Defying classical construction, Joe Luttwak started making carbon fiber guitars back in 2005 when he began the Folsom Street based company, Blackbird Guitars.
His plan was to create a niche guitar company, but in the 10 years since its inception, Blackbird has become one of the largest suppliers of guitars made from bio-composites, producing about 400 a year, and selling every one they make. Companies like Rainsong, Composite Acoustics, and Emerald are also in the same market as Blackbird, making carbon-fiber based instruments as well.
Music innovation, Luttwak said, has been part of the Mission’s history and Blackbird- in the Mission since 2010 – is in exactly the right place. “The various waves of gentrification have really made an impact on what once was an existing community of instrument makers,” Luttwak said.
Located across the street from the Box Factory, once a literal box factory that was turned into loft housing in the 1990s, Luttwak plans for the Blackbird to stay true to the street’s tone: creative construction, by producing an iconic instrument in a completely different way.
“I’m not going to be romantic and say that’s going to come back or whatever, I just like to think of what we’re making is fitting in this environment,” he said.
Recently, the company released the first-ever guitar made from the flax-based material the company developed and trademarked as Ekoa. Already used in a ukulele, Blackbird produced El Capitan, an acoustic guitar that sells for roughly $3,000.
It’s an instrument Luttwak hopes will move natural composite-made guitars from travel instruments to a more primary place in the industry, which is still dominated by wood.
“Carbon fiber is awesome! It kicks ass, it’s super strong, doesn’t break and is super space-age,” said Luttwak, a 2005 graduate of San Francisco State University in Design and Industry.
“People love it as a tool, but it doesn’t resonate the same way it would with a wooden instrument. This is better, as in its louder, it has a rich, warm tone, it’s not just louder, it sounds good. It’s easier to play,” he said.
Ekoa is a bio-composite made from flax plant, which is a linen that looks like hair, but produces sounds that resemble those produced with wood. The flax is originally from Europe, then transported to the Bay Area for the transformation into Ekoa.
Already, said Luttwak, the material has proved popular in the ukulele. “It’s a small instrument that you can take anywhere with a big voice,” he said.
Only about four other companies worldwide create carbon fiber guitars. And, most like Blackbird, have frequently used carbon fiber.
The new fabric, Luttwak hopes, will expand his sales. Already he employs about six people in the Mission, where they create built to order guitars in a shared warehouse on site.
Moving away from wood, but toward a wood-like sound has always been Luttwak’s goal.
“The wood that we’re using and getting these days is worse and worse quality and its from kind of dubious sources. It’s coming from endangered forests. It’s a big concern to me, but not to any one else,” said Luttwak. “If we want people to adopt new things, we have to give them better things.”
Eddy, a customer who recently bought a Ekoa ukulele from Blackbird, said, “I was really impressed by it right off the bat. It is just so crisp and crystal clear.”
Carbon fiber, which Blackbird uses to create six of its other uni half-body guitars and ukuleles, is a thin, crystallized material generally used for ceramics, and can be woven for strengthening purposes.
Luttwak said that San Francisco was an obvious choice for growing a company. Early on, he said, “We took prototypes to dudes that have been building for thirty years and they’re like, ‘Hey this is pretty cool, this is pretty weird, you’ve done all this stuff wrong.”
From that advice, the company has worked to perfect its instruments.
“We are going for design differentiation,” explained Luttwak. Nowadays, he added, it’s also about perfecting and elevating their craft.