A Great On-The-Go Guitar: Blackbird Rider Steel String

August 1, 2009

0.000gp0809_gearblack02860.000gp0809_gearblack0288CARBON FIBER INSTRUMENTS HAVE BEEN around for years, and so have travel guitars. So why has it taken so long a for combination of the two to develop? You would think that carbon fiber, being a lightweight, nearly indestructible, and resonant material, would be the obvious choice for a travel-sized acoustic guitar strong enough to withstand the tension of steel strings tuned to standard pitch, yet small enough to fit in an airliner’s overhead baggage compartment. Somehow, it has taken until now for Blackbird Guitars to arrive, offering the Rider Steel String, a space-age instrument for the guitarist on the go.

When the FedEx man handed me the carton containing the Rider, it almost flew out of my hands. I was expecting light, but not this light. The Blackbird sports an 182" inch body and a full-sized 242" scale neck, yet it weighs less than three pounds. Removing the bouts helped reduce size and weight, resulting in a shape that resembles an African kora.

The Rider’s body, neck, and headstock are cast as a one-piece hollow assembly, with the soundboard, fretboard, and tuners installed afterward. The company claims this construction eliminates weak, sound-absorbing joints, and because the entire instrument is hollow, the guitar is essentially a sound box. The small opening behind the nut is not for trussrod access—there is no trussrod—it is a secondary sound port that prevents standing waves from developing in the hollow neck and provides additional sound projection. The stability and stiffness of the carbon-fiber neck and micarta fretboard, along with two carbon tubes that run the length of the fretboard and tie into the top bracing, provide a layered construction that is unaffected by string tension and/or changes in climate.

For the soundboard, Blackbird uses a blend of carbon fibers: uni-directional (stiff in one direction) and 0-90 degree (strong in two directions). The resulting instrument certainly feels bulletproof, ready to withstand the wildest road trip or airline manhandling.

Strapped on, the Blackbird balances beautifully, as the hollow neck and small headstock effectively eliminate any neck-heaviness. Sitting down, the instrument feels a little slippery on your leg, so to enhance its seated playability, Blackbird includes a clever strap/suction cup device that attaches to the lower strap button and sticks to the underside of the guitar. Once deployed, this strap sets the instrument securely in a comfortable playing position. The action, intonation, and fretwork were spot on, and I found the Rider a real pleasure to play.

If carbon fiber was merely lightweight and sturdy it would not necessarily be desirable in a guitar, but it is also highly resonant. I tested the Rider acoustically, plugged into an amp, and used in a recording situation to see how its brand of resonance faired.

No one expects a travel guitar to ring like a full-sized acoustic, so I was surprised by how loudly this baby hollered. The asymmetrical soundhole combines with the headstock port to produce plenty of volume and a satisfying low end that rivals that of many larger instruments. In my tests, the Rider proved louder than both an Art & Lutherie parlor guitar and a Loar dreadnought.

The Rider isn’t particularly warm sounding, but I wouldn’t agree with Blackbird’s modest description of the voicing as Dobro-like—it is more delicate and nuanced than that. It evidences a sharp attack (some of which lessened as the strings were broken in), and definitely lacks the woodiness of a typical acoustic. But the Rider sounded balanced from top to bottom, and its unique voice would blend well with other acoustics.

Plugged into an amp, the Fishman electronics accurately translated the Rider’s bright, responsive character. The enhanced sense of resonance was confirmed by feedback when I got too close to the speaker, but, by keeping a little distance from the amp, I could play the Rider quite loud without incurring any howls. Plugged in direct to a recording mixer, and with a little creative preamping and EQing to add some warmth, the tones sounded great and sat perfectly in the track.

If you do a lot of traveling, the Rider Steel String complies well without sacrificing the quality of your sound. At nearly $1,600, it’s a sizeable investment for sure. But for pros or serious amateurs seeking a highly portable and efficient acoustic for gigs, practice, or sessions, the Rider Steel String could be a small miracle.

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