In 2015 Juha Ruokangas and his team celebrate
the 20th anniversary of Ruokangas Guitars. Juha is one of the very few Finnish
luthiers with a Master’s Degree, and his guitars are regarded in various books,
magazines and other independent sources as some of the finest in the world. Juha is also a co-founder and the vice
president of EGB (European
Guitar Builders), and the chairman of The Guild of Finnish Luthiers.
We admired his guitars during the first edition of The Holy Grail Guitar Show and we can't wait to see again Ruokangas' creations next 31st October and 1st November 2015 (#SaveTheDate), when EGB will celebrate the second edition of the show.
Gibson, Fender and PRS players and lovers will find something familiar in Ruokangas' shapes, but passed through the filter of the old school of lutherie, Juha's vision and interpretation and his evident passion, the essence of guitar-making.
1. GUITARS EXCHANGE: How did you end up becoming, or start out as, a luthier?
Juha Ruokangas: 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 copy and the first thing (before playing!) in my mind was to disassemble it to see what was inside. I just had to know! Slowly, I learned about guitar construction basics by myself, and from books I could find from the local library. This was long before Internet existed! 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 strive for a career as a musician, even though we had a pretty nice thing going in the local band scene with our hard rock trio.
I built my first guitar from scratch when I was 19 years old – a quite decent mahogany-bodied strat-influenced guitar 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. It was a proof for me personally, that I was actually able to build a detailed, nice playing instrument. But still at this time it hadn’t occurred to me that guitar making could possibly be a profession for me. This was still the time before Internet, and in my social circles nobody built guitars or even knew anybody who did. 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 luthiery. One of the Finnish grand old men of luthiery, Rauno Nieminen, had started this school in 1984, but I just hadn’t heard about it before. So I applied and luckily 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.
2. GUITARS EXCHANGE: What inspires you to design and manufacture a new guitar?
Juha Ruokangas: For me the sound is always the first inspiration. I am always ready to experiment with new materials, constructions and approaches to find my “holy grail sound”. Visually speaking, then again, I tend to be rather conservative. I don’t seem to gravitate so much towards “odd” shaped guitars. For me the most enjoyable starting point is always the traditional guitar shape which draws inspiration from the female body - hips, waistline, belly… :-)
I do strive to bring my own visual interpretation to the visual design, but I do it in quite a subtle way.
I enjoy designing and making guitars the old school way. I don’t like using computers in designing. I need to get my hands on it. So I use a traditional architect drafting board, light board, a lot of pencil sketching, etc. We don’t have CNC, laser or other automated machinery either. I don’t particularly have anything against modern machinery, and I know that many luthiers use them with great result, but for me it’s a philosophical question. I am in this business because I love to work with guitars. The same goes for the luthiers who work for me. And to "maximize the enjoyment", we’ve decided to swim upstream and stay old school. I don't have interest of making more guitars, or make them faster. I'm only interested in making each one of them perfect, and take the time to do so. We don't have serial production either. One luthier builds one guitar from start to finish. With serial production and CNC we could probably be way more efficient, but I strongly believe that our "slow movement way" generates better guitars. :-)
3. GUITARS EXCHANGE: Do you look for a given sound for any particular reason?
Juha Ruokangas: I strive to make guitars that are as “limitless” as possible regarding the sound.
The way I “see” sound is from two perspectives. On one hand there is the tradition. One needs a certain style of sound for a certain style of music. So I listen to that sound, and will then work to find the essence of that sound in my guitar.
On the other hand, I simply listen to my heart - I just “know” when it’s right: the natural, healthy, dynamic, open, musical, pleasant, strong tone that can be then sculpted / filtered / amplified to various styles of music by the rest of the signal chain, meaning the pickups, fx, amp and speaker cabinet.
4. GUITARS EXCHANGE: Select one and talk about: soul, jazz, blues, rock, pop…or other.
Juha Ruokangas: Rock music changed my life when I was 8 years old. When I track back my childhood and teenage years, rock music really dictated a lot of my choices in life, and eventually contributed to my choice of career as well in a profound way. I listen to music a lot. It is the music - the bands, live concerts, songs - at different phases of my life that I remember the best, and in that “musical context” I often place the rest of my memories. Like, whenever I hear The Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden, I am immediately drawn back to the year 1982 when that album came out, and through listening to those classic songs I remember a whole lot of things that happened to me that year. Or, if I dig up the Delicate Sound of Thunder vinyl by Pink Floyd, I’m taken back to 1988, and I can picture events from that time almost like photographic way. I can see, hear and smell how was it to be in Lahti, Finland, and experience Pink Floyd live for the first time in my life.
5. GUITARS EXCHANGE: Are you a jobbing artist or a solitary artisan?
Juha Ruokangas: Well, not exactly any of them. I guess if I have to choose, it is the solitary artisan - but I don’t work alone. My wife works next to me, and we have 4 guys working at our workshop too. Every one of us is a luthier by education. So we’re a sort of a six-pack of not-so-solitary artisans, I guess. :-)
6. GUITARS EXCHANGE: What was the last record or CD you bought? And listened to?
Juha Ruokangas: Last vinyl I bought: Rival Sons / Head Down Last vinyl I listened to (I am listening to it right now): Marillion / Misplaced Childhood.
7. GUITARS EXCHANGE: Electric or acoustic?
Juha Ruokangas: When Tommy Emmanuel bought my Mojo Grande guitar years ago, he called it “the most acoustic electric guitar he had ever played”.
I like that description, cause it very much sums up how I make my guitars, and it's what I keep hearing repeatedly from so many customers. Players ain't stupid. They do recognize an exceptional guitar. My guitars are electrics, but they need to be acoustically superb in order to deliver the richest, liveliest and most characteristic possible sound when amplified.
8. GUITARS EXCHANGE: What is the secret behind your choice of wood?
Juha Ruokangas: The neck needs to have great bend strength and rigidity in order to avoid problematic peak resonance frequencies that cause dead spots in a guitar. I love Spanish cedar necks cause they are very lightweight, yet still incredibly rigid and stable. When I use maple, it is always thermo treated to improve the rigidity and stability. Thermo treatment is a Finnish invention. We were the first company in the world to use thermo treated wood in our electrics. Have been using it for more than 15 years.
...AND TWO HANDS
9. GUITARS EXCHANGE: Why should we consider luthier-crafted guitars as a viable option to guitars made by the large manufacturers?
Juha Ruokangas: The popular culture revolution has a central role to play in why the electric guitar became such a “hit product”. And this - the birth of electric guitar - is certainly an interesting phenomenon when observed in relation to older musical instrument families - classical guitar or violin, for example.
The electric guitar is a young musical instrument, that quickly after its’ birth came popularized by such companies as Fender, Gibson and a few others. It is obvious to everybody that the best violins are made by experienced master violinmakers, right? However, when you ask the average electric guitarist what is the best guitar, the opinion is not so obvious or unambiguous anymore. For the mainstream of electric players, it is the Fender or Gibson (or other mass produced guitar) that is the best guitar. Our kind, the luthiers, are still seen as the “underground” or “the exotic alternative”, that the mainstream often has no idea about.
The luthier-built guitar is indeed a viable option in every case, where one looks for individuality, top class quality, sustainability, high work ethics (no outsourcing from China!) and often even the best value for money, when looked at as a long-term investment.
Slowly and surely the world is changing. The community of luthiers is rising from the shadow of the industry and sculpting its’ own future. I’m excited to be in the very core of that change through European Guitar Builders association and The Holy Grail Guitar Show workgroup.
10. GUITARS EXCHANGE: Who plays your guitars? Who would you like to have play your guitars?
Juha Ruokangas: My guitars are being played and enjoyed by professional & amateur guitarists, enthusiasts and collectors all over the world. Many well known players have purchased guitars from me - you can find them on our website. For us, however, every customer is equal. The rock star buys his guitar from us just like everybody else. There is no sponsorship deals. That’s how the industry operates. For us it’s different. Every customer can count on getting the best guitar from us. As I see it, we can’t afford less than that. Every guitar counts. Every voice counts. That’s how we’ve achieved a great reputation not only regarding the quality of the guitars, but also regarding how we treat our customers.
Well - I am a great fan of Jeff Beck. Would be awesome if I would one day have a chance to put one of my guitars in his hands and hear his opinion.
Official Ruokangas Guitars website: http://www.ruokangas.com