Harp Guitar Player of the Month

Mario Maccaferri,
Concert Harp Guitarist

by Gregg Miner, May, 2007
UPDATED July, 2011

with special  thanks to François Charle and Michael Wright

Part of a 4-part Special Harpguitars.net Feature
Note:  All images can be viewed full-size on the Members Only Maccaferri Harp Guitar article.

 

“I have always been an advocator of more than six strings.”
- Mario Maccaferri, 1976


INTRODUCTION

I know what you’re thinking.

“Wasn’t Maccaferri that Django guitar guy?”
Or perhaps, “Oh yeah – he made those cheap plastic guitars.” 

All true.  But before all that, Maccaferri was a famous touring concert guitarist (what we now call a “classical guitarist”), who, by all accounts, gave Segovia quite a run for his money.  And like so many of those early European virtuoso performers, Maccaferri dabbled with the harp guitar.  A lot.

Various sections of this site show the extent (by no means complete) to which past performers and builders abroad played or built harp guitars – in many cases not even considering them “harp guitars,” but simply as guitars with a couple of extra bass strings.  The odds of encountering the harp guitar were further stacked in Maccaferri’s favor, since he was fortunate enough to be apprenticed to the amazing Luigi Mozzani at only 11 years of age.  Below is a photo of young Mario with a stupendous Mozzani double-arm “chitarra-lyra” harp guitar.  What an incredible opportunity for a youngster!

In this feature, I hope to shed a little more light on the effect that Mozzani’s harp guitars truly had on Maccaferri.  With an intimate relationship with the instrument that lasted at least twenty-four years, compared to only two or three years with the infamous Selmer jazz guitars, it certainly seems worthy of more discussion and study.  Of course, with several of his later decades involved almost solely with plastics, I suppose that’s the “real” Maccaferri (but I’ll leave that topic for Plasticguitars.net).

  HUMBLE BEGINNINGS TO EXPERT LUTHIER

Mario Maccaferri was born on May 20, 1900, in the town of Cento, a small town about 30 km from Bologna in northwest Italy.  He was the second youngest of seven children, all boys, and the only family member to become interested in music.  He left school at the age of nine, taking on various jobs including apprentice carpenter.  Two years later, in 1911, young Mario was apprenticed to famed guitarist and luthier Luigi Mozzani, who had established a school of lutherie in Cento in 1908.  Mozzani’s own career could fill a book (and does), and has been given his own special section in Harpguitars.net - Marvelous Mozzani!.

According to researcher Michael Wright, Maccaferri “rose to become Mozzani’s premier disciple, learning to make guitars, violins and mandolins and eventually supervising other apprentices.”  Paul Hostetter adds that “the young Maccaferri assiduously followed his master's footsteps, bearing his influence for the rest of his life.”

Maccaferri himself, in his 1976 interview with George Clinton, describes how "I was about twelve years of age when Mr. Mozzani made up his mind to teach me the guitar.  It was against my own wishes but he won.  He kept me playing in the first position for a year until, finally, one day he showed me how to play some chords and then I began to like it.  We got on fine after that."

Mario Maccaferri in 1916 with one of Mozzani's "chitarra-lyra" harp guitars.

Mozzani with his apprentices c.1915.
Mario is second from left.

Further details about Maccaferri’s tenure with Mozzani are sketchy.  Wright believes that after 1923, Maccaferri advertised himself as a maker of “all fretted instruments,” and author François Charle also gives 1923 as the date Maccaferri set up his own shop (a full line of his instruments first appeared in a 1926 catalog).  Intelisano’s Mozzani book implies (according to my poor translation skills) that during the 1921-1928 timeframe, Maccaferri (along with C. Melloni) was assigned to the bowed instrument department – according to Wright, as “Senior Instructor,” according to Charle as an “advisor.”  As a matter of note, Maccaferri won three Gold Medals for his own violins in 1926 and 1927.  How he managed this advisory position with Mozzani, while also designing and building his own instruments, setting up his own shop (1923), touring Europe (1923-27) and living in Paris to work for his uncle’s accordion business (!)(1927) is a mystery, and definitely warrants further investigation (see Timeline).
 

GUITAR VIRTUOSO

Maccaferri’s tutelage under Mozzani consisted of two distinct areas.  Besides the obvious influence of Mozzani’s instrument designs, which led to Maccaferri’s own experiments in harp guitar design and construction, Mozzani also instilled in Maccaferri a deep passion for playing the classical guitar.  Mozzani’s influence took specific form, in that Maccaferri’s preferred instrument remained the harp guitar for the bulk of his performing career, and in adopting his mentor’s somewhat controversial use of a thumbpick in combination with fingernails.  Maccaferri said that the thumbpick was "more efficient for the particular type of music" he played, and explained that his thumb technique was to "go through" the string, resting on the adjacent string.  He also claimed it facilitated his trademark tremolo - which was a continual a-m-i-a-m-i (without the thumb being inserted as a fourth beat).  Despite the occasional photograph of Maccaferri sans thumbpick, he never abandoned it.  Luthier John Monteleone - who became Mario's great friend (and worked on Maccaferri's personal Mozzani collection) around 1980 -  recalls how Maccaferri's arrival was always preceded by the sound of his metal thumbpick jangling within its metal case in his pocket.

Hostetter adds that “Maestro Mozzani, a superb guitarist and composer for the instrument in his own right, was quite proud of Mario Maccaferri, whom he regarded as a master luthier, musician and peer - an honor never bestowed upon any other of his many protégés.”  While with Mozzani, Maccaferri also enrolled at the Sienna Academy (or Conservatory) of Music, beginning his studies in1916 and graduating with the highest diploma and all honors in 1922.  In 1926, the Conservatory named Maccaferri “Professor of Guitar and Music."

 
With a Mozzani harp guitar "at the time of his concert at the Conservatory in Milan, 1926" (George Clinton) 1929 inscription (photo may be earlier) - with what I believe was his own first harp guitar model. From 1929 Columbia Recordings catalog In 1932 with a his own Selmer (or prototype?).
  By most accounts, Maccaferri was already giving local concerts by 1920.  His touring career is reported to have begun in 1923 (though Maccaferri himself gives the date of his first concert as 1926), and took him over the next several years to Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Belgium and England, with stops in most of the key cities in Europe.  The timeline illustrates that he was never exclusively a touring concert artist, but constantly juggled this very successful career with continuing experiments and successes in lutherie, while also suffering several relocations.  The first move was to Paris in 1927, next to London in 1929, then back to Paris in 1931 to create Selmer’s guitar-making facility.  Along with his performances, Maccaferri also taught guitar, often to very illustrious clients, such as the Prince of Wales.

And how was Maccaferri received as a classical guitarist?

Wright states: “His performances were infused with his strong, romantic personality,” adding that (due to his use of the thumbpick) “he was reportedly able to develop remarkably facile tremolo technique.”  Charle reports: “Judging by the writings of contemporary critics who compared him to Andres Segovia, he must have been an excellent guitarist.  For several years, Maccaferri and Segovia were the two leading guitarists of European renown…”  Wright concurs, stating that “Maccaferri was regarded by contemporaries as being on a par with the late Segovia, ranking right behind the Maestro in popular appeal in European guitar circles.  Had events not transpired as they did, we might today regard the two as seminal influences on modern classical guitar.”  Wright further reports that in 1926, Maccaferri met and became friends with Segovia.

 
  Maccaferri’s repertoire included well-known works by Sor, Coste, Bach, Granados, Tarrega and his mentor, Mozzani. Wright states that “One of his treasured pieces was Sor’s beautiful “Mozart Variations,” while Charle (in a rare reference to Maccaferri’s harp guitar) writes: “He particularly liked to play on them the well known Bach prelude.” 

Maccaferri played the program at right on May 24, 1932.  At least four of the guitarist/composers listed were known for their writing for extended range (harp) guitars.  I hope that historical guitar music scholars may be able to tell us whether these particular pieces were written to include sub-basses.

OR IS IT HARP GUITAR VIRTUOSO?

Which brings us to the topic of  harp guitars….

 
  As I stated at the beginning, harp guitars – whether they looked like fairly normal guitars with just one floating string, or like some mythical, fantastic dream like Mozzani’s – seem not to have caused the notice or comment that harp guitars do today.  And even today, many modern researchers and writers don’t appear that curious or fascinated with the details of this guitar variation when they come across it as part of their research.  As this is my passion, I’m naturally a bit dismayed by this blasé attitude.  While the critics were favorably comparing Maccaferri with the “standard-setting” Segovia, did they have no comment on the dramatic differences of their instruments?!  If unimpressed by the visual aspects of the instruments, did they consider the three extra bass strings similarly insignificant?  Were Mozzani, Maccaferri and similar “extended range guitarists” not boasting of the fact that “normal 6-string” classical guitarists could not, in fact, play some of the repertoire without extra sub-bass strings?  Certainly, one comes across in publicity material images of the instruments, and occasional mention of a “chitarra-lyra” or similar, but I haven’t seen much else.  If not the critics or concert promoters, did the public itself ever take special notice of Maccaferri’s assorted harp guitar creations?  I cannot help but wonder!

During his entire decade or so of public performing, Maccaferri used a variety of harp guitars.  I strongly suspect that his very first concert in Milan was on either a 9-course Mozzani dual arm instrument or his own 9-course instrument (shown above).  In fact, of all the photos I have seen from his concert period, nearly all show him with a harp guitar. Only a couple of  images - of which two are Selmer promotional photos, and one a program illustration – show him playing a 6-string. These instruments are shown and discussed in more detail in the companion feature "Maccaferri Harp Guitars."   Maccaferri  first played some of the  instruments created by Mozzani (at least three different harp guitar models), then switched to his own harp guitars beginning in 1926 - again, using several different models or experimental instruments.

Maccaferri with his first harp guitar model, created by 1926 (image from his 1928/1929 Cento catalog)

Frustratingly, in all the interviews with Maccaferri, if the subject comes up (which is maddeningly rare), he provides few details of these instruments.  There is some additional confusion about a "7-string guitar" that, until recently, seemed an error.  Dick Boak mentions in his 1992 article that Maccaferri  designed and performed on a "harp guitar with seven playing strings on the neck and five bass strings for accompaniment."  The closest candidate instrument is Maccaferri's own 11-course harp guitar with six strings on the neck in his 1928/1929 catalog - a model he has so far not been seen in photographs with.  However, in 2008, I obtained an image of a one-of-a-kind Maccaferri harp guitar with, yes - seven strings on the neck.  However, it only has 3 bass strings (the instrument is shown in the Maccaferri Harp Guitars feature).   Maccaferri himself, in his 1976 Clinton interview, mentions a seven string - without reference to extra bass strings - as the guitar he used before settling on the 9-string.  Although he later lets slip "mine were floating strings beyond seven," we don't know how many basses he was describing.  In the context of the article, the quotes are quite confusing and thus unclear to what Maccaferri was even referring to, though he seemed to have been discussing all this within his Selmer period.  Nonetheless, the 9-course (6+3) certainly appears to have been his preferred instrument, and on this he offers further, albeit again imprecise, comments.  He begins with "...the extra three strings added a certain amount of harmony to the playing because of the sympathetic vibrations" (italics mine -GM).  But he then describes how he had "a lot of music written for that stringing" - explaining how he played the Bach prelude in A minor, rather than D minor, "because of the three extra strings" (meaning he lowered it a fourth, as his 9-string went a fourth lower; thus, he played the strings).

 

Maccaferri also remembered the exact program for his first concert, rather boldly given in Milan three months after Segovia played the same hall!  The pieces, which I suspect included "a lot of music written for that stringing," included the Sonata No. 22 in C by Sor, a few things by Coste, Mozzani, the Prelude, Gavotte, and Courante of Bach, Granados, pieces by Tarrega, and the last piece, Fantasia No. 3 by Mertz.  Again, I am pretty thoroughly convinced that Maccaferri gave his concert debut on a 9-course harp guitar, and never looked back, playing a succession of new harp guitars of his own design throughout his several-year concert career.

Note: Like most Europeans, Maccaferri never referred to his instruments as "harp guitars."  According to Monteleone, he referred to them as lyra-guitars (after Mozzani) or "guitars with bass strings."  In his interviews, he just calls them "9-string guitars."

Mario Maccaferri (with unknown player at right) plays three different harp guitars of his own creation in these three undated photos, circa 1926-1930.

Mario built this wonderful simplistic harp guitar for quiet practice.

Are there any surviving Maccaferri recordings, and is he playing 6-string or harp guitar on them? - this has been a question foremost in my mind!  Maccaferri recorded 8 sides (selections)  for Columbia in 1929, at the height of his performing career.  The pieces are listed below, along with one of the rare 78's (from Charle's book). 

In 2006, ever-alert Maccaferri fan Michael Simmons pointed me to a site that had posted MP3s  of two of these rare records.  As I had fervently hoped, both performances were played on an obvious 9-course harp guitar, as the low B and D are clearly heard!


Columbia WL 1552
The Granados and Bach pieces can be heard in this Members Only Maccaferri companion page to this feature.

 

Regardless of the exact provenance of his harp guitars, it is clear that Maccaferri never fully abandoned his lutherie experiments throughout his many years of concert tours.  Ultimately, his restless design innovations led to his relationship with the Selmer Company, and in 1931 he relocated to Paris to head the new guitar making facility.  Here I would strongly suggest a short detour in our story to take time out to read The Story of Selmer Maccaferri Guitars by François Charle.  In the meantime, suffice it to say that these guitars soon became legendary (ironically, the steel string versions, not Maccaferri’s preferred gut-strung models) – due in most part to being in the hands of the equally legendary Django Reinhardt.  Also important to note is that Maccaferri left Selmer after only two years over a contract clause – leaving his guitar designs behind.

Selmer Harp Guitar designed by Maccaferri.

END OF A BRILLIANT CAREER (BUT START OF ANOTHER)

 
About halfway through this brief period with Selmer, Maccaferri continued with his other passion, resuming his concert tours of Europe.  Tragically, we can never know what might have become of his still-growing reputation, the classical guitar music world, or, indeed, of harp guitars as accepted classical instruments.  In the summer of 1933, he fractured his right hand in a freak swimming accident, bringing his career as a concert classical guitarist to a premature end.  After six months of recuperation, he was unable to play with the same dexterity, but cleverly found a way to continue performing still.  As he knew his playing was not up to his former standards, Maccaferri performed wearing a mask, billing himself as “The Unknown Guitarist.”  Throughout 1934 he played smaller clubs and Parisian cafes with this act - an innovative end to a very creative musical career.

Maccaferri, "The Unknown Guitarist" with his cabaret show host, Robert Vidal, c.1934.

  In 1935, his performances came to a permanent end when he hit upon yet another ingenious idea: plastic reeds for saxophones and other woodwind instruments.  Clearly not one to look back, but always forward, Mario Maccaferri took a strange detour which led, for the next several decades, to the world of plastics.  First, he had the hugely successful reed business, then clothespins, bathroom tile, cassette tape housings and finally back to…guitars.  By this time he had transplanted to New York, and while America did not exactly embrace the inexpensive plastic guitars, they did go crazy for his plastic ukuleles, which sold in the millions.  Surprisingly, the guitars are said to sound pretty darn good, considering the materials and cost involved.  Less successful were the plastic violins, Maccaferri’s last invention in 1989.  Nevertheless, Maccaferri became so prosperous that, according to John Monteleone, he was not only able to take his family on trips to Italy from time to time, he would ship his huge New York Cadillac over for the trips.  John laughed as he described how Maccaferri would have to back up and forward about four times just to turn a corner on the narrow Italian streets!   Monteleone thinks that the 1980s were a "second childhood" for Maccaferri - when he went back to creating new experimental guitars.  After faithfully building one such wooden instrument from Maccaferri's blueprints, Monteleone was asked the very day after delivery to come to Maccaferri's and "bring your tools."  Though thrilled with John's results, Mario was still not satisfied.  Like a kid in a candy store, he and John took the saber saw to the back of the brand new guitar and "tore into it"....

On April 16, 1993, Mario Maccaferri passed away, at the age of 92. All in all, an amazing career.

I have just one regret…

…if only he had made a plastic Maccaferri harp guitar!  

 

l'estremità

l'extrémité

the end

 

  SIDEBAR:  Harp Guitars and...Django?
Contrary to popular belief, Maccaferri himself never met Reinhardt, and in fact, was unaware of Django's music, being immersed in the classical repertoire and not Django’s Gypsy jazz.  The steel-string Selmer guitars were the Company's idea, not Maccaferri's, who remained a gut/nylon-string player his entire life.  How about Django?  Was he aware of the behind-the-scenes creator of his favorite guitars, or remotely interested in the harp guitar?  It's doubtful.  And yet Django was probably no stranger to harp guitars.  According to Michael Dregni in Django Reinhardt and the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz, Django's father - Jean Eugene Weiss - led an "Orchestre" made up of his brothers, one of whom who holds an unknown hollow-arm harp guitar (below right; Jean is sitting at piano at right).  A young Django and his mother re-connected with his father at this time, so it's tempting to imagine the youngster picking up that unusual guitar after putting down his own banjo.
Perhaps more intriguing in the Django story is Jean "Poulette" Castro, known among his fellow Paris Romany as "Le Grand Gitan."  Dregni states that Poulette taught young Gypsy players - including Django - the art of playing steel-string guitars with a plectrum, with the hand loose and free off the soundboard.  And yet, Poulette is seen at left with a harp guitar with 2 or 3 floating basses.   Did someone hand him a "prop" harp guitar for this publicity shot?...or did he play it?  Dregni doesn't know either, but would guess that he played it.  A fast-picking plectrum Gyspy jazz harp guitarist would certainly be something to see!  


Because previous writings about Maccaferri’s career are sometimes conflicting or at minimum, confusing, I think it prudent to attempt to create an approximate timeline of Maccaferri’s key activities concerning his lutherie and performing careers. As with all articles on Harpguitars.net, I hope to update and improve historical data whenever and wherever possible, and ask for input from anyone with ideas or information.

Mario Maccaferri Timeline

1900  Born in Cento
1911  Begins apprenticeship with Mozzani (both in lutherie and as a guitar student)
1916  Enrolls in Sienna Academy of Music
1917-1918  Brief stint in army
1922  Graduates from Academy
1923  Opens his own shop in Cento
1923-1927  Tours Italy, Switzerland, France & Germany (and likely elsewhere) as concert guitarist
1926  Receives “professorship” from Sienna Academy
1926-1927  Receives 3 Gold Medals for his violins
1927  Moves to Paris, working in uncle’s according business.
1928  Catalog of Maccaferri instrument line (Cento shop)
 Moves to London
 Tours continue in Austria, Yugoslavia & Germany (and likely elsewhere)
1929  Records 8 sides (pieces) for Columbia in Paris
1931  Meets with Selmer, moves to Paris to head new guitar production
1932  Production undergoing, resumes touring in Europe
1933  Severs relationship with Selmer
 Fractures wrist and recovers for 6 months.
1934  Begins smaller club appearances as “the unknown guitarist”
1935  Starts new plastic reed business.
1939  Moves to New York
1950-1960s  Develops plastic guitars and ukuleles
1989/1990  Develops plastic violin
1993

 Passes away


Mario Maccaferri circa 1920 with a Mozzani harp guitar, and posing at home in the 1950s with two of the five Mozzani harp guitars he kept until his death (all are shown in color in the Mozzani feature). According to Mario's friend, John Monteleone, Maccaferri acquired these five Mozzani harp guitars in the 1951 liquidation sale of the Mozzani workshop/school, which closed in 1947.  Michael Wright had believed that they were acquired on a return visit to Italy while Mozzani was still alive (which would have been pre-1943). The inventory of the sale listed 7 chitarra-lyra (no styles or models distinguished), and my suspicion is that Maccaferri indeed purchased five of these.  They were subsequently sold to collector Scott Chinery by Mario's widow, and dispersed upon Chinery's passing in 2002.  Regardless of the specifics, they were all Mozzani workshop instruments built after Maccaferri's time (though he had built identical models himself, and knew every detail of their construction).  According to Monteleone, Maccaferri acknowledged that the clever Mozzani neck adjustment - he loved the floating neck - was nevertheless a problem in the long-term, due to the "design flaw" of mixing metal and wood.  He still held Mozzani's instruments in the highest esteem.
maccaferri,wmozzani,1982-monteleone.jpg (81254 bytes) Mario Maccaferri in 1982with one of his Mozzani chitarra lyras, taken by his friend, John Monteleone.

To Table of Contents and additional Maccaferri Features


Sources / Credits:

All images on this page are copyright and courtesy either Michael Wright, François Charle or Giovanni Intelisano, and include invaluable material originally supplied by Maria Maccaferri.

Special thanks to Michael Wright, for graciously and generously donating scans from his Maccaferri chapter in Guitar Stories Vol II (now out of print, but still available from Elderly Instruments and other sources).

I presume that the reader is at least somewhat familiar with the Maccaferri and Selmer jazz guitars. For background on these infamous instruments, see the indispensable book by François Charle, who has graciously permitted use of material from the book.

THE STORY OF SELMER MACCAFERRI GUITARS
by
François
Charle

Available from:

François Charle
17 Galerie Véro-Dodat
75001 PARIS France
www.rfcharle.com

Additional Sources: 

Michael Wright (web article and pers. comm.)
Paul Hostetter (web articles and pers. comm.)

Dick Boak, John Monteleone, Michael Simmons, James Westbrook  (pers. comm.)
Michael Horowitz of
DjangoBooks.Com 
"Mario Macca ferri: Interview" by George Clinton, Guitar: the magazine for all guitarists, Jan, 1976
"Living Legend" by Dick Boak, Acoustic Guitar magazine March/April 1992 (thanks to Peter Penhallow for providing a copy)
Guitar Stories, Volume 2
(Maccaferri article by Michael Wright)
Mozzani: Un liutaio e la sua arte (Mozzani: a Luthier and His Art)
by Giovanni Intelisano
La storia della Liuteria Centopievese (The History of Centopievese Lute Making) by Lorenzo Frignani and Giovanni Intelisano
"History of French American Reeds" by Michael Dresdner
Julian Bream: The Foundations of a Musical Career by Stuart W. Button
Django Reinhardt and the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz by Michael Dregni 
Mozzani: Life and Works
by Giovanni Intelisano with Lorenzo Frignani
www.Chitarrainitalia.it



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