Mario Maccaferri was born in Cento, in Italy, near Bologna, in 1900. He expressed an interest in working with wood at a young age and by the time he was 11, he worked as an apprentice with the Italian master luthier and musician, Luigi Mozzani. Mozzani must have been an engaging character; Mario used his extra time outside the shop to study classical guitar.
He entered the Conservatory at Sienna in 1916 for a period of 10 years and graduated with honors. With his new focus on performance and classical music, he temporarily gave up working with wood and his hands. He started touring and developed a sizable public following across Europe. The critics seemed to like him wherever he went. Maestro Mozzani, a superb guitarist and composer in his own right, was openly proud of Maccaferri, whom he regarded as a master luthier, musician and peer – an honor never bestowed upon any other of his many protégés.
In 1929, Maccaferri settled in London. He continued to tour and teach guitar. His passion for the instrument and clear understanding of its concert limitations led Mario to begin to experiment and design ways to make the guitar louder and richer. Touring with a classical guitar before the days of amplification determined the maximum size of an audience. If there were too many people or the hall was too large, the instrument simply could not be heard. In relative terms, for solo or ensemble work, the guitar was one of the quietest of concert instruments.
With his background in Lutherie, he began the quest for a louder and better sounding guitar. Around 1929 he generated the first prototypes. His efforts were presented in London later that year.
Ben and Lew Davis, Two brothers who managed Selmer’s London dealership, were impressed. They introduced Maccaferri to Henri Selmer. With assurances from the Davis brothers and based on Maccaferri’s reputation with Mozzani, Monsieur Selmer proposed constructing a run of the instruments at the Selmer manufacturing facility at Mantes-la-Ville, near Paris. If they were accepted by the public, they would manufacture more of them.
An atelier opened under Maccaferri’s direction. He drew up the plans for the guitars, and oversaw the building of molds and jigs. Numerous workers, for the most part, Italians, took part in the building of the shop and received training from Maccaferri in his production techniques. On May 6th, 1932, patent #736,779 was registered in Paris, entitled “Perfectionnements aux viol sons, guitars, mandolines et autres instruments à cordes.” Its résumé proposed:
“The joining to guitars, violins, mandolins and other musical instruments of an internal resonating box, affixed to the vibrating top of the instrument…”
As the first Selmer Maccaferri guitars were built, Maccaferri supervised the fabrication of each model. Even the cases for the guitars were part of his design. By 1933, with production underway, some form of dispute arose between Mario Maccaferri and Henri Selmer. Ultimately, Mario left the firm sometime late in 1933. The nature of the dispute is still not known. The Selmer Company remains discreet on this subject to this day.
Django Reinhardt (see Jazz Manouche) tried one of the Grande Bouche 12-fret Selmer guitars and fell in love with it. It performed perfectly for the new music of the dance halls: Jazz Manouche. The music was a cross between American jazz-swing and the traditional bal-musette. The dance halls were loud and raucous. There were no amplifiers and the dance bands needs to pump out strong rhythmic drives and soloists needed to be heard over the rhythm section. The Selmer guitars could do the job.
Immediately after Maccaferri’s departure from Selmer, the company responded to the demand for a 14-fret instrument. Jazz Manouche used every part of the fretboard and the new guitars had the amazing ability to sound just as loud on the upper register as it did on the lower. This was very different from a traditional flat-top guitar that gets noticeable softer as you work higher on the fretboard.
The new design occurred without Maccaferri’s input. The modèle Jazz had a small vertical oval soundhole, and no resonator. The same body design was used, and the same materials. The shift of the neck to a body joint at the 14th fret moved the bridge closer to the soundhole. The removal of the resonator and the new bridge location required a new bracing pattern. Around late 1933, after a handful of transitional models, it was offered with the longer 670mm (26.4″) scale. Following Maccaferri’s departure, his name and patent numbers for his resonator were eliminated from the headstock engraving and his credit was removed from the internal label. Ironically, Maccaferri never knew Reinhardt.
Once it was available, this was the model that Django preferred. Almost all Selmers made after 1933 are the modèle Jazz. Though most Selmer guitars, early and late, were of laminated Indian rosewood with walnut necks, there exist a few very late ones with solid rosewood necks and a few rare all-mahogany or birdseye maple guitars with matching maple necks. Selmer tops were always solid French spruce. By l939, Selmer had added Django Reinhardt’s name to the headstock, though only a few rare guitars actually bear this inscription.
Django Reinhardt’s last Selmer guitar was #503 – built in 1940. Upon his death, his widow donated it to the museum of the Conservatoire Nationale in Paris, now at the Cité de la Musique, where it is proudly displayed with Stéphane Grappelli’s violin.
Life After Touring
During Maccaferri’s time at Selmer, he learned the technique of making reeds for saxophones and clarinets. Ever inventive, Maccaferri developed his own tooling solutions and material concerns and set about making reeds. In 1935 he filed for a patent for his shaping of reeds and opened the “French-American Reed Manufacturing Company.” In 1938, he set up a branch in New York City, moving there in 1939 to escape the growing tide of war in France and the rest of Europe.
The primary source for reed making cane came from the South of France. Supplies of the critical material was interrupted by wartime shipping problems. Maccaferri developed a viable plastic reed as an available alternative: the Maccaferri Futurity reed. Endorsed by Benny Goodman and others, his reed making enterprise survived the hazards of wartime shortages and propelled him into a thriving business in plastics.
The restless inventor now knew something about plastics. He was constantly trying to find clever new uses for the revolutionary man-made material. One of his early inventions was the clothespin. He tried everything he could think of that could be injection molded.
In the early 1950s, the luthier surfaced again. Maccaferri tried to apply plastic to the world of guitars. He designed and manufactured a number of entirely plastic guitars. They were small, light and very affordable. They were conceived as serious musical instruments, but were not taken seriously by the public. Failure with the plastic guitar did not put him off the idea of plastic for musical instruments. His second effort was plastic ukuleles with the Arthur Godfrey Chord Finder. At the time of his death in May of 1993, he was at work perfecting plastic violins.
Special thanks to:
François Charle’s book on Selmer guitars
April Dougal Gasbarre for information and the company history.
Research by Leonard Wyeth
If you would like to use content from this page, see our Terms of Usage policy.
ⓒ 2008 Leonard Wyeth