Guitar Player / Duke Classic



Since 1995, Finnish guitar maker Juha Ruokangas has been making fine, handcrafted instruments that embody aspects of classic Gibson solidbody guitars, while offering a look and sound that’s all their own.  Though primarily still a Northern European phenomenon, Ruokangas models have been garnering increased attention here lately due to their excellent playability, workmanship, and tone. I recently had an opportunity to test a Duke Deluxe model.

The main thing that sets the Duke apart from other set-neck, dual-humbucker solids is its woods – namely, Spanish cedar for the body and neck, and arctic birch for the top. No CNC machines are used in the manufacturing of this guitar, and the workmanship is outstanding. The top is beautifully sculpted, the neck is smooth and glassy, and the black binding that outlines most of the Duke’s perimeter is absolutely flawless. Standout cosmetic details include a polished ebony headstock overlay, an abalone “R” inlay at the 12th fret, and a deep sunburst finish that brings a radiant glow to the lovely birch grain.  The white stripe surrounding the top is a subtle, but elegant touch, and the gold hardware harmonizes well with the warm tones of the wood.

guitarplayer_2004_1The Duke’s 22 highly polished jumbo frets are expertly crowned, and they sport rounded-off bevels on their tips for a slippery feel. The nut is carefully hewn from moose shin bone, and its ends are filed flush with the fretboard. The only aspects of the Duke that can be criticized are the less-than-perfect fit of the control cover plate (it sits a little lower at one end than the other), and some clunky looking soldering where five ground wires terminate at a common junction inside the nickel paint-shielded cavity. These aren’t huge concerns, but on a guitar that costs more than five grand, the inside bits should be neat as a pin.

The pickups on this guitar are unusual in that they use a vulcanized-fiber bottom plate – similar to many single-coil designs – and their magnets (alnico 5 neck, alnico 3 bridge) are fitted to a carved-maple ring.  They also sport goldplated housings and abalone-inlaid ebony tops. The neck pickup is also unique in its low 5.2kW winding, which gives it a very clear, articulate sound.

The Duke tunes up easily and intonates accurately. It sounds satisfyingly sweet when chording up and down the neck, and string buzz is almost nonexistent. Even though the action is slightly on the high side, the Duke has a very slick feel. The large, polished frets make for guitarplayer_2004_2effortless string bending (thanks partly to the coated Elixir strings), the 12″-radius neck is amazingly comfy, and upper-fret access is excellent.

Whether running though a Fender Twin Reverb or a ’70s non-master Marshall 50-watt, this resonant guitar sounds consistently well balanced. The clean tones are imbibed with a nice sense of depth, and the distortion textures are smooth and well detailed. Compared to a Les Paul, the Duke sounds a little more refined – a bit like a jazz guitar. This silkiness in the Duke’s voice makes it especially fun for clean fingerstyle and rhythm playing, where its richness and harmonic complexity add a great deal of buoyancy and character to the tones. Output-wise, the Ruokangas humbuckers are on par with a Les Paul’s, and they’re fully capable of driving a non-master Marshall into full-bore distortion. And while the tones are a little more rounded than a Paul’s, there’s still plenty of definition in the grind.

guitarplayer_2004_3The push-pull controls add lots of variety to the Duke’s tonal palette. For example, pulling the neck-pickup Tone control activates the inside coil of the neck pickup to provide a chimier, cluckier tone with less output. Pulling the bridge-pickup Tone knob chops the inside coil of the bridge pickup, yielding a brighter, snarkier tone with less output. Pulling the Volume knob in dualpickup mode puts the two pickups out of phase. I think I’d prefer having two Volume controls – each with a coil-split-and a master Tone with either a parallel or an out-of-phase function. At any rate, it’s nice to know that Ruokangas will configure the switching the way you want at no extra charge.

The Duke Deluxe epitomizes the custom guitar ethos. It’s beautifully made, it’s loaded with one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted elements, and it looks fantastic. An expensive creation, the Duke, like all exotic commodities, radiates a certain panache for purchasers who love to drive, wear, and/or make music with things that turn heads on the power of their one-of-a-kindness. The fact that the Duke sounds so good on top of being such a beauty makes it all the more compelling for anyone who craves the finest that boutique guitar makers have to offer.

by Art Thompson

Guitar Player, September 2004