Perfect day in Paris with a Maccaferri Islander guitar
This month I'm pretty pleased with the guitar and the music. The guitar is one of those oddities of the 50's: A Plastic Guitar!!! And the music is a song I wrote with the guitar in mind that describes some of my favorite sites to visit in Paris. Looming over it all is that dapper classical guitarist in the image above, Mr. Mario Maccaferri. Let's start with him...
There are several nice articles on various blogs about Mario Maccaferri. For now, I'll be paraphrasing from this site, http://www.lutherie.net/mario_en.html.
Mario was born in Cento, Italy at the start of the last century, in the year 1900 (the year my great grandmother was born). Mario was apprenticed to a Luthier/concert guitarist at the age of 11, studying both guitar building and playing with a passion until the age of 16, when he entered conservatory for 10 years of guitar study. Leaving the conservatory, he developed into a successful musician of some reknown. By the end of the 1920's, he had settled in London, continuing to tour all over Europe while teaching guitar in London.
Mario couldn't shake the luthier bug, and In 1930 he presented the design of the guitar you see him pictured with above to the Selmer musical instrument company's representatives in London. The London people were impressed and introduced Mario to Henri Selmer himself. The rest is history, as they say. Mario was put in charge of a production facility outside Paris, and over a period of less than two years supervised the making of the legendary Selmer-Maccaferri guitars. Why are these guitars legendary? Because they are the guitars that were played by Django Rhinehart and his brother in the Hot Club of Paris!! These are the types of guitars still favored for the style of music known as gypsy jazz.
Apparently, Mario had a falling out with the Selmer company, and in 1933 he left Selmer and set out to resume concertizing. Unfortunately, he suffered a freak accident while swimming that damaged his right hand bringing his concert career to an abrupt halt. While at Selmer, he apparently had picked up a working knowledge of how to make the cane reeds used in the various woodwind instruments, and in 1935 he filed a patent for his own technique of shaping them, and launched the French-American Reed Manufacturing company. In 1938 he opended a branch of the company in New York, and moved there himself in 1939, fleeing the war in France.
Now we get to the part where plastics enter the picture...for this part of the story I'll be lifting material from this blog: http://uniqueguitar.blogspot.com/2009/11/maccaferri-plastic-guitars.html
As one might imagine, fancy French cane material was in short supply during the war. So how do you keep a Reed Manufacturing operation going when you don't have any reed material? Simple! You invent a way of making the reeds out of injection molded plastic! These were a minor success, but most players still preferred actual cane reeds, and as the war waned, so did demand for plastic reeds. What does our inventive guitarist with a bunch of injection molding equipment do to pick up the slack? He invents the plastic clothespin!!!! He continues to make reeds, but his household items are what put money in the bank. Eventually his clothespin success puts enough money in the bank that he gambles on getting back into his real love, making guitars! I think he started out with Ukuleles. And he had great success with these by teaming up with Arthur Godfrey, who played and endorsed them on his television and radio shows. He literally sold millions of them. Feeling cocky, I guess, he decided to make serious guitars out of plastic, and that brings us to the Islander that I play this month. There is more to Mario's story, but I trust that if I've wetted your appetite you can run Google as well as I can. So now I will talk specifically about
The Islander guitar is a variant of the more serious plastic guitars that Maccaferri produced in the 1950's. I suspect he was trying to tap into his own lucrative Ukulele market by naming it Islander.
It is a small guitar. I would say a 3/4 size, since it has a scale length shorter than my parlor guitar. And I denfinitely get a Ukulele vibe playing it.
These guitars had a number of inovations. They featured bolt on adjustable necks. They had precision geared tuners. The fancy ones had a single screw, accessible on the top of the guitar, for adjusting the string action by levering the angle of the neck (taking advantage of the flex in the plastic). They had wood bracing glued onto the injection molded plastic ribs and were designed to distribute the load so the structural plastic elements remained in compression. And, oh yeah, THEY WERE MADE OUT OF PLASTIC. Apparently, Mario worked with Dow for two years to get the right polystyrene blend.
Lots of folks have dug these guitars over the years, and the fanciest model, the G40, has become a pretty hot item on ebay lately. Jeff Beck has one that he apparently got from Jimmy Page, who I get the feeling must share my Jones for odd duck guitars, since every weird guitar I own has some Jimmy Page story associated with it. Anyway, I was watching for a G40 on Ebay when I saw this Islander pop up with a buy it now price that was in my range of... Oh hell why not? I've been wanting a travel guitar, and I thought this might fit the bill. I mean it is WAY cooler than any travel guitar you can buy at guitar's R us. Of course, now that I have it I see that it is a 60 year old plastic guitar, a collector's item, and FRAGILE, so I would be an idiot to throw it in an overhead bin. But it would make a really cool travel guitar and somebody ought to see if they can resurrect the molds and start cranking these boys out again... The guitar has an utterly unique sound. It intonates very well, plays easy, and is quiet and jazzy, but strummy, yummy. Again, an ideal travel companion. Maybe I'll get a gorilla proof case for the thing...
As I've said in a previous blog, Django was my port of entry for jazz and with this song I'm channeling the lilting swing of Hot Club style songcraft. The chording is a mix of straight barre chords and Django style three finger chords. I wrote the music while visiting family in Iowa last month. I have my very first guitar, a 3/4 size mahogany plywood box by "HONDO", stashed at my inlaws. It is missing the high E string, but five strings were enough to let me do this composition. The words were easy for a change, I simply recounted the places Naomi and I visited during our 25th anniversary visit to Paris. If you only have a very limited stay in Paris, this song does really offer you a Perfect day.
The places mentioned are:
Musee de l'orangerie, home of Monet's Water Lilies, a wonder of the world not to be missed
Jardins des Tuileres, the gardens stretch out between the Louvre and L'orangerie and are featured prominently in my favorite French film, Diva
Stroll along the Seine, it's easy and cliche and get over yourself... it's fabulous! and required so that you find a bridge from which to view!
Cafe's by the quai, bistros in this area can be found everywhere and they are delightful for a quick bite and to sit and watch the other tourists
Musee d'Orsay, is just the best museum of fine art in the world...if you like impressionist painting...AND WHO DOESN'T LIKE IMPRESSIONIST PAINTING???? The upper floor with the view out through the clock is one of my favorite spots in all creation. Yep, I know my taste tends here towards a certain burgeois cliche. OH WELL.
Sacre Couer, beautiful church with a nasty history (built as atonement for a slaughter) but great views of the city, I visited here at vespers on my very first visit to Paris and was treated to a choir of nuns singing some ancient hymn. It was ethereal.
Eiffel tower, you can see it from everywhere in the city if you are up high enough, like at Sacre Couer, and it lights up at night and is just gorgeous.