The Finnish Art of Guitar-Building.

20 Apr

Most of the time, it’s fair to say that in life we get so absorbed in the destination that we fail to consider the journey itself.  This is true of music, especially – as consumers, we’ll likely only be aware of the final mastered record.  All the demos, all the revisions and the versions won’t reveal themselves to us (unless the musician chooses to share this part of the creative process).  The same could be said for buying an instrument.  How often do you spare a thought for the person behind the finished guitar, bass or drum-kit?  In no particular order – perhaps you first head to your most loyal and respected seller, or stick with a brand which has some longevity in your own life-history, or trust in the choice of a respected musician’s guitar brand.  The thing is, the whole seems to be greater than its parts – and so, as long as a guitar fits us right, looks sleek, sounds sound – there might be no intention to mentally undress the guitar in front of us into its constituent parts.

Having recently returned from living in Finland for one year, my attentions turned from a general music-is-my-oxygen approach, to the trees that go some way to produce these sounds.  Finland is a country boasting more than two million cubic metres of woodland and forested area, and over thirty indigenous tree species, along with equally as many lakes as there are people (just five million inhabitants) and saunas.  Apart from a bit of a ‘special’ relationship with the birch tree (incidentally, they use the birch twigs to sporadically whip each other’s bodies in the sauna), some of this timber finds its way into the hands of a small number of nimble luthiers who work this wood into the final guitar that you spend hours mulling over in your local store – and subsequently, as the vehicle for your own flighty fingers.

Spruce is particularly common in Finland.  This is typically a great wood for soundboards as it has a high strength/weight ratio and is good for steel-strung guitars.  The Masur Birch is also largely grown in Finland which gives an attractive texture of dark lines and streaks, when treated.  Compared to the early Fender guitars, which typically used Ash and Alder in the 1950s, and Gibsons which have used solid Mahogany for some of their models including the Les Paul Jr; Finland might not have the same legacy, but one thing’s for certain – their makers really believe in what they do.

Fender guitars were founded in 1946 by Leo Fender who took his chance to improve upon the amplified hollow-body instruments of the time, by using an innovative solid-body electric guitar design and streamlining the building process.  By 1951, the Telecaster was born – and later, in 1954, the Stratocaster took full advantage of the single-coil pickup which offered a massive range of tonal possibilities.  Yet another distinct feature of the Fender build-process was the addition of the vibrato ‘tremolo’ bridge, which was invented to allow guitarists maximum flexibility to bend strings – this paved the way for the pedal steel-like sound to come out of the ‘country scene’.

Gibson, on the other hand, put its faith in Korina (also referred to as White or Black Limber) which it used to full effect in the ‘50s.  Trusted for its resonance and clarity, but apparently an unreliable wood to work with due to its susceptibility to splitting, and its vulnerability to staining – Gibson reignited the Korina in their 50th Anniversary Ltd Edition models the Korina Flying and the Korina Explorer, in 2008.

There’s no argument to say that Finnish luthiers create better-quality instruments.  But one main feature is the space and time afforded to each individually made guitar.  Some luthiers complete just forty guitars in a year.  Compare this to a mass manufactured warehouse.  Most guitar-makers have trained extensively and grown up with a respect and understanding for the natural environment – which translates into the care they put into the timber they use.

It was my mission to track down as many Finnish-rooted luthiers and speak to them about their reasons for choosing this career path, and just what it takes to handcraft an instrument that will hopefully resonate with listeners spanning the entire globe.

Juha Ruokangas established his own business, Ruokangas Guitars, in 1995 and currently makes 120 electric and bass guitars per year.  He uses Spanish cedar and Arctic Birch and his workshop is located in the beautiful (originally 13th century) Harviala Manor in Hameenlinna, southern Finland.  To illustrate just how much their luthiers take the personal, hands-on approach to their guitar-making, Juha explained how domestic Figure Arctic Birch (which they typically use for guitar tops) cannot be sourced easily – therefore, they take it upon themselves to ‘fetch’ the timber personally, along with the services of timber-jacks and forest owners.  Sounds romantic – in reality, it’s just an arduous part of the process.

Yet Juha assures me that the guitar-building process itself is far from arduous and each component of the assembly – from the initial selection of wood tone, grain and strength – to the final strung guitar and fitting – is what makes each guitar unique.  Juha built up his own guitar business and learned the trade as a symptom of an original ambition to become a ‘rock star’ (a dream of many).   Initially satisfying his own curiosity he told me: “I was always interested in what’s ‘under the hood’ of the guitars and eventually I started fixing small defects and problems of my own and friends’ guitars.” Apparently, this is his true calling in life, and Ruokangas does not take this responsibility lightly.  Along with his dedication to the art of guitar-building, he is also sensitive to knock-on effects such as an awareness of environmental issues: “We use always domestic wood species when it’s possible, and all the tropical species we use come from FSC certified suppliers.”

Although living in a country where forest and woodland is not typically in decline; as a business, they have consciously decided to source woods that are not exotic, nor endangered. In 1997, the ‘perfect wood’ was found and this has since been tweaked to their infamous ‘Ruokangas Guitar Recipe’.  Lean, mean, and to be consumed in moderation.

The one thing that sets Ruokangas Guitars apart from other ‘Boutique Guitar Companies’ (they tend to fall midway between mass manufactured companies and individually-pioneered one-man shows) is the absolute and human attention to every small detail on each guitar.  It is, of course, a lot to do with how a guitar looks – but unlike a pair of killer-heels and the hidden blisters cleverly disguised as their owner flinches with every step; a guitar that is only concerned with fashion will basically fall down somewhere along the journey.  Juha told me that not only is the building process about how the guitar will look and feel, but it needs to reflect the personal connection that inevitably develops between a musician and his or her instrument.  This means paying close attention to how the guitar ‘answers’ during the building process, and aiming for a melt-in-the-hands overall effect.

Although based in humble roots in a northerly country generally not known for more than its dark winters, Moomin cartoon characters and Lappish location of the supposed Santa Claus; Finland and its guitar-makers are gradually gaining international acclaim.  Most luthiers and their companies travel to annual showcasing festivals including Frankfurt’s Musikmesse, Los Angeles’ NAMM show and the Montreal Guitar Show.  In fact, with the implementation of a Finnish thermo treatment, which improves wood stability, Juha and his team pioneered a technique in guitar-building which has now snowballed across the Atlantic and is used by small builders in the USA, including John Suhr and Tom Anderson.

In 2010 as part of the St. Cat Collection established through the Montreal Guitar Festival, Juha was selected to custom-build the first solid-body electric guitar – which now sits in the collection of custom-built guitars by some of the world’s most renowned luthiers, using hard-to-find tone woods.  Juha remembered, “I handed the guitar to them and this is something I will never forget.”  Currently, their MOJO and Unicorn models are favourites in the USA.  Previously selected luthiers include Seattle-based Rick Davis, Paul Woolson (Wisconsin), Vancouver’s Michael Dunn, and Quebec’s Jean Rompre.

It is evident that, apart from the time invested into each guitar made from scratch, luthiers are self-selecting artists who, it’s fair to say, invest a lot of emotion into their guitars.  Empathetic to their customers’ long-standing relationships with their own guitars, it’s not uncommon to hear of tales that recount times when quite literally, trashed guitars have been resurrected back to new, again.  Often as intricately detailed as building from scratch, dealing with repairs means even more of a respect for the guitar and its owner.  Juha and his team once rebuilt a roadside casualty of a guitar (one of those ‘Crap, I ran over my cat’ kind of moments) which seemed beyond therapy – “I won’t ever forget the moment the customer came by to pick up the guitar and saw it for the first time – I recall we both must have had tears in our eyes.” He added with an ironic laugh.

I wondered if the tranquility found in Finland was conducive to the building process – as AP Paasonen, a Finnish luthier based in Jyvaskyla, western Finland, mentioned – “The acoustic guitar is not a very loud instrument, and I think it is at its best, when the sound has the possibility to start from a total quietness.”  Yet, whilst the peace and quiet is much appreciated – there are certain records that bring out a certain energy that sometimes lacks the typical Finnish character – “Recently I’ve had on the playlist a lot of old Genesis albums, and sometimes we’ve had ‘theme weeks’ when we listen only to Elvis Presley or other times it could be The Allman Brothers Band or classics such as AC/DC.  My team members all play guitar and are music lovers with diverse tastes in music, so we get to enjoy a very versatile environment in a musical sense!”  Juha added.

AP Paasonen established his luthier business twenty years ago and specializes in acoustic guitars, mandolins and traditional Finnish Kanteles which historically came out of central Finland.  He is a small-scale business with an output of just ten – fifty guitars per year.  Much more than ‘just a job’, Paasonen sees guitar-building as a crucial balance between the senses, sensibilities and common sense, which can only come from within.  He attended a training institution in Finland and was hooked, having previously become disillusioned with his decision to pursue chemistry and mathematics, and decided to follow his gut instinct – “It hit me hard”, Paasonen said.  Being a small-output workshop, he can afford to be picky with his wood-choices and often settles for mahogany, rosewood, maple and ebony.  He also uses rarer-used products such as hide-glue and self-prepared bone for saddles.  The instruments he produces typically respond well to a lighter touch and are sensitive to finger playing.

To decide to create something is one thing – but to decide to do it the best that you can possibly do it, is a feature of Finland’s guitar-makers.  Juha’s ethos probably speaks for most luthiers, and true musicians, around the world – “One can teach the basics and show examples, but mastering – as in every walk of life – must come from within, finding your very own way, not following others.”

Which Wood? (No, not Wychwood).

  • Alder – A Fender staple – good for guitar-body.
  • Ash – Classic Fender and best taken from wetlands – swamp ash produces a tangy, sweet sound.
  • Aspen – Used by Finland’s luthier Kari Nieminen, who has produced guitars for international musicians, including Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and Roger Daltry.
  • Birch (Yellow Bark) – Grows in south-east Canada through to the Appalachian Mountains.
  • Birch (Cherry or Sweet) – Can have a similar appearance to mahogany, as its colour deepens with exposure to air.
  • Cedar – Similar in sound to Spruce and commonly used in guitar-making, this wood gives a warm and slightly ‘Spanish sounding’ tone.
  • Engelmann – Responds well to the lighter touch.
  • Mahogany – Harvested in Africa and Central America, this wood is often used for slab and multi-wood bodies – as well as necks.  The Gibson Les Paul Jr. and Les Paul Special are solid mahogany.
  • Redwood – Prone to splitting across the grain but often praised for its use on tops.
  • Rosewood – Prize wood and less common on electrics (apart from the Rosewood Telecaster built between ’69 – ’72 and played by one Sir George Harrison).
  • Spruce – Good for soundboards and due to its resilience, it can stand up to aggressive strumming and is a good choice for steel-strung guitars.
  • Spruce (Red) or Appalachian) – Gibson guitars used this wood in the earlier years.
  • Spruce (Adirondack) – Gives a dynamic range, high velocity and is great for flat-pickers and fingerpick-style players.
  • Spruce (Sitka) – Especially resilient for aggressive playing.
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