Bert Niblett – Luthier – ‘Bertaferris’
The Engineer and Luthier
Bert Niblett, was a self employed engineer he had his own workshop and foundry in Hornsey Lane, North London. Unfortunately when he was about 60, the council developed the area into housing and so he went to work over the photographic shop in Haringay, doing a lot of repair work for them. Having his own foundry he had been able to make up moulds and castings of anything he wished including copies of Selmer Maccaferri tail-pieces, logo stamps for the headstock, and he cast steel jig moulds for making the bodies of the guitar. He would soak rosewood in the bath overnight on a Saturday, then fit this wood into his cast mould to form the guitar sides the next day.
– he swapped it for some cash and a very nice John Le Voi copy which still survives have along with one of his own Macca copies. The Macca owner, one of his Django Club members died about 4 years ago, and the Guitar is still with his son, who didn’t seem keen on selling it. When I was small my father had had another genuine Maccaferri, a D hole model GBSM, but it met with an ‘accident’ so he traded it in to Louis Gallo, for the PBSM (oval hole). I think my Dad made about 20 – 25 guitars in all and all Mac copies. He used to work on them in the evening in his workshop in our basement. I know he sold several to players in America, and he gradually perfected the fine detailing on them. – Pam
The Bertaferris – On some of his own crafted guitars, including the one I have, my Dad used to cut his pick guards out of plastic by hand. Later he may have bought them. – Pam
The above 12 fret D hole was built by the late Bert Niblett founder of the original Club Django. Featured in the film ‘The Django Legacy’ the club ran for over 40 years. Bert was the inspiration behind the present Club Django in Penzance
I always thought that Bert put the scratch plates on his own ‘Bertaferris’ and then he put one on the his Oval-hole Selmer.
I was lucky enough to be allowed to play it several times at the Club, and later at Roy Stevens’s house in Potters Bar after he’d bought it from Bert. I went along with my friend and fellow guitarist in Parisian Swing, Colin Borrill, and we took several photos. Roy’s son, Paul Stevens, still has it. The case is very battered, but the guitar has survived pretty well. The table is certainly coloured a very striking orange and the fact that the colouring has overrun the purfling suggests a repaint job.
Bert always told me that the colour of Macs was ‘chrome orange‘, but I believe that this may be a mis-reading or mis-hearing of the standard violin colouring ‘Cremona Orange‘, which is actually much less exotically orange than the front of his Selmer. I don’t know who did the repaint, but suspect it may have been Bert himself.
It has a distinct sweet ringing tone and, under the right fingers, can be made to sound as it should, with the unmistakeable Selmer sonority. Paul does not believe it is as valuable as those occasionally quoted on Jacques Mazzoleni’s site, but he does not appear to want to sell it. I’m still in touch with Paul, so could make further enquiries, but I suspect not. – Mike
Gipsy Guitars Bert’s old genuine Selmer (with Mario‘s name blacked out, you’ll remember, because Maccaferri fell out with Selmer in 1933) the one which Roy took over and is now with his son, P V Chester. The scratchplate – a kind of black celluloid, I believe, but stuck on. A Bertaferri modification and perhaps a sacrilidge.
Paul Doyle – discovered the Club Django in Haringey, North London, he then met up with Bert Niblett and started a study on Selmer / Maccaferri guitars, Bert worked in a photographic shop and as Paul regularly used that shop for work photos, printing and developing, he could slip in the back and talk to Bert about construction and saw him making the famous Tailpiece in brass. During that period a meeting was arranged for Paul to visit Louis Gallo in Wood Green who welcomed him in and showed his original Selmers, as Paul was an Architect he proceeded to make a outline drawing, several sketches later and 2 years of chat Paul boxed up his material and information which he used to design his own models of mandolins, guitars and bouzouki’s with the D shaped sound hole which he still uses to this day.
I did meet Paul Doyle, he came to our house in the mid 70s to talk to my father about building his Selmer Mac copies, (and he contacted me on Myspace a few years ago).Pam Bert left school at 12 and initially helped his Father with painting and decorating. In those days not many people attended University, so he learnt most of his Engineering it from his brother-in-law and through his own experimentation. He specialised in cine projectors, and had always worked at repairs as well as casting and inventing. He invented a way of putting sound on 16mm film, but, typically, did not patent it – Kodak developed their own method and brought it out a few months later. Pam
Having seen Bert’s ‘Selmer’ 1st hand several times, played it and talked to Bert about it, I believe that it is a genuine Selmer, date of manufacture not known to me. The tuners, label (with MM’s name blacked out in accordance with Selmer Company practice), tailpiece, headstock ‘Selmer’ mark are certainly all genuine and appropriately aged. The back, ribs and the neck also look certainly very old and do not appear to have been interfered with. Only the table (Soundboard), with its orange finish looks as though it has been made over. According to the Francois Charle book, all of Roccia’s rebuilds were labelled accordingly with an additional Marco Roccia label – he was not in the business of producing ‘fakes’. For all these reasons, I believe Bert’s Selmer PB is as near genuine as it gets. I never saw Bert’s GBSM.
The luthier François Charle was born in Paris in 1949. He is an authority on Classical, Traditional and Modern French stringed instruments. In 1979 he and his wife Rosyne took over from Daniel and François Sinier de Ridder the instrument shop and workshop in the Galerie Véro-Dodat, an historic arcade in the centre of Paris. His liking for Selmer-Maccaferri guitars took a decisive turn when he had the opportunity to buy the tooling stock of woods and spare parts of the old Selmer workshop. He became fascinated by the somewhat hazy history behind this guitar and the myth that is represented. So he threw himself into a 10 year long research project, using archaeological type methods to unearth all the available information on these mystical guitars. This book is much more than a compilation of the results of this inquiry into “Django Reinhardt’s Guitar”, it is a real plunge into a world whose inhabitants have a passion for instrument making and music.
Mike Massey – I happened on the Club quite accidentally. I wanted to make a Mac copy, but had only the LP covers to go by. The result was a disaster!
However, I was put in touch with Sid Rumbelow (once owner of the electrical stores and then owner of a music shop in Finchley) who put me in touch with Tony Shapiro, who owned a genuine Mac which I could inspect, but instead he suggested I contact Bert and go along to the Club, which I duly did, taking my awful Mac with me. Bert saw I was interested in the guitars and told me all about their construction. He lent me drawings, his guitar mould and even provided me with a stamped headstock veneer which he had ‘forged’ from the original Selmer logo! The result was a much better second attempt which served me well from 1973 until 1982, when I purchased a CSL Gypsy from Louis Gallo. Bert had also introduced me to Louis Gallo, who sold me an original Mac Label (which I still have) and an original Mac fretted fingerboard (which I don’t). I also have spruce guitar front, complete with soundhole rosette and some purfling. It was obviously removed from a damaged Selmer guitar. – Mike – with his Grande Bouche ‘Mike’aferri at Club Django circa Dec 1971
Keith Nichols Swing band playing at a party in 1966. (Tony Shapiro-guitar, Phil Franklyn-drums, Keith Nichols-vibraphone, Dave Williams-bass.) Courtesy of Keith Nichols