BY GREG OLWELL | FROM THE SUMMER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Based in San Francisco, Blackbird makes guitars and ukuleles in its small shop in the city’s Mission District. The company has long had a commitment to creating sustainable instruments, which are made from Ekoa, a natural-fiber linen composite developed by company founder Joe Luttwak (see the Spring 2022 issue cover story on sustainability for more on his philosophy). In the Winter 2014 issue of Ukulele, I reviewed their concert-sized Clara; this is the tenor Farallon, named for a small island group 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Ekoa is a very lightweight material. Blackbird applies a non-petroleum bio-resin to stiffen the linen. It is lightly tinted to give it a woodier look. The Farallon can be ordered matte-finished (like my tester), with a gloss finish, or finish-free “au natural.” The top uses two layers of Ekoa arranged in opposing directions for an optimal strength-to-weight ratio. The result is a soundboard that’s even lighter than wood, but with comparable stiffness. It’s braced with carbon fiber in a classic fan-bracing pattern for support and tone.
The Farallon’s body, neck, and headstock are molded as one piece, with a hollow neck and a small soundhole on the headstock. This construction gives the Farallon a lot of strength. It feels nearly unbreakable, and, indeed, its rigidity and structure make it resistant to weather and climate changes. It’s unlikely Blackbird owners will ever have to worry about humidity cracks and playability issues. And it’s something to consider for people in highly humid or dry environments, or for folks who bring a uke everywhere.
This structure also lends itself to sustain and volume. My hours playing the Farallon showed me that it has tremendous amounts of both. Where most ukuleles have a strong attack and a quick note decay, the Farallon can keep on singing. Just strumming through an open chord yields a lovely tone with a long, steady decay. It’s a feature for players who want the ability to have notes ring out for fingerstyle playing or long spaces between strums. Muting and dampening with your picking or fretting hands can help you contour the sound to your liking. Still, it’s somewhat unusual and might take some getting used to for players unaccustomed to sustain.
This sound is also accentuated by the side soundport on the upper bout and, to a lesser extent, by the headstock. While a side port really gives the player a direct experience with the instrument’s sound, on the Farallon, it somehow seems even more prominent. This uke is loud, and its sound is expansive. Notes don’t seem to just shoot out of the uke, like an instrument that really projects; they seem to spread around the room. The Farallon’s back has a pronounced arch, much like an archtop guitar, which undoubtedly helps give it volume, too. The Farallon also includes strap buttons, which many players will appreciate.
The neck’s C-shape profile is comfortable and flows gracefully into the body at the 14th fret, so it’s easy to play up the neck. The composite fingerboard has a flat radius (a radiused board is available as an option) and 19 perfectly shaped frets. An added benefit of the composite board is that it’s impervious to humidity changes, so you’ll never have to deal with fret “sprouts,” which can occur when a fingerboard gets a little dry and fret ends poke out. Tuning comes courtesy of the Gotoh UPT tuners, which are a personal favorite of mine for tuning ease.
None of these exciting and unique features would really matter if the ukulele didn’t deliver a good sound. And sound good it does. My tester had a low-G setup (Blackbird also offers the Farallon in a high-G configuration), and it’s hard to think of another uke that capitalizes more on the low-end possibilities of this tuning. I don’t think I’ve played another tenor with such a deep sound. The Farallon produced a big, round sound with pleasing warmth and massive low end, from single notes to chords. However, the bassiness was not overwhelming, as it also had a high end that sparkled and clearly defined each note. While some ukes might sound more alive or dead depending on where you are on the neck, the Farallon’s sound was remarkably even and balanced in every position. No matter what I played, it delivered warm, almost vintage sounds that might make you forget it isn’t made from finely aged wood.
Though my tester’s price approached $2,000, it delivered in terms of comfort, tone, durability, and good looks. Beyond the many technical delights, the Blackbird Farallon is a high-quality boutique-type instrument made in the U.S. that can go toe to toe with anything else in its price range. Add the side benefits of the highly durable construction and extensive use of carbon-negative materials and it becomes even more appealing.
Blackbird Farallon Tenor Specs
BODY Tenor size body with Ekoa natural linen-fiber composite back and sides; bi-directional Ekoa top with carbon-fiber braces, fan-style bracing patter; satin-finish composite bridge with Micarta saddle, and 1.5″ spacing
NECK 17″-scale hollow Ekoa natural linen-fiber composite neck with C-shape profile, 14 frets clear of the body, small headstock soundport with black Gotoh UPT tuners, flat-radius composite fingerboard with 19 medium-gauge frets and satin finish, 1.4″-wide Graph Tech nut
OTHER Strap buttons, side soundport ($150), MiSi pickup ($250), satin-matte finish ($250), Oasis GPX Warm fluorocarbon strings, padded ballistic nylon gig bag
PRICE $1,615 (base model, direct); $1,990 (as tested, direct)
MADE IN USA