A History of Plastic Ukuleles

Outdoor Soprano at Lardys Ukulele Database

Outdoor

Harmony Modern Bali plastic Soprano at lardys Ukulele Database
Harmony Modern Bali
Mastro Maccaferri blue Islander Semi Deluxe Plastic Soprano at Lardy's Ukulele Database
Maccaferri Islander
The problem with Memorabilia Ukuleles like the Selcol Rolling Stones is that it usually has a much higher value in this market. One sold for £650+ (and I wouldn't pay that)

Bevan Galbraith Captain Soprano at Lardys Ukulele Database
Captain
Karadoo Owlstudio Carbon Fibre Soprano at Lardy's Ukulele Database Ukulele
Karadoo
Mastro Maccaferri Islander Deluxe Plastic Soprano at Lardys Ukulele Database
Islander Deluxe
Greco Astro Boy Plastic Soprano at Lardy's Ukulele Database
Greco Astro Boy
Lapin Happy Tunes Soprano at Lardys Ukulele Database
Happy Tunes
Selcol Rolling Stones Plastic at Lardy's Ukulele Database
Selcol Rolling Stones
The history of plastic Ukuleles as serious instruments is pretty much as long as that of them being toys They both date back to just after the end of the second world war when plastic was just starting to be a serious option for making things with and co-incidentally with service men coming back from the Pacific arena via Hawaii and causing a resurgence of the popularity of the Ukulele in the USA, (it didn't really happen as much in Europe)

As a serious instrument it all started with a famous Italian Guitar maker, (Luthier), called Mario Maccaferri who before the war had designed the famous “Gipsy” Guitars for Selmer. Having hurt his hand he turned to making reeds for Clarinets and started the French American Reed Company importing them from France to the USA. He managed to escape on the last boat from France before the Germans invaded and set up manufacturing in New York. Unfortunately the war meant he could no longer get the French reeds he used and unable to find suitable reeds in America turned to plastic. This novelty was taken very seriously when the famous Clarinettist Benny Goodman started using them and after the war his love of luthiery came back and he spent the late 40’s designing a plastic Ukulele to be released to the public in 1950 as the Islander To be wholly honest though Maccaferri wasn't the first, four months prior to him a Californian named George Finder patented the first serious plastic Ukulele, the Diamond Head, (This design was widely copied by other manufacturers and gave rise to a host of other brands like the Lisa and the Mauna Loa), and two months after him, (so it was in independent development at the same time and he won two court cases for patent infringement to prove it was independently developed), Chris Kratt released the Flamingo. Maccaferri’s Islander is the most famous though, along with his TV Pal, (produced to accompany a TV Show), and the Islander Deluxe is considered the best and the most sought after by Ukulele players and collectors, with good quality examples changing hands today for hundreds of pounds!

Over the next twenty years other manufacturers had a go at plastic Ukuleles including Harmony of Chicago probably the biggest musical instrument maker of the time with their Modern Bali, and more than nine million plastic Ukuleles were sold in North America. Europe didn’t get away totally unscathed with the British firm Selcol producing the Columbian. However as the popularity of the Ukulele generally waned again it took the plastic models with it, leaving only poor quality things that were always meant as toys and were never serious, playable instruments

As a toy it started with Mattel; again in the late 40’s. Mattel marketed a toy ukulele they called the “Uke-a-doodle” and it was one of the first products they made. More importantly it was the first really successful toy they made, thus breaking the company out from Harold Matson’s garage and on to the huge conglomerate it is today. Mattel went on to make more toy Ukuleles over the years including a lot branded for Disney and many other plastic factories started to make toy plastic Ukuleles too. Some like Lapin with the Happy Tune Ukulele and Carnival also had a stab at making serious Ukuleles too, and it has to be said that Maccaferri’s Maestro factory did have a go at making out and out toys. So the years rolled on and the plastic Ukulele, like the Ukulele itself was largely forgotten outside of Hawaii, with even the toy offerings being generally referred to as toy Guitars, (like Carnivals Combo Guitar or T plastics Beat Guitar), even though they were Ukulele size and had four strings.

Then with the passing of the millennium the Ukulele started to become popular with a new generation outside of Hawaii. New companies started like Kala, Ohana and Bugsgear, old companies like Hofner and Epiphone reintroduced ukuleles to their catalogue and a new snowball started to roll. However with this new rise of the Ukulele, plastic ones didn’t initially come on board, part plastic ones yes, like Kala’s Dolphin with its plastic back and sides or the Magic Fluke Co. Flukes and Fleas with their plastic bowl bodies and their plastic fretboards; some other models too but the all plastic, serious Ukulele hadn't really returned. Yes Greco and Kiwaka have produced some very nice limited edition fully plastic Ukuleles but these were expensive and very much for the collector not a quality Ukulele for the mass market. And yes there are still plenty of toy ukuleles about, Disney for example, are still selling movie and TV endorsed models, (not now made by Mattel though), but the serious mass market Ukulele in the footsteps of Mario Maccaferri and George Finder? Well its coming back too.

First there was a luthier called Scott Sealey who very much took up the mantle laid down by the old makers. Using the latest technology in the shape of a 3D printer he prototyped an new all plastic Ukulele with the stated aim of it being this generations “Islander”, and with this prototype he has got the finances together over the last couple of years to go into production with the Outdoor Ukulele. These are difficult to get hold of outside of the US though and a big Chinese factory Lanyao Music has started to make fully plastic Ukuleles that they want to be taken seriously as have another Chinese factory, (I'm not sure who), with the Woodi brand, but these are slow to be available outside China. The first big Ukulele brand, the firm behind Eleuke, Bugsgear, have also released a fully plastic Ukulele called the Aqulele, and this, using all of Eleukes distributors, is widely available. …