Guitar Buyer / Duke Classic



Will Ruokangas join Nokia phones and eurovision song contest winners Lordi on the list of successful Finnish exports? Paul Alcantara ponders as he plugs in one of Finland’s finest.

With its highly figured, Arctic birch top and overall display of consummat craftsmanship, the Ruokangas Duke Deluxe belongs in a post-PRS universe inhabited by the no-expense spared creations of luthiers like Ron Thorn, Nik Huber, Terry McInturff, Joe Driskill and Scott Heatley. Often referred to as ’boutique’ guitars, these instruments are arguably built to a higher standard, from better quality materials, and with greater attention to detail than off-the-shelf products from factory-based manufacturers. As if to confirm the distinction, Gibson, Fender and indeed PRS all offer their own ’boutique’ guitars, courtesy of their respective ‘custom shops’. Juha Ruokangas established Ruokangas Guitars in his native Finland in 1995 and has been building guitars to order on a small scale ever since.

guitarbuyer_2007_1Spanish cedar is not a wood that immediately springs to mind in the context of solidbody electrics – it’s more common in the acoustic world. Nevertheless, according to Ruokangas, the timber possesses similar qualities to the Honduras mahogany employed by Gibson in the construction of its legendary 1950s Les Pauls. Used here for both the two-piece body and three-piece neck, it proves reasonably lightweight with an attractive grain pattern.

Carved from Arctic birch, the bookmathed top is less uniform than much of the maple used these days, lending the guitar a unique one-of-a-kind appearance. Its gorgeous flame figuring positively undulates as the body is moved from side to side. The top is bound in black plastic with a white purfling stripe, while the back features the now customary waist contour. Both neck and body are flawlessly finished in high gloss polyurethane, the top with a subtle sunburst effect.

Despite the absence of PRS-style ‘sculpting’ in the cutaway area, the combination of a small neck heel and deep treble-side cutaway offers virtually unrestricted access to the top frets. The neck itself has what Ruokangas describes as a ‘bigger C shape’. Overall, it’s shallower that the neck you’d find on a Gibson Les Paul ’59 reissue, with a cross section that is marginally flatter at the back (other neck profiles offered include ‘narrow and round’, ‘fast C shape’ and ‘traditional V shape’). Alternatively, Ruokangas will custom carve the neck shape to your specs.

guitarbuyer_2007_2Apart from a pearl inlay at the 12th fret and the usual dots along the side of the neck, the ebony fingerboard has been left plain. Ebony binding along the edge of the fingerboard conceals the fret tangs, an elegant solution that maintains the guitar’s tastefully uncluttered appearance.

All 22 jumbo frets are expertly crowned, while the moose shin bone nut (we kid you not) is neatly shaped with slots cut to the correct depth for a low, buzz-free action in the lower positions. The fingerboard has a 305mm (12 inch) radius for effortless string bending; this is the same radius as a Gibson Les Paul neck, for example.

Pitched back at a 12 degree angle, the unbound headstock is faced with a 1.5mm thick ebony overlay. This has an outline that’s smaller than the headstock itself, which leaves a ‘step’ around the headstock’s perimeter. Hidden beneath the overlay and fingerboard are a series of maple splines, which reinforce what is a notoriously weak area.

The gold-plated, lock Schaller tuners are staggered so that the bass tunes are positioned higher on the headstock than those on the treble side, while the ebony tuner buttons and trussrod cover match the fingerboard.


guitarbuyer_2007_3The Duke Deluxe is fitted with a gold­ plated Schaller Tune-O-Matic-style bridge and stop tailpiece. The hand­ wound ‘Dukebucker’ pickups were designed for Ruokangas by German pickup guru Harry Haussel (www. “Though I’ve played guitars with wonderful bridge pickups,” says company founder, Juha Ruokangas, “my concern was the neck humbucker, which for me was always too loud, too muddy, or just didn’t sing.” Working in collaboration with Finnish guitarist, Peter Lerche, Juha set about developing a humbucker that met his requirements. “We finally came up with the Dukebucker Classic neck pickup, which has the string-to-string definition, punch, and attack we were after.”

In keeping with the model’s woody vibe, both the mounting rings and the pickup faces are made from wood, the latter inlaid with the distinctive Ruokangas ‘R’. That’s all very well, though the fact that the neck pickup’s surround has already developed a crack where it screws to the body is a definite concern. Controls include a three-way toggle switch, a master volume knob (positioned closest to the bridge) that also functions as a ‘pull-up’ phase switch, plus individual tone controls for the neck and bridge pickups, which also act as ‘pull-up’ coil splitters for their respective pickups. The holes routed for the potentiometers are not parallel to the back of the body, and consequently the three black plastic knobs stick out at varying angles. This looks untidy on a guitar of this quality. There are some pleasing extra touches, though. The inside of the control cavity is shielded with graphite paint, for example, and it’s good to see that Schaller straplocks are fitted – you wouldn’t want a guitar that costs this much to take a stage dive.

Despite its body outline, the Duke Deluxe falls firmly in the Gibson camp with a set neck, carved hardwood top and a separate Tune-O-Matic bridge and stop tailpiece. Played acoustically, it demonstrates similar sustain characteristics to a Les Paul with a lively resonance that can be felt from one end of the guitar to the other. Plugged in, the Duke presents a voice that is well balanced and refined. Clean tones are sweet, bright and punchy, with chords in particular sparkling with depth and harmonic complexity. The guitar’s bottom end is a little tighter than that of the average Les Paul, and no matter how much distortion is piled on, individual notes remain detailed and articulate. The push-pull pots on the tone controls split the coils for the usual ‘single-coil’ sounds, while pulling up on the volume control delivers the nasal, funky, out-of-phase twang popular in the 1970s. We’re not alone in finding the sound of split humbuckers far from convincing, and we might have preferred a pair of volume controls to the single volume and two tone controls provided here. However, since this is essentially a custom instrument, Ruokangas will configure the electronics any way that you want.

Unlike the glitzy creations of some other boutique builders, the Ruokangas Duke Deluxe has a relatively understated appearance, its beauty emerging from the quality of workmanship and materials employed rather than an ostentatious display of pearl and abalone. This guitar is a versatile set-neck instrument that is beautifully presented and thoughtfully put together, all of which comes through in its refined tone. They’re built by a small team of craftsmen, mostly by hand, so just about every aspect of a Ruokangas – fret size, neck profile, pickups, electronics, finish and inlays – can be adjusted to your preferences. But all of this carries a very high price. At over three grand, the Duke Deluxe sits right alongside plenty of more established brand­ names which at this point in time, carry greater kudos. Judged on its own merits, though, there are no quality, aesthetic or tonal reasons why this guitar isn’t just as tempting as anything else.


Gold Stars
• Superb materials and build quality
• Defined playing experience
• Complex, well-defined tuners

Black Marks
• Control knobs are at odd angles

Ideal for…
• Anyone who wants a guitar just for them, and is willing to pay for it!


Guitar Buyer, January 2007