As you get in to the world of ukuleles you will probably find yourself looking at some vintage models, and before long you will come across a range of ukuleles that are made of plastic. Plastic you say? Surely they are just toys? Well, yes and no. There was certainly a blitz of "toy guitars' made from shiny brittle bright plastic from the 50's through to the 70's, but there were some serious contenders too. In fact, there still are.
Image Credit - Ukenique.com
Back in the 1950's the use of the new wonder material plastic was everywhere - no matter what the object, some manufacturers wanted to use it. In the ukulele world, it was no different, and a whole range of injection moulded plastic ukes hit the music store shelves and mail order catalogs. Makers had dabbled with the use of plastics before, particularly on moulded fingerboards such as those marketed by the Harmony brand before the 1950's but it was post-war that things took off. Perhaps the most famous of those was made by the jazz guitar maker Maccaferri, who introduced the Islander ukulele to huge commercial success with reports that they sold more than half a million instruments in the 1950' selling at about $3 a go. Those same instruments, in good condition, are highly sought after today for the simple reason that they were well made and designed, and actually sounded pretty good!
Another maker, Emenee, introduced the similar looking Flamingo plastic ukulele which also became extremely popular as it was endorsed by one of the music hall ukulele stars of the day Arthur Godfrey.
Image credit - Ukenique.com
Both instruments came with their own version of a beginners tool that clipped over the fretboard and allowed you to press buttons to form chords with one finger. Called the 'Chord Master' by Maccaferri and the 'Uke Player' by Emenee, this ingenious device worked with by a variety of levers being activated by pressing a button which depressed pads or 'fingers' down on to the strings to hold the chord patterns. A clever, if lazy, invention which allowed the uke to be played quickly with little effort. Vintage instruments today that come complete with the device are worth considerably more.
From the 1950's through to the 70's both brands and many others continued to churn out a dizzying array of plastic ukes of varying quality, some still highly collectible like the TV Pal range, and those made to assist in marketing of bands such as the Beatles or Disney Films. There is a great set of links and photos to such ukuleles on the Chordmaster site. Check your attics - do you own one??
Image credit - Ukenique.com
So what happened next - well the ukulele went into a bit of a lull in popularity and the models dried up due to lack of demand. But as you know, the ukulele never went away, it just went for a snooze and is now back in the big time. At the start of the current uke boom were the new entries by Jim Beloff at the Magic Fluke Company. In 1992 Jim picked up a uke at a junk sale and immediately clicked with it. He went home and started writing ukulele songbooks. By 1999 Jim and his wife Liz launched the Fluke ukulele and a little while later the Flea to huge success. Both instruments featured a wooden top, but a plastic moulded one piece back and, in a hark back to the early days, a moulded fingerboard with the frets in the moulding meaning zero setup issues. Both instruments had great volume and tone and are played today by some very famous folk including Bette Midler, William H Macy and Loudon Wainwright III.
Image - Gotaukulele.com
In a similar way, my favourite bargain ukulele for beginners, the Makala Dolphin, is now manufactured with a plastic back. Whilst it was, no doubt, done to save money, many players who have played both the original all wood Dolphin and the newer version claim that the plastic backed instrument has bags more volume and tone!
Most recently the Takumi Ukulele Company, the brand behind the extremely highly regarded Kiwaya ukulele line have released three totally plastic ukes that hark back to those 1950's instruments. Each one is themed (Paradise, Peace and Ukulelia) and despite being branded in what they call their novelty section they are reported to sound great and retail for a non toy price of over £100.
Image - Takumi
So where does it go from here? Well new ukes are hitting the shelves all the time as the ukulele boom continues and with plastic a cheap and cheerful way to make ukes, I'd expect to see more appearing in the future. I'd also add, I'd prefer beginners to play a decent plastic uke, than an unplayable bargain basement wooden model.
For now though, I'll end on a video demo from YouTuber 'plastic ukuleles' playing and Islander and showing what a nice sound they create.
Thanks also to Ukenique for their kind permission for use of the Islander and Flamingo photos - they are dealers in vintage ukes and well worth a look!