Certain instruments along my career have come together under such peculiar circumstances, that it’s next to a miracle that they’ve ever been completed. The Duke Emperor is one of those instruments.
Familiar with another guitar of ours, called the Duke Royale? I designed and built the first one back in year 2005 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of my company. The Royale is a semi-hollow electric guitar with both carved top and back. Read more about it from the link in this chapter.
Soon after the Royale was completed, I was already envisioning the next step… What if we would make another piece – but this time without the center block, fully acoustic? A carved spruce soundboard, arctic birch carved back and neck… hmmm…
This happened at a time when I had quite recently hired a new luthier, Tomi Nivala, to our team. I told him about the idea, and as he had already participated in the making of the Duke Royale, he was equally enthusiastic about the new plans. So we began planning and constructing the instrument on the spot. Then life interrupted us.
I had overestimated our resources. Wasn’t the first (or the last) time. I confess, sometimes I am an absolutely hopeless time optimist. We had to prioritize custom orders that kept piling up, and postpone the new project. And, as it often happens in life, the momentum passed. Our first acoustic electric had to be put on hold for an indefinite period of time. The partly constructed top, back, sides and neck started gathering dust, forgotten and alone in the depths of our tonewood storage…
More than ten years passed by. Then, for whatever reason, the stars started aligning the right way. Many things happened simultaneously. Making an acoustic archtop guitar had echoed in the back of my mind all those years, but there was never time – until in 2016, I noticed I had started flirting with the idea more frequently again. Jani Rinta-Keturi, one of my luthiers, and I begun the plans for designing an instrument that was to become the Emma Maria -model.
One day, about the same time, my close friend and a long term customer, Antti Paranko, came by for a visit. Surprisingly enough, he asked: “Do you still have that acoustic version of the Duke Royale in the works? You know, the one you started at the old shop, ages ago..?”.
We walked into our tonewood storage, and after some digging and dusting, I was indeed able to gather up all the wooden parts. Antti continued asking difficult questions: “Why didn’t you ever complete the guitar? Something wrong with it?”
I explained (with a stuttering voice) how the project had been interrupted and.. we didn’t have the time.. I got married… the workshop moved… we got a child… Yes, yes – the baby was to blame!
Excuses. I told Antti the truth. The threshold of continuing the build had just risen too high. Why? Simply because so much time had passed. It was more convenient to avoid it and focus into easier stuff. So we just forgot about it.
Antti pressed on: “Well… in case I happened to be interested in buying this guitar, would you guys be able to climb over that threshold and make it for me? I have a feeling this would become a very special instrument.”
In the midst of a slight embarrassment, I allowed myself to get a little bit excited, too! The timing for Antti’s visit and the fact he was asking about this particular project… It felt more than a coincidence.
Antti owns a number of our guitars. And… more than one of them has ended up into his hands through a somewhat supernatural-like chain of events. The doubleneck Duke that was too strange for most – but a match made in heaven for Antti’s music… or the VSOP Deluxe I had forgotten even existed until Antti walked in to my shop that very first time, long ago…
Feel free to label me as a crazy person, but I believe that these interventions were meant to happen. The dusty, unfinished bits and pieces of the Duke Emperor -guitar were waiting for Antti. And when he finally arrived to claim the guitar, it happened precisely in the right time, for the exact purpose it was meant for – this guitar was to become the tool to inspire the next chapter of Antti’s musical ambitions.
My long-time luthier Lari Lätti finally finished off in year 2018 the guitar that Tomi and I had initiated nearly 15 years earlier. What a beautiful instrument it became. The mission impossible completed.
Thermally aged Finnish spruce soundboard with x-bracing. Thermally aged figured arctic birch carved back, sides and neck. FSC certified ebony fretboard, headstock overlay, pickguard, tailpiece, bridge and pickup covers. Medium sized stainless steel frets. Moose bone nut and bridge saddle. Custom made pickups by Harry Häussel. Tobacco burst colour. High gloss polyurethane finish.
The Emperor sounds bigger than it looks. The perfect combination of tradition in a modern package. With the neck pickup and a tube amp it produces big, woody jazz tones - and yet, it's so light weight, compact and agile. With the bridge pickup and a smooth overdrive I can really dig in to some Scofield inspired funk fusion jazz.When I play it through an acoustic amp, the mellow softness of the neck pickup invites me to play through the whole solo jazz guitar repertoire. It’s got a really beautiful tone of an acoustic electric instrument, and it really punches like a cannon when I need it to. I’m in awe.
– Antti Paranko