Mario Maccaferri – revolutionary plastic ukulele pioneer

Mario Maccaferri instrument label

Mario Maccaferri, born in Centro, Italy in 1900, trained as a classical guitarist and a traditional instrument luthier from the age of 11, under the guidance of Luigi Mozzani.  He later moved to Paris where he invented the warp-resistant Isovibrant reed in 1935.  In 1939, Mario, his wife Maria, and their daughter visited America and while in New York, they attended the World’s Fair, where Mario was first introduced to a brand new material known as plastic.  He decided to stay in America and set up a small factory in the Bronx, naming his new business the French-American Reed Company.

He became fascinated by plastic, and once he got hold of an injection-moulding plastic machine, Maccaferri realised the full potential of this newfound material.  He was able to create plastic reeds and later, plastic clothespins at a rate of more than two million each day.  This was the birth of his plastic empire: Mastro Plastics Company, in which he went on to create fishing lures, tape dispensers, clothes hangers, acoustic ceiling tiles etc.

In 1949, Maccaferri was inspired after watching Arthur Godfrey’s variety show on the television, which saw Godfrey singing and playing the ukulele.  Maccaferri realised he could create an inexpensive musical instrument out of his new favourite material, plastic.  He experimented with all different types of plastic, in order to come up with a playable instrument, rather than just another cheap toy.  He settled on a plastic called Styron, as he felt it offered the best tone for the ukulele.

Maccaferri’s first plastic ukulele was the Islander, which he modelled on the Martin Style 0.  He was extremely concerned with playability and wanted to ensure the plastic uke still had clear intonation and so he meticulously moulded the frets accurately in the correct positions on the fingerboard and ensured he had the optimum thickness of plastic and bracing for the instrument.

The original Islanders were designed with a cream coloured top and a rosewood coloured back and sides.  It was first introduced to the world at a trade show, where Maccaferri demonstrated just how durable a plastic ukulele was by displaying it in a fish tank.  The Islander became an instant hit, and even today it’s difficult to find a uke that plays in better tune than a Maccaferri.

The Mastro Plastics Company made 10,000 plastic ukuleles a day at their peak and went on to make over nine million.  Once thought of as inferior to the wood models, Mario Maccaferri plastic ukuleles are now finally earning the respect of musicians around the world and he is being recognised for his revolutionary use of an alternative material.  We certainly appreciate what a genius Mario Maccaferri was, pioneering the plastic ukulele.  You only need to pick one up now to heat just how great these vintage classics sound.