Guitarist / Duke Classic


Versoul Henry and Ruokangas Duke

These two custom built beauties prove there’s more to Finland than reindeer and racing drivers.

Name five famous Finns? You can have Mika Hakkinen for starters. Erm… Well, here are two names that should definitely be on the list: Kari Nieminen and Juha Ruokangas. We’ve seen some of Nieminen’s Versoul guitars before, he’s been building them for 20 years and has become something of celebrity in Finland. Ruokangas, however, is a new name to Guitarist. Founded in 1995, the company – like Versoul – operates on a small scale, but his guitars are made to custom order. So, let’s have a look at ’em.

…and here’s what the Guitarist says about the Duke:

guitarist_2002_1With its honey sunburst flamed maple cap, gold hardware and ornate yet tasteful 12th fret inlay, the Duke is certainly an attractive guitar. Like the Versoul, this is a guitar of apparent contradiction: the body shape suggests one of the USA’s finest – albeit a slightly offset, dinky version – but the overall design, concept and materials result in something very different.

Juha Ruokangas has a thing about Les Pauls. Specifically old Les Pauls, and the fact that you can’t get Honduran mahogany any more, which is why he feels that newer guitars are too heavy and generally less resonant. So, hungry to get the vibe and sound of that wood, Juha has come up with Spanish cedar which, unusually for a solid body electric, makes up the body and neck. The two-piece body is seamlessly centre-joined and boasts a carved, book-matched maple cap, bound extremely tidily in white and black plastic. Around the back there’s a belly contour to add comfort.

The three-piece cedar neck is set into the body, bound along the fingerboard’s edge and finished with simple dot markers. It has a shallow ‘C’ shape, verging on ‘D’ profile, which gains a little extra meat behind the nut. Decoration on the 12-inch radius ebony fingerboard itself is minimal yet stunning, with the abalone ‘R’ at the 12th fret extending tastefully into the 11th and 13th. There’s more abalone at the bottom end, inlaid into the carved and faced headstock. The standard of Juha’s work everywhere on the Duke is admirable. It has that high tolerance and quality control feel about it which imparts a handmade character.

guitarist_2002_2The neck itself is raked back for a Gibson-esque playing position. The Duke came set up with an impressively low, buzz-free action and light gauge strings, so we raised the action a touch and fitted slightly heavier strings. There’s something about ebony boards that makes everything feel that bit slinkier, and coupled with the Dunlop 6100 jumbo frets the Duke lures you into fast runs and enormous bends. It makes you want to out-play yourself; to bring your playing up to the standard of the guitar. There is one small playability niggle though; the top string is very close to the end of the fret, so it’s easy to yank it off the profiled edge.

Ruokangas also makes his own pickups, and here we have a brace of Dukebuckers complete with abalone-inlaid wooden covers. Controlling these are a master volume, two tone pots and a three-way toggle. Each pot is push/pull; the tone controls have coil-splits and the volume control pulled puts the pickups out of phase in the middle position.

Bridge and tailpiece is the obligatory tune-o-matic/stud combination, goldplated, as are the locking Schaller tuners with ebony buttons. And you also get gold Straplocks to boot.

Juha’s not wrong about that body material. We did an A/B test with a PRS Custom 22, and acoustically the Duke is lighter and brangier. That’s true for the plugged in sound too, with the cedar’s inherent character singing through. There’s less of that heavy impact low mid that you get with a Les Paul, enabling the top strings to zing that bit more. Under extreme gain, that leads to a touch of flapping, but that probably has more to do with the pickups which aren’t all about power. Ruokangas has designed these Dukebuckers with a vintage voice in mind; Alnico V magnets, vulcanised fibre baseplates and fewer windings on the neck unit in particular to stop it muddying as you crank up your amp.

guitarist_2002_3The bridge pickup is especially sweet with a neat upper-mid honk which can often get drowned out by masses of body material on certain guitars. The coil-split strips out much of the mid punch, although – as with any split ‘bucker – never really produces an authentic single-coil slap. The neck unit is obviously darker and rounder, and sounds great with the volume rolled back a touch. Again, you can split this one to thin things out for chordal passages, for example.  If there’s a word that sums these pickups up, it’s ‘breathy’. What they lack in out and out power, they make up for in transparent musicality.

The ‘out-of-phase’ switch is interesting; in the mid position it lowers the output somewhat and gives a distinctly quacky sound; almost like there’s some kind of filter – like a half cocked wah for example – in operation. It sounds smart for clean funky parts.

At £1,899 the Ruokangas faces some extremely tough competition, but that cedar body might just be the thing for you – it’s not just another wanna-be PRS. Tonally it’s versatile, it looks great and plays well so there’s no reason – brand perception aside – it shouldn’t do well. Good work the Finns!

by Mick Taylor

Guitarist, January 2002