The Bluesbox Collection

1950's Islander Guitar by Mario Maccaferri

This is, with out a doubt, the strangest (and possibly the rarest) guitar in my collection. It was manufactured in the US by Mario Maccaferri (of Selmer gypsy jazz guitar fame) and is made entirely of injection molded plastic! THIS INSTRUMENT IS NOT A TOY! In fact it is a just slightly smaller then usual parlour guitar with a 23 1/2" scale, a very pleasant tone and surprising volume - especially when played with a pick. Here is a closeup of the face, which shows the classic Maccaferri tailpiece. The back is one piece - the injection point is covered by the brown medalion seen here. The neck has a separate plastic fingerboard with brass frets. It is attached to the body by a dovetail joint, just like a "real" guitar!

It is completely original except for the tuning gears, which I installed to replace the non-functioning ones that came on it.

When I received this guitar, one of the tuning gears was stripped, rendering it unplayable. I debated about what to do, because the machine head appeared to be a banjo-type tuner, which was set into the plastic peghead is such a manner as to not be removed without disassembling the head. I finally opted to very carefully cut the glued seam with an Exacto knife and pry the head apart. Inside I found what resembled a clockwork mechanism - a maze of gears cleverly used to step-down the action of the tuning knob and apply it to the peg. It was immediately obvious that this gear system could not be repaired (by me) - the individual gears (3 for each string) were set in a plastic housing and were stamped out of thin aluminum. The eccentric gear for the fourth string (seen attached to the tuning knob in this shot) was stripped clean, and there was evidence that several others were going in the same direction. So after more careful consideration, I decided that this guitar would be more valuable (to me) as a playable instrument, so I decided to remove the originals and replace them with a regular set. I had to hunt high and low to find a set that had shafts long enough to go clear through the overly thick head on this guitar.

To give the new tuners somthing to hold onto, I fashioned a maple plywood insert out of laminated layers of veneer (maple veneer is wonderful stuff for guitar repairs) which filled the inside of the plastic shell, making it solid. While I had the head open, I noted that there is an hollow square aluminum tube running the length of the neck to provide stability - you can look right through it into the body of the guitar.

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.

back to the The Bluesbox Collection