Blue1 / Interview

Guitar heroes

Finland has several internationally acknowledged guitar makers. To professional luthiers, machines are a mere extension of the palm: they speed up the wood shaping process, but instruments are always put together and finished by hand.

Chip by chip, a hand-held plane transforms a plank of wood into a guitar neck. Yes, it is slow. And maybe old-fashioned too. But good things are worth waiting for.

For 15 years – the best electric guitars in the world – according to luthier Juha Ruokangas, have been produced in an old wool factory in Hyvinkää, a town not far from Helsinki.

“When I was still a student, my friends would joke about me sketching the future with a pretty big brush”, Ruokangas recalls. However, he uncompromisingly pursued his vision.
Today he and his three employees make a hundred guitars a year. 70-90 of them are shipped outside Finland. Every instrument is pre-ordered.

It goes without saying that only first-rate wood and electronic components are used here. As a curiosity, each Ruokangas guitar contains a small piece of Finnish moose shin bone. Usually the nut (a small component supporting the strings between the neck and the headstock) is made out of cow bone, but we all know how cows are raised. Their bones are porous. Those of animals that have been running free are heavier and thicker.» Still, premium components alone do not guarantee premium instruments.

“You can make a few good guitars in whatever shape you may be, but to be able to put out a hundred top-quality products a year we have to feel good on a personal level”,
Ruokangas says. “That’s why nobody works overtime in his shop — something quite unusual for a small company. »Regular working hours must be enough. Then it’s possible to keep life in balance and not wear yourself out.”

Ruokangas has full confidence in himself and his team: each guitar comes with a generous 20-year warranty. Clients, too, seem to share that trust. Last year, when Ruokangas introduced a new model, he published a 17-part video diary on its design and building process on YouTube. The first orders came in when the Unicorn’s, as the new model is called, prototype was just beginning to take shape. »At that stage, even I didn’t know how the guitar was going to sound.»

A first-class “workhorse” takes about twenty hours to make, but special editions with elaborate pearl inlays may require hundreds of hours.
Ruokangas says such a “super custom job”, which may cost in excess of 30,000 euros, feels like his own baby, admitting that at first he felt a bit sad letting finished instruments go. “Nowadays I get my satisfaction when I see that the client is pleased.”

Recently, Ruokangas built a guitar with Viking-inspired decorations for a German descendant of the Vikings. “When the guy got the instrument into his hands, he was so happy he began to cry. So yes, sometimes we are dealing with very deep emotions here.”

Founded: 1995
Number of employees: 4
Price range: EUR 2,500 – 16,500
Guitars made per year: 100
Famous players: Tommy Emmanuel, Mick Box (Uriah Heep), JayJay French (Twisted Sister), Josh Smith (Taylor Hicks Band), Matias Kupiainen (Stratovarius), Juha Torvinen (Eppu Normaali), Pantse Syrjä (Eppu Normaali), Jukka Tolonen, Juha Björninen, Peter Lerche.

By Lauri Haapanen
Photography Miika Kainu and Anni Kinnunen

Blue1 Inflight Magazine 3/2010