Ruokangas Captain Nemo

By Juha Ruokangas

Republished from our Luthier Issue

This peculiar project started on a long car ride with a good friend. We discussed the evolution of the electric guitar and challenged each other to brainstorm its future direction. Or, we wondered, will the electric guitar remain mostly true to its beginnings in the 1930s and the ’40s all the way through to the 1950s and ’60s when it sculpted pop culture. We talked about the era of digitalization, auto-tuning guitar tuners, modeled amps and about the sound “moving” from an acoustic live environment to loudspeakers, to turntable, then to CD, MP3 players and eventually to the planetary network where “all the music” is available for everybody who is “plugged in.” Business structures have been born and shattered to pieces to make way for new structures…


And then, somehow our conversation geared back to the very roots of electric guitar. What if the electric guitar had been invented in the late 19th century—say, 1895? We were thrilled by the idea, fantasizing about this Victorian-era electric guitar! I was driving, and my friend was checking the Internet on his smartphone, scanning historic facts about the era of the second Industrial Revolution that led to inventions such as electrification and the telephone.

So there we were, conjuring up theories about the electric guitar hadn’t been invented earlier than the 1930s. Technically, that certainly could have happened, given that the magnetic pickup was a much older invention (it was part of the telephone, second half of the 19th century). But the motive to invent an electric guitar in 1895 would have needed to be something other than what it was in the 1930s, because the loudspeaker did not see the light of day until the 1920s. A need feeds innovation. Early humans wanted to be warm and dry, so they lived in caves, figured out ways to use fire to their advantage. Electric guitar fulfilled the need of producing a louder sound so that a bigger audience could hear it. If there was no loudspeaker in 1895, why on earth would someone be thinking of creating an electric guitar back then?


After this discussion—the Nemo Car Ride, as my friend and I now refer to it—I continued working on the idea, fascinated by certain elements that had popped into our minds. Visually, I ended up using my Unicorn guitar as the basis of this “first electric guitar in the world,” as I had tentatively (and provocatively) named the project by then. This felt like the logical choice, given that I had designed the Unicorn model to be my salute to the traditional single-cut electric guitar. When designing the Unicorn, I wanted to challenge myself to create something that looked familiar enough that players would not be scared of it, but at the same time would be a genuinely fresh approach. The Unicorn is influenced by the original Gibson Les Paul guitar in some ways, while its body shape pays homage to old jazz boxes by Stromberg or the old German manufacturer Höfner. I was pretty unorthodox regarding the choice of wood materials, too. (A previous article in GC discusses the Unicorn design, and readers who are interested finding the topic can look up the 17-episode Unicorn Video Diary on YouTube.)


I saw the “first electric guitar” as a sort of mash-up of the Unicorn, a violin and a classical guitar—and I wanted the guitar to reflect my Nordic roots in some way. Material-wise, I ended up going with a spruce top and Northern Hemisphere hardwood back, sides and neck. Typically, with a violin, the hardwood would have been maple, but for me, coming from Finland, the natural choice was Arctic birch. I found a nice piece of Finnish spruce for the top; I think this piece of wood belonged to one of my employees, Jyrki, and if I didn’t remember to tell him I took it, maybe he will now read it from GC and come after me! For the fretboard I went the traditional (violin) way and used a very nice jet-black piece of ebony. I also used ebony for the headstock overlay and tailpiece, which both feature fantastic wood carvings by master carver Jani Rinta-Keturi. The bridge of the guitar is also made of ebony, with an inserted compensated saddle made of moose shin bone—our trademark choice of material for every Ruokangas guitar nut bone ever made. One of the points of interest regarding this guitar design is the way the top and back hang over the side of the body. It’s another feature that was obviously influenced by the violin. This is naturally a conceptual design in many ways, but I did spend a lot of time trying to put myself into the shoes of a 19th-century innovative luthier, striving to find the logical path to how the design would have been born at the time. Even though I took some artistic liberties regarding technical solutions and materials used, the fundamentals of the guitar feel very “real” to me. All the functionality of the guitar could have been there in 1895.


The heart and soul of this “new old guitar” was the pickup design. This is the very idea that blew me and my friend away on that car ride. We were leafing through history articles about the telephone microphone/pickup and also about the vacuum tube, which was invented in the late 19th century to enable long-distance calls. Reading about these two things—the telephone and the vacuum tube—was the eureka moment for me: “Let’s design an active pickup using vacuum tubes!” Sure, it sounds totally nuts in a way, but it could have been done as early as 1895. So I started doing sketches of the design, and it all added up in a natural way. I wanted to have some visual resemblance to the classical guitar, and this idea aligned perfectly with the active pickup design that needed space under the strings: magnetic pickup stuck to the round hole, tubes and the preamp glowing below; an old, framed convex glass covering the whole thing… And voilà—I had a pickup that, upon quick glance, looked like the sound hole of a classical guitar!


Somewhere down the road I started to call the guitar “Captain Nemo.” I think the name fits the looks of the pickup and the whole Victorian style of the guitar. There is certainly something Jules Verneish in the design. Very steampunk—but with one important difference from the average steampunk items: The Captain Nemo guitar is fully functional. Every detail has a function. There are no glued-on gearwheels or other trinkets just for the looks. I was on the trail to create something that really could have existed.


When this tube pickup idea came along, it dawned on me pretty quickly that I couldn’t do it by myself. The happy coincidence was that Jorma Kostamo, father of my employee Jyrki, is not only a retired army intelligence officer but also an electronics engineer by education. Jorma has worked all his life with vacuum tubes. He’s like a living library of information about tubes. So, Jorma is the guy who designed the preamp wiring for the ValveBucker®, as the pickup was named and trademarked later. I’m delighted that he agreed to work on my craziest ideas!


So, why was this electric guitar invented, if not to plug it into an amp and loudspeaker? I know this gets a bit far-fetched, but it could have happened. In theory, you could have plugged the thing into a telephone line and called the operator to connect you to your guitar teacher on the other side of the planet, who would have picked up his telephone and heard the signal of the ValveBucker amplified guitar. In theory, the teacher also could have had such a guitar. And there you go—the first ever remote guitar lesson, more than a hundred years before Skype!


Also, if the guy who plays the guitar plugged it into a telephone line, that means he can’t hear the signal—only the receiver hears it. And that’s why the guitar needs two things: a “sustain meter” to show that the signal is on, and a display to show how loud the signal is. Obvious, right?


The tube preamp needs an external power source. We made a box to be held on the floor. Very simple—we basically only needed the box for the power transformer to provide the correct voltage and enough juice to the guitar. Then again, if this thing had been built in 1895, we figured that wasn’t the way to go. So we ended up putting a massive lever switch on the side of the box. That’s how you power up the guitar—like a Tesla invention, right? We also decided to try to put a dual nixie tube display on the box to show the guitar volume pot position from 0 to 11. I thought it was a great idea, and Jorma told me: “Yeah, no problem.” But then a year later he came up with a pile of schematics and was a bit hesitant to continue, not sure if it would work out. I finally convinced him it would be cool enough to justify the effort. The size of the box on the floor kept growing bigger so we could fit all the electronics—all just to run the nixie tube display! We also placed the sustain meter on the guitar in the position where you would traditionally have the three-way pickup selector toggle switch. I wanted the guitar to have four pots just like the Les Paul, but I only had one pickup. And there was another challenge, which we solved by developing and installing a three-band tonestack to the guitar.


I worked on this guitar for five years on and off with Jorma. My employees had probably lost their hope that I would ever even finish it. Then, in early 2014, it started to look like we were making great progress on a whole other front. I’m one of the founding members of the European Guitar Builders (EGB) association, and our idea was to launch a new boutique guitar show in Europe. I’m proud of the fact that everyone else in EGB liked my idea to name the event “the Holy Grail Guitar Show,” and so by early 2014 we were all set, working our asses off as a community, to have the premiere Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin, November 2014. During the planning for the show, I kept thinking: “Man, I just have to get this guitar ready by November!” I had about six months to prepare, and I was a million miles away from being ready with the design. So things picked up speed, and by early October I was hopeful, though my employees weren’t. They admitted afterward that they didn’t believe I could pull it off. I remember, about a week before showtime, desperately trying to make the electronics work correctly.

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This guitar was experimental on so many levels, and we didn’t really know what to expect from it. Sure, it looked awesome, and considering my wood materials I knew it would be a decent guitar. But none of us had any idea how it would sound. I guess I was hoping it would work well enough, and that it wouldn’t sound totally weird when plugged into a guitar amp. I’ll admit I was expecting that the project would be a success in a gimmicky sort of way, but not necessarily anything larger than life as a musical instrument.

So when I finally plugged the guitar into an amp (a stock Peavey Classic 30 combo), I was stunned. That amp had never sounded like that! The dynamics of the guitar were superb, and the depth and warmth of the tone was unique—such clarity and musical definition. There was a hard-to-describe acoustic quality to it, like having a piezo pickup installed on the bridge of the guitar—except this one didn’t have any of the piezo sizzle, but instead had a beautiful acoustic timbre.

I was not only stunned by the sound, but also puzzled like hell! How could the guitar sound like that? We had a long talk with Jorma and finally came to realize, that our idea that had evolved to be the ValveBucker—a round chassis, situated like the sound hole of a classical guitar, magnetic pickups and the tube preamp fitted to the chassis—had caused an unexpected side effect. The magnetic field of the pickup is right there in close distance to the tubes. And the tubes have iron in them. Iron is affected by a magnetic field. The magnetic pickup communicated with the tubes via the magnetic field! This added a whole new dimension to the tone.

Right now, we’re in full swing experimenting with future prototypes of the ValveBucker. We’re learning every day to understand better why it works like it does, and how we can make it even better. We’re trying different things to study the fundamentals. For me, it’s the same as with tonewood; I want to know my stuff inside out before I sell it to people. I’m convinced that our R&D process will have great results during 2015, and I feel strongly that the ValveBucker may well be one of the most important inventions I’ve ever had a chance to work on.

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This crazy journey to an alternative past has been such a joyous trip, and also a great lesson and reminder: Let your creativity roam free, just like child’s play. That is really the only way to genuine innovation. Forget your ego and let yourself be crazy, bubbling with whatever ideas. Be brave enough to say it and do it—to listen, to have fun, to free your mind. That’s the biggest lesson I learned. To find the unexpected, you need to let go and jump into the unknown.

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