Ruokangas - playability is all about form following the function


I’ve always been fascinated by history, endeavouring to see the big picture with help of the past, cause it can teach us so unbelievably much. As it is with so many manmade things in life, the electric guitar is a logical continuation to (and deviation from) whatever existed before. It started from a need – the jazz guitars and steel-stringed flat top guitars grew bigger and louder, so the instrument could be heard by the ever-growing audiences. Then came the electrical amplification. The first “sort of electric guitars” started to pop up here and there in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, and there are countless stories and myths regarding who exactly invented what. Whatever the true origin may be, the electric guitar as we know it today was without a doubt popularized by a few guitar factories in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. These companies succeeded to spin the wheel in motion in such powerful way, that it ended up shaping up in its wake the whole pop culture revolution in remarkable and unforseeable ways.

I know – the name of this article is ‘playability’ – and I’m perfectly aware that I’m walking you to the topic through the scenic road… Please bear with me for a few moments more. The electric guitar does not depend on the soundboard and soundbox as elemental structures in order to make the instrument audible. Technically speaking this deviation from the past would give guitar makers and factories great freedom regarding the shapes and other design elements of the instrument. And yet, the most popular electric guitars are in fact quite similar looking to acoustic guitars. Yes, maybe a bit smaller, but still easily recognizable as somewhat traditional guitar shapes.

Why so? Why do the most popular electric guitars look like they do, even if they wouldn’t need to? Lack of imagination? I don’t think so. To me, the answer is quite simple: Form follows function. An audible sound is not the only function dictating the “average appearance” of the guitar. The best functioning features and shapes have survived and prospered through centuries, and even if there has been and always will be more exotic minorities and sidetracks (as exciting and fresh as they may be!), the form keeps on following the function, and therefore the classic-ish guitar shapes and types will continue to be the most popular ones.

So now we’ve entered to the very heart of the topic. Playability – that is all about form following the function. It is about ergonomics – how does the instrument balance on my lap when I play sitting down – and what happens when I stand up and hang the guitar on my shoulder? What scale lengths are the most comfortable and best functioning in regard the string tension and tuning capabilities? Which neck shape is the best one? How should the controls of the guitar be laid out? Is the instrument too heavy? Too light? Many of these questions don’t have one objective answer.

What does it mean to have a “well balanced playability” in an instrument? Even if my designs are rather classic style in terms of aesthetic appeal, I’ve paid close attention to make the balance of the guitars and basses perfect. The Unicorn is a great example of this. A Gibson Les Paul guitar is often back-heavy. This means, that when you have the guitar on your lap, it easily falls backwards, and to avoid this from happening, you need to use energy to hold the guitar in an optimal playing position. In case you haven’t noticed, the Unicorn bears certain resemblance to the aforementioned iconic American guitar. But I wasn’t quite happy with it as it was. To improve the balance of the guitar, I have shifted the waistline of the Unicorn body in such way that the balance point is right, and so the guitar stays in a good position without forcing it to, and so your playing becomes more relaxed.

The scale length of the instrument affects a number of things, and not least the playability. Some guitarists feel equally comfortable playing instruments with a variety of scale lengths. They often say that different guitars make them play differently. I have even one professional client who plays both right- and left-handed. He is a session player, and has told me that when he records various tracks, he often plays some of the tracks left-handed, cause he has a clearly different style that way, and the music becomes livelier!

However – most players do have a “primary language” regarding guitars. One might feel most at home with a 24,75″ scale length guitar with 4,5° neck angle, whereas another gets it going best with 25,5″ scale length and a bolt-on neck without angle. It is a matter of taste, but even more than that, it is a matter of what you’re used to over a long period of time. When you’ve played one style guitar for 2o years, your hands know exactly (without thinking!) how much energy does it take to bend the high e-string up one and half steps from 15th fret – or where to end the slide up the neck landing the right note even in a dark room where you can’t quite see the fret markers. Your muscle memory knows the instrument inside out. That is why changing to a completely other style of guitar often feels awkward to start with – until you play it enough and the instrument even might teach you another musical language.

The neck profile has also a big impact on the playability. You could think that a small neck fits you better if you have small hands – but that’s not always the case at all. Some guitarists with big hands enjoy playing small necks – and vice versa. There are many factors contributing into whether a guitar neck feels big or small. Everything matters – the width of the fretboard – the thickness and taper of the neck – the profile shape –  the size of the frets. Also details such as whether the fretboard edge has been comfortably rolled off and how the fret ends are shaped will make a difference in how you perceive the playability of an instrument.

We offer various neck shapes, and it’s impossible to say that one of them would be unambiguously better than the others. It’s a matter of taste. The neck can be flat, thick, round, wide, narrow – any of our neck shapes makes an excellent guitar. We take full responsibility of the quality – meaning for example, that we don’t make too flat necks, which would compromise the strength of the neck. You can learn more about our neck shapes from the Guitar Creator.

The fretboard radius has a direct affect to the playability as well. The radius together with fret size, neck shape, string height and many other neck details define the ergonomics for your fretting hand. Most of my guitars are made with 12 inch (305 mm) fretboard radius. This is a comfortable radius for playing open or barre chords, soloing and bending strings cleanly, maintaining low action all the way up the neck. The guitars with Gotoh locking trem are made with 16 inch (406 mm) radius, which matches the locking nut and trem perfectly. In case you would prefer to order your Ruokangas guitar with some other fretboard radius, please ask. And don’t forget to check out our online Maintenance Guide for detailed info how to set up the string height correctly to match the fretboard radius of your guitar.

It is obvious that the set-up of the guitar plays a key role in fine-tuning the elements of playability in a guitar. For some players it is essential to have the strings set super low, while others find such a guitar rather difficult to play, and need the instrument to fight back a bit more in order to get the right feel. As in so many other aspects of a guitar, there is no right or wrong regarding string height or string gauge. It is a matter of taste, and the rest of the adjustments – truss-rod, intonation, pickup height etc – follow the chosen string height and gauge.  I have already referred to this earlier, and I’m doing it again – our online Maintenance Guide is filled with useful tips regarding the set-up of your guitar!

A small detail that also contributes to playability are the fret markers. We always install 2mm diameter dots of contrasting color to the side of the fretboard – and for many players this is all they need to navigate on the fretboard in a relaxed manner. Some players have gotten used to dots or other kinds of inlays on the face of the fretboard, and it’s a good idea to take this into consideration when ordering your custom guitar. There are also dots available made of luminous material, but this is something I can not whole-heartedly recommend because such materials tend to age, and the luminous effect dies out after some years.

There is no small enough detail in a guitar, that wouldn’t in some way contribute to the whole. I firmly believe that when everything – the materials, construction, shapes, parts – all the big and small details are right, you will feel it, even if you wouldn’t quite be able to put your finger on why exactly does the guitar feel exceptional. My advice – just listen to your heart!