Guitar Buyer / VSOP Classic

guitarbuyer_2002

FRETTING FINN

Take a tweak on classic styling, add a special wood ageing process and you have a unique approach to everyone’s favourite twin-cut. Pete Crisp caresses the curves of this Finnish Fancy.

Finland is propably better known for winter Olympics and successful racing drivers than for its history in producing electric guitars. Yet tucked away a few miles north of the capital in the town of Hyvinkää, a small band of luthiers headed by Juha Ruokangas is intent on increasing our awareness of their homeland’s toneful talents. This relative newcomer – Ruokangas started out in 1995 – concentrates its small-scale production efforts on blending old-style familiarity with an intriguing hi-tech wood-ageing process. The claim is that this lends the instruments a vintage tonal quality.

The VSOP certainly doesn’t hide its influences, so with Uriah Heep mainman Mick Box among an ever expanding list of players choosing them, let’s have a look at just what’s drawing so many Finnish fretters to the Ruokangas party.

BODY AND NECK
guitarbuyer_2002_1Although instantly recognisable, the body of the VSOP has been given a subtle makeover that lends the guitar a slender, slightly more asymmetric profile than the classic outline from which it draws. Beneath the ‘vintage white’ finish two pieces of alder make up the body, which has been scooped approppriately on the rear for playing comfort and faced with an eye-catching three-ply tortoiseshell pickguard. For all its thinned-down looks, it actually feels quite substantial in weight, not uncomfortably so though, with a solid, balanced feel when strapped on.

If the body looks a little on the drawn side, the bolt-on neck takes an altogether different approach with the rock maple distinctly clubby in the palm. This will find friends and foes alike; if you favour chunky necks you’ll love it with the satin-finished wood rolled gently over onto the deep rosewood fretboard. The VSOP departs somewhat from the vintage arena here with the fretting area feeling flat and infinitely pacy all the way along its 25.5″ scale length. 21 jumbo frets give everything you need for some heavy duty string bending. Taking the edge off things a tad, literally, is the close proximity of the high e to the neck edge. If you’re not a controlled, precise type of player, it’s all too easy to yank the top string of the edge off the fingerboard. It’s partly to do with the chunky frets, and also to do with the rolled edges of the rosewood (where they’re rounded a little to make it all super comfortable). A little extra width here wouldn’t go amiss, ahem…

HARDWARE AND PARTS
guitarbuyer_2002_2Ruokangas has stayed with the workmanlike functionality that we all know so well from a guitar of this ilk. maybe not earth-shatteringly innovative but beautifully put together throughout nonetheless. Three singlecoils are controlled with a master volume and two tone pots, all finished in a fitting cream colour, and switched using a five-position blade selector. The controls sit fairly high off the body, an intentional design feature according to Mr. Ruokangas, which is quite helpful if you like rolling the volume with your pinky, bringing the master pot within easy reach. The VSOP comes with either Ruokangas VS pickups, featured on the review model, or a set of hum-free Kinmans as used by the likes of Gary Moore and Hank Marvin. Both offer a tone that errs on the vintage side, although the VS pickups come in two flavours, one slightly hotter in output.

The smooth actioned vintage-style vibrato has pressed steel saddles, as opposed to the cast variety, which adds further to the overall effect of an instrument far greater in years than the VSOP’s true age. This is somewhat broken with the inclusion of a set of Schaller locking tuners adorning the decoratively carved headstock, but we’ll doubt that anyone will complain with string changing being a breeze and tuning that remains stable even under concerted whammy bar wiggling.

Bone is used as the nut material which has been deftly cut and seated, helping to achieve a suitably low action which leaves the VSOP feeling modern in its playability.

guitarbuyer_2002_3SOUNDS
lt’s all too easy with a guitar like this to launch straight into a few well-worn Hendrix licks and overlook the calmer properties of such a classic pickup configuration. Keeping a lid on preamp overdrive lets the VSOP show off a clearly defined tone that remains bold across its range, the middle position suffering little from unwanted muddiness and blending admirably with the bridge pickup for strident funky wah playing. Flicking across to the neck and you can get all warm and cosy with a roundness that still responds crisply to plectrum or fingerstyle techniques, and sounds great when tinged with a bit of subtle chorus effect.

lf Stevie Ray-type aggressive blues takes your fancy, the VSOP delivers all the sounds you’ll be looking for with its ability to hold on to all of its character when paired with a set of cooking valves.  Again, the combination af bridge or neck positions with the centre pickup offers up that gorgeous honky tone that was inadvertently stumbled upon so many years ago, becoming synonymous with this style of guitar. At increased levels, the VSOP remains surprisingly quiet, and that’s without the noiseless Kinmans, this being largely due to the internal shielding Ruokangas uses. As a studio bod myself, I can vouch for its impressively quiet recording credentials. Add even more volume and things really start to sing out, with a tone that lends some credence to the thermo treatment’s ageing effect. It’s hard to to say for sure – after all there are so many factors that affect tone – but whatever your opinion, there’s no doubt that the VSOP stands up well against a good Strat, particularly the solid bottom end and energetic midrange.

THERMO TREATMENT
All the woods used by Ruokangas go through a thermo treating process that the company claims alters the cellular structure resulting in premature ageing. In theory this gives a vintage vibe to the tone and increased stability over long periods. Just to make sure we’re convinced, the concept has been tested and verified by Finland’s Technical Research Institute, and we wouldn’t want to argue with them now would we? Men in white coats and all that…

PROTECTION
guitarbuyer_2002_4If Vintage white doesn’t grab you, fear not. Ruokangas offers a range of alternatives as standard or you could go for a custom colour scheme. You can also get hardware in gold plate. To protect your pride and joy from abuse you’re treated to a set of Schaller straplocks and a Hiscox hard case included in the price.

CONCLUSION
While Ruokangas seems to have a firm following in Finland, the guitars remain a bit of an unknown entity in the UK, a fact that looks set to change if the VSOP is anything to go by. There’s obviously been a heap of attention bestowed on a guitar that, while not offering anything radically new aesthetically, offers a well-articulated vocabulary combined with a real sense of quality, albeit at a price. The adaptation of a tried-and-trusted body shape and the departure in headstock design will deter the purists, but sonically there’s a whole lot to get excited about. Apart from the small gripe about the high e string, playing the VSOP is and invigorating experience that keeps you going way past your bedtime, just the way a great guitar should.

by Pete Crisp

Guitar Buyer, September 2002

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