Gitarre & Bass / Unicorn Artisan



Guitars are often compared to women, and for both this is true: the most beautiful is not necessarily the best for you. This can’t of course prevent us to pay homage to this gorgeous Unicorn Artisan. If there would exist something like a competition for the ultimate semi-acoustic, this guitar would be a weighty argument for Juha Ruokangas to face his competitors calmly.

Looks like sated self-complacency? By no means!
A man like Juha Ruokangas never leans back and far from this: he is the kind of perfectionist who never falls off coming closer to the ideal. Nice but an empty shell? Not at all, this guitar has an intrinsic quality that gives space, space to fill, space that inspires – something really extraordinary.

Ruokangas UnicornCONSTRUCTION
The Unicorn Artisan design is Juha’s homage to the old masters of the jazz guitar. Though at a first glance looking like a Les Paul, there are also connections to the Gibson L5 and the Stromberg guitars.

Juha wanted a traditional look but structural improvements. Besides the outer appearance there are important differences in construction and the choice of materials.
The Unicorn Artisan is built from tone woods, which have become the base for the trademark sound of this Finnish maker, tone woods he has gone through despite all opposition, cause he is totally convinced of their tonal qualities. For the three-piece neck and the hollow body with the continuos center block Juha has chosen Spanish Cedar, a standard material for the necks of better classical guitars – but no role to play for electric guitars before Juha discovered the special quality of this tone wood and has made it a base for many of his guitars. The other important ingredient to his sound receipe is Arctic Birch. For this guitar he used a two-part top carved by hand with a delicately designed F-hole. The top-wood went through Thermo Treatment – but not the common one. Juha’s is a scientifically supported method, that Ruokangas has gotten the best results with by experience. The neck has been reinforced in the traditionally fragile area where the headstock is angled.

The headstock with Ebony faceplate got the typical outline of the company and is equipped with Gotoh SD510 tuners. Behind the nut from moose bone we find the covered entrance to the 2-way truss rod. The rosewood fretboard (12″ radius) is equipped with 22 perfectly finished frets and has the Unicorn inlays from mother-of-pearl. The tune-o-matic bridge and aluminium tailpiece are made by TonePros. Two Unicorn Custom pickups (especially designed PAF-type humbucker for the Unicorn by Harry Häussel) with 2 volume- and 2 tone-pots can be activated via a 3-way toggle switch. Switch and controllers are in the traditional position. Juha: “In a car you want to find the pedals always in the same place.” Only the best materials were used for the electric components and the scale has the expected length of 628 mm. The guitar is lacquered in Tobacco Burst with high gloss PU-lacquer, done beyond all praise.

Ruokangas UnicornPRACTICE
The Unicorn Artisan is lightweight, 3.3kg only. The roundish neck feels very good, though it`s a strong U-profile which may not be for everyone (but Juha offers enough alternative profiles). Already the first chords make it very clear: here comes the Queen! If you hold a chord, a remarkably loud and amazingly rich and harmonic sound is to be heard. A clear representation of every tone of the chord in all positions, a resonant response and power and great possibilities to form the tone, due to the mirrorlike polished frets: this definitely is high end! The acoustic base for the electronic sound couldn’t be better. When plugged to an amp the guitar shows it’s strength with an outstanding expression as expected. The PAF-style humbuckers are equipped with slightly asymmetric coils for optimal dynamics. With dc resistance of 6.9 KOhm for the neck and 8 KOhm for the bridge pickup they deliver a sound of powerful clarity. The neck pickup delivers broad, softly rounded sounds, single notes sound tight and resonant. Elegance and clarity are first and foremost here. Played with overdrive there still is this remarkable transparence. The typical characteristics of a semi-acoustic are present even more in the clean mode. The neat separation of the strings results in an excellent distortion sound even with complex chords. The single notes can easily be contoured, rising in a crescendo like a wind instrument. All this comes less “static” than on a solidbody guitar, which of course is not necessarily a disadvantage and maybe better for some styles, but there is a breath, which can be felt nearly physically. A nice, woody flair for the bass range but foremost the harmonic elegance even for chords played with more distortion is breathtaking.

This is a guitar for players with a dynamic style – which is not to say the Artisan can’t be used for heavier styles. The bridge pickup is different but not less impressive. Played clean there is still much “light” in the trebles – but tighter and with a natural compression in the middle frequencies, excellent for an accentuated, rhythmic style. This precise and compact tone is extremely effective with higher gain. The semi-acoustic construction gives the tone an astonishing response. This bone-dry, well defined but aggressive voice of a wild animal is breathtaking. Is there something like cultivated aggression? Perhaps it is the same as in boxing: fantastic how the guitar executes a technically perfect right hook for a knockout!

Ruokangas UnicornAs for presence, tone colour and harmonic interaction – with this bridge pickup the Artisan is a tone monster. If both pickups are active we get another broad and sparkling sound. Also in this combination the already mentioned characteristics are clearly audible and very useful. Given that working with the volume- and the tone-pots brings the best results for tonal differentiation, we can only confirm our first impression when we played the guitar without an amp: the Unicorn Artisan belongs to the best of the best.

No doubt, Juha Ruokangas belongs to the extraordinary makers in Europe. His marvellous Unicorn Artisan is the incarnation of passion and inspiration, with features manifesting of an instrument of outstanding craftsmanship and above all of unusual sound capacity, full of freshness, dynamic and vividness. And though no instrument can fullfil all demands, sometimes there is one in a crowd which holds a definite position. If this is the one for you, your search has come to an end. Concerning the guitar tested here, the best possible materials culminate in a high price, the basic model is available for much less. Expensive? Of course, but justified and beyond every doubt worth each Euro.

Gitarre & Bass, April No.4 2014