National Music Museum Logo   National Music Museum  
Home  Collections
Virtual Tour
Calendar Gift Shop FAQ Site Index Maker Index


Mario Maccaferri's Styron Revolution:
Alternative Materials for Stringed Instruments

by Arian Sheets
Curator of Stringed Instruments

Stringed instrument makers have struggled with wood for millennia. The acoustic qualities and visual beauty of wood has, for the most part, compensated for its sensitivity to climate and relatively high cost. However, as high-quality wood from old-growth forests is depleted and tropical hardwoods such as Brazilian rosewood and pernambuco face extinction and severe use restrictions, these assumptions have increasingly been called into question. Limited access to the finest materials due to high costs or supply problems can force producers to use poor grades of wood, which may result in unreliable instruments. Alternatively, makers can also explore other materials that will allow them to achieve their desired quality levels, increase reliability and affordability, or even to express different aesthetic sensibilities.

Ivory for Stringed Instruments

Stringed instruments made from materials other than wood have often failed due to extreme cost and accessibility. Ivory instruments made during the medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods, for example, were beautiful luxuries, although their acoustic qualities and repair characteristics are often considered inferior to wood.

NMM 3384.  Treble lute by D. G., Venice, ca. 1550
Treble side of lute

NMM 3384. Treble lute marked D. G., northern Italy, ca. 1500. Ex coll.: Lord Waldorf Astor, Cliveden. Witten-Rawlins Collection, 1984.

Lute's endcap

NMM 3435.  Mandolin attributed to Francesco Presbler, Milan, ca. 1680
Treble side of mandolin
Back of mandolin

NMM 3435. Mandolin attributed to Francesco Presbler, Milan, ca. 1680. Ex coll.: Lord Waldorf Astor, Hever Castle, England. Witten-Rawlins Collection, 1984.

Mandolin's endcap

Metal for Stringed Instruments and Accessories

Makers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries experimented with metal for violin bows, but such production was limited and labor-intensive. It was not until the twentieth century that wider availability of raw materials and modern manufacturing techniques resulted in the mass production of non-wood stringed instruments and bows.

Mandolin's endcap

Metal was the first material explored seriously by twentieth century manufacturers. Alcoa produced aluminum double basses in the 1930s from a design by Joseph E. Maddy, founder of the Interlochen School of Music, that according to the text supplied for distributors, “cannot crack, split, or warp, and [are] made to last forever,” and which “will withstand the detrimental effects of unfavorable atmospheric or climatic conditions, as well as the use and abuse to which instruments of this kind are often subjected.”

Left: Advertisement for a Maddy All-Aluminum Bass from Continental Music Company Catalog 1932-1933 (Chicago: Continental Music Co., 1932). Continental Music Archive, NMM.

Extruded steel violin bows were made by the Heddon Company of Dowagiac, Michigan in the 1940s and 1950s using a technology they developed and patented for fishing rods. This production took advantage of temporary market shelter from German and Japanese bow distribution due to the war. [For further information see Arian Sheets, “An American Company's Exploration of Flexible Steel Tubing: From Fishing Poles to Violin Bows,” National Music Museum Newsletter 31, No. 2 (May 2004): 4-5.]

Plastic for Stringed Instruments and Accessories

Plastic, an entirely modern material, gained limited acceptance in the twentieth century, since celluloid was used as a substitute for ivory and tortoise-shell trim on fretted stringed instruments. Mario Maccaferri took plastic a step further, however, and developed methods for constructing whole instruments from Dow Styron (polystyrene).

Maccaferri, born in Cento, Italy, in 1900, studied guitar making under Luigi Mozzani during his youth. In the 1920s and 1930s, he pursued simultaneous careers as a concert guitarist, luthier, and instrument designer. Following a split with Selmer over his contract to make several famous guitar models for Selmer-Paris, Maccaferri founded the French-American Reeds Manufacturing Company, capitalizing on his improvements in the manufacturing process after years of observing Selmer’s clarinet reed production. He moved his company and family to the United States in 1939. Difficulty obtaining cane led him to develop reeds made from plastic, a material that caught his attention at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He filed a patent application for the novel reeds in 1941, and was awarded a patent the following year. Maccaferri soon began producing other plastic consumer products, including clothespins, hangers, plastic tiles, acoustic tiles, and later, eight-track and cassette- tape housings.

NMM 10926.  Ukulele by French American Reeds Manufacturing Company (Mario Maccaferri), New York, 1951. Side view of ukulele Back view of ukulele

In 1949, Maccaferri combined his interests in musical instrument design with his expertise in plastic to produce the Islander Ukulele, the first plastic stringed instrument. Priced at an affordable $5.95, the instruments were an astounding commercial success. The example at the left was purchased new by Arne B. Larson from Grossman Music Corporation, Cincinnati, Ohio, and shipped directly from the factory in 1951, two years after the model was introduced.

Left: NMM 10926. Ukulele by French American Reeds Manufacturing Company (Mario Maccaferri), New York, 1951. Islander Uke Combination. Arne B. Larson Estate, 1988.

The Islander Uke was sold individually or as part of an Islander Uke Combination that included the Chord Master (a device attached to the neck with rubber bands, which automatically stopped chords with the press of a button). The Islander Uke received an early boost from Arthur Godfrey, a radio and television star who sometimes played ukulele on his shows. Godfrey referred to the Islander as a “very good instrument that costs only $5.95,” causing demand for the instrument to flourish, particularly among amateurs who wanted to participate in the craze for Hawaiian music with a minimal investment of money and practice time.

Original box for Islander Ukulele

In 1953, Maccaferri introduced his plastic guitars, which were not meant to be a cheap substitute for a wood guitar, but rather a highly functional instrument that just happened to be constructed from plastic.

Right:  NMM 10871. Guitar by French American Reeds Manufacturing Company (Mario Maccaferri), New York, ca. 1953-1964. G30 model. Arne B. Larson Estate, 1988.

NMM 10871.  Guitar by French American Reeds Manufacturing Co, New York, ca. 1953-1964
Bass side view
Back view

In 1964, the name of the company was changed to Mastro Plastics Corporation. By 1969, criticism and slow sales caused Maccaferri to cease production of his plastic instruments, the rights to which were sold to Carnival Industries, which discontinued the manufacturing of Maccaferri's products.

Following his retirement in 1981, Maccaferri continued to pursue his interest in plastic instruments with the development of a plastic violin. The instruments, designed to be of professional quality, were assembled by hand in Maccaferri’s Mount Vernon home.

The Maccaferri violin had its debut in a recital given by Dorothy Happell at Carnegie Hall in March 1990. The instrument did not meet the reception its creator had in mind. In his review of the recital, Allan Kozin of the New York Times wrote that, “The plastic violin's deficits, mainly, were in projection. Although all the sound of the bow on the string came through with all its usual characteristics, the upper range of the instrument sounded scrawny, and its richer lower range lacked the resonance and bloom one expects from a good wooden instrument. It might be useful as a student violin, and it is ideal for players who want to fiddle in the rain, or on the beach. Its attractions as a concert instrument, though, are limited.”

Despite the criticism of its sound, the instrument is well-constructed and set up, requiring minimal adjustment for a player accustomed to a standard violin, and the instrument’s sound quality and volume outperforms most student violins of similar production cost. The Styron parts from which it is made are significantly less expensive than wood and an instrument can be assembled in a day, rather than the weeks or months it takes to construct a wooden violin. Maintenance poses a significant hazard, however, since plastic is not easily repaired and is an unfamiliar material for most violin repairers.

Right: NMM 13503. Violin by Mario Maccaferri, Mount Vernon, New York, August 6, 1990. Gift of Jeremy Tubbs, Cordova, Tennessee, 2007.

NMM 13503.  Violin by Mario Maccaferri, Mount Vernon, New York, August 6, 1990

Fiberglass for Stringed Instruments and Accessories

Although Maccaferri’s Styron instruments did not attain the level of acceptance he desired, his work paved the way for the innovations of other manufacturers. Leon and Ray Glasser invented a fiberglass bow in 1962 that has been a highly successful product for their Bronx-based company. In the late 1960s, Charles Kaman designed a round-back guitar made from fiberglass, a signature of his popular Ovation brand.

Carbon Fiber for Stringed Instruments and Accessories

Experimentation with carbon fiber in the 1970s led to the development of a violin with a graphite-epoxy top by Carleen Hutchins in 1974 (below), the patenting of a graphite-composite guitar top by Charles Kaman in 1974, and the construction of the first all-graphite-fiber violin body by Leonard K. John in 1979 (below).

NMM 10182.  Violin by Carleen Hutchins, Montclair, New Jersey, Daniel W. Haines, Columbia, South Carolina, and Hercules Materials Company, Inc. (Allegheny Ballistics Laboratory), Cumberland, Maryland, 1974
Side view of Hutchins violin
Back view of Hutchins violin

Left:  NMM 10182. Violin by Carleen Hutchins, Montclair, New Jersey, Daniel W. Haines, Columbia, South Carolina, and Hercules Materials Company, Inc. (Allegheny Ballistics Laboratory), Cumberland, Maryland, 1974. Gift of Carleen Maley Hutchins, Montclair, 2002.

Right:  NMM 10667. Violin by Leonard K. John, Toronto, July 17, 1988. Graphite-fiber body. Gift of Joel Ferren, Cortland, Ohio, 2004. The presentation of this violin to the NMM is documented in “Violin Evolves from Aerospace Technology,” National Music Museum Newsletter 31, No. 3 (August 2004): 3.

NMM 10667.  Violin by Leonard K. John, Toronto, July 17, 1988.  Gift of Joel Ferren, Cortland, Ohio, 2004.
Side view of John violin
Back view of John violin

Carbon fiber violin bows gained recognition among performers in the 1990s and are now widely accepted by professionals. Though Hutchins’ and Johns’ graphite fiber violins were never mass produced, fully carbon-fiber bowed instruments have been commercially available since the late 1990s.

Return to NMM Newsletter Index (August 2010)

National Music Museum
The University of South Dakota
414 East Clark Street
Vermillion, SD 57069

©National Music Museum, 2010
Most recent update: August 27, 2010

The University of South Dakota
Return to Top of Page