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31 December 2012

Maccaferri "Islander" Ukulele

This week I've been getting to know a gentleman by the name of Mike Simpson who hails from Sacramento, California. Mike has been collecting ukuleles for the last 30 years and has amassed a museum's worth of instruments. Little by little he's been revealing some of them on Google+. I've been in awe, marveling at the diverse range of instruments that he has in his possession... what a lucky man! There are some fantastic examples of all types of ukulele, but it is the plastic ones that I want to talk about today. Mike has very kindly allowed me to post some of his pictures here. Be sure to look him up on Google+ where you can find the original pictures and of course have a chat with the man himself!

The Maccaferri  "Islander" Ukulele - Patents Pending
Manufactured 1953-69?

Let's begin with the Maccaferri ukulele... I love this story...

Born in 1900 in Cento Italy, Mario Maccaferri trained as a luthier under the esteemed Luigi Mozzani. With studies complete, Mario spread his wings and toured Europe as a classical guitarist. He finally settled in London in 1929 joining the Selmer Company to help them to manufacture guitars. His most famous invention for Selmer became simply known as the Selmer Guitar (aka "the Maccaferri") made famous by Django Reinhardt. By 1935 the Selmer dream had soured and after a short stint touring with his guitar, Mario founded the French-American Reed Manufacturing Company making reeds for saxophones and clarinets. The outbreak of war lead to difficulty for the company as the main source of reed from the south of France was cut off. But fear not: Ever the entrepreneur, Mario perfected a method of producing "Maccaferri Futurity" plastic reeds which opened the doors to a successful career in plastic injection-molding. This success saw him drop out of instrument-making altogether until the 1950s when he returned with a vengeance; His first instruments were plastic guitars which didn't take on. His plastic ukuleles on the other hand were an overnight success!

The legend goes that American television presenter and ukateer Arthur Godfrey was doing a show where he was giving ukulele lessons. Having played a Maccaferri uke on air he then went on to endorse it saying he thought it was a sturdy instrument with a good voice, and a good price. By the end of that week Maccaferri was sitting on orders for 58,000 ukes. Kerching!

Time for some photos. This jumps all over the place... enjoy...

Here's a picture of a Maccaferri plastic uke. It is one of "4 or 5" that Mike
owns. He bought his first one for $65 in Santa Barbara in 2002 after
an 800 mile road-trip and much haggling over price. His latest
one was picked up at a flea-market for just $6! Wow!

Wayne Federman Electric Ukulele Pioneer
Mike tells me that his obsession with ukuleles started after seeing a
stand-up comedian called Wayne Federman do a skit where he blasted
out Purple Haze on a tiny soprano uke. He instantly fell in love
with the irony and novelty of it. Brilliant! The above video
may well be the one that 'turned' Mike!

I've wanted to include this in a post for a long time now. Above is a
picture of a ukulele that you can't buy unfortunately. It was the object
of a Kickstarter project by Scott Seelye where he was trying to get
funding to manufacture a run of plastic ukuleles. He didn't get close
to his target which is a real shame. I bet the one in the photo is
worth a few bob! ;-)

This KeyKord ukulele really is a beautiful ukulele. I love the
shape of the body. To my mind it has a mandolin feel to it.
I know this post is about plastic ukuleles, but there is one detail
in this picture that leads nicely into the next tangent. Trust me!
I spotted this ukulele on ebay.  I fell in love with the body,
but it was the strange device on the neck that really grabbed
my attention. What on earth could it be? Well... It's a device for
"easily" playing chords. You press the button and through
ingenious engineering, the device presses all the right strings
 on the right frets and... well... music! Don't view me talking about
this as being a King Uke endorsement for this type of trickery...
but it is kind of cool. ;-)
I'm a firm believer that there really is no substitute for playing
with "skin on strings". Notice that there are no buttons
for power chords... a terrible oversight... ;-)

Maccaferri plastic ukuleles were marketed in packs that came with
something called a "Chord Master". Mike has several. Here you
can see one of Mike's original Chord Masters. Unfortunately this
one is missing the rubber bands and is damaged (see that one of the
corners is missing). The chords printed next to the buttons suggest that
the uke needs  to be tuned to 'Standard Tuning' - aka D tuning (a d f# b)

Islander Uke: Chord Master
Now you can play the ukulele without lessons or practice or difficulty of any kind.
The Islander Uke Chord Master has engraved visible chord diagram on every key
as they appear in all printed ukulele music. It fits on all ukuleles of standard sizes.
The Islander Chord Master has soft plastic keys. They contact the strings gently
and deliver a rich full tone. Keys are twist-proof and jam-proof. To play with piano
or group be sure to have your uke tuned to the standard tuning, which is A D F# B.
Everyone wants the fun and pleasure of playing the uke. The enclosed book contains
many popular songs you can play at once without lessons or practice.

Arthur Godfrey was a bit of an entrepreneur himself making his own version
of the Chord Master. Mike's got one of these too! AG's version looks to be a far
superior device altogether.  For a start the innards looks like they would press the
strings better. The buttons look more like trumpet finger-buttons with only a slightly
different alignment to the Islander Chord Master. See the chords marked on the top.
This should be used on a uke in the C tuning - aka g c e a. Best of all though
is the psychedelic plastic marble finish! This really was ahead of its time
and a perfect addition to the marbled Islander finish.

Finally, here's one for all you sync-heads out there. Whilst researching this
post I stumbled across which is a brilliant site that pays
tribute to (and probably sells) Chord Masters. I noticed that it is part of
the Boat Paddle Top 50 Ukulele Sites as is the Ukulele Blog. I couldn't
remember the name, so I went to see where it ranked. It's currently sat
at 110 and looks pretty new. Do you see who is at 109? Argapa Ukuleles.
I'm currently in contact with the hugely talented Sven Nyström of Argapa
Ukuleles and hope to be bringing you a post on him and his work soon!
"It's a small world and it's made of ukulele!"

One last thing. Having written all this up I've just discovered yet another page paying homage to the Islander. If you want to find out more I urge you to check out Ukester Brown's "Maccaferri and his Islanders" for some great words and pictures.

One more finally...

Thanks Mike for teaching me so much about the Maccaferri! I'm sure you have much more to teach me! Would you believe it if I was to tell you that there has even been talk of a Mike Simpson/King Uke musical collaboration some time in the future. I can't keep up with all these side projects! Ha ha... wish me luck...

Update 31-Dec-2012:

Hold on a second! I forgot to include the picture that started this whole Maccaferri thing off! Both Mike and I spent a long time examining the snap below. I was horrified that someone would do this to a uke... wouldn't the water damage the wood? Mike calmed me down and revealed that it looked like a Maccaferri! And apparently she's wearing red shoes too! What a great set of eyes Mike has on him!

Is this a Maccaferri being modelled in the bubbles?
Photo courtesy of Wellington Ukulele and Peace Company
(Have I ever told you how much I love New Zealand?)

If you liked this post then you might be interested to read part 2.


  1. Re:
    "Have I ever told you how much I love New Zealand?"

    The red shoes means she would rather be in Oz than Nz .-)

  2. You think! Ha ha. Are the natives friendly in Oz?

  3. It's a funny thing that list of ukulele sites - though small, the traffic to my blog has increased the last couple of years. But I've dropped from around 80 to 109. So the total number of visitors to uke sites must have grown quite significantly.

    Great post on the Maccaferri ukes.


  4. Thanks for commenting Sven. Yep, the charts are funny. I consciously avoided them originally (because I like being cult) ;-)
    However I succumbed maybe 6-8 months ago. I started at the bottom of the Paddle Boat chart which I think was then had about 100 sites. Now there are over 200 sites. All of them are a bit quirky in how they record visits and I don't really understand them. All I kno is that they don't tally up with Google Analytics which always has a bigger number of hits. I think that the top sites are the ones who do chord finder programmes, but I'm not too sure. I'll be in touch soon mate and we can get this post rolling!

  5. Oh, how I wish I could fix the typos on these comments...

  6. Talking about Kickstarter projects,you might want to check this one out King?

    Rock on !-)

  7. Now... if they were plastic stones, we might be talking. Zombie rocks? I'll get the kids to knock some up this weekend... Hold on a second...
    Oh dear... remember what happened when I did this with the Rhythm Ring!!!