Next one up in our series of interviews with luthiers is Juha Ruokangas, who for the last 16 years has been an increasingly inspiring player on the guitar building-scene. Vintageandrare.com had a chat with Juha about the qualities of their unique wood and Ruokangas way of advertising for themselves.
Juha Ruokangas – Photo by Ruokangas.com
1. Hello Juha, and thanks for wanting to talk to us! What made you enter the business?
As a teen I was supposed to become a rockstar – what else! My musician career didn’t pick up the way I hoped so I was kind of drifting around for a couple of years. This was in the beginning of 1990′s – no internet or even cellphones yet invented. I had been repairing guitars a bit since I was a young guy but it just never occurred to me that this could be a profession – until I accidentally heard about this small school in Finland where you can learn to be a luthier / guitarmaker. I applied and got in – and I knew immediately that I had found my true calling. This is my labor of love, truly. And now more than ever I feel I’m on the right path, as the company has grown to a very comfortable size, we’re 5 persons all together and everyone of us enjoys what we’re doing.
2. How did you come up with the idea for your very clever online guitar builder?
I started making guitars for a living in 1995, and I noticed very soon that one of the biggest problems was how to communicate with the customer about all possible options we can offer – and once the option lists were presented, in many cases the result was that the customer was literally paralyzed – so many options, how can the customer be sure to pick the right combination when there’s no chance to even see how it will look like. So I did like everybody else, kept building guitars, and my early website photo galleries grew slowly bigger. And of course I noticed that players are ordering guitars many times on basis what they saw in the galleries – and this was bugging me, cause I knew they would order a wider variety of colors and other specs – if they just knew that they could! So I started a huge website project in 2002 with a great graphics designer and he built me the Mark I of the guitar builder. It was nowhere near as complex a system as what we have now, but it did give us a head start. Now we have the Mark II guitar builder online and it works beautifully. We even published a little iPhone app guitar builder sort of as a teaser of the fully blooded system on our website.
3. How was the first guitar you ever made?
I was told by my teachers that a good start in learning this profession is to learn building what’s already out there. That way you learn the basics, the existing techniques, constructions etc. So I started with a strat replica. I’ve built quite a few of various kinds of replicas in the early days of my career. Stratocasters, Telecasters, Les Pauls etc.
4. Which instrument has made you most proud?
There are so many. Every one of them still feels quite special to me, but of course every now and then there’s something that’s pops out. I’m very proud of the first Unicorn guitar I built. Not only the guitar, but the whole documentation of the design process in the YouTube videos we made. It enabled me to show in detail why my guitars are special. I hadn’t realized the power of videos before that really. Nowadays we do a lot of videos, it’s a great way to be transparent to the clientele.
Ruokangas HQ – Photo from Ruokangas.com
5. What has been your biggest challenge?
I would say that the whole process of starting the business and striving to be the best I ever can – now there’s a big challenge! I’m such a hopeless, romantic idealist that sometimes it drives everybody at the shop crazy. I love to finetune endlessly the whole concept of what ‘Ruokangas Guitars’ is about – and sometimes this happens at the expense of forgetting that we need to sell guitars all the time to survive financially!
6. What made you pick the Arctic Birch for some of your guitars? What is it’s features?
This was a coincidence. I got a piece of beautifully flamed birch from a friend and it was laying around at the shop for quite a while. Then I ended up using the piece on one of the Duke guitars 1999. I completely fell in love with the tone and the unique looks – flamed but not in the same way as maple. Since then I’ve come a long way. The birch we use is quite difficult to find since it’s not such an organized business as revolves around maple in the North America. I can’t call any wood broker for AAA flamed birch tops. I need to go to the sawmills, pick the trees standing up and so on – all totally from scratch. The use of Finnish Arctic Birch has become our most distinct trademark on the market, and I’m really proud of it. Structurally, Finnish Arctic birch is very close to maple. The weight and color are similar to maple as well. The flamed figuration is usually “wilder” than maple. I prefer the birch tone over maple, especially when used in a combination with our other trademark wood, the Spanish Cedar.
The raucous Ruokangas rockers – Photo by www.ruokangas.com
7. Do you feel it as an advantage having so vast amounts of beautiful timber close at hand, being Finnish?
I feel really proud of being able to offer some domestic wood species in my guitars. In some ways it’s an advantage, but also a challenge, knowing how conservative the business is. It’s not so easy to break through with a non-traditional material in this business. I’ve worked on it for nearly 16 years now and only during the last few years I feel the work has started to pay off, as the guitar enthusiasts have seen me around long enough doing what I do.
8. What is your favourite stage of manufacturing a guitar?
The devil is in the details. I love working on the intricate details and to make everything perfect. I don’t mean necessarily an inlay work or anything as striking as that. It could be just the fretboard edge, fret end, nut bone – or whatever detail. Building guitars can be a very “therapeutic” profession – you start building a guitar, and one day not in the too distant future you get it ready – it’s a very rewarding process mentally.
Juha and his work – Photo by www.ruokangas.com
9. What are your ambitions on behalf of Ruokangas?
It’s interesting that even though Emma (my wife) and I work together in the company, we also share our hobbies – so we’re basically never apart! We’re both music enthusiasts – we have a rock band called Tadalang – I play the guitar and Emma sings. My brother plays the bass and we have also another guitarist and of course drums. We’re gigging locally and having fun. I love motorbikes too. Rest of the time is more or less family stuff, nice and cosy.