1950's SELMER - MACCAFERRI
Mario Maccaferri (1900 - 1993) was a renowned classical guitarist and luthier when he designed the first "gypsy jazz guitar" for the Selmer Co. of France in 1932. He is seen here holding one of the original Selmer models. By late 1933, Maccaferri had already parted ways with Selmer, which continued to produce a modified version of his original design. His guitar design was subsequently made famous when they were chosen as the preferred instrument of the legendary Manouche Gypsy guitarist, Django Reinhardt. After leaving Selmer, Maccaferri went into the business of manufacturing reeds for woodwind instruments. He immigrated to the United States at the outbreak of WWII and set up shop in New York. Wartime shortages of reed material forced him to come up with an alternative, and thus he developed the first viable plastic reed. Benny Goodman endorsed his product and soon Maccaferri was in the plastic business bigtime! He invented the plastic clothespin (still in use today) and marketed a very successful line of plastic ukeleles (endorsed by Arthur Godfrey). He made his first plastic guitars in the early 50's and continued to produce them, in both archtop and flat top models until 1965. They never caught on with professionals - who wants to play a plastic guitar on stage? Later models were cheaper and had plastic frets and were geared toward the teenage market. At the time of his death, Maccaferri was working to develop a line of plastic violins.
The plastic guitar
Like the plastic clothespin before it, however, the plastic ukulele was merely a stepping stone to Maccaferri’s higher ambition of making a plastic guitar. Let’s face it, ukes hardly represent a great sonic challenge, but making a guitar out of Dow Styron? That’s something else altogether!
The Maccaferri plastic guitar debuted in the Spring of 1953. The introduction was extensively covered by The Music Trades in May of ’53, which reported a press luncheon thrown by Dow Chemical for Mario Maccaferri at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York on April 29, 1953.
Described in glowing terms — lunch must have been great — Maccaferri introduced two guitars and emphasized the resources and cost of developing his new guitars. Indeed, Amos Ruddock of Dow’s plastic merchandising department indicated that the project took two years of testing various formulations of Styron and another Dow plastic called Ethocel and that tooling up cost around $350,000.
The Music Trades quoted Maccaferri’s speech at length. While referring to a painting of legendary violinmaker Antonio Stradivarius working at his bench with a few simple tools, Maccaferri remarked, “A like painting symbolizing such craftsmanship today would have to suggest the following elements: 1. Some idea of the enormous industrial resources and scientific know-how of America today; 2. Not one genius, but a dozen of them; 3. The pile of money necessary to accomplish the task.”
After citing famous musicians and composers, particularly Paganini, who played the guitar for their own personal enjoyment and wrote music for it, Maccaferri continued, “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.
“Often in my lifetime of playing guitar, I have had disappointments in its performance. On many occasions I would find the instrument’s neck warped or the fretting defective, or the body of the instrument expanded or contracted, caused by humidity or dryness; thus making my guitar simply unplayable. Anyone playing the guitar knows what I mean.
“Although today’s fine wooden guitars are the result of 300 years of guitar making experience, I do not hesitate to say that our 1953 all-plastic guitar compares favorably with any wooden guitar made.
“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, but the Dow Chemical Company came up with suitable materials and we overcame the other problems. To this instrument we have applied all the improvements that guitar players have been seeking in it for many years. It has beauty and it is easier to play — it produces music in perfect pitch, and it has good tone and plenty of it. And this all-plastic guitar is not subject to any of the shortcomings mentioned earlier.”