Following the Journey of an Inquisitive Mind

Story by Mats Nermark – 2016

Being Swedish, I was aware of Finnish guitar building before I met Juha Ruokangas for the first time. But until then, I had only ever seen a Finnish guitar in a Guitar Player magazine.

In the year of 2000, Juha Ruokangas displayed his guitars at the Frankfurt Musikmesse for the first time. I was there covering the show for FUZZ, a Swedish guitar magazine, and was aware of Juha’s presence at the show so I made a point of going to his booth to look at his guitars. The first guitar Juha showed me was the Duke. I really didn’t know how to approach it. I grew up on Hagström Swedes and later Gibson Les Pauls so I was very familiar with the concept of the two humbucker set-neck guitar, but this did not look like a Les Paul, nor did it have the same woods. I mentioned this to Juha and he gave me a short, but easily understandable, summation of his views on tonewoods. His goal with the Duke was to make a guitar that embodied the spirit and the sounds of the great set-necks from the 1950’s. To do that he shaped the guitar ergonomically to make it comfortable. However, he could not find any mahogany that sounded the way his ear told him a great guitar from the 50’s would sound today. While being respectful of tradition, Juha also said he was even more respectful of the soul and the voice of an instrument. That led him to a search for another tone wood and he found Spanish cedar, a wood he found to have a tone similar to well-matured mahogany and thus he used that for the body and neck in the Duke. For the top he used Arctic Birch, a beautifully figured wood.

As a businessman, my first thought was that Juha must be on the wrong track here. Trying to sell a set-neck guitar with a non-Les Paul shape using other than traditional tone woods must surely be a non-runner. As a guitarist, I thought the Duke looked really nice but I still had my doubts. Juha invited me to try it and I casually sat down, anticipating anything other than what happened. When I got the Duke in my hands it was like old friendship renewed. This was a guitar with a shape that sat well in my lap and without digging into my ribs. This guitar had the dynamics that was lacking in all the Les Pauls I had owned. Instead it displayed an uncanny likeness in both warmth and dynamics to a 1958 Les Paul owned by a friend of mine. No, it did not sound exactly like a Les Paul but it sure allowed me to express myself the way I would with a great Les Paul, but with a unique voice. It was very refreshing.

Since that session, I have been listening very closely to what Juha has been saying, either in the press or during our frequent meetings at trade shows through the years. Like when he showed me the VSOP for the first time and got going about Thermo Timber. He told me more than I ever thought I wanted to know about the cellular structure of wood and how it was influenced by this thermo treatment. I realized then that Juha was probably an even mix of a master luthier, crazy scientist and guitar player! Yes people, Mr Ruokangas can play the guitars he lovingly builds. This kind of thermo treatment later became popular in the US as roasted wood and is now used by many famous luthiers.

Then, an assortment of guitars were developed and Juha expanded his output in both amounts and models. This also showed his commitment to his philosophy that a good thing is a good thing no matter who makes it. For example, he could easily have gone with Seymour Duncan or DiMarzio pickups, which at the time would have made more marketing sense as they were well known. Instead, Juha formed a long-standing relationship with the German pickup maker Harry Häussel to ensure the pickups carried the true voice of his guitars.

The coming years saw another side of Juha who was now operating under the company name Ruokangas Guitars. He ordered a website specifically built to convey his vision and talked about new ways of connecting with his customers, during a time when all too many companies still saw limited use of the Internet. We also saw the birth of the Mojo model (more of this later).

2005 was the first year I met Juha at the NAMM show where he started getting US dealers. At Frankfurt, in 2006, I saw the Steambass and the demo player clearly showed that it was an instrument to be reckoned with.

In 2006 another event happened that takes this story almost all the way to the dream factory in Hollywood. Emma Elftorp, a young Swedish student at the prestigious Carl Malmsten School of Guitar Building, needed a place to go for her apprenticeship. Although the school primarily teaches acoustic guitars, her teacher suggested Ruokangas Guitars. Emma contacted Ruokangas, was accepted and off she went.  To use Juha’s own words, he fell in love with Emma “in a feet-swept-from-under sort of way” and since then, Emma is not only part of Juha’s business life, but rather his entire life.

But don’t let the Hollywood love story detract from Emma’s professional input. Talking to Juha, it’s quite obvious that Emma’s knowledge of media and the art of guitar building has had an impact on his artisanship as well as on the way the company interacts with their customers.

In 2008 Juha demonstrated his willingness to share his ideas and knowledge when he started the Unicorn Project. This was a sort of video documentary series filmed in-house, following Juha designing and building the now well-established Unicorn single cut set-neck guitar. I was just one of many thousands of guitar players, all around the globe, sitting glued in front of our computer screens following Juha on Youtube as he described the building process and his thought-process. I was always eagerly awaiting the next episode of the series.

I had the pleasure of reviewing one of the very first Unicorn guitars for FUZZ. This was one of those rare moments when I realized my relationship with the guitar had changed, and for the better. It’s very difficult to describe for those who have not experienced it. For those who have, no further explanation is necessary. With the Unicorn I realized that I could express emotions deeply connected within. Therefore, I ended my review by stating that the Unicorn is not only a guitar, it is also a communication tool for your soul.

Time passed by and I met Juha at trade shows and read about him now and then in the general media noise. Then all of a sudden, as the first guitar builder in the world, he released an iPhone app where you can build your own dream guitar. I can’t even begin to calculate how many hours I’ve spent putting guitars together with the app.

In 2013, Juha showed the guitar that I personally think is the most “fun” guitar made in this century so far. “Fun”, in the loving way its design gives a nod to the retro-futuristic style of the Jetson Family. “Fun”, in the loving way it takes design elements from guitars created in the 50’s and puts them together in a new and very unique way. “Fun” in the way the choice of pickups and electronics allows me to explore sounds that are new but somehow instantly familiar and musically useful. During a conversation, Juha once said that if it hadn’t been for the happiness in his personal life, he probably wouldn’t have been playful enough in his attitude to come up with a fun guitar like the Mojo King.

Juha has, since way back, expressed a wish to further not only his craft of building guitars but also creating an environment where luthiers can meet and learn from each other. This led to the collaboration with some other master luthiers and the creation of the Association of European Guitar Builders (EGB) where he now serves as Vice President.

While I’ve been surprised by Juha and his guitars many times over the years, nothing compares to when he showed the Captain Nemo guitar at the first Holy Grail Guitar Show in 2014. The guitar inspired by the works of Jules Verne captured the attention of, dare I say it, everyone at the show. Visitors and luthiers alike. The overall design, the workmanship, the evolutionary electronics and above all, the story Juha spun around the guitar. As a writer I always enjoy a good story, and that day Juha was the master story teller.

I always find it hard to find a proper ending to a story so here I will take help from Juha’s daughter Juno. She was present at the concert where the Captain Nemo was first played and, like me, she was taken by the performance. So much so, that a year later she created the finish on the second ever Art Infused guitar made by Ruokangas Guitars. On the guitar she made a poem reflecting on her experience from the concert.

“As if it were a creature, the sound stretches up and down; everywhere; even those directions that were not there before. Is the guitar playing him or is he playing the guitar?” 

If you approach auditioning a Ruokangas guitar with an open mind, you will realize that there really is no answer to that question!

Mats – 2016

Author:Mats Nermark

Since graduating with Masters Degree in Music Education from the Royal Conservatory of Music, Gothenburg, in 1984, Mats Nermark has been involved in the music business in countless ways. As a guitarist he’s been in bands and toured as a sideman with some of the most popular artists in his native Sweden. The guitar loving community has come to know Mats also as a hard working journalist for FUZZ magazine and Harmony Central.

The Ruokangas team

Jyrki Kostamo has worked with me since the turn of the millenium. He is a good friend, and my main man at the shop - couldn’t do without him. There are only a handful of luthiers in our country with Master's Degree - and Jyrki is one of them. Every member of my team has their own special skills - superpowers, I'd like to say. In addition to his rock solid know-how in making guitars, Jyrki is also our electronics wizard. It runs in his family! Whenever one of us loses it with a complex wiring job, Jyrki is the guy who saves the day.

Tomi Nivala's guitar making skills are scary good. He also has a long experience in touring with bands as a technician, and this has not only brought us more clients, but it has also shown him another valuable perspective to the world of guitar. The first impression of Tomi might be that he doesn't talk much, but the truth is that he always finds, even at the darkest moment, the positive angle to things and has a way to dress it up to words in an encouraging and uplifting way. He’s our natural born medicine man - El Magico.

Lari Lätti keeps amazing me with his endless technical knowledge of basically any topic. He is indeed the MacGyver of my team – give Lari a sheet of steel, a strip of nylon string and a hammer, and he’ll build a steam engine for you! Lari has a true inventor's spirit - and in this regard we're totally on the same wavelength - brainstorming new technical solutions to guitars, jigs, machines - or just having fun with it. Almost forgot - Lari is also a top class luthier with education, just like every one of my guys. Irreplaceable.

Jani Rinta-keturi apprenticed at our shop in 2013, and left a lasting impression to all of us - we all felt he would be the perfect fit to our team. I'm really happy he joined us! Jani gets along great with everybody, and he is an extremely talented luthier with a special skill that sets him apart from the rest of us. Jani has a Master's Degree in wood carving - and I can tell he does magic with his chisels. Jani has already done a couple of amazing custom wood carving jobs for us, and there's definitely more to come.

To have Emma Elftorp as my soulmate on and off duty - it feels just unreal, every day. She is a guitar maker by education - which is a great advantage even if she doesn't build anymore. Emma still knows guitars in the way only a luthier can. She and I run the company together. Emma is our photographer, videographer and webmaster. We also do shows together whenever we can. I'm quite impossible with my time optimism, but Emma has a pretty good grip on me. It's good. Keeps me grounded on planet earth. I'm blessed...

Juha Ruokangas - yep, that's me. A dear friend of mine used to say I'm a daydreamer who likes to illustrate the future with a huge paintbrush - head in the clouds, feet almost touching the ground. That's a pretty truthful and accurate description. I could add I'm a hopeless romantic - a weeper, at worst. I'm also the husband of Emma Maria, the love of my life. I'm the proudest ever father of Saalas, Juno and Elias. And I'm a guitar maker. An entrepreneur... Yes - but the hippie type, who'd rather put Peace, Love & Music first.