Music: Blackbird Guitars

by Monika Norwid

artist Airyka Rockefeller

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“Oddly shaped, like a cross between an ancient obsidian
Stonehenge boulder, and something Rick Owens would
make out of goat’s hide and call a coat.”

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If you play guitar, this article won’t be much use to you. All you need to know is this name: Blackbird. Next time you stop by New York’s famous Ludlow Street Guitars or Carmine Street Guitars, or any number of renowned guitar sellers around the globe, it’ll take a look and a strum before you’re back home scraping together your lunch money for a Blackbird Rider Steel String or Clara Ukulele to take on your next trip (they fit in the carry-on compartment—need I say more?).

This article is for everyone who’s never played guitar. Hey—maybe you’ve never played ANY instrument in your life. Your parents bestowed piano lessons on your sniveling, tone-deaf baby sister while you were dragged off to tap-dance classes or gymnastics or some other hybrid of torment and humiliation. These days, though you might glance wistfully at an inexplicably cheerful busker and fantasize about her rich vagabond life, you just don’t have the time. Besides, where would you practice? If you live in a city, playing anything louder than a pair of rubber castanets will get you into trouble with your pets, boyfriend, roommates and neighbors—if you’re lucky. If you’re actually good, you’ll get evicted.

But say one day ... you come across something beautiful. You don’t know what it is exactly, because it’s both a thing and an idea. The thing is ... black. Oddly shaped, like a cross between an ancient obsidian Stonehenge boulder, and something Rick Owens would make out of goat’s hide and call a coat. Light as a feather, cradle-in-your-arms-sized, it makes you ache to hold it and never, ever let it go.

The idea is to go. Just go: anywhere, everywhere. Far far away, or down the block to the local park. In any weather—liquefying heatwave that blisters car tires, Scottish Highlands mist that turns a silk weave frizzy, Caribbean gale force winds that relocate a beach, or Arctic deserts that crack the enamel off your teeth when you accidentally smile at the fact that you are ... making music? With this thing in your arms? In minus 50? What?

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Blackbird Guitars makes string instruments out of composite materials—carbon fiber initially, but now also a flax-based weave they call Ekoa—that can withstand any temperature and any condition on earth where insane humans might will themselves to go. Initially designed as a “travel guitar” and hand-built in a workshop in San Francisco, Blackbird Guitars are slowly gaining a cult status both as an adventurous musician’s companion, and as a professional instrument, travel optional, due to their extraordinary level of performance.

The Blackbird guitar is that thing and that idea which gives new meaning to making music. A daring experiment that breaks the rules of space and the logic of time, Blackbird is changing not only how and where we play, but also WHY. Not because you are taught that you should. Not because everyone else is doing it. Not because you’re trapped and alone and angry at your parents and have nothing better to do. Not because it’s a great excuse to get stoned. But because music is an expedition in and of itself, a trip way, way out of our comfort zones, beyond reason, beyond any “because” that might have a logical answer. Because you want to and it happens to be pouring out? Sure. That’s a good answer. Because you can put on your Rick Owens coat (or whatever) and walk down the block to a park bench, and pull out the Rider, and start doing your scales? That’s a good reason. Because the sound, as sloppy and amateurish as it might be in these conditions and your skills, is exactly what you needed to hear to calm you down and make you happy? Exactly. Now we’re making sense.

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Joe Luttwak started his adventure in guitar-making much the same way a person might start their adventure playing it in on a rainy night in a park—he stepped way out of his comfort zone. Having majored in History at the University of Rochester, in New York, he worked at Ferrari’s factory in Maranello, in the communications department, where he also contributed to the design of a museum exhibit. On his return to The States, he was so inspired by his work on that exhibit, that he decided to get a masters in product design at San Francisco State University. By chance, he was helping a friend out with an extra-credit class project when he came across this challenge: to make an all-hollow-body guitar.

Guitars are usually hollow only in the head, but not in the neck. Making the neck hollow, as in a mountain dulcimer that Luttwak had once heard, makes the guitar able to resonate much more loudly and deeply while staying compact. Fusing his experience at Ferrari with this new challenge, Luttwak created a prototype—the “F1 unibody meets the acoustic guitar.” Thus began his quest to make a hollow-body guitar out of composite materials that could deliver a small yet resonant, and practically indestructible, instrument for a niche but growing travel-guitar market.

Problem was—Luttwak had never made a guitar before. Luckily, he was living on a West Coast that, over a decade ago, was still writhing with small manufacturing and skilled craftsmen. With the generous encouragement and enthusiastic help of luthiers like Jeff Traugott in Santa Cruz and Ervin Somogyi in Oakland, Luttwak built up his game as a guitar maker. To that, he added his fiercely inventive mind, which he focused on perfecting the other side of the challenge: understanding composites, at first synthetic like carbon fiber, and then later, organic like flax.

Today, Luttwak’s small shop produces approximately 400 guitars and ukuleles annually, with a team of about a half-dozen employees continuing to introduce new concepts and new models, including some with a traditional look, like the Lucky 13—a guitar based on vintage Gibson L-1s from the early 1900s. By introducing natural composites, such as the flax-based Ekoa, Blackbird hopes to turn a small niche product into an alternative that is both environmentally sustainable and musically attractive, inspiring a whole new customer base to play music in a whole new context—and, perhaps, for the very first time.

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Art and adventure have always gone hand in hand.In some ways, they are synonymous: creativity is often approached as a journey of risk and discovery, while travel, in turn, is a source of profound inspiration to the artistic sensibility. When creativity and environment are literally fused in the form of one object, that object will pack a serious, even mythical punch. The days of Divining Rods, Excaliburs and Sorcerer’s Stones may be behind us, but when some channel comes along that promises to bridge the extremes of nature and emotion, a certain giddiness will naturally shoot through our spines. We recognize instinctively the power in that bonding mechanism. Blackbird Guitars give me chills.

more from Monika Norwid

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