The Flight of the Ukulele
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because good music and a lower carbon footprint don’t have to sound strange in the same sentence anymore.
By Eugene S. Robinson
To call Joe Luttwak “just” a guitar player in his earlier life doesn’t do either his earlier life or playing much justice.
No. We’re going to call it like we see it: Luttwak, founder of compact, hollow-body Blackbird Guitars, was obsessed. With the guitar, stringed instruments and, to a certain degree, making enough money to eat. Which, if you’re obsessed with guitars, leaves a few options: superstardom or something else.
Guitars up to that time were bulky, heavy, and delicate. Which is where the “there’s got to be a better way” part of the story kicks in…
”I ended up coming west to get my master’s in product design at State,” said D.C.-native Luttwak from his San Francisco redoubt, a shared design-work space in the still quasi-industrial portion of SOMA (South of Market for those of you who’ve not managed to leave your hearts in San Francisco). The move west also meant he could indulge his interest in hiking, travel and, of course, guitars.
But the standard guitars up to that time were too bulky, heavy, delicate and altogether difficult to travel with, making the convergence of hiking, guitars and travel less than comfortable. Which is where the “there’s got to be a better way” part of the story kicks in, specifically stringed instruments made out of composite materials. Blackbird’s latest, codenamed Clara and being released today, is a new kickass ukulele.
The bald and stocky Luttwak walks us over to a refrigerator and opens it up to show what seems like turkey jerky, or small strips of bacon, and grabs a fistful of composite material, which he calls ekoa. “It’s lightweight, strong and most importantly for what we’re using it for, it sounds cool.”
Then the real heady stuff — CAD/CAM cutters, secret sauces, airtight molds — and then the craft: fitting, finishing and pressing into our hands the nicest ukulele ever. Sure, serious competition is coming from countries and companies that can make composite instruments faster and cheaper, but Blackbird is going for the whole “better” approach.
Luttwak walks us over to a refrigerator and opens it up to what seems like turkey jerky, or small strips of bacon, and grabs a fistful of ekoa.
And before you start laughing, let’s acknowledge that the ukulele (like the tuba) has a certain comedy factor that can prevent it from being taken seriously. That’s where one of Luttwak’s favorite people, and a fan of his ukelele craftsmanship, comes in.
That would be a Mr. Jake Shimabukuro. Called the “Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele,” the Hawaiian Shimabukuro is the undisputed star of the ukulele. And though he can play “any damned thing he wants,” says Luttwak, “one of the ones he plays is ours.” So, doing good while sounding good and not going broke in the process? A win-win-win.