contained tuning gears, a concept which is now commonplace on almost all new guitars, and the first production single-cutaway guitar.

The cutaway on these guitars was a dramatic right-angle rounded cut on the treble side. Other distinctive features included slotted headstocks, a neck joining the body at the 12th fret, and the large “D”-shaped soundhole with wide marquetry rosettes. Maccaferri’s unique internal sound chamber was available only as an option. Fingerboards were dot-inlaid and featured zero frets. Fingerboards had a small extension over the soundhole to give the treble string a two-octave range. Almost all of these had multiple-bound solid spruce tops with rosewood laminate bodies, with only a few, including at least one harp-guitar, having solid mahogany bodies. Some time after Maccaferri left off his association with Selmer a number of these guitars were also built with birdseye maple bodies.

The first production Selmer/Maccaferri guitars appeared in 1932. In 1933, once production was self-sufficient, Maccaferri left the Selmer operation and returned to his concert career, a move that had been mutually agreed upon by both parties, although, as we shall see, another event intervened to hasten the departure.

The Selmer/Maccaferri guitars

Basically, there were five different Selmer/Maccaferri guitar models, which Selmer touted in its catalog as being by Mario Maccaferri, a man who, said the copy, displayed “astonishing adaptability, both as a performer and designer of guitars.” The Selmer/Maccaferri guitar line consisted of the Modèle Espagnol, Modèle Concert, Modèle Orchestre, Modèle Jazz, Modèle Hawaienne, and a hybrid tenor called the Guitare Eddie Freeman.

The Espagnol or Spanish model was a small-bodied gut-string flattop with a classical-style bridge and a round soundhole. Notable about this design was a split two-piece saddle which offered improved intonation between treble and bass strings.

The Concert had a bigger body more often associated with Maccaferri and Gypsy jazz guitar legend Django Reinhardt (more on that subject soon). This had an arched top and a “D” soundhole. It too had a classical-style glued-on bridge (split saddles) and was intended for gut strings. A single cutaway was optional.

The Orchestre was a Maccaferri-bodied steel string guitar which came with either a round or a D soundhole, with or without a cutaway. This model name was often applied to custom made instruments. This guitar had a floating bridge which made contact with the top all along the bottom, and a special tailpiece (which would come to signify later Maccaferri guitars).

The Jazz was another Maccaferri body with a cutaway designed for steel strings. It had the typical D soundhole and a floating bridge centered between two “mustaches.” This guitar proved to be Selmer/Maccaferri’s most popular model.

The Hawaienne was basically the Jazz outfitted with a bigger neck and raised nut for steel playing. This was typically non-cutaway. A seven-string version was optional.

The Eddie Freeman guitar – ironically the most numerous of Selmers from the strictly defined Maccaferri period – was a four-string tenor built for an English jazzman by that name. Freeman, who played a lot of rhythm guitar in jazz big bands, got tired of playing endless four-voice chords on a six string, and therefore specified the tenor format. Actually, this was designed for a re-entrant tuning (fourth string high like a treble string), not the usual upper four strings as on most tenors. This was intended to give the guitar more cut-through in the rhythm section. Most of these were sold to the London distributor who started the Maccaferri ball rolling. The Freeman never did catch on, and many of these were later converted to six-string guitars, with widened necks and fingerboards.

Rare birds

Production of the Selmer/Maccaferris began in 1932 and lasted until 1934, by which time some 300 genuine Maccaferri guitars had been built, nearly 100 of them Eddie Freeman models. These guitars all had headstock logos including both the Selmer and Maccaferri names and bore labels reading “Fabriqué en France sous la direction technique de M. Maccaferri, Selmer & Cie, Paris.” The majority of these 300 Maccaferris were archtopped steel stringed guitars, rather than the classicals which were his true love.

A word on the internal sound chamber. This was, as mentioned, an option, but a good number of guitars were equipped with them. Those who have played good examples of these guitars report that they were clear, crisp, well balanced and loud. They were also not significantly superior to guitars without them. In addition, the sound chambers frequently came loose from the minimal anchorages to the body, and began to rattle and buzz, causing many owners to have them removed.


For better or worse, Maccaferri’s relationship with Selmer ended in a dispute regarding their contractual agreement. Reasons for the disagreement reflect Mario Maccaferri’s tempermental personality and his strong sense of moral rectitude. There are, by the way, a number of speculative accounts of this story in print, but this is the version related by Mario himself, as told by his wife Maria.

One evening at Maccaferri’s apartment in 1933, shortly after the intense activity of setting up the Selmer guitar factory was through, Mario decided to read the contract he’d signed, like most folks, without reading the fine print. There in the little type at the bottom was a zinger. According to the contract, Selmer could terminate Mario without cause or notice. This was a moral offense not to be brooked.

The following day Maccaferri went in to see Henri Selmer and confronted him with the termination clause. As Mario used to relate the event, he pointed to the clause and told Selmer “You won’t have to do that, because I’m leaving now.”

With a look of apprehension in his eyes, Mr. Selmer put his hand on Mario’s shoulder and asked, “What are you going to do now?” Beneath this ominous question was the fear that Maccaferri was going to set up a competing guitar manufacturing operation.

Asked Selmer with some trepidation: “Are you going to make guitars?”

Mario thought for a moment. Then he looked Selmer in the eye and replied: “No, I’m going to make reeds, because I have a new idea about that, too!”

And that’s just was Mario set about to do.

In the meantime, Maccaferri resumed his concertizing.

As a sign that the parting was not totally hostile, however, Maccaferri’s name continued to grace Selmer guitars for several years after going their separate ways. Maccaferri’s reputation as a guitarist certainly carried marketing weight.

Selmer guitars continued to carry the Maccaferri association until 1935 when a Frenchman was brought in to manage the Selmer operation. As part of putting his stamp on Selmer, he had Maccaferri’s name removed from the headstock engraving and had the name inked out on the printed label inside. This was done by Selmer, not Maccaferri himself, as has sometimes been reported. Another change in post-Maccaferri design was from Mario’s flat-bottomed floating bridge to a version with two feet and an open center.

The oval soundhole

In 1936 an anonymous Italian designer in the Selmer Paris factory made major alterations to the popular Jazz design. These changes included a redesign of the bracing to a simpler pattern, an extension of the neck to include a 14th fret joint, and the use of a smaller oval soundhole to replace Maccaferri’s signature D. Maccaferri himself always believed this latter change was done to accommodate a new optional electric pickup which Selmer had developed and wished to market. The pickup would not fit on the D soundhole. Many examples of the post-’36 Jazz have holes drilled around the soundhole suggesting that they once sported these pickups. Maccaferri’s internal sound chamber was discontinued as an option at this time, although in truth, very few of these were actually ever ordered.

Production of Selmer guitars continued more or less until the company’s closure in 1952 (minus the World War II years, of course). According to factory logs, only between 996 and 998 guitars were ever produced in toto. Some of these later guitars also carried the Django Reinhardt endorsement.

Django Reinhardt

Which brings us to the subject of Django Reinhardt. According to modern guitar legend, Mario Maccaferri was “Django’s guitar designer.” In fact, this is only tangentially the case. Maccaferri actually never met Django, and, indeed, as a classical guitarist, was not familiar with the great jazzman’s music. Selmer guitars, with their excellent construction and sound, however, were Django’s main choice of guitar during the ’30s, and his first one happened to be a D-hole Maccaferri, sans sound chamber, by the way. When the Jazz model was redesigned in 1936, Django changed to this new guitar and owned four for the rest of his career, including one which he considered his main axe. Thus, it is stretching the point to argue too strong a connection between Mario and Django.

As mentioned, upon leaving the company of Selmer in 1933, Mario Maccaferri resumed his successful concert career, venturing upon a tour that took him to Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Brussels, Antwerp, London and Paris.

It was after this final tour as the classical Professor that Maccaferri in Paris and his life took a dramatic, unexpected turn.

The movies and the accident

Back in Paris, in what would prove to be a history-changing event, Mario Maccaferri was offered a bit part in a movie, “La Fille du Lak,” starring Simone Simone. Mario’s role involved playing guitar in a canoe scene. Filming was done in July and it was hot. The cast took a break and went swimming at a local swimming pool. While underwater, the “break” turned into a real one. Mario collided with one of the other swimmers and fractured his right hand, so vital to classical technique.

Alas, the break never healed properly, and essentially, Maccaferri’s career as a concert classical guitarist (and movie star) was ended.

Fortunately for Maccaferri and the world, the guitarist and luthier had plenty other cards up his sleeve which would inform the direction of the remainder of his career.

The Unknown Guitarist

Maccaferri’s unfortunate hand accident didn’t actually end his performing days, just his public classical playing. The hand injury meant that he couldn’t play his classical repertoire up to the standards to which he was accustomed. Mario did, however, continue to play popular music gigs in Parisian cafes. But, because he felt his playing was not up to his former glory, Maccaferri performed wearing a mask and billed himself as “The Unknown Guitarist.”

Maccaferri had not neglected his pledge about making reeds, however.
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A wife and business partner

It was during this period of the late ’30s in Paris that Mario met his future wife Maria Maccaferri. Maria had been born in Foggio, Italy, in 1920 and as a young girl had moved to Paris, where she was raised and went to school. Mario and Maria met in Paris, fell in love, and were married in 1937, when Maria was 16 years old. Maria would stay with Mario throughout the rest of his life, contributing to his success in a dual role as the proverbial devoted wife and as a shrewd partner who helped run the hands-on day-to-day operations of the Maccaferri businesses. At the time of this writing, Maria Maccaferri continues to operate the French American Reeds Company, which the two of them established while in Paris.

French American Reeds

During his brief association with Selmer, Maccaferri had had the opportunity to observe the reed manufacturing process, which involved cutting the raw cane with metal cutters. He also had observed many a wind instrument player struggling with warped reeds. Maccaferri had a better idea about how to improve both these circumstances.

Maccaferri got the idea that he could cut reeds using diamonds instead of metal and cut them in such a way as to counteract warping. He was acquainted with a jeweller named Pierre Rosier whom he consulted regarding making the diamond cutters. He then designed and built a clever machine which cut and trimmed the reed blanks using two simple hand motions. The result was the warp-resistant Isovibrant reed, a superior design for which he received a patent.

In 1939, Mario and Maria Maccaferri set up the French American Reeds Manufacturing Company in Paris, began competing with Selmer in Europe, and exporting reeds to the U.S. (where they were distributed by Broadus). While Mario handled design and marketing, his young wife Maria took over managing production and the business side of things.


Maccaferri’s reed success soon caught the attention of the American outfit Gratz and Company, which approached him about becoming a partner. To that end Gratz brought the Maccaferris to New York. It was 1939, time of the New York World’s Fair.

Maria Maccaferri remembers this introduction to New York vividly. The representative of Gratz installed the Maccaferris, with their new baby daughter, in a seedy hotel on Third Avenue. The first night, the baby was disturbed, and when Maria turned on the light, she saw bugs in bed with her young daughter. She proceded to close up their luggage and took her baby out into the hallway where they spent the night in a chair. The next day they relocated to a decent hotel.

The bed bugs were an inauspicious sign. The Gratz offer, as it turned out was a 51-49% deal. Maccaferri, who’d quit Selmer just because of an unexercised contract clause, asked if they thought he was stupid. It was his machinery and his reeds. The deal was off.

But Maccaferri did get to see the New York World’s Fair, and that got him interested in a new material: plastic. Indeed, he quickly became convinced that this miracle substance would be the future of America. He was, of course, prophetically correct. It was this experience that inspired him to develop a cane reed impregnated with plastic, further stabilizing the device. Plastic would soon play a huge role in Mario Maccaferri’s life.

However, world events were soon intervene, offering yet another opportunity for Maccaferri to demonstrate his “adaptability.”


In 1939, Europe was staring down the barrel of world conflagration in the face of the Nazi Blitzkrieg. In particular, the bead had been taken on France, but a political agreement created a brief sense of false security. Leaving his wife and daughter in the safety of America, Maccaferri took advantage of the lull and returned to Paris to check on the reed business. Fearing what might be coming, Maccaferri packed up two reed-cutting and two shaping machines and shipped them off to New York.

That’s when a call from an old friend in the Foreign Office came, advising him that the truce was off and to leave post haste. The Germans were about to take Paris. Departure might already be impossible. Maccaferri beat it to the docks only to find the harbor blockaded by German warships and the last ship allowed to leave, the Ile de France, loading passengers, with no more tickets available.

The story of Maccaferri’s escape from France has been often related, but here is a direct account by Maccaferri relayed to Michael Dresdner in a 1982 story.

“I went down to the French Line, which was in the same building as the Embassies, and saw a line of people circling more than two blocks. ‘What am I going to do,’ I thought? At that time, I was wearing glasses – I didn’t need them, but I thought they looked good – and sported a small mustache, a dark suit and a Homburg (hat). I knew I had to get in there, so I went to a place where they rented limos, hired one, and gave the chauffeur a $20 tip in advance. I told him, ‘Take me to the French Line. Drive right up to the entrance, get out of the car, open the door for me and salute me.’ When I got out carrying my briefcase, the two guards rushed over and saluted me, and I walked right inside.

“The room was empty, just columns and a skylight, and I thought: ‘What the hell am I going to do now?’ So I stood by one of the columns as if I were waiting for someone and watched as one man passed by a few times, going from one office to another. So I called him over. I had $10,000 in my pocket. I said to him, ‘I’ll give you ten thousand dollars if you get me on that god-damned boat. I’m going to stay right here, so make up your mind.’

“Anyhow, I got on the boat. When I got here (to New York), the Customs agent asked me if I had any money. I told him, ‘Yes, I have three dollars in my pocket.’ He said, ‘What do you think you are going to do with only three dollars?’ I said, ‘I’m going to see my wife and baby, and then I’ll think about it.'”

Back in New York, of course, Maria Maccaferri was worried to death about her husband’s safety. She was, of course, totally unaware of Mario’s adventure in progress. However, once the Ile de France reached American-controlled waters and radio silence could be broken, Mario sent Maria a telegram announcing simply: “I’ll be home tomorrow.” You can imagine her excitement! She grabbed the baby, squeezing her and dancing around their apartment for joy.

The Bronx

Maccaferri’s first thought upon returning to America was to visit a friend who made French Horns. In typical fashion, Mario observed the manufacturing process and devised some ways to improve the quality of the products while decreasing the cost of production. Maccaferri stayed with his friend’s business for a few months, whereupon he struck out on his own again. Taking the reed machines he’d had the foresight to send ahead of him from France, space was rented in the Roseland Building on 50th Street in the Bronx and the French American Reeds Manufacturing Company resumed making reeds. As before, Mario served as the idea and marketing person, while Maria supervised production and ran the business.

Maria Maccaferri is often asked what it was like being both Mario’s wife and business partner. Her answer is simple: “When we were at home, I was his wife; when we were at the office, he was ‘the boss.’ “

Benny Goodman et al

Initially, Maccaferri’s reed manufacturing company continued making the improved reed design Maccaferri had developed in France.

Following what emerges as a life-long gift of being at the right places at the right times (combined with his own creative genius), Maccaferri took some examples of his reeds to a Benny Goodman performance in Manhattan. Backstage, Mario got to meet Goodman and gave him the reeds. Goodman found them great and visited Mario at his shop the next day, eventually becoming a good friend.

Soon all the top musicians were beating a path to Maccaferri’s door, calling Mario “Dr. Maccaferri,” because he always wore a white lab coat at work, and bringing him their instruments to fix. By around 1940, Maccaferri’s reeds – known as “My Masterpiece” – were endorsed by both the famous and now forgotten stars of the day, including Goodman and his sax players (Bus Bassey, Buff Estes, Toots Mondelo, Jerry Jerome), Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Miller and Irv Fazola of Bob Crosby’s Band, Sal Franzella, Jr., Spud Murphy, Edmund C. Wall, Arthur Rollini, Bernie Donacio, Les Robinson and Gene Krupa’s sax players (Sam Musiker, Clint Newbury, Bob Snyder, Sam Donahue). Throughout Maccaferri’s entire involvement with instrument-making, all professional endorsements were given free-of-charge, never with a payment.

Indeed, the war presented a great opportunity. European manufacturers were unable to make reeds, leaving Maccaferri almost in sole control of the field. He received the contract to supply reeds to the American Armed Forces bands.

To help meet the demand, Maccaferri needed more machines, but couldn’t obtain new parts because of the war effort. Following his innovative inventor’s heart, Mario managed to build more machines by adapting other available machinery to serve his needs. These machines are still in use to this day.


During World War II, the supply of canes used for making the reeds, largely grown in France, evaporated. Maccaferri, employing his legendary “adaptability,” came up with a solution using the newly emerging material which had already caught his attention: plastic.

In around 1944, Maccaferri’s military contract allowed him to obtain injection molding equipment at a time when most other companies were required to convert operations to producing war items. Maria Maccaferri recalls that the equipment was so big that it wouldn’t fit in the elevator at their building, so the street was blocked, a crane brought in and a window removed so the machinery could be moved into the building. Plastic for the new machinery was provided by Dow and Monsanto.

Working with his new injection molding equipment, Maccaferri figured out how to replicate the cane reed using plastic. Initially the music industry scoffed at the idea that one could manufacture acceptable reeds from plastic, but, of course, the joke was on the nay-sayers. Indeed, Mario’s good friend Benny Goodman quickly became a fan of the plastic reeds and began using them, spearheading their rapid acceptance by many Big Band stars.

Maccaferri’s wartime success put him in a strong position for becoming the dominant provider of reeds in the post-war era. Following the war, Maccaferri attempted to obtain French cane again, but, to his dismay, found that he had been wrongly named as a German collaborator, unwelcome in France. It took some time to clear up this misunderstanding, but eventually Maccaferri’s name was cleared and he set up a French arm of his operation.


As successful as Maccaferri’s reeds were, though, it was a much more prosaic product which would come from Maccaferri’s new-found expertise in plastics and make his fortune: clothespins.

The story of the plastic clothespin is classic Maccaferri. As Maria recalls the tale, the Maccaferri family used to take a holiday in the country during the summer. In the summer of 1944, upon arriving at their vacation home, she noticed that there were not enough clothespins, so she asked Mario to go into the village to buy some more clothespins. When Mario asked the shopkeeper about clothespins, he was told that there were no clothespins to be had. It was wartime. Well, here was another dilemma to be solved. As usual, Mario had an idea.

When Mario returned home, he told Maria that he was going back to the plant and would be back soon. At the factory, Maccaferri took a sheet of lucite plastic and cut out six plastic clothespins of the solid, two-legged variety. He returned and presented them to Maria, who proceeded to use them to hang out a silk slip. Unfortunately, the gripping ridges put a hole in the slip. Mario went back the next day and corrected the problem, and the plastic clothespin was born.

Maccaferri began to market his novel device and was wildly successful. Because of the war, it was virtually impossible to obtain any consumer goods, and the public was eager to buy anything, including plastic clothespins. Eventually, millions of these would be made each day. In fact, they could not even find the time to package them. Some New York retail outlets would drive to the factory each day with their own steel drums and have them filled with plastic clothespins.

As a result of the success of the plastic clothespins, in 1944 or ’45, the Maccaferris spun off a subsidiary of the French American Reeds Manufacturing Company called the Mastro Plastics Corporation. This was the manufacturing entity which produced all of Maccaferri’s plastic creations. Throughout the ’50s French American Reeds was generally identified as the parent company of Maccaferri instruments, however, by the ’60s instrument manufacturing was identified as being part of Mastro Industries, Inc.

From clothespins to wall tiles

The humble two-foot clothespin eventually led to hinged clothespins, plastic spring clamps and a vast plastics empire which would make everything from tape dispensers to clothes hangers, acoustical ceiling tile and even a motorized fishing lure!

In any case, once World War II was over, consumer goods again became available, and the plastic clothespin business dropped off. That was fine, because Mario Maccaferri was turning his attention to his next project: plastic tiles.

One day a mold was brought in for making plastic wall tiles, but it didn’t work, and the tiles didn’t even have bevels on the edges. Mario came up with an improved design, which led to the production of millions of those plastic kitchen and bath tiles that decorated the post-war suburban building boom.

While ultimately the seeds of Mario Maccaferri’s successes lay in his native genius and unrestrained impulse to invent, the specific roots of Maccaferri’s plastics empire came from music, the reed solution. So it’s not surprising – and completely fitting – that, in true Hegelian fashion, Maccaferri’s career should synthesize clothespins with musical instruments.

The plastic uke

Maccaferri’s first foray into complete plastic instruments began with an unlikely candidate, the plastic ukulele, which would become yet another business triumph, inexorably tied to the name Arthur Godfrey. A number of accounts of this part of the Maccaferri saga have been published, but this is the official version. Contrary to what some have reported, the plastic uke was entirely Maccaferri’s idea, and not suggested by Arthur Godfrey.

Mario got the idea for a plastic uke during the late 1940s. However, he had one big problem: insufficient capital to start his project. Through his connections with music distributors, Maccaferri knew Charlie Sonfield, whom he’d met at C. Bruno. Sonfield had become an executive at RCA. Maccaferri approached Sonfield with his idea and asked for a $5,000 loan. But, added Maccaferri in an important caveat, he couldn’t guarantee that the plastic uke idea would fly, or that he could repay the loan. Sonfield gave Maccaferri the money. In return, Mario promised Sonfield the profits from the first 100 cases shipped each week. Sonfield would eventually make a pile of money on his investment!

Mario Maccaferri invented the Islander plastic ukulele, patterning it after Martin’s style O uke, in 1949.

Arthur Godfrey

Enter Arthur Godfrey.

The carrot-topped, befreckled Godfrey, you’ll recall, had built an enormously successful career as a network radio entertainer and had just embarked on an equally impressive achievement as a trailblazing television show host. Indeed, Godfrey has the unique distinction of simultaneously having had two of the top-rated shows during network TV’s early years. “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” debuted on CBS in December of 1948, followed in January of ’49 by “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends.” Among the talents introduced to American audiences through Godfrey’s programs were names such as the Chordettes, Julius LaRosa, Pat Boone, the McGuire Sisters, Steve Lawrence, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Connie Francis, Al Martino, Leslie Uggams, the Diamonds, Roy Clark and Pasty Cline (Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly didn’t make it through auditions!). These programs rode high in the ratings through the early ’50s.

Godfrey’s shows, as were all TV shows in those early days, were directly linked to their sponsor, Lipton Tea, and Godfrey would always appear sipping his tea and plugging its pleasures between acts. Typical of Godfrey’s down-home style was a refusal to promote any product he didn’t believe in. A part of Godfrey’s act was displaying a self-deprecating sense of humor and performing mostly comedy songs on a ukulele. Indeed, from April through June of 1950, Godfrey even had a CBS network show teaching how to play the ukulele!


The plastic uke was, again, right for the times. The uke was riding a crest of popularity mainly due to its associations with Hawaiian music, which had an amazing run of sustained popularity stretching from the ‘Teens through the early ’50s, a remarkable run of popularity rivalled perhaps only by rock and roll in this century. Godfrey’s championing of the uke gave it new life, and it was a major money maker for music stores beginning to salivate at the massive numbers of children that were making up the now fabled post-war Baby Boom. Indeed, as one of those earliest Boomers, I recall the Arthur Godfrey TV show and my first instrument in about 1951 or ’52 was a little blue University of Michigan ukulele, which I quickly mastered, leading to decades of subsequent demented guitaromania.

Anyhow, by one means or another Godfrey got ahold of one of Maccaferri’s early plastic ukes and gave it a plug on his TV show. To paraphrase, he said: “Hey, there’s this guy named ‘Maca-something’ [mispronounced the name] in the Bronx who’s making these plastic ukuleles and they’re very good. In fact, you even get a nickel back because they only cost $5.95.”

The following day, the Maccaferris were swamped with phone calls from people wanting Islander Ukes, so many that in exasperation Mario refused to allow the phone to be answered any more.

9 million ukes

Maccaferri uke production had begun in 1949 and by the end of the run in 1969 tallied more than 9 million plastic ukulele sales.

Awhile later, Mario got a phone call from Arthur Godfrey himself requesting a couple dozen plastic ukes for a party he was throwing at Miami’s Kennilworth Hotel. Godfrey wished each guest to have a plastic uke. Maccaferri got on a plane and flew the ukes down personally. This was the first time he and Godfrey actually met

Dow Styron

There are a number of fascinating aspects to these little gizmos. For one thing, they represent early experiments in complex injection molding and use of Dow Chemical Company’s new miracle plastic, Styron. Styron was both sturdy and resilient. It could be molded in almost any shape desired, and was capable of being endlessly colored. Maccaferri applied for and eventually received at least six patents on the manufacture of these instruments which by 1954 gave him complete patent protection for plastic ukes. As you might expect, such a successful product was quickly imitated by companies such as Eminee, but once Maccaferri held the patents, all other plastic ukes were supposed to be licensed.

For another thing, Maccaferri’s plastic ukes sounded and played pretty darned good for a $5.95 instrument. Curiously enough, the molding process allowed intonation to be consistently correct. The ukes’ top was an ivory color, while the body could be colored, including with a more or less woodgrain effect.

The Islander line

By November of 1951 the Maccaferri Islander uke line included three instruments, “For Happy Moments!” the original Islander, “the UKE Arthur Godfrey made famous,” at $5.95, the Islander Deluxe at $7.95, and the Sparkle Plenty Islander Ukette at $2.98. The Islander was a standard uke which came packaged with a book by Jack O’Brian, Godfrey the Great: The Life Story of Arthur Godfrey, an instruction and song book by May Singhi Breen, an all-weather polythene bag, felt pick and key adjuster. Islander Deluxe had a slightly larger body, a fingerboard that extended an extra three frets on the treble side, “metalized frets,” and special patented tuning pegs. It, too, came with the books. The Ukette was a small-scale (!) uke for small children and came with an instruction book with songs for children. The Sparkle Plenty moniker, by the way, was another curious example of marketing pizazz. Sparkle Plenty was a comic strip character whose name was licensed from the Chicago Tribune.

In addition to the three ukes, there was also the Islander Visual Chordmaster that could be had for a buck. This was an attachment secured to the fingerboard by rubber bands which featured little buttons with chord names. Press a button and the strings were automatically stopped down, turning the uke into sort of an autoharp.

By April of 1952, improvements in production efficiency (and no doubt competition from knock-offs), allowed Maccaferri to slash the price of the Islander from $5.95 to $3.95, without cutting dealer margins. As reported in The Music Trades, “all Islander Ukuleles are still hand finished by master craftsmen.”

Godfrey and the lawyers

One final word about the Arthur Godfrey connection. The Islander Deluxe was originally intended to be the Arthur Godfrey model. However, just before the idea was to be presented to Godfrey, on the air Arthur trashed a uke being sold by a big retail chain. He was eventually sued by the retailer and lost over the incident. The Maccaferris’ lawyer recommended that the potential liability from Godfrey’s freewheeling opinions was too great a risk to take, and the uke became simply the Islander Deluxe.

Over the years Maccaferri desired to repay Godfrey for the incredible boost to business the entertainer’s endorsement inspired, but he refused to take any recompense. Once Mario even rolled up a bunch of $100 bills and put them into an expensive cigarette case and sent them to Arthur, but Godfrey sent the gift back.

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