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Mario Maccaferri: An Interview with John Monteleone (Part Three)

By Daniel Wheeldon

This is the third part of a serial interview with John Monteleone about the guitar builder Mario Maccaferri. Please see parts One and Two.

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!

Mario Maccaferri by a fish tank with his submerged Islander ukulele

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.

Mario Maccaferri fitting together one of his plastic violins. Photo courtesy of John Monteleone

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.