Interview with Juha Ruokangas – GC visits the HGGS Part 2

By Amanda Dickey

In part II of our Holy Grail Guitar Show we got a chance to speak with Finnish Master Builder Juha Ruokangas. Juha is most known for his use of Spanish Cedar bodies and Arctic Birch highly figured tops which he sources himself in Finland. Did we mention he is the only luthier using this type of wood?

In this interview Juha talks about his Captain Nemo guitar which employs the use of tubes in the pickup.

Guitar Connoisseur: Juha, tell me about yourself and your workshop?

Juha Ruokangas: I’ve been building guitars professionally for twenty years now in Finland. So these days we’re like a team of five people. It’s me, my wife and three full time employees, other luthiers. Our concept and philosophy is not serial production. We have master builders: each one of them builds guitars so it’s kind of a really old school way of doing it.

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GC: What is your affiliation with the European Guitar Builders and what is your background in building guitars?

JR: I’m the vice president for the EGB and I have my masters degree in guitar building, which was some years ago. I’ve been building guitars for a long time and I’d always wanted to go to the next level and develop and evolve in terms of what I do with creativity so I felt like a master’s degree and more studying wouldn’t hurt. That was a really good time for me and it opened my eyes for some things that I otherwise wouldn’t have realized in the business.

As one of the founding members of the association that has put up this show, it’s been actually quite a ride. We started the association at the Montreal guitar show where we had our first rooftop meeting. We were there at the rooftop of the Hyatt hotel, sitting down with a bunch of colleagues from Germany and Austria and found out that we were all thinking alike. We really didn’t have a high end international show but at the same time we had a lot of local shows – like in Italy you have beautiful shows for Italian builders and the same thing in many other countries, but nothing really that would break the barrier of being genuinely international so we started developing our concept and yeah, here we are. And we hit the spot because it’s a huge success and everybody loves it. The press is totally thrilled about it, and every exhibitor I’m talking to is smiling, they’re happy and it’s fun for everybody.

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GC: What is different about this show compared to other shows?

JR: We developed the concept that whenever someone wants to try a guitar, be it an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar, you need to take it to the soundproof cabin. Everybody has gotten the concept so far.

Also, something that no other show in the world has done, is that here at the tables you only see luthiers and their art and their masterpieces, their creations. You don’t see case suppliers or pickup suppliers. When you go to an art exhibition you go to see the artist and the art but you don’t necessarily want to see the canvas supplier and the oil supplier or the paint supplier. We wanted to bring it to a new level and all our great suppliers who make our cases and who make our pickups, they do have a role to play. We’re not discarding them. They’re our sponsors. So they are sponsoring the event so that their customers, the guitar makers, can come here for a reasonable cost and have a successful show and sell more guitars so we can buy more of their supplies. So you know it all comes back together in a beautiful way. The more people that come here, the more visitors, the more money our association earns from the show, it’s not some greedy bastard getting rich from the money. It’s the association that puts up the money to make a better show next year so it’s really beautiful.

GC: So what’s next? 

JR: Well this has been a lot of work. We’ve been a small group of people putting up the show and somewhere on the side I found some time also to build the guitars. We are lucky we are a group of four luthiers and my wife who is actually a luthier but is doing all the media, videos and photography and so the four of us guys, we built one guitar each and so it’s been a great ride. I’m totally exhausted. So exhausted. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, when all the pressure and this enormous load of energy is passed. I don’t know what’s going to happen (laughs). I don’t want to think about it yet.

GC: What are your goals as a builder?

JR: My goals are to find my place; to find my blue ocean. A place where people know me for certain things like trademarks. People know us for using certain special materials and our visual language and the sound of the guitars and our special concept of how you order a guitar from us is quite different. Guitar builder tool where you configure your guitar, it’s a special concept that we are there and we are our goals for the future are fine tuning that concept and then remember the fun in it and remember the creativity.

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GC: Can you tell me about one of the guitars you brought here today? 

JR: One of the guitars that I brought here today is called the Captain Nemo guitar. It’s a good example of the remembering the creativity and fun aspect I’ve been talking about. I’ve been working on this guitar for five years. It’s a concept guitar with the thought that, what if the electric guitar was invented in the 19th century? I was thinking back to the Victorian era and going into a fantasy trip to an alternative past, how things could have been. The outcome is kind of crazy. In some ways it’s totally wacko but it’s been a great experience for me especially because, kind of by accident, we stumbled upon a great invention. There’s the active pickup, we call it the valve bucker. And it’s something that started as a visual concept, learning about history and about the telephone which was invented in the 19th century and the vacuum tube that was invented for the telephone. I stumbled upon the idea and thought, wait a minute, why has no one ever done a tube pickup to a guitar? You have active pickups, but I’ve never encountered a tube pickup which is kind of funny because when I got the idea I was sure that somebody must have done it because electric guitarists are so crazy about tubes, you know, tube amps and all that.

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GC: So, you could make a telephone call through your guitar?

JR: You know, you actually could do that. If you still have the analog phone lines, then you can plug that through a telephone wire and call somebody and start playing. Technically that would be possible. So it’s really crazy but we never expected that. The pickup sounds awesome, we never expected that. It has a character that is just totally fantastic and great acoustic properties, and great headroom and dynamics which is something I’ve never experienced in an electric guitar pickup before. So, since we got that ready, we’ve been working on the concept of the valve bucker and we’re working on the next prototypes. The valve bucker will be embedded to our guitar so you can have it as an option. I’m really excited about that. In the close future we’ll be working on this exciting, new, accidentally invented thing.

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GC: One question that I’ve been asking everyone – and there’s not a right or wrong answer – is what part of the guitar would you be, and why?

JR: Oh, wow. I’d probably be the neck of the guitar, because that defines the playability. To me, the neck of the guitar is the heart of the guitar because it has so much to do with sustain. How the player experiences the guitar is largely defined by holding the neck of the guitar. That’s where everything happens. So, yeah, I’d be the neck of the guitar. I’d be some other parts as well but that’s the main one.

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