With very few exceptions, guitars—even electric guitars—are made of wood. From a sustainability point of view, this is bad, because they’re usually slow-growing hardwoods and sometimes exotic woods. In an acoustic guitar, where the music is generated and shaped by the vibrations of the soundboard, the kind of wood used can dramatically change the guitar’s tone. The preferred material is old-growth wood.
The El Capitan, from Blackbird guitars, looks as good as a wooden guitar, but is made from something far more sustainable—flax linen fibers mixed with resin gathered from industrial waste. The material is called Ekoa and in many ways, it's better than wood.
Blackbird made its name with carbon-fiber guitars, aimed at travelers, and has managed to make instruments that are not just light and tough, but that sound and play as well as "real" guitars. The problem was, not everybody wanted a techy-looking black guitar and painting carbon fiber to look like wood is just plain tacky. So, 10 years ago, Blackbird founder Joe Luttwak founded another company, called Lingrove, to come up with a suitable and attractive alternative. The result is the new material, and it is useable anywhere you might customarily use bent wood or molded plastic—skis, furniture, boat paddles, and even car interiors.
Luttwak claims that Ekoa is every bit as good as old-growth wood as a guitar material, and it certainly sounds pretty good. But Ekoa offers many other advantages. First is its strength and light weight. They’re desirable qualities on their own, but they also allow some innovation, like a hollow neck, with a second sound hole up in the guitar’s headstock. This gives the player a kind of stereo output not available on other guitars.
Wood is also notoriously sensitive to temperature and humidity. Get a guitar too dry and the wood will warp and eventually crack. To keep a guitar playable and safe, many players will even humidify their homes in winter. If that sounds like a lot of trouble, it is. Ekoa (and also carbon fiber) are immune to these problems, which—for folks who play in tropical Florida or arid Las Vegas—might be the only thing they need to know.
The El Capitan does have some things that it shares with traditionally built, high-end guitars: It will set you back a cool $3,200 and takes 12 weeks to build.
Photos: courtesy Blackbird