And Now, the Linen Guitar

Guitars and ukuleles made by Oaklanders gain big acclaim for sound and ease of transport.


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Photo by Christine Col

 

Joe Luttwak’s two favorite things are hiking and playing guitar, and his quest as an entrepreneur was to find a way to do both.

He’d hiked with bulky guitars of wood, and forget it; they were heavy and uncomfortable to carry. He tried some lightweight travel guitars, but they sounded murky and impure, more like toys than musical instruments.

So, 10 years ago, as a design student at San Francisco State University, he began working on making a guitar that would sound great and be easy to take on the road, on a plane, or on a hike.

He was a designer for the Italian carmaker Ferrari, and used some of the lessons there to design his guitars and ukuleles, which he described as “part F1 race car, part mountain dulcimer.”

The racecar part was his use of carbon fiber, the thin, light, rock-hard material used in fast cars, planes, snowboards, and bicycle frames. He solved the biggest problem—how to make it not sound wimpy—after watching a mountain dulcimer player get a big sound from the hollowed-out instrument. He realized that a one-piece guitar with a hollow neck would produce more vibrations, resonance. Thus was born Blackbird Guitars, named for The Beatles’ song and the ubiquitous Bay Area birds. Luttwak and business partner Kyle Wolfe made their first prototypes in a West Oakland manufacturing shop. They moved to San Francisco, where Luttwak lived and where he found a more advanced machine shop, but most of his eight employees still live in Oakland.

Luttwak, 39, was still looking to improve his instruments, to make his already successful line of guitars and ukuleles more like Steinway pianos.

Because travel guitars are smaller than typical guitars, they lose a lot of the range of the bigger instrument’s sound. Hollowing out the neck of his travel guitars brought back a deeper bass sound and notes that extended longer because they had more space to vibrate, Luttwak said.

His next inspiration was to try a kind of linen material that was stronger than carbon fiber, could be made thinner, and was friendly to the environment.

“In 2008, some of the early-bird hippie-types were experimenting with natural composite materials,” he said. “That seemed more in line with what people were looking for in an instrument: natural and ecological with a sound they are accustomed to.”

He settled on Ekoa flax linen, a sustainable composite that is lighter than carbon fiber and resembles wood in looks and playing. He partnered with a company called Lingrove, also in San Francisco, to manufacture it as a replacement for carbon fiber.

For guitars and ukuleles, he says, the new fiber is stronger than anything else the instrument has been made from before, and different instruments can achieve the same sound. Wooden guitars change their tones based on the various types and pieces of wood used. Composite materials give every instrument a similar sound.

The instrument’s endorsers include Oakland bluesman Quinn DeVeaux, who played one at the Blackbird booth at the NAMM, for the National Association of Music Merchants, conference in Anaheim in January, where musical instrument makers show off their new models. Experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser, the grandson of the industrialist and hospital founder of the same name, also plays one.

Luttwak brought out a concert linen ukulele for $1,150 in 2014 called the Clara, and his linen guitar, the El Capitan, which sells for $2,995, this year. So far, the reviews have been stellar. One reviewer at the Ukeeku.com ukulele site called the new Clara “a winner” and said he’d played much more expensive ukes that sounded only half as good.

Hear a demo here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZN3pclQEkQ

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