The Ruokangas Unicorn

Originally Published in our LP Reboot Issue
By Juha Ruokangas

When it comes to electric guitars, the Gibson Les Paul was for sure my first love. I’ve often thought about why, and I guess I have to admit the actual reason was how the Les Paul looked – or better yet – how the rock stars looked and sounded with that guitar hung on their necks. I started playing guitar at about the age of 10 – that was 1982 – and whereas my very first musical influences were Iron Maiden (The Number Of The Beast, the hot new thing at the time) and the like, my taste diverged very fast to bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, Cream… and those giants led me to other stuff like Jethro Tull, Genesis (the old stuff with Peter Gabriel), Yes, Rush – a lot of prog rock and eventually guys like Jeff Beck in his fusion era, early ’70s, Jeff is still my biggest guitar hero of all time. And what comes to the earlier referral to falling in love with the Les Paul looks – see the cover of Jeff’s Blow By Blow album, and you know what I mean.

Later on, when I was stumbling to learn the art of guitar craft, the Les Paul guitar was still there, lurking behind my shoulder. While in guitar making school (early 90’s) I got an opportunity to visit a collector who owned an all original 1957 gold top Les Paul, and I was fortunate enough to spend a day measuring, drawing and playing that guitar. For a young wannabe guitar maker this was quite an eye-opening occasion. I realized right there and
then that the guitar Les Paul had evolved to be later on (late 60’s, 70’s, the ’80s and so on) wasn’t really the same thing as this old timer from 1957. By then I had done the same as any kid with no money would do – drool at the guitar stores, and sometimes encourage myself to pick up a guitar and strike a chord or two. I still remember how I thought time and time again, “Wow, the Les Pauls are so heavy…” And then, later on, sitting down with that 1957 Les Paul (and other pieces from that era, I later learned), noticing that it was not heavy at all – my astonishment had no end…

This was the world before the internet, so I couldn’t go ahead and Google “Les Paul” or anything else for that matter, but I did gather all the information I could, mainly from books. I learned that the Les Paul guitar was originally launched in the early ’50s and eventually discontinued in 1960 because it didn’t sell… In the late ’60s, Gibson however, woke up to notice old Les Pauls in the hands of many popular guitarists, with Eric Clapton in the lead. So Gibson then decided to give the guitar another chance and started making it again in 1968. But something had changed. The very reason why the original Les Paul weight happened to be generally between 7 to 8 lbs was the body and neck material – Honduran mahogany. Gibson continued using the same material in the 60’s Les Pauls but the availability got scarce and the quality of the raw material got more and more unstable – and the guitars got heavier. By the end of the ’70s, Gibson solved the worst weight problem by drilling holes to the bodies to remove excess weight. Later on, this procedure got a name “weight relief”. But still to this day, it’s not a widely known fact that basically all (except a small percentage of the Custom Shop historic collection guitars from recent years) Les Paul bodies since the late ’70s are drilled full of holes like Swiss cheese… Eventually, Gibson stepped out of the closet and admitted this is the case (hell, nowadays you cannot keep secrets like this with x-rays & internet… everybody will find out anyway!). All production Les Pauls are either weight relieved or sound chambered. The original Les Paul was, however, a solid body guitar and sounded quite different too.

Sorry about the history lesson but I felt necessary to open the subject a bit deeper to fully make you understand why I ended up designing my guitars as I did and using the materials I do. Learning the history of Les Paul entwined with my luthier studies, and in 1994 I happened to apprentice at a classical guitar workshop in Finland – Liikanen Guitars they’re called – and they stuck a spokeshave to my hands and had me carve some guitar necks for them. One of those necks was an old piece of Honduran mahogany, and the rest were Spanish cedar – the most common neck wood used in high-end classical guitars. When carving those necks I instantly noticed how lightweight both the Honduran Mahogany and Spanish Cedar were, and how similar they were to work with. The timbre
and bend strength of both wood species were very similar too. I asked the Liikanen brothers if anyone has made electric guitars out of Spanish Cedar. And next to me Juha Lottonen (another great Finnish luthier who shared a workshop with Liikanen) said: “I have. Works great”. Lottonen had made earlier a Les Paul replica out of Spanish Cedar, but I never got to try that guitar – and I got more and more curious. By the end of my trainee period at Liikanen I ended up buying a plank of Spanish Cedar from them, just about enough wood to carve out three electric guitars.

I started my own company in 1995, and my first take on the Les Paul was the Duke model I designed in 1995-1996. After playing around with prototypes for a while I made a batch of three guitars and used up all my Spanish Cedar. I still have the #1 of those three, and very little has changed up to this day. The Duke recipe has remained pretty much the same as I originally composed it. The Duke was a modern double-cutaway design, visually influenced by stuff Jol Dantzig (Hamer) and Paul Reed Smith were doing. But still, playability-wise I was very much looking at designing a guitar for those who love the Les Paul sounds and feels, but would appreciate a better playing comfort, lighter weight, and more open tone – in the spirit of the original Les Paul.

12 years later, after designing a bunch of different guitars, I was itching to return to the Les Paul concept once more. I felt strongly that a few stones were still unturned… I had gained a lot of experience during my years in the profession, and I had also grown painfully aware of how conservative the guitar business is. I would have never imagined 12 years earlier how difficult and laborious it is to sell guitars that are made of wood not used by anybody else. Internet was taking its first baby steps, and nobody talked about the boutique guitar scene then. The vintage renaissance bloomed like never before; new guitars being whipped to look like old guitars… The fact that the original Gibson Les Paul was such a great instrument and had become such a larger-than-life icon, had created a whole branch of business, countless factories and small builders replicating the Les Paul, with Gibson themselves in the lead. But to me, it seemed that everyone was doing it more or less blind – replicating the shell, not the soul. For example – for me- using mahogany just didn’t make sense… It doesn’t sound the same, it only looks the same. Why use it? Because Gibson used 60 years ago a wood that had the same trade name? No thank you.

I had a very clear vision of my ultimate goal: An innovative guitar that looks traditional so people won’t get scared. A solid body electric guitar that sounds and feels like the original Les Paul without having any of the Les Paul shortcomings. Notice – as long as the materials I use are reliable and deliver the result I’m after, I don’t care the slightest bit what they are. I don’t need to use Honduran Mahogany just because that’s the way it used to be. It’s like that joke: “How many country singers does it take to change a light bulb? Five. One changes the bulb and the rest sing a song about how much better the old bulb was…” This is the significant difference with my guitars as compared to many others – I dare to use unusual materials, and I’m stubborn enough to keep using them as long as it takes to convince the players. An example, I use moose shin bone as the nut material because it’s seriously the best material there is. I don’t mind that we have to gather moose legs from hunters every autumn, skin and chop them to pieces and boil them on an open fire for a whole day to clean them up. It’s a hell of a job but pays off in the end. The same goes for Arctic Birch. There’s no supplier I can call and order 5A tops… or any tops for that matter. No, I need to go to the forest with the timberjack to pick my trees and go from there.

It takes years to process from the raw material to graded tops piled on our workshop shelves. Again, a lot of work but I don’t mind as long as we get the product right.

I’ve never enjoyed playing a Les Paul sitting down, the guitar is so back heavy. It feels like the “butt” weighs too much and pulls the guitar to the floor. I wanted to improve this in some subtle way, without making the guitar look modern (that’s a curse word in guitar design, ha!). Also, I was very well aware of the Achilles’ heel of Les Paul – the headstock that snaps off way too easy (ask any guitar repair shop, they know what I’m talking about!). I wanted to improve this too – and again, without changing the tone or the look. I knew this was quite a challenge to pull through, but luckily I had a few aces up my sleeve, experience gathered when designing the Duke and my other guitars…

I named my new guitar “Unicorn” after the mythical creature from European folklore. The name fit well since I had after all started some sort of a hunt after the Holy Grail of electric guitars.

It was obvious to me from the start that the wood combination would be Spanish cedar for the body and neck, and Arctic birch for the top. The Spanish cedar, I explained a bit earlier (Duke model), had over the years become one of the trademark features of my guitars. And I totally love it! It’s the most responsive tone wood I have ever encountered, and an absolutely perfect body and neck wood for this type of electric guitar. Why Arctic birch? This great domestic (Finnish) tonewood has become another trademark feature for my guitars, and there are good reasons for it. Since the first time I made a Spanish cedar guitar with Arctic birch top (in 1998), I realized that it’s even better than the combination of cedar and maple that I had been using until then. Finnish birch is very similar sounding
to maple, but it has a slightly deeper tone and warmth to it that complements the super dynamic tone of the Spanish cedar in a very satisfying way. I absolutely love it!

Another feature that my guitars are kind of “famous” about is the thermo treatment – a special method to further improve the stability and tone of good quality tonewood. All our birch tops are thermo treated, and the Unicorn was not to be an exception. ToneQuest Report published an excellent article about us and thermo treatment some years ago (you
can find it online from our website). We’ve thermo treated all our maple, alder and birch since the turn of the millennium. This technology has finally surfaced also in North America. And now such makers as Music Man, Suhr Guitars and Tom Anderson Guitarworks offer “roasted maple” for their guitar necks. Despite the name, this is exactly the same technology we’ve pioneered and used in Finland for over 12 years.

I wanted the Unicorn body to have the same thickness and overall size as the Les Paul, the same neck angle, headstock angle, and other crucial measurements. All these things contribute to the tone, and I didn’t want to alter anything that wasn’t wrong in the first place. The outline of my guitar, however, ended up surprisingly far from Les Paul, yet a quick glance won’t necessarily reveal this. The most significant change is the rounder Stromberg jazz box influenced cutaway shape. I also shifted the waistline of the body quite a bit lower to improve the balance of the guitar when you play sitting down. The most important constructional improvement is without a doubt the headstock. I’ve repaired way too many broken Les Paul headstocks… The problem is caused by the steep headstock angle and the fact that Gibson made (and still makes!) the neck of a single piece of wood. This causes grain run-out in the headstock joint area, making this spot of the neck surprisingly prone to breakage. The truss rod channel weakens this point even more. Personally, I think it’s horrendously irresponsible and shortsighted for Gibson to not fix such an obvious design error of a relatively expensive production guitar.

I did quite a few maneuvers to improve this error, and I’m proud of how well it turned out. The headstock is made of a separate piece of Spanish Cedar, eliminating the grain run-out. I added also maple splines that cross
the headstock glue joint, and are hidden under the fretboard and headstock veneer. You can see all this in detail on the Unicorn videos (refer to “Unicorn Diary” clips on the link-to page).

This multiple laminated construction makes the neck strong – so strong that on the Unicorn video diary (episode 6, I think) I’m standing on the neck and it doesn’t break. Don’t try to do that at home to your Gibson guitar!

Throughout the whole design process, I proceeded with my normal routine of viewing every detail and re-thinking / re-designing every part if need be. This applies not only to materials, finishes or construction but also to work methods. The whole concept matters. At my workshop, we don’t do any serial production at all. This means we don’t use modern computer controlled routing machines, lasers or any of that. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is genuinely a better way to do it for us. The modern technologies in guitar design would lead us on a path I don’t want to step on to. I enjoy more the hands-on way of doing things, which keeps us in full body contact with what we do, and even with who we are–Zen and the art of luthiery!

One interesting feature in an electric guitar is the pickups. A typical scenario is that somebody might have a guitar that sounds dark and muddy, and he wants to improve it by changing pickups. To some extent, this may work ok, but the fact is that the acoustic properties of the guitar itself dictate very much what the amplified sound will be like. So no matter which pickups you put to that dark sounding guitar, the muddiness will come through. You can of course fine tune the tone with the pickup, and you can alter the way the guitar drives your amp, but the foundation (the guitar itself) needs to be right first. I’m often comparing the electric guitar pickup to a vocal microphone. No matter how expensive and state-of-the-art microphone you put in front of me, I won’t sound other than myself. It’s the same thing with a guitar pickup. One can claim that the electric guitar pickup only picks up the vibration of the string, and yes maybe it does, but the way the string vibrates, the way the harmonics are enhanced or canceled, the way the string interacts with the body and
neck resonance– it’s a complex equation. The ideal situation is that the guitar itself provides a healthy and even frequency range. A great sounding electric guitar typically needs to have a good dose of certain lower mids and sparkling highs to cut through in the mix. If your guitar doesn’t provide those frequencies acoustically, you’re screwed.

Changing pickups won’t help. This is the great thing about the combination of Spanish cedar and Arctic Birch. It’s seriously my Holy Grail that simply just works like a dream, in many different guitar models. The guitars have such clarity, openness and unparalleled dynamics that I couldn’t hope for any better. By having the foundation right, it’s been a lot easier to proceed with the pickup design together with our main pickup guy Harry Haeussel. We ended up making a lot of prototypes and then started narrowing down to a certain design which was then refined a few times to get everything perfect. I wanted the Unicorn Custom Humbucker to have asymmetrically wound coils to make the pickup a bit less compressing, in order to support the dynamic tone of the guitar so when you hit the string, the attack of every note is powerful and clear. I truly respect Harry’s insight and knowledge of pickup wizardry. It’s amazing to me that when I tell him I want more “thud” when I hit the string or I want more ‘growl’ to the mids, this guy delivers every time!
Magic, if you ask my opinion…

The “Project Unicorn” happened in 2008-2009. And at the beginning of it all, Emma and I had the idea to shoot the design and build process on video and publish it to YouTube as a documentary. First, we were both a bit uncertain whether it’s a wise thing to do at all since usually such a process is kept behind closed curtains; top secret. But in the end, we felt
that the only way to make people understand the concept is to show the concept, nothing held back.

So there it is my heart and soul, the culmination of my career up until a few years ago, the Unicorn Video Diary. Episode 16 was a fun thing to do. We invited some friends to a local club, and a good friend of mine brought along his original 1959 burst Les Paul, the only one in Finland, I assume. We also got a few nice reissue Custom Shop Les Pauls in the house– and then we did some serious A/B/C testing! Check it out,
the whole thing is still online, you can find it from our website or our YouTube channel. An interesting detail is that when we started doing the videos, Emma was very much a beginner doing that stuff, and so the build process shows not only the development of the guitar but also Emma’s development as a director & camerawoman & editor! It’s a total of
17 episodes, 5-10 minutes each, of dust and chips of wood– and my endless babbling. Nightmare for anyone but the true enthusiast, ha!

To learn more visit: www.ruokangas.com

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5 thoughts on “The Ruokangas Unicorn

  1. Sorry, I don’t get it. Why do I need another knockoff of a Les Paul? What is this going to do for me a Collins or Larrivee or
    Heritage or PRS or any number of other top end LP style guitars aren’t going to do- with far more dubious resale value?

    1. It likely plays and sounds better than the other LP copies, or guitars modeled after the LP. He tweaked the design, to make it
      more balanced, and the different woods he uses likely improve the tone. As for resale value, you likely aren’t going to EVER
      want to part with it, and eventually they will become like D’Angelico are now – VERY expensive! If I had enough money to
      buy any guitar I wanted, I’d try one of Roukangas’s models before anything else, judging from having read about, and learned
      from him. Juha seems like the most obsessively determined, and knowledgeable, luthiers I’ve ever learned about, and
      judging from what people who have played his instruments say about playing them – they are likely the best of the best!!

    2. @ Sam Hendrick (and anybody considering a purchase): The Roukangas “Les Paul” type guitars likely play and sounds better
      than the other guitars modeled after the LP. He tweaked the design, to make it more balanced, and the different woods he uses
      likely improve the tone. As for resale value – you likely aren’t going to EVER want to part with it, and eventually they will
      become like D’Angelico are now (VERY expensive!). If I had enough money to buy any guitar I wanted, I’d try one of Roukangas’s
      models before anything else, judging from what I’ve read about, and learned from him. Juha seems like the most obsessively
      determined, and knowledgeable luthier I’ve ever learned about. Judging from what people who have played his instruments say
      about playing them – they are likely the best of the best!!

  2. Some posters would have done well to read, and perhaps try to understand, the article. Virtually every part of the Unicorn is
    redesigned and fabricated from distinctly different materials. Of course the guitar looks like other LP variants, since that’s what
    Juha — right out front in the article! — said he knew people wanted. As is true. There’s no reason why you need to care about the
    qualities of this guitar, or its design, but to call i a copy or claim that it’s just another basic LP variant is absurd. You don’t need to
    like or value what Juha does, but that doesn’t make it negligible. He’s one of the modern masters, and his peers recognize that.

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