ToneQuest Report / Duke & Mojo



We have set out to bust 13 myths in this edition while opening doors to new places worthy of your consideration. May you continue to discover your unique voice unencumbered by the mythology of tone, and Quest forth…

Myth #1 The finest guitars built in the world today are still made solely in the USA.

Myth #2 The only wood species appropriate for building electric guitars are mahogany, maple, spruce, ash, alder, ebony and rosewood.

Myth #3 The best finish material for guitars is nitrocellulose lacquer.

Myth #4 Every important variation on the electric guitar has already been done (and you’ve seen them all.)

What do we mean by “the finest guitars?” Exceptionally well-built and thoughtfully designed instruments with uncompromising playability requiring no after-market “fixes,” an outstanding range of versatile tones and character that give you what you want when you need it, flawless intonation and tuning, lasting structural integrity, balance, exceptionally fine craftsmanship throughout and loads of “play me” appeal. In contrast to bargain instruments that you expect to tweak and upgrade when you buy them, “the finest” instruments are more expensive in theory because extra time and care have been invested in building them, only the best materials are used in their construction, and they represent the pinnacle of the builder’s art. Instruments generally considered to embody such rare snap, crackle and pop include Fender Masterbuilt and Custom Shop guitars, the Gibson Historic Series, specific models by PRS and Gretsch, Hamer USA, Lentz, McInturff, Anderson, Callaham, Nash, Suhr, and DeTemple, to name a few. And now we can add the guitars built by Juha Ruokangas in Hyvinkää, Finland to this list.

We saw our first Ruokangas guitars at Westwood Music in L.A. several years ago. They were as stunning then as they are today, and among all the many thousands of instruments on display at the 2005 Winter NAMM show, Juha Ruokangas’ guitars made the greatest lasting impression. Why? Well, of course they they are beautifully built with obvious care. No… love is a better word. Meeting a man with a deep passion for his craft is nearly always memorable, but particularly so when he has chosen to pursue his dream in a country of just 5 million people and he is willing to travel half way around the world to stand in a 10 x 20 booth for four days to tell you about it his vision. You have to admire that. Juha Ruokangas also breaks many of the traditional “rules” in modern guitar building, which makes him a true innovator in an industry that likes to think of itself as being far more innovative than it often is. And you have to admire that. Whether it is becauseof his unique location (5 million Finns make up 35% of the world’s population north of latitude 60oN) creative contrarianism, or simply a knack for thinking outside the traditional box, Juha Ruokangas is busting myths, no doubt.

TQR: How did you first become involved with building and repairing guitars, Juha?

When I was a young kid – 10 years old I think – and I wanted to start playing guitar, my mom eventually bought me the cheapest possible black Strat and the first thing in my mind was to disassemble it to see what was inside. This was a sort of intuitive thing for me – I didn’t really think, “OK, let’s see how this is built.” I was like that with everything. I ripped apart effects, and my perfectly good cassette player, which I couldn’t get back together. Mom wasn’t too thrilled about these experiments of mine… I didn’t have any higher purpose in trying to figure out the construction of different mechanical and electronic devices. I just needed to know!

tqr_2005_1My guitar playing evolved along with listening to bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin, Robert Fripp and Steve Howe were some of the influences, too. All along I found out more things about the electric guitar itself, although it was a bit difficult since there wasn’t any Finnish literature about guitar repair or building available. At the time, there was no Internet and I didn’t speak English, either. Slowly, I learned about guitar construction basics by myself. “What are these metal things (frets) on this dark wooden part (fretboard)? What if I take one off with dad’s pliers? OK – there are these small teeth to hold it in place – cool! Well, how could I put it back? With a hammer?” and so on. Very primitive it was, indeed.

Eventually I wanted to build a guitar for myself and I bought some birch wood and sawed a strange ‘V’ kinda body out of it. I remember using a lot of time sanding it, routed the necessary cavities with a hand-drill and chisels, and I bought a cheap bolt-on neck from a friend. I shaped the headstock a bit sharper looking, brushed the body and headstock Ferrari Red with some oil-based paint that for some reason never dried properly, and all this happened in the yard of my family home. That guitar looked horrible, smelled like shit, was awful to play, and sounded thin and harsh with its one lousy single coil pickup fitted very near the bridge. This was somewhere around 1985, I think. But I learned a lot, and most importantly, I was thrilled by the idea of having done that by myself, and I enjoyed every minute of the process, which I couldn’t exactly say about school at that time. My little hobby may have also even saved me from some bad influ- ences so commonly adopted by us guys at that age.

My primary motivation to learn English in school was to be able to read all the books I could find about guitars and music. I repaired guitars for my friends a bit and succeeded too, most of the time. After high school I had decided not to try a career as a musician, even though we had a pretty nice thing going in the local band scene. I almost ended up heading for an academic career, but I came to my senses finally after two years of lowpaying jobs and trying to apply to some colleges. By this time, I had gone through one-year woodworking course on which I built my first guitar from scratch – a quite decent mahogany-bodied Strat copy with quarter-sawn maple neck, Brazilian rosewood fretboard, abalone fret markers, two Seymour Duncan humbuckers, three mini switches, a volume and tone control, hand-polished nitro lacquer and all. I’m still really proud of that guitar, which clearly showed that I was actually able to build a detailed, nice playing instrument. There was nothing very special about it tone-wise, but at that time I did concentrate more on the technique and detail of workmanship rather than trying to build a masterpiece in a tonal sense. I remember one of my closest friends, Tommi Hakala (a famous baritone opera singer in Europe nowadays who won the Cardiff singing contest last year) saw my Strat and couldn’t believe I had built it from a few planks of wood! He told me it was one of the nicest feeling guitars he had ever played. That made me proud, but still, I hadn’t seriously thought that I could do this for a living.

Then I found out by accident (although I believe in some sort of higher purpose on this one) about a school in Finland that had a tiny department where you could study guitar building. In FINLAND! Yes, one of the Finnish grand old men of luthiery, Rauno Nieminen, had started this guitar-making department all the way back in 1984, but I just hadn’t heard about it before. So I applied there and got in. This was in 1992. That was the major kick for me to start thinking about luthiery in a more profound way. By that time I had also read probably 50 or more luthier and guitar repair books and I knew a lot in theory. Now it was my chance to get my hands on it seriously.

TQR: How did things progress in terms of acquiring practical, hands-on experience? Were there any mentors that guided you?

tqr_2005_2Electric guitar building tradition in Finland is small. There aren’t too many older builders around – only a handful. Two of these gentlemen, Matti Nevalainen and Rauno Nieminen were the teachers at the Finnish guitar making school. Naturally, years studying in the school taught me a lot about various traditional building techniques, materials, lacquers, glues and all that. When you graduate from such a school, however, there’s no way you can be a master of the art of making guitars. What you get is a good base to build on.

As I mentioned earlier, I had read a lot about guitar making prior to the luthier school. I kept constantly comparing what I had learned from the books to what the teachers and senior students taught, and I talked about it, too. “Why do you do it like this – Benedetto does it all differently because of this and that…” It took a year or so for me to understand that there are as many nuances of doing things as there are builders, and that a certain method isn’t necessarily better than the other. All the book wisdom was very useful for me, and by combining that with some very good things the Finnish luthiers did, I believe I got a good view of what kind of gui- tars I wanted to build and how I wanted to build them at my own shop, which I dreamt of already.

TQR: So how did things progress? Were there any significant discoveries or failures along the way?

I started my company officially in 1995. By summer of 1996 I had managed to build my workshop, started offering local repair services and I got some cus- tom guitar orders in, too. The early works were repli- cas of the good old Fender models, a couple of Les Pauls, Rickenbacker bass copies and stuff like that. I also built some wacko one-offs for crazy players wanting to literally stand out from the crowd. Repair work is a very, very important way to learn – to understand how guitars are built, and to observe the good and bad in a guitar. This leads to understanding what you want to do in your own instruments, why, and how.

I started to slowly gain a reputation as being a sharp-eyed repairman and custom guitar maker. I got customers who had gone from brand to brand for years to find the ultimate guitar for themselves. Eventually, I did manage to make some of these guys happy, and this paid off as word of mouth started spreading. I think this must be the same old story in many ways – good quality work always brings you more work. However, I wanted to move forward. My idea had been to design my own things. My first love in electric guitars was the Les Paul, so that’s where I was headed. PRS guitars were coming on strong, and I found the looks and attitude of those guitars naturally awesome, but I wasn’t too much into that hybrid thing with the 25″ scale length and tremolo. So, my first model, the Duke, took two years to design and was born out of my love for the Les Paul. I sold the first real Duke in the end of 1997 to Jukka Tolonen, a legendary Finnish fusion/jazz player. His spectacular albums have been released in the U.S., also.

tqr_2005_3Failures? Well, sure, there are many drawbacks, but I don’t consider those failures, really – only incidents that have given me a thicker skin. Life isn’t supposed to be easy and smooth, you know. One specific thing comes to mind that happened in 1999. I got injured with a pin router quite badly, losing half of my left hand thumb. I am left-handed (although I play guitar right handed) so this was a sort of catastrophe to me, and even more so as we were just in the middle of getting ready for our first Frankfurt Musik Messe in spring 2000. I was sure that we never would make it to the show – I was practically working alone at that time with only part-time help from one friend, Mika Koskinen, who later joined in as my companion. But I didn’t give up. I was determined to go to the show, having worked my ass off a long time to make it happen in Europe. So I learned to do certain things with my right hand, like fret dressing and stuff. The doctor said I should rest my hand for 3-4 months, and I just didn’t have the courage to tell him that I could rest 3-4 days, max! And I did it. We went to Frankfurt, got our first European dealers and things progressed nicely afterall. Nowadays I can do many intricate phases of work with both hands!

TQR: When and how did the inspiration for the Ruokangas guitars we see today develop?

I am a traditional luthier. I don’t enjoy much building “odd” guitars. I enjoy studying the old-school ways of building and designing guitars and finding and using the best methods while leaving out the compromises. When I design a guitar, I start from a traditional thing, study each component and see if I can take it further from every point of view – tone, function, ergonomics, beauty, materials. I don’t like using computers in designing. I need to get my hands on it. I see that my guitars are beautiful instruments in the traditional sense. They are something that musicians can adapt to and fall in love with.

I loved the sound of certain 50s’ Les Pauls I had a chance to play. I wanted that sound. But there were certain elements in the Les Paul that I wasn’t too thrilled about – the balance when you sit down isn’t exactly perfect. So I wanted to change that. I have studied and experimented a lot with various wood species, and the closest Icangettothe genuine Honduran mahogany (the lightweight stuff Gibson used only in the ‘50s and beginning of the‘60s) is wood called Spanish Cedar (Latin, Cedros Odorata). It’s the wood that classical guitar makers build the necks from and it has nothing to do with Western Red Cedar. It’s a nice tone wood with a surprisingly similar appearance to mahogany, even though these woods are different species. The cellular structure of Spanish Cedar is very similar to mahogany, the wood is lightweight yet very stiff (it doesn’t bend easily) which makes it excellent and stable for necks. When I tap a piece of genuine Honduran Mahogany it rings like a bell. So does Spanish Cedar. When I tap the modern, so-called Honduran Mahogany (which is not from Honduras and hasn’t been for decades), it rings very much lower-pitched, and the tone is sort of dull and muffled. And yes, the mahogany today weighs a ton, generally. The Latin name for Spanish Cedar comes from the odor of the wood, which is very distinct and strong. The most common thing built of Spanish Cedar must be the expensive cigar humidors. Also, an interesting detail from history is that Lebanon Cedar (also a species belonging to the Cedros Odorata family) is the very wood that the temples of God were built from in the ancient times of Europe. So, the body and neck of my first official model, the Duke, are of Spanish Cedar. It works so well that I haven’t really considered using any other wood.

tqr_2005_4I use mostly ebony for the fretboard of the Duke. Generally, the quality of ebony has gone down and it takes a lot of time to dry it long enough to make it safe to use. Some manufac- turers don’t use ebony at all anymore, but I do, and I still give a 20-year warranty for these guitars. When selected and dried properly, ebony is superior for this kind of guitar, with nodead spots, a slick feel, and a very even tonal response.

The Duke tops used to be made from either maple, alder or our specialty, Arctic Birch. Nowadays it’s quite rare for us to build anything other than Arctic Birch top guitars. We also use Spanish Cedar for tops occasionally, as well as spruce. The look of the Finnish Birchwood is unique, and it works perfectly in union with a Spanish Cedar body and neck and ebony fretboard. The figured Arctic Birch is very rare; we go out and buy whole logs and cut them ourselves. We’re currently the only company on earth that can actually supply guitars with Arctic Birch tops on a consistent basis, and I’m very proud of this, no matter that it takes a lot of work to get the wood. It’s worth being able to offer some- thing unique that has a personal touch from my home country.

The Duke guitars are built with traditional techniques and no CNC is involved. The series are kept very small (10-15 pieces in each batch) to maintain focus on the detail. When there are too many guitars in a series, you very easily get blinded by the mass of it. I don’t want that to happen, of course. Extreme quality is our number one priority always, in everything we do.

There have been inquiries about offering the Duke with tremolo, and we have done some custom pieces that way, but I guess I’m stubborn enough not to offer it as a regular option. When you spend two years to perfect a Les Paul-type guitar, fine-tuning everything from the violin-style construction (neck angled to the body; carved top, headstock angled to the neck, separate tailpiece and bridge) to choosing the most resonant combination of materials, it’s not easy to alter the whole with something that literally eats away the basics of a “perfect carved top electric” – or at least my vision of it. This classic construction is unique among electrics in the way the string vibrates in relation to the instrument itself. There is a distinct function for the separate stop-tailpiece holding the strings in place at the body end. Then again, the tune-o-matic bridge also fulfills a distinct function – to allow intonation, to serve as the bridge, and to transfer the vibrations to the carved top and body of the instrument. It’s a quite a different scheme than using a wrap-around bridge, which is very popular nowadays. The strings pull the wrap-around bridge towards the neck and the vibrations transfer to the body in a different manner. I’m definitely not saying that the wrap-around doesn’t work well, but it is different. The stop tailpiece takes the longitudinal stress off the bridge.

Our bolt-on series guitars are strongly influenced by the most famous American-made guitars of this type, obviously. I haven’t changed the crucial things that make the guitar feel familiar for the player, which makes these quite easily adaptable to Stratocaster or Telecaster players. I have changed the body shapes to my personal aesthetic direction with more curvaceous and tight, dynamic shaping. Also, the headstock shapes follow my style invented originally for the Duke with its 2-step carve to highlight the shape a bit more. This headstock shape has become our trademark for all the instruments we build and I’m personally very happy with the looks of these guitars. It goes without saying that as we build guitars in very limited series, we prioritize the quality of wood and use only top-notch stuff. Anything else would be sort of shortsighted, because, after all, we do have a 20-year-warranty for each and every guitar.

I’m not afraid to use modern technology. We roughcut the bolt-on bodies and necks with a CNC, and I’m very happy with that. The bolt-on guitar design was initially invented to be mass-produced. We’re not mass-producing, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t use modern technology where it serves better than the old methods. On the other hand, I’ve genuinely enjoyed keeping the Duke series guitars non-CNC, because it’s such a very limited series, and it is good for a luthier to work with his hands on the rough wood, too. This is possible only when the series are small enough so you don’t get bored with it. This applies with bolt-on guitars as well… The building process must be enjoyable!

(Note – Juha eventually abandoned CNC all together in 2008 and swapped back to hands-on old school methods in making all his guitars)

tqr_2005_5The body, neck and fretboard materials for the basic VSOP and MOJO mod- els follow the “original” traditional recipe – alder, maple and rosewood. We do have some Spanish Cedar body and Arctic Birch top versions out too, and it also seems to be our direction more and more. We use a unique drying method for the wood that is different than others called “ThermoTreatment” for all alder, maple and Arctic birch we use (Spanish Cedar is not treatable, at least yet). This process dries wood in a very special manner, imitating the natural aging process. When wood ages, the cells harden, resins crys- tallize and the organic “junk” from the pores of the wood cleans out over years. The ThermoTreatment does these same things. These are studied facts – the cellular structure of treat- ed wood resembles the aged wood cells near 100%. The pores are clean, all resins have either dissipated or crystal- lized, and the stiffness of the wood is increased. Also, the wood is more relaxed after treatment, as the mechanical ten- sions are relieved during the process.

Tone is a more subjective matter. I share the opinion of many of our customers, as well as various magazine reviews that have stated that there does seem to be a difference compared to “an average new, good quality instrument.” The key factor to achieve the “vintage vibe” everyone keeps raving about seems to be able to make the instru- ment vibrate in certain ways while playing. The highs, mid- dles and bass must res- onate in cor- rect relation with each other, and the neck has to be stiff in order to avoid dead spots and overbearing individ- ual resonant frequencies. The ThermoTreatment does dry the wood differently from the usual methods – that’s a researched fact. The most apparent tonal change caused by ThermoTreatment is in the middle frequencies, which are always quite different when comparing a new “average” bolt- on guitar and one that has been played and aged. The middle rings differently. The first impression might be, “This new, ‘average’ guitar sounds brighter than the aged one.” The actu- al phenomenon is that as the mids ring better, the highs aren’t as emphasized, making the guitar sound more balanced and fuller. While I am perhaps incapable of being totally objective in evaluating this, many people – not knowing each other’s reactions – have felt this same thing about our guitars. At present, Mojo and VSOP models make the most of this, as alder and maple are always ThermoTreated for these guitars. For Duke series guitars, the Arctic Birch tops have been dried with this special method. Spanish Cedar we’re working on, but it seems not as crucial to do, as this wood performs perfectly as it is, dried with con- ventional methods, seasoning, etc. Another nice thing about ThermoTreatment is the appearance. As you look at the neck wood of the Mojo Grande you notice that it has this nice tanned look – and that is the natural shade – no color is added to the lacquer at all. The tan shading caused by this method goes through the wood, not just the surface.

“I’ve gotten far better tonal results by using polyurethane rather than nitro”

We use polyurethane lacquers for all our instruments. I know some nitrocellulose fans may be shocked by me saying this, but I’ve gotten far better tonal results by using polyurethane rather than nitro. You see, nitro lacquers today are definitely not the same as they used to be in the ‘50s. Modern nitro lacquers include plastic components to make them work a bit easier and have better filling and sanding qualities. The major drawback of having plastics in nitro is the way they dry. A new nitro-lacquered guitar feels gummy and sticky for many, many years to come. Dirt gets into nitro lacquer very easily, but is very difficult to remove from the surface. On top of these “feel” issues, using rubbery lacquer doesn’t exactly improve the tone… The secret of an old guitar having that thin nitro finish is the fact that the guitar has been played a long time, and the lacquer is brittle and dry, so it doesn’t muffle the vibrations. The best method of finishing an electric guitar in my opinion is to do it with polyurethane as thinly as possible. This lacquer dries hard with no gumminess. It’s easy to keep clean and the feel is nice and smooth. I like it. (Note – Juha introduced an optional finish to his guitars in 2007, a “new old-type nitro” custom-made for him by a small local lacquer manufacturer. This special lacquer does not include plastic components at all.)

One special detail about our guitars is the nut material. We use moose shinbone only. The funny thing is that I can’t buy moose shinbone nut blanks from anywhere, so we have to basically hunt that down ourselves! Well, I’m not into hunting personally, but I have friends who are, and I get these moose legs from them, and we skin them, chop them into pieces and boil them in my yard on an open fire to remove grease and all that from the bones! Then we saw the bone pieces into nut blanks. We don’t bleach the bone, as that takes too much grease out, and the strings get stuck more eas- ily in the nut slots. Why moose shinbone? Because it’s far denser than the average cow bone blanks you can buy com- mercially and the tone of it is very focused. A moose shin- bone nut lasts a very long time. It can be finished very smooth and slippery because of the natural grease in it, and the surface is very dense and hard. Moose bone is the best, and that’s why we go through a bit of a trouble getting and using it.

TQR: What are some of the shortcomings in typical pro- duction guitars that you set out to eliminate or improve on, and how?

The most crucial shortcoming in the majority of production guitars is the wood quality – green wood and necks made from wood that lacks a straight grain, etc. Another big thing is the overall build quality. I am kind of shocked to see what’s going on in the guitar business nowadays. Price wars and competition have caused a lot of stress to the major manufacturers, forcing them to go lower and lower with prices. It’s sad that even some of the medium-sized companies have been forced to follow this road, which leads to ruin, in my opinion. Picture this – if you go to a guitar shop and try out ten more or less identical pieces of certain big brand guitars, you may find a very nice piece among them, but you may also find a totally crappy piece there, and everything inbe- tween! And I’m not talking about cheap guitars. How can that be acceptable? Why is the buyer responsible for finding the nice piece among all of them? It’s comparable to a situation where you would go to buy a new TV set, and it’s up to you to be able to choose the functioning one, while there might be some TV’s that don’t work at all. And that would be generally accepted. “Man, you didn’t get a very good piece!” It’s of course more understand- able when it’s a matter of products made out of wood. But I’m not talking here about slight changes in tone or feel between individual instruments – that’s the nature of wooden instruments and it should be cherished! I’m talking about drastic quality problems caused by non-existing controls in choosing wood.

tqr_2005_7My attitude has always been to look into how the guitars are built, what they are built from and why? When I have all the specs laid in front of me I start to redesign things – some things don’t need to be changed and others do. I seek for the best solution, not only by relying on my personal opinion, but by listening to our closest customers – professional guitarists that I trust and know well enough to understand when they speak to me. You see, it’s not always easy to analyze the needs of a guitar player. “It doesn’t feel right now…” Being a master builder means that you are able to understand what the player wants and be capable of giving it to them.

TQR: How do you approach wiring and pickups?

I’ve been working with quite a few people to develop our pickups to the extreme. I’ve done some wiring and stuff myself (years ago), but realized soon enough that I do need help. I don’t have to be able to do everything by myself. I started working together with a German pickup guru, Harry Haussel, years ago. Harry has a very thorough attitude in what he does, and he enjoys challenges. My kind of guy!

We started with special humbuckers for the Duke. I had many ideas, first tonally and then also visually, after I realized that this guy could actually build me something else other than the usual humbuckers. It turned out that some of my visual ideas actually had some affect to the tone also, and so by this “accident” we got it even better than we had hoped for. Sure, I’ve played guitars with great humbuckers and been very happy with them, especially many wonderful vintage bridge pickups, so I could have been happy with many commercially available brands of bridge pickups. My concern was always the neck humbucker, which more or less always seemed not to be on that same tonal level as the bridge unit in many expensive, calibrat- ed sets available. I thought they were either too loud, muddy, or not singing enough. I have a good friend and customer, Peter Lerche, a top Finnish player, with whom we started developing the idea of a specific neck humbucker which would solve all those problems. Peter had very interesting ideas of how to make the tone right. A year or so later we came up with the current Dukebucker Classic neck pickup, which can be described with one word… clear. With clarity I don’t mean that you can’t overdrive it into a huge, thick singing voice, but I mean it’s all there – string-to-string definition, punch, and attack no matter what settings on an amp you use. You can make it as muddy as you like with the tone control, but still the distorted tone is usable and you have a certain amount of articulation left so the pickup is usable virtually with any set- ting you can imagine. I haven’t heard another pickup like it. The bridge pickup follows the classic recipe except for the visual things that altered some of the inner construction, but it ended up sounding killer! The Dukebucker Classic set is the most popular of our humbuckers. We don’t have many hum- bucker options and I don’t think you need many options, only a few very good quality things that will work perfectly when matched to a guitar. The guitar itself shapes the basics of the tone – the pickup can’t invent missing frequencies or attack for you! A good pickup is capable of musically working together with the guitar, and the pickup can emphasize certain things – power, tonal spectrum (highs, mids, bass) and so on. The Dukebucker Fusion has more power, more harmonics with singing sustain when playing with heavily layered distor- tion. But still, the main ideology of the pickup is the same as the Classic – a rich, full signal.

I am a big fan of P90 pickups, and therefore it was a natural thing to develop something related to that for our guitars. I want to keep things focused and simple in a functional way. That’s why our P90 style pickup – the SingleSonic – is available only in our special humbucker-sized housing. When you order a Duke or one of our bolt-on models, the Dukebuckers and SingleSonics are interchangeable without alterations to body cavities, pickup-rings or pickguards. It’s a nice thing because tastes change, and our guitars can be fine-tuned easily with different types of our original pickups specially devel- oped for these guitars. The SingleSonic housing, as stated earlier, is the same as the Dukebucker. The bottom plate is vulcanized fiber instead of metal and the coils and magnets are seated on a custom-routed maple ring. The coils are vacuum-waxed and after assembly the whole unit is waxed again. The pickup is covered by a nickel silver open cover fitted with an ebony faceplate with mother-of-pearl or abalone ‘R’ inlay. One build detail worth mentioning is the stable, 3-point mounting, which enables more precise height adjustment. The build quality of this P90-style single coil pickup makes it as quiet as a true P90 pickup can get. In my personal opinion, there’s nothing that beats the SingleSonic pickup with its powerful, open, breathing tone. It truly succeeds to combine the meaty tone of a humbucker with the dynamics of a Strat single coil. No compression here…

The VS Classic and Blues are our interpretations of the classic single coil stuff. Harry Haussel builds them as they did in the old times – scatterwound, all handmade. One exception is that we don’t use cloth covered wire. We’ve chosen to use shielded wire here also, which makes the noise level considerably lower. A simple thing – but so often overlooked just to make the pickup look like the old ones. Our VS series pickups are always calibrated sets. We’ve given some extra attention to the bridge pickup with slightly higher output for extra bite, yet a little bit rounded highs to cut off unpleasant brittleness. Beefing it up a bit.

TQR: Let’s review the options that are available when you custom build a guitar.

I spent months and months figuring out the problem of making custom guitar ordering easier. This was in 2002. It’s a well known fact that when someone wants a custom guitar, he is faced with so many options that at worst it feels paralyzing: “How can I ever go through all these possibilities and pick just the right features for my guitar?” As a manufacturer, we don’t even have that many options, but still I counted thatyou can choose almost 4000 different combinations of options for our VSOP model – and that’s only the visual differences! So, I came up with an idea to use the internet as a workhorse for this. Modern technology should be able to offer some answers. My simple idea launched a massive website development process that cost us more than $30,000 in the end, but I honestly believe it was worth it. Now you can go to our website’s Virtual Workshop, pick up all the visual elements for our models – see the result online in real time, and request a quote for that guitar when you’re happy with what you see! And the system really works. Now you can see how the tortoise pickguard looks with the 3-tone sunburst body combined with maple fretboard, gold-plated parts, black knobs, and so on.

So, about the options a bit more specifically – we have lots of colors (special wishes always welcome), four standard neck options (more if you give measurements, usually no extra charge), three standard fretwire sizes (more for a small extra price), two fretwire materials (traditional and stainless), various types of tops (Arctic Birch being the most popular) and many styles of pickups. All our options have a function that I see nec- essary to have, whether it’s related to the tone, feel or looks. And, as stated earlier, we’ve taken the design process to an extreme with our current web service. We do encourage players to use their imagination, too, if they have special wishes. We have specialized in intricate inlay work – you can see a nice example of that on our website ‘building process’ page. We don’t use CNC or a laser for custom inlays. Everything is hand cut. Why? Because the process in itself is enjoyable that way – that’s what I started this whole company – to be able to do work I love. Inlay work is a crucial part of that.

TQR: What’s ahead for your company?

Instead of diving into details of possible new models or innovations, I’d like to tell you a bit about my philosophy of working as a guitar maker in general, which sums up the past of my little company, the current state we’re in, and our future plans.

tqr_2005_9I’m quite fed up with the modern world of discounts and price wars. Somewhere along the way the guitar business – even the respected major manufacturers – have lost the priorities they used to value highly. I know this is a very complex subject to talk about with production moving to countries where labor is cheaper, cutting costs and all that, but the majority of people have tremendous difficulty knowing what’s genuine and what isn’t anymore. Big-brand custom shops have turned into slightly smaller factories than the ordinary factories, and so on.

It’s very difficult for a small builder to resist floating into the same stream with the majority of companies in this business. The small companies want to grow bigger, hire people, produce more, and at some point you’re faced with the same problems as all the rest; if you’re going to keep growing, you have to be more cost effective to keep prices down. You have to maintain a certain output to offset labor costs. Next, you start thinking of having something done cheaper in countries to improve cash flow, and so on.

My conclusion is that I can’t listen to anything else but my heart. Why did I start this? What kind of guitars do I want to build? What kind of work do I want my employees to do? What kind of life do I want to live? What kind of father do I want to be for my children? These are big questions for an individual human being, but at the same time they are the priorities of life in general that so often get lost when the modern business wheels start turning. I prioritize our well-being above everything else. I know this means we can’t produce as much as most others, and I know it makes our guitars cost more. I know that I could earn more money by compromising my principles, but I also realize that a handful of happy luthiers can build better guitars than people who are stressed out, no matter what the quality control routine may be within the company. We might grow in the future, but if we do, it will happen very, very slowly, in a controlled way. Our current small family of guitar makers functions seamlessly. We’re friends. We can take criticism from each other. We work overtime only on a very occasional basis, and we want to maintain our mental well-being. We enjoy each day at work. We avoid too much routine, and we keep ourselves focused on the beauty of the process itself. To live in the moment – that’s how the best guitars are born.




The closing moments of our first prolonged experience with the Duke and Mojo Grande were punctuated by ten minutes of complete silence as we pondered these two gorgeous guitars that had come to us from the top of the world… pondering how we were going to describe what we had just heard and felt as we played them. Two weeks later and fresh from a final session before we ship them off to New York, we’re still pondering our reaction – one of curious surprise, followed by awe (an utterly overused word today but it fits here) and finally, unsettling disappointment. And it’s the disappointment that has been nagging at us ever since the first day we played Juha Ruokangas’ guitars.

If you’re licking your chops in anticipation of a hatchet job, that isn’t where we’re headed. Now we can’t say with any certainty, of course, that the specific guitars we reviewed for this article will visually light your fire over all the other possible options you can dream up when ordering a Ruokangas; we’re all attracted to different shapes and colors. And we can’t be certain with any certainty that you might be willing to do whatever is required to acquire one of these costly guitars for your own – that’s a personal matter between you and the little troll inside of you that encourages you to rationalize the propagation of your disease. But there are things we can say with certainty that transcend preferences for gold hardware or chrome, solid colors or a sunburst, a big handful of a neck or a slimmer one, etc.

Yes, we were disturbed and disappointed after we put the Duke Deluxe down and picked up our 1995 ‘58 Les Paul Historic for a bit of the old A/B. By comparison, our Les Paul suddenly felt slow and heavy, clunky, one-dimensional and stuffed up – as if it had caught a cold – and this was very disturbing, because we have always thought of this particular Les Paul as being quite stunning. So we picked the Duke up again and played it, keenly looking, feeling, and listening for flaws that could rekindle our reverence for the Les Paul, yet it never happened in the Duke’s presence. You can imagine our concern and dismay. And the same thing occurred when we played the semi-hollow Mojo Grande. There wasn’t a guitar in the room that could quite keep up with it, either. Now let’s get down to cases, because we’ve given this a lot of thought and it isn’t very complicated.

What seems to make these Ruokangas axes sing so sweetly? First of all, we believe it’s the wood – the Spanish cedar that does indeed resemble a very tight-grained mahogany, only lighter, that produces tones that are quite unlike anything we are accustomed to hearing. It has life in it that you can hear. How much the ‘Thermo Treated’ Arctic Birch tops or the Mojo’s golden maple neck in our review guitars contributed to this we can’t say, but the end result was clear. Both Ruokangas instruments sounded exceptionally alive, they responded faster with a beautiful singing voice in which all the tones seemed to have been colored in so much more vividly, and the feel of the guitars in our hands was extraordinary – so much more finely, carefully shaped and crafted than a typical “custom” production guitar. The difference is stark, immediately apparent, and yes, disturbing when you then reach for a familiar guitar with classic origins and suddenly find something lacking that hadn’t been apparent before. To be fair, our favorite guitars remain so for good reason and we still love them – they simply don’t quite do what the Ruokangas guitars do.

The Duke Deluxe ranges from fat humbucking tones with extreme clarity and string definition to corpulent single coil tones with either pickup split that rivals the most popular single coil design first patented in Fullerton. Played clean, cranked or anywhere inbetween, the Duke excels at everything, and we believe you too would soon begin to wonder why you had never heard anything quite like this before. Yes, of course it’s all about the sum of the parts (the pickups are the work of a genius and the ebony fingerboard really seems to push the notes forward) but we keep going back to the cedar and Arctic birch… Man, would we ever love to hear one of the other Ruokangas models made from ThermoTreated alder.

In contrast to the 8 pound Duke, the 5.8 pound semi-hollow Mojo Grande looks as if it would be a very bright-sounding Tele-style guitar, but you get so much more than that. Yes, it can spank, but like the Duke neck humbucker, the SingleSonic P90 neck pickup is voiced with great definition and a thoroughly solid bottom. It can produce beautiful hollowbody tones or greasy gravy, and while the bridge pickup displays plenty of character appropriate for the visual style this guitar invokes, it’s fat and wide more than it is sharp and brittle. Like the Duke, the subtleties of the Mojo Grande are impossible to ignore, such as the ultra-smooth, matte finish maple neck and maple cap fingerboard, the perfect medium jumbo fret wire, and the exceptionally well-made Wilkinson bridge. Both guitars are flawlessly finished with details you simply don’t see today. The wood is stunning, as are the finishes, and these guitars are beautifully built on a level that is virtually non-existent among all but a few instruments made today at any price. Why? Building guitars like this takes too much time for a corporation that must live by meeting the bottom line, and “custom shops” are anything but loss leaders. At the end of every month, every quarter, and each fiscal year, it’s all about making the numbers. Little guys in Finland can do it their way; only their customers can fire them.

The standard options available among the Mojo, VSOP and Duke Series will satisfy the needs of nearly every player (and if not you can specify non-standard options.) Four different neck shapes are available, or you can supply your own measurements. You may choose from maple, rosewood or ebony fingerboards, nickel-silver or stainless steel frets in a variety of sizes, alder or Spanish cedar bodies, maple or Arctic birch tops, solid color, transpar- ent or sunburst finishes, assorted pickguards, tuners and a wide range of Ruokangas pickups, and this can all be done as you design your custom guitar on the web site, mixing and matching various options.

We agree with Ken Parker’s observation that guitar players tend to be a very conservative bunch, and even if a Ruokangas is not in your future, these guitars serve to remind us just what true innovation and uncompromising craftsmanship look, sound and feel like. As the memory of them fades from our music room, our Les Paul seems to be regaining some of its former glory, but given a choice, we would choose to own a Ruokangas as well.


ToneQuest Report, August 2005