Blackbird Lucky 13
As much as guitarists love the look and feel of wood, there are advantages to alternative materials, including modern composites like carbon fiber. One of the newest companies exploring these possibilities is San Francisco, California-based Blackbird Guitars. Blackbird has been building guitars since 2005, starting with its Rider travel guitar, and it now offers a full line of guitars and ukuleles. Blackbird consists of a small team that combines traditional lutherie techniques and individual construction with modern technology. We had a chance to check out the company’s latest model, the Lucky 13, which is based on the small-body Gibson L-1 guitars of the early 1900s.
Reinventing the Past
While the Lucky 13 has a basic body shape and size that would make Robert Johnson feel perfectly at home, it departs from its basic inspiration in almost every other detail. Most obvious is its nearly indestructible construction—a big advantage over a vintage Gibson if you’re playing a rowdy roadhouse or trying to stuff your guitar into the overhead bin of an airplane. The carbon-fiber construction also makes the guitar impervious to humidity changes, which is a huge benefit when traveling. One unusual feature is that the neck of the guitar joins the body at the 13th fret—which explains the guitar’s name. The configuration (which is also found on some vintage Gibsons, including some Nick Lucas models) strikes a balance between the resonant tone of a 12-fret model and accessibility to higher frets. Besides adding durability and strength, the carbon fiber also enables some unique features. For example, the lack of a neck block allows easy access to higher frets, further aided by the 13-fret design. The neck itself is hollow, with an opening in the headstock that acts as an additional soundport.
Evaluating construction of a carbon-fiber instrument is somewhat challenging, due to the fundamental differences from traditional wood instruments. The body appears to be perfectly manufactured and joined, and the characteristic carbon-fiber pattern is smooth and even throughout. The black micarta fingerboard looks and feels like ebony on steroids—perfectly smooth, shiny, and flawless, and the stainless-steel frets provide a smooth and polished playing surface. However, the fret ends seemed a bit sharp on the edges, protruding beyond the fingerboard just a bit more than they need to. The clear finish over the carbon fiber shows a few small hazy spots that appear to be in the finish itself, although they are easily lost amid fingerprints and other smudges that are hard to avoid on the carbon-fiber surface.The most notable visual flaw in the instrument is some smeared glue marks around the micarta bridge, although the effect is tempered by the carbon-fiber pattern and only noticeable from certain angles.
Space Age Playability and Punchy Sound
For those used to wood guitars, the sound of a carbon-fiber guitar may require some adjustment, but there is a lot to like about the difference. The Lucky 13 produces a big sound—bold and punchy, with excellent sustain, perhaps more than on a similar wooden guitar. The tone has a pronounced midrange, and there is a metallic edge when driven hard, but that doesn’t seem out of place for a guitar modeled after classic blues instruments. The guitar is quite responsive, responding to a light touch with a warm tone, while still handling a hard attack. Most players probably wonder how the tone of a carbon fiber guitar compares to one built with more traditional materials. Of course, every guitar, even wooden ones, have their own tone, so it’s difficult to make general comparisons, but it’s safe to say that many listeners would probably not detect that the Lucky 13 isn’t made out of wood just by listening.
The combination of the short-scale neck with no heel and extremely light weight helps make the instrument remarkably easy to play. The gloss-finished carbon fiber, slick micarta fingerboard, low-profile shape, narrow stainless-steel frets, and moderately low action all help make the neck feel very sleek.The Lucky 13 is also surprisingly resonant. You might think the carbon fiber would be very rigid, but you can feel the whole guitar vibrating against your chest as you play. The unusual headstock soundport offers another surprise for the player. The effect is subtle (unless you put your ear right near the headstock) but clearly noticeable, adding both a stereo sensation and an expanded sense of resonance.
Our review instrument was equipped with an optional pickup system. Consisting of an L.R. Baggs Element undersaddle pickup (Blackbird also offers a Fishman pickup option) and a rechargeable MiSi preamp, the system has unobtrusive tone and volume controls inside the soundhole. The MiSi preamp system is unusual in that there is no battery in the guitar. Instead, the system can be charged with an external power adaptor (included) that simply plugs into the guitar’s output jack. MiSi claims that just 60 seconds of charging provides 16 hours of playing time (in a pinch, a nine-volt battery and a stereo cable can be used to charge the system). Playing through an AER Acousticube combo amp, the plugged-in tone was warm and full, with excellent sustain, and a sound that did little to betray its unorthodox construction.
Portable and Durable
While traditionalists may not warm up to the appearance or tone of a carbon-fiber guitar, the Lucky 13 has a lot to offer if you meet it on its own terms. The easy playability, light weight, extreme stability of the neck, and good plugged-in sound make the guitar a natural stage guitar. Its small size, along with its near indestructibility and imperviousness to changes in humidity or climate, makes the Lucky 13 an attractive instrument for traveling pros, but it would be equally at home sitting around the campfire or hanging out at the beach.
THE SPECS:13-fret L-style body. Carbon-fiber top, back, and sides. Hollow low-profile carbon-fiber neck with headstock soundport. Micarta fingerboard and bridge. Tusq nut and saddle. 24.75-inch scale, (25.6 available as an option). 1 3/4-inch nut width. 2 3/16-inch string spacing at saddle. Polyurethane finish. Kluson tuners. Optional MiSi electronics. Elixir Nanoweb 80/20 light-gauge strings Made in USA. Left-handed version available.
PRICE:$2,470 list/$1,850 street (without electronics).
MAKER: Blackbird Guitars; (415) 625-0977; blackbirdguitar.com.
Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar April 2013