tory 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 the 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 an 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.