Mario Maccaferri: An Interview with John Monteleone (Part Three)
By Daniel Wheeldon
In this final installment of my Monteleone interview we hear more about Maccaferri’s ambitions for his plastic instruments. John Monteleone was good friends with Mario Maccaferri by the time he was making his plastic violins and with ambitions to have one played at Carnegie Hall. I am thrilled to have been able to make this interview and I hope it has served to some degree to document some of Monteleone’s dealings with Maccaferri. As a case study it highlights how masters of one era both influence and learn from those of the past. Although John repeatedly mentions that he was intent not to influence Mario as much as possible in order to see him in his element, this friendship nevertheless has huge implications on Maccaferri’s final decades. From the experiments with D-hole guitars published in previous posts, to how Monteleone helped Maccaferri distribute his stock pile of plastic guitars, this friendship is a living example of the surviving legacy of master instrument makers. Three makers working in three centuries are deeply and personally connected: Mozzani, Maccaferri, Monteleone.
19:15 GMT, 13th January 2019.
Daniel Wheeldon – DW
John Monteleone – JM
JM: You know Mario had his dreams. If you go back to the 1950s, he was very deeply involved in plastics and very friendly with all of the chemical companies like Dow chemical and so forth, he was a pioneer in the plastics business, and he was making a variety of products in plastics, from clothes pins to cassette tapes decks and scotch brand tape dispenser and he goes to his musical background and got involved with the plastic ukulele. Because he was watching Arthur Godfrey, […] who played ukulele. It was a talent show and talk show. Godfrey said, ‘If someone out there could make a ukulele that could stay in turn, you could make a million bucks, I’m sure.’
DW: Challenge accepted JM: There was the challenge, Mario was you know ‘I can do that’, and he goes about designing this plastic ukulele. And he’s going to make this presentation to Arthur Godfrey and the suits, so he arranges a meeting in Manhattan, some office building. So ahead of time he has a fish tank brought in before the meeting. He’s got a fish tank, fills it with fish and the whole thing, and he tunes up his ukulele and he puts it into the tank all tuned up. So everyone comes in and they sit down and open up the meeting. ‘If someone can make a ukulele that stays in tune…’ So he turns around and pulls out the ukulele from the fish tank and it’s in tune, and he starts playing some tunes, that’s how he sold it.
DW: A showman!
JM: He had a dream for the ukulele that he was going to set up in Central Park, with a demonstration. When I first met him, I walked into the shop and I saw this thing on the floor, it was this huge box with lightbulbs, and its set up like a fretboard. And I said, ‘what are you going to do with that thing?’ He said ‘Well, I was going to go to Central Park and have this demonstration back in the day’. And he showed me this ukulele and I wish I had the damn thing because it was a ukulele that had switches in every position. Touch switches. Little micro switches. The cable that went out of the ukulele was a monster cable, a huge thing that was attached to every one of the lightbulbs in this box.
So when you played it, it would show you the fingerings, to a big crowd of people and they would be able to play along.
[. . .]
DW: [The episodes you’ve just related] took place about ten years before Mario died, did you stay in touch between then and the end?
JM: Yeah, always. He had gotten into… let’s see by the time my daughter was born, so that’s ’89, he wanted to revisit an old idea of his. Making the plastic violin, you know he had his own way of thinking on these things. To me it was a real curiosity. He thought that violins played out of tune, and that people should be able to play the violin and it should be in tune, so he designs a violin with a scalloped fret fingerboard, so the board is in tune. But in my way of, thinking of course – and I allowed him to think his own way of thinking, I was never going to interfere with the idea: ‘wait a minute now, isn’t that one of the most beautiful things about the violin to begin with is the touch and vibrato of a fretless fingerboard?’. So, he didn’t really look at that idea too well.
DW: There are some violinists who I’ve heard, and I’ve thought to myself that if they continue on that way, I might sneak in and fret their violin while they’re not looking.
JM: I know. Well it's that kind of thing that really irked him. DW: But I know what you mean also, it's the essence of the violin is it's fretlessness, it's just not a violin if you fret it.
JM: So his goal was to have a plastic violin played in Carnegie Hall, so he goes and pours a lot of money into tooling, you know well over one hundred grand, maybe 150 grand he puts into tooling. The moulds are made up in Canada for him and so forth, and I think he had a couple of idle injection moulding machines around that he could do this. And so I would visit him once in a while, every month or so and see what’s going on, and we’d have lunch together and he’d show me the violins. And I do have photos of all this. He’s got tables loaded with these plastic violins that he’s setting up to sell, and he did take a violin and had it played in a concert in Carnegie Hall, I was there. And it was loud.
DW: When was that do you remember?
JM: I think it was around 1990 maybe. Something like that. I think I have the announcement for that too.
DW: Have you got any of the reviews?
JM: I don't know if I have a review or not, the reviews were not very great. [. . .] DW: [heavily paraphrased] I can see why the reviews might not have been favourable. I can I immediately feel my prejudice working, I’ve never heard his plastic violins, but I cringe at the thought of how they would have sounded.
JM: No I agree, I always thought the same thing myself, in that to me it sounded something like an alto saxophone. And I was thinking to myself ‘okay we’re going to Carnegie Hall with this…’ And he got a concert performer to play, with piano accompaniment, and I guess it was pretty well attended, it was not the big hall it was the small Carnegie hall. For him it was a moment of satisfaction, or gratification and that was a big moment for him that I could see. He needed to just get there and do it. It was a goal. But it really didn’t catch on. I think what he had in mind when he made – again when I had first met him he had a whole warehouse of plastic guitars never released still in their original cartons since 1954, strung up no less, and there were a few thousand of them.
I asked him at the time, I said ‘what is that about?’ ‘ah well I was going to make some guitars’ ‘What happened?’ ‘Well I got cold feet.’ I said, ‘Well if you’re interested in selling them I think I can get you connected.’ That’s when the mandolin brothers started selling those plastic guitars and I helped him get rid of a lot of that, back in the day. Again, he had this manufacturing facility, you can see it in anything he ever did, the reed manufacturing as well. He was making reeds for everybody back in the day. Ghosting you know what I mean? Ghost manufacturing for all these different manufacturers right up to WWII. If you see the pictures of that activity, you’ll see him in a white lab coat, and his assistants in white lab coats, and stack, shipping ready to go all these reeds around the world. That was really his modus operandi, and you could see it in any of the products that he was making, right down to the violins, which, it was screwing in my mind because this was a guy that grew up, from 11 years old, he started with Luigi Mozzani, basically living there. He was learning how to build the instruments and how to play them, they taught everything in that school. So, there was nothing of plastics back in those days, back in the 1920s and 30s not in guitars anyway.
DW: I make the analogy with perhaps how he saw plastics, with people making 3D printed violins today, almost the manufacturing technology is the thing. I suppose the overheads are quite low with injection moulding.
JM: The trouble with plastics is that they have no memory. I think, had he lived long enough, he would have been on to it through the world of carbon. Carbon manufacturing, plastics in that sense, like the RainSong guitar, and a few of the other synthetic instruments that are out there now. Again, they are not the epitome of acoustic refined sound, that we would appreciate.
DW: When you have plastics, I suppose you have everything conforming to a single standard, you’ve got this repeatable process, you’ve got this consistency and evenness, but it’s actually not what we want.
JM: Exactly, this is the point that I was afraid to converse with him about, because he was of the mind that you wanted all of these things to be perfect, or repeatably reliable. And as you and I know, the warmth and beauty of these things is that they have individuality, and he saw them not really as individuals, but he saw them all as the same. Which is interesting, if we were to go to a classical guitar concert and go listen to whoever, Christopher Parkening or whoever we went to see, he could be very critical of the sound that we were hearing. He could identify a good sounding guitar, so he understood it but again on the other side his manufacturing approach to things, he could be isolated.
DW: I think you said it earlier, that he could focus in on what he needed to do, and that focus was his brilliance but also his limitation.
[. . .]
JM: I think he was in the right place at the right time. The stars were in perfect alignment, for the instrument and the music and the musician to come together the way they did in 1932-5 that combination was so unique – we can say it’s unique because if we try to look where that particular kind of guitar fits into other music, we don’t see it very much. It’s become known as a Gypsy Jazz guitar.
DW: And Django Reinhardt. Even if modern players use it, they’ll be using it to play Django style.
JM: I’ve seen a couple of musicians who can take it to slightly other places. But it’s a little rare. By the way you know that Django Reinhardt’s personal guitar which is in the Cité de la Musique, it’s number 503 I just bought serial number 504, 1940.
This guitar that I have was the next guitar from Django’s and used to belong to Stochelo Rosenberg of the Rosenberg Trio. This is one of the good examples of that kind of guitar. This is a killer guitar.
Bonus Story – on John Monteleone’s encounter with Les Paul’s Selmer Guitar.
JM: During our guitar building time that I discovered one of Django Reinhardt’s guitars, that belonged to Les Paul. It was sitting on a filing cabinet, but that’s a whole nother story. Do you know this story?
DW: No I do not.
JM: Well when we were building these guitars together, his factory was closed down basically so it was empty. In order to get to the men’s room you had to go through the drawing room, which was filled with vacant drawing tables and an endless wall of filing cabinets. And that was all! So I passed this thing sitting on top of the filing cabinets, I passed it a few times, I knew there was a guitar in it – it was in a cheap canvas guitar case. After all my curiosity got me, and I peeked in there and I saw that there was a Selmer in there. So I asked Mario about it and he says ‘Oh Les Paul wants me to fix that guitar for him, I don’t think I’ll ever have the time to do it’. So, I said ‘I have the time to do it’. So we clear it with Les and I was able to take the guitar to my workshop and restore it for them. It turns out that it was a gift to Les Paul from Django’s widow because they were friends, and Les helped Django’s widow and the family pay for funeral expenses, and also tighten up their business dealings in the way that would protect Django’s rights.
DW: I suppose for the revenues for the widow as well.
JM: Exactly, so she gave this guitar to him, and he went to town on it of course. This was back in the 50’s. So he cut a hole across the sound hole for a lipstick pick-up and drilled three holes into the top for controls. He told me he played it a lot and did a lot of recordings too. And then the guitar just imploded, and it just sat in that canvas case for forever until I got it.
Daniel Wheeldon is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Edinburgh and currently chairs the Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar working group for AMIS. Daniel trained and worked in London building and repairing guitars and developed an interest in early guitars and citterns. After completing his masters at the University of Edinburgh in 2015 he was awarded a Chester Dale Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he documented and catalogued their pre-1900 European guitars.