San Francisco industrial designer Joe Luttwak, who is also an avid musician, wanted a portable steel-stringed instrument to take to the woods on camping trips. He recalled mountain dulcimers he'd seen in Appalachia years ago: Their compact shape and light weight seemed ideal for travel, but the sound was thin and plinky. How could a truly portable instrument project sonic largesse? Luttwak thought back to the Ferrari exhibition he'd co-produced for Tokyo's Museum of Contemporary Art in 2002. Spending time at Ferrari's legendary Maranello factory, he'd been impressed by the lightness, flexibility, and strength of the sports car's primary structural ingredient: carbon fiber.
Luttwak's axe is certainly not the first acoustic to make use of this now-ubiquitous space-age material. Ovation put a carbon-graphite top on its fiberglass-body Adamas in the mid-'70s. RainSong began making steel-string guitars entirely from carbon fiber in the early '90s. And a couple of years ago, Composite Acoustics opened an 18,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art production facility dedicated to bringing carbon out of the boutique age and into the mass market.
But steel strings from those companies look like, well, regular old guitars made out of black fiber. And the marriage of that archetypal, natural-wood acoustic guitar form (one that's barely evolved in the past centuries) with the thoroughly inorganic look of epoxy-coated woven carbon just doesn't work aesthetically. As with plastic-foam sports sandals or Polarfleece hiking jackets, carbon fiber is a highly functional material that has a limited context for visual tastefulness. In other words, it's kinda ugly unless you do it just right.
Luttwak and his partner, design engineer Kyle Wolfe, have endowed the Blackbird with a few unprecedented technological innovations, but the first thing one notices about the Rider is its remarkable style. Its clear epoxy shell shows off a textural checkerboard weave in the carbon fiber beneath, giving the instrument's surface a reflective, almost 3-D quality. The Rider has unusually minimal, geometric lines—it's almost like a tiny musical incarnation of the monolith from Kubrick's 2001.
Luttwak has recognized carbon fiber's inherently sinister, futuristic look. While typical carbon acoustics might fly in the parking lot of a String Cheese Incident concert, it's easier to imagine the neo-noir Rider onstage with a new-wave goth band. Blackbird's guitar is more Bauhaus, less Bonnaroo—in this case, definitely a good thing.
On the other hand, looks will only get you so far where musical instruments are concerned. Sound and playability are obviously paramount. And since the Rider is meant to be a travel guitar, it also needs to be tough and portable. That's where the distinct structural advantages of the material come in. While wood is delicate and sensitive to changes in heat and humidity, carbon fiber is strong enough to dent a tree, not to mention completely waterproof. And carbon fiber's lighter weight in comparison to wood allows the Rider a slightly larger, more comfortable size than other travel guitars. The tiny, awkward dimensions of Martin's rather thin-sounding Backpacker, for instance, make it almost impossible to play without a shoulder strap. Not so with the Rider. It has a smooth neck in perfect proportion to its body—a breeze to play sitting down or standing up.
Upon first strum I noticed something unusual about the Rider's sound: It wasn't projecting from the middle. Almost all acoustics have a soundhole located directly in the center of the body. The Rider's soundhole is nestled almost invisibly at the top of its body, near the neck. And then it has another soundhole at the headstock, which happens to be hollow (wooden necks are not only solid, but usually require steel reinforcement to stay straight). With a hollow body attached directly to a hollow neck, every inch of the Rider can resonate with sound. And, according to Blackbird, their "stereo soundhole" arrangement makes for more efficient sonic projection. I'm honestly not sure exactly how this works, but I can tell you I've never heard an instrument this size sound quite as robust.
While fingering individual notes on the Rider, I noticed the neck's silky, playable surface was made from a different material than the rest of the instrument. My guess was that Blackbird had broken form and used ebony—a rare and expensive hardwood. To my surprise, I learned the neck's surface was in fact Delrin—a lightweight, wear-resistant plastic that just so happens to be the material my favorite guitar picks are made from. Ironically, the only wood present on the neck comes in the form of a few tasteful, decorative bloodwood inlays—a visual nod to the perishable materials so commonly used by other manufacturers.
As for sheer tone quality, I'm sad to say the Rider falls a bit short of aural nirvana, especially for an instrument that costs $1,600. Of course, there's only so much a guitar maker can do to endow a guitar this small with the sonic complexity of a full-size six-string. I've already mentioned how big this thing sounds for its size, and I was impressed with the guitar's crisp, high-end sparkle and tight, focused bass. But while the Rider is remarkably even, I would happily sacrifice some of that balance for a bit more personality and life.
This instrument may not possess the divine sonority of a dreadnought crafted from choice cuts of timber, but that's clearly not the point. Blackbird has succeeded in creating a good-sounding, eminently playable, easily portable instrument that might work just as well on a tour (the Rider's got a pickup so you can plug it into an amp) as on a trek. And hardly a tree's been harmed in the making. After all, if there were no trees left, how could you take your Rider to the woods?