Guitar Magazine / VSOP Classic

guitarmagazine_2001

VSOP STANDARD

Let’s be honest, we don’t hear much about guitar makers from Finland but Ruokangas may he changing that with a range ot modern yet classic-styled instruments ripe for the plucking.

Never heard of Ruokangas? Don’t worry. Juha Ruokangas has a long list of endorsees and a good level of support within his native Finland and its Nordic neighbours. Mick Box of Uriah Heep is probably about the only player of international standing that Guitar Magazine readers will know, but the fact is that Juha Ruokangas has been building fine instruments for around 10 years – six under his own name – and now the Ruokangas Guitars has finally attracted a UK agent. So what do we get? Well, the Duke model with its interesting cedar body/maple top and humbuckers follows, broadly speaking, a line that Gibson and PRS players will find familiar. As for the VSOP, the alder body, maple neck and three single coil layout certainly doffs its cap in the direction of Fender. But variation on a theme is well met.

Here’s the VSOP, then. The cut of the body is very Strat-like but the curves are much fuller with the guitar’s waist being, consequently, rather tighter than Fender’s. There’s also a hint of asymmetry to the form which is quite pleasing. So what makes this two-piece alder body any different from that of any similarly cut instrument from a dozen or more other manufacturers? One difference is that Ruokangas has its own timber aging process, Thermo Treatment, which claims to ‘change the cellular structure’ of new wood so it becomes almost identical to timber that has been naturally ageing for decades. lt’s a big claim but it seems that, with good Nordic efficiency, the process has been studied by both Tampere University and the Technical Research Centre of Finland. Wood certainly dries out as it ages and older guitars in general have ‘a reputation for quality tone, resonance and vibe, so the benefits here will (or should) be apparent in the playing.

guitarmagazine_2001_1Visually, there is certainly no complaint about the quality of the timber or of the classy ’50s style two-tone amber/black sunburst, while a green tinted three-ply laminated scratchplate adds in a bit of ’60s style to complete this mixed retro platter. Moving on to the VSOP neck, we find more evidence of a bygone era’s influence. The broad C cut of the straight-grained maple continues the ’60s theme – as does the convincing colour shade of the soft satin finish, though in its feel this neck is more modern than retro. The very nice rosewood fingerboard is deeper than the vintage equivalent but the narrow gauge fretwire once more takes us back down memory lane. There’s some lovely dressing here with no unpleasant fret tangs at the board’s edge, just excellent finishing delivering a nice rounded feel that makes the instrument feel instantly comfortable and played in. The heel joint is well cut and access up the neck for soloing is fine and well in keeping with this genre of instrument. Locking Schaller machineheads and a nicely-cut bone nut are both good news for tuning but a string tree for high B and E strings in combination with a Fenderstyle trem? We’ll see.

As an interesting twist, the VSOP sports three Kinman Hx pickups. Built in Queensland, Australia by pickup obsessive Chris Kinman, these units are billed as delivering vintage tone and performanee and noiseless operation. Gary Moore and Bonnie Raitt have both switched to these pickups and Hank Marvin now uses a specially designed Kinman set for both recording and live work.

Controls wise, the VSOP is tradition itself: a pair of tone controls, a single master volume pot and a five-way selector. ‘Nuff said: let’s play.

guitarmagazine_2001_2SOUNDS
Starting out with a clean valve amp tone, you can’t help but be impressed by the simple, assured clarity of this instrument. The VSOP’s bridge pickup delivers a pleasingly rounded sound with a bright but not shrill top end and a rich, well-defined bass. The mid section of the spectrum is creditably well articulated which is, admittedly, a characteristic of mature instruments, so there may indeed be something to this ThermoTreatment.

There’s no noticeable pickup noise, either – not even when you wave the guitar around in front of an amp – so the Kinman promise holds water. Moving forward through the pickup options we find all the classic Strat tones – all clean, clear and recognisable but certainly not a pure modern Fender-a-like. There’s a vintage softness and tightness here and plenty of aggressive character for when you want to hit the wires a little harder. The lack of noise will certainly make this a very good recording instrument. Another big surprise is a very pleasant, easy action tremolo. For a lightly-sprung unit set up for both forward and reverse bends it performs exceptionally well and sensible activity does little to affect the tuning. The bridge saddles are pressed steel rather than cast, adding a little more to the vintage appeal.

And the VSOP drives with authority. The bridge pickup wails just the way you want it to and, unlike some ‘noiseless’ pickups, the Kinmans don’t flatten out the sound, so you can achieve all the dynamics you desire. It’s a very good good rock and blues tone. The first  ‘in-between’ position (bridge and middle together) is chirpy and sweet responding well to wah for funk – and if you really want to play that Dire Straits lick, no problem. The middle pickup is well rounded and certainly less muddy than anything a ‘70s Strat player will be familiar with (though the new American Series models have regained some of the joy of this middle ground). Moving to the neck pickup things get all warm and fuzzy as our guitar tone breaks up into clouds of feedback and bluesy action. lt’s a surprisingly big sound for such an unassuming instrument. All in all, a very playable and enjoyable jamming experience.   

VERDICT:
The Ruokangas VSOP is definitely a player’s guitar rather than a poseur’s instrument. Anyone out for the sort of brand-cred a mainstream audience will recognise is going to pay a couple of hundred quid less and go the big-name route. Sure, new Fenders are great instruments so I’ll endorse their choice – but the Ruokangas VSOP is a serious option if you want to go your own way to a series of great tones cast in a classic mould.

The VSOP is an unassuming instrument that will give years of pleasure, deliver the goods in all situations and make a good amp sing. lt stays in tune properly and the pickups deliver the right tone characteristics, not the familiar hum, buzz and crackle. Good materials, excellent craftsmanship… and you get a unique story to go with your new purchase. Thumbs up!

Review by Marcus Leadley

Guitar Magazine, September 2001

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