By Jp Holesworth
Originally Published in our First Issue (2012)
In case you didn’t know, Finland is one of the most guitar crazy countries on the planet. The people there love all things guitar. Metal, Country, Surf—yeah, Surf, and even air guitar. The very first international air guitar contest was held in Finland in 1996. They can’t get enough guitar!
Juha Ruokangas graduated from luthier school in ’96 and lives in the eye of Finland’s guitar storm. A legendary luthier already, though still a young man, Ruokangas is largely responsible for placing Finland high on the list for serious guitar making regions. Today’s craft revolution can often be a strange mix of old-world disciplines and cutting edge technologies. Even after losing part of a thumb to a pin router, Juha has no interest in CNC. In 2010, there was a Ruokangas Guitars iPhone app for configuring one’s ideal model, offering such cutting-edge options as stainless steel frets, Buzz Feiten Tuning Systems, and True Temperament Systems compensated frets. And although all models are strongly based on traditional designs– woods like Spanish Cedar and Arctic Birch have mostly replaced mahogany and maple. A patented-in-Finland thermo treating process is implemented with some woods to duplicate the characteristics of advanced age. Yet Ruokangas still logs his own Arctic Birch, cutting and staging it years in advance of any treating.
Examining these aspects in a broader sense reveals a certain ethic of the current craft revolution. Today’s independent luthiers, much like craft beer makers, organic farmers, and various other small-batch artisans, are all about quality results that preserve the human elements and the satisfaction of having created something worthwhile and wholesome. In Ruokangas’ case, the CNC represents a world, which despite our many modern conveniences, still cannot seem to keep up with itself. Happily involved in the human process of producing 120 instruments per year with a tightly knit crew of 5 über skilled builders, including himself and his wife Emma, also a luthier, Juha says, “…we basically avoid any techniques that would ‘make the guitars for us’”.
As a young boy, Juha was always taking things apart to see how they worked, including a Strat-type guitar, he received at 10. His first serious build in luthier’s school was also an S-type, which Ruokangas offers in their current line as the VSOP series. And now, with a Master’s Degree and nearly twenty years of guitar building, Juha is innovating set-neck design with his Duke model and more recent Unicorn. Based on the classic Les Paul, the Unicorn has a headstock interface you can’t snap off even if you stand on it! For Tele lovers, the MOJO series is available in solid or Thinline-style with various pickup configurations. The Hellcat offers metal players bolt-on or neck-thru in various woods, finish and hardware configurations emphasizing Euro sexy as much as speed and a mean streets attitude. After five years and 10 prototypes, a bass—“Steambass” was introduced in 2011.
Ruokangas does their own pickups and offers choices with some instruments, i.e., Häussel pickups produced in Germany. And surprisingly, Ruokangas, though a serious craft builder, still finishes with polyurethane in certain applications as well as nitrocellulose, believing that poly doesn’t have to be a bad thing as long as it’s applied with sufficient care and technique for a super-thin result as opposed to the thick tone muting armor of poly coats on most mass-produced guitars.
Very few in the guitar business are as willing to share information and forthcoming about their methods and process. The Ruokangas website is a well-formatted, easy to navigate destination loaded with data. A “Media” page contains links and accolades from the guitar community, including two ToneQuest Report features on Ruokangas. Their Youtube channel features Juha’s extensive seminar and builds documentary clips. So anyone interested in what great guitar making involves can pick up a great deal from Ruokangas.
The intense dedication and vision required to craft fine guitars like Juha’s take much longer to realize. In Finland, guitar making is a matter of great pride. And they must be crazy proud of Ruokangas Guitars.
To learn more about Ruokangas Guitars please visit: ruokangas.com