2015 ToneQuest Report Article

2015 ToneQuest Report Article
Affordable and toneful
gear frm Canada....
The Traynor Guitar Mate
Reverb and YBA-1A Mark II
30 watt
2010 Les Paul Junior –
cheap and worthy
Rare excellence...
the cutom built
guitars of Juha Ruokangas
Chuck Thornton
The Ruokangas Duke
The Ruokangas
The Captain
Chuck Thornton
10th Anniversary Model
Contoured Legend
If you haven’t discovered
vintage tubes it’s time you
Thornton Legend Special
Mountainview Publishing, LLC
The Player’s Guide to Ultimate Tone
$15.00 US, March 2015/Vol.16 NO.5
Rare & Cool
We live in an era where cheap guitars have gotten better and
custom-built guitars are as good as a guitar can possibly be with
absolutely no compromises. Lucky us. We are truly living in the
golden era of guitar building in 2015, and guitarists have never
had it so good. You can spend a few hundred dollars for a player that
won’t let you down, and thousands for a signature, custom handmade guitar that simply defines the builder’s art, and we are featuring examples of both in this issue. If you are in need of an affordable
and fully serviceable electric we have that here, and if you have
decided it’s time to experience the very best of the builder’s art we
are featuring those, too. And if you are in need of an affordable
hand-wired vintage amplifier you’ll find them here as well.
The key to successfully shopping for gear today is knowing what
you want and why. With so may guitars, amplifiers, effects and
pickups available today, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by
the choices available to you and do nothing, or worse, make the
wrong decision. The gear we have selected for this issue presents
a win/win on all counts, even if you are contemplating
a liquidation sale and the purchase of a $10,000
electric guitar as a signal that you have made your
peace with the quest for tone and are now prepared
to go for greatness. It’s OK – these expensive,
custom built signature guitars are hard to find and
rarely offered for sale because they are so special,
and their owners know it. Regardless, if you
aren’t famiiar with builders Juha Ruokangas
and Chuck Thornton it’s time you became
familiar with their excellent work, as
their vision and attention to detail is
unmatched among all contemporary
builders. Even if owning one of their
guitars is a fantasy, you will learn a
lot about the state of the art in modern
guitar building and acquire a valuable perspective that can help you make
sound decisions in the future. Quest forth
and enjoy…
cover story
1971 Traynor Guitar Mate Reverb
How an amplifer that
sounds this good could
be relegated to such obvious obscurity escapes us.
Certainly many were made
– we found three listed for
sale on eBay at prices that
ranged from $795 (ours)
to $895. Featuring a tall
cabinet with a single 12”
Heppner Alnico speaker, the Guitar Mate is a full-featured
25 watt amp with bass and treble EQ, reverb and tremolo.
Traynor was known for using premium components, and
unlike many Fenders the power and output transformers in
our amp are original. They made them to last. Inspection of
the hand-wired tag board revealed an array of yellow mustard
caps and one replaced orange drop cap, otherwise original to
1971. Overall, this amplifier appears to have been robustly
constructed of solid wood with an overbuilt circuit board consisting largely of mustard caps. All good and very un-Fender
like indeed. The Heppner speaker sounds very good with an
even frequency response and good power-handling for this
25 watt amp, which sounds just a hair louder than a typical
Deluxe reverb. The Traynor stays clean at moderate volume
levels all the way to ‘7’ on the volume control, and then spills
over into lush overdriven tones from 7 – 10. The bass and
are very
in shaping tone,
the reverb is excellent, as is the tremolo, with a tubey throb
that is very controllable in speed. All in all, the Guitar Mate
is easily comparable to a Fender blackface Deluxe Reverb,
if a little louder with a less scooped tone. At 45 pounds it
remains portable yet robust, and the tall cabinet allows the
amp to achieve a certain level of projection and presence that
surpasses the Deluxe Reverb.
Tonally the Traynor seems to be a bit of a chameleon – the
array of mustard caps gives it a full, rich tone with outstanding bass and midrange response, and smooth, even treble
tones that fall somewhere between a Marshall amp and
a Fender without the midrange EQ. No wonder since the
Traynor uses a pair of EL84 power tubes and 12AX7s elsewhere. You might think that the tone would be more compressed with the 6BQ5/EL84s but it really isn’t. We love the
tone of this amplifier – it is eminently appropriate for clean
tones, rock and blues, and on the vintage market the price
certainly seems righteous. At +40 years of service our amp
needed nothing in the way of tweaks or repairs, it is dead
quiet at idle and sounds as good as it gets. Very vintage as
only a point-to-point
amp can sound,
toneful and willin’.
If you want to
learn more about
Traynor amps there
is an excellent and
detailed history written by Mike Holman online – over 60
pages of indepth historical data spannning 1963 to 1991. You
can reference this detailed information at
November 1974 Traynor
YBA-1A Mark II
The Traynor YBA-1A is technically categorized as a bass
amp, but you would never know it by playing through it.
Scored on eBay for $500, it is one of the most toneful dual
EL34 amps we have ever owned – for guitar.
Exploring vintage
amps like the
Traynor is always
enlightening if
not surprising.
Unpacking a
stout amp like the
Traynor leaves
clues to the mindset of the seller as you cut through multiple
layers of rock & roll tape, padding, more tape and padding.
When you finally have the amp freed from its protective layers of packing material it doesn’t take long to appreciate what
the seller was so determined to protect. The Traynor head
alone weighs 43 pounds – a piece of kit as the Brits would
say that was built to last, and it has, sounding as robust and
noise-free as it did the day it was made. The durability of
Traynor amps is nothing if not impressive.
Controls are simple enough – two inputs for volume I and II
with bass and treble EQ, a Range control for low end and an
Expander control for the upper mid and treble frequencies. To
say that these controls work brilliantly for guitar is an understatement. The Mark II is a deadly guitar amp in the style of
a Fender Bassman or Showman perhaps, yet the Mark II produces a bigger, rounder
tone with slightly more
depth than a typical
Fender. The extremely
useful Range and
Expander controls
move the focus of the
amp from full and
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
rich to brighter still with excellent bass response, and both
controls are extremely useful with guitar, acting as a separate
tone stack that alters EQ in an interesting and very pleasing
fashion. We don’t know exactly how these controls work,
but they work brilliantly for guitar. The Mark II is powered
by dual EL34 tubes and three 12AX7s. There is a fan inside
aimed at the power tubes, and like the Guitar Mate Reverb
the MarkII has obviously been purpose-built to last. The back
panel features
a speaker jack
and extension
speaker jack,
on/off switch,
a circuitbreaker
switch, and a
200 watt power
outlet. All very utilitarian and useful. Our guitars sound huge
played through the Mark II, but this amp isn’t so loud as to
become unuseful in 2015. Yes, it has the volume and power
of a Bassman, but it is a tone that doesn’t leave ears ringing
– in other words it isn’t a hurtful tone, but smooth, rich and
musical. Actually, the Guitar Mate Reverb and the Mark II
share a lot in common tonally and in terms of feel, the Mark
II is just creates a slightly bigger tone.
Gain, Bass gain. treble, middle, bass, Presence and Master
Volume. Three toggled tone switches on the main panel basically control and shape the overdriven tone of the amp versus
cleaner settings. Unlike a classic Fender head, however, the
PRS does not develop a lot of clean power. This amp seems to
be made for use with variable levels of mild to intense distortion. The overall tone of the amp is rich and full-throated. Distortion begins to influence the tone at around 6 on the volume
control. The effect of the bass, midrange and treble controls
is minimal as tone controls go – basically this amp has a
fundamental and very usable tone that doesn’t change a lot as
you adjust the controls with the exception of the three toggled
HX/DA controls. In thiis regard it shares a lot incommon with
the Texaplex PRS head we reviewed previously.
Back panel
controls include 4
and 8 ohm speaker and extension
jacks as an option
to the stock 16
ohm speaker out,
left and right bias
pots and a master
on/off and standby switch.
As the Brits would say, the Traynor is a professional piece of
kit, clearly built to last. We love the tone of it, its presence
in the room, and the obvious build quality. If you can find a
YBA-1A you will not be disappointed in the stellar tone and
character of this amp. Oh, and we should add that it is a great,
great bass amp, too! Both of the Traynors reviewed here are
excellent amplifiers. They don’t cover up the tone of the guitar with heavy distortion, yet they both possess plenty of attitude while allowing the tone of your guitars to shine through
and drive your guitar and your music. Quest forth…TQ
PRS HX/DA 30 Watt
Paul Reed Smih
teamed with amp
builder Doug
Sewell to design
amplifiers that
range in power from
30 watts to 100
watts. A reader sent
us his 30 watt PRS
HX/DA combo and
while clean headroom is limited, as a rock amp the PRS is an
excellent choice. Controls are very straightforward – HX/DA
The stock Celestion speaker seems well-matched to this
amplifier with a dominant tone that reveals a strong low end.
midrange and treble that is not too sharp or dominant in the
style of a Jensen.
For cleaner
tones the master
volume must be
turned up significantly, but again,
these are not pristine clean tones.
The PRS seems
to be voiced
for overdriven tones more so than vivid clean tones, and we
found a sweet spot that seemed to reveal the strength of the
amp that made adjustments to tone controls less evident. This
is one of those amps that is easy to dial in, but we wouldn’t
describe it as being extremely versatile in terms of tone. It is
what it is, and what it is is a good amp for hard rockin.’TQ
Les Paul Junior
How much should a solid Les Paul Junior cost? We scored a
2010 model in excellent condition for $699 and it seems as if
this is exactly what a good Junior ought to cost.
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
We went trolling on eBay
and found our 2010 model
among a number of Juniors
in roughly the same price
range – mostly newer Les
Paul Junior G-Force models with electronic tuning.
No, it isn’t a Custom Shop
model, but did we miss anything? No, we didn’t. Our
guitar has been played but
not abused, with zero fret
wear, and just a few minor
belt buckle scratches on the
back. Described as a great
player, it is all that, and the
single P90 sounds exactly s it
should – balanced and ballsy
with excellent bass and midrange response as well as
smooth treble tones. We have
done a lot of pickup swaps over the years but this Gibson
P90 isn’t begging to be replaced. Far from it. All we really
wanted was a Junior that had been used but not abused, with
clean frets, a great P90 and a decent weight. At 7.75 pounds
we acquired a solid mahogany Les Paul Junior that met our
needs perfectly, and it came in a brand new Les Paul case.
Mission accomplished, proving once gain that you don’t have
to take out a loan to buy an eminently playable and toneful
guitar made in the USA – Nashville no less.
What we like about this guitar in particular is that it needed
nothing to sound and play its best. The workmanship is absolutely flawless throughout. The Junior tunes up nicely and
stays in tune even with extreme string bends, just the way we
like it. The tuners work extremely well – tight and precise
with no sloppiness or slipping. The weight is perfect and
nicely balanced along the full length of the guitar. The reddish brown finish is thinly applied so that you can feel the
grain peeking through, and we love the color. The center
seams (two) are barely visible (you have to look for them)
and the fingerboard is a dark chocolate consistent along the
entire length of the neck, close grained and smooth to the
touch. Nice. The frets are perfectly dressed with no wear.
The neck shape is a classic, large enough to be comfortable
but not clubby. We also like the adjustable compensated
steel bridge and the way it positions each string closely over
the pickup polepieces. This is the right way to design and
build a guiitar at any price. We will raise the action slightly
on the treble side, but the way this Junior was designed and
built will require no further adjustments. Pyramid strings
will enable it to sound and feel even better.The CTS pots
are smooth and precise, and the pickup measures a perfect
7.66K. There is just enough wear on the front of the body
below the bridge to verify
that this guitar had been
played, and that’s fine with
us. Honest wear is better
than a used guitar that was
never used, or ‘fake’ wear,
eh? With the exception
of certain Gibson custom
shop models that we love,
you could easily own four
solid body guitars like
this for the price of one
Custom Shop model, and
give up nothing in terms
of playability and tone.
Our Fender Telecaster and
Stratocaster cost about
the same, and they too are
both as good as it gets.
Our Junior proves that you
don’t need a lot of money
to play great gear. Quest forth… TQ
Juha Ruokangas & Chuck Thorton
We spend quite a lot of time reviewing moderately priced
production guitars like the Les Paul Junior. As production
guitars go it is well worth your attention. We also feature
truly custom-built guitars made
by true artists who compromise
on nothing when building a gutar.
These builders aspire to a higher
calling, and they succeed, frequently boasting of owners who
have purchased multiple models,
some times as many as 10-20 or
more. In the orbit and rare air of
truly custom-built guitars Juha
Ruokangas and Chuck Thornton
consistently set the standard by
which all custom electrics are
judged. Their guitars are not only
works of art, but exceptional
players with equally exceptional
tones. No, they are not cheap,
but you can’t build at this level
otherwise. Perhaps in 1932 you
could craft guitars at this level
at a modest price point, but even
then such guitars were anything
but cheap.
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
We first spoke with Juha Ruokangas in 2005. You need to
know that Juha is an artist, and an inspired genius in our
opinion. In 2005 he briefly explained how he was building
guitars using Spanish Cedar and his Thermo treatment. We
have included his original description here, followed by his
January 2015 interview. Enjoy…
Electric guitar building
tradition in
Finland is
small. There
aren’t too
many older
around – only
a handful.
of these
gentlemen, Matti Nevalainen and Rauno Nieminen were
the teachers at the Finnish guitar making school. Naturally,
years studying in the school taught me a lot about various
traditional building techniques, materials, lacquers, glues and
all that. When you graduate from such a school, however,
there’s no way you can be a master of the art of making guitars. What you get is a good base to build on. I had read a lot
about guitar making prior to the luthier school. I kept constantly comparing what I had learned from the books to what
the teachers and senior students taught, and I talked about it,
too. “Why do you do it like this – Benedetto does it all differently because of this and that…” It took a year or so for me
to understand that there are as many nuances of doing things
as there are builders, and that a certain method isn’t necessarily better than the other. All the book wisdom was very useful
for me, and by combining that with some very good things
the Finnish luthiers did, I believe I got a good view of what
kind of guitars I wanted to build and how I wanted to build
them at my own shop, which I dreamt of already.
TQR: So how did things progress? Were there any signifi-
cant discoveries or failures along the way?
I started my company officially in 1995. By summer of 1996
I had managed to build my workshop, started offering local
repair services and I got some custom guitar orders in, too.
The early works were replicas of the good old Fender
models, a couple of Les Pauls, Rickenbacker bass copies and
stuff like that. I also built some wacko one-offs for crazy
players wanting to literally stand out from the crowd. Repair
work is a very, very important way to learn – to understand
how guitars are built, and to observe the good and bad in a
guitar. This leads to understanding what you want to do in
your own instruments, why, and how. I started to slowly gain
a reputation as being a sharp-eyed repairman and custom
guitar maker. I
got customers
who had gone
from brand
to brand for
years to find
the ultimate
guitar for
Eventually, I
did manage
to make some of these guys happy, and this paid off as word
of mouth started spreading. I think this must be the same old
story in many ways – good quality work always brings you
more work. However, I wanted to move forward. My idea
had been to design my own things. My first love in electric
guitars was the Les Paul, so that’s where I was headed. PRS
guitars were coming on strong, and I found the looks and
attitude of those guitars naturally awesome, but I wasn’t too
much into that hybrid thing with the 25” scale length and
tremolo. So, my first model, the Duke, took two years to
design and was born out of my love for the Les Paul. I sold
the first real Duke in the end of 1997 to Jukka Tolonen, a
legendary Finnish fusion/jazz player. His spectacular albums
have been released in the U.S., also.
I loved the sound of certain
50s’ Les Pauls I had a chance
to play. I wanted that sound.
But there were certain elements in the Les Paul that
I wasn’t too thrilled about
– the balance when you sit
down isn’t exactly perfect.
So I wanted to change that.
I have studied and experimented a lot with various
wood species, and the closest I can get to the genuine
Honduran mahogany (the lightweight stuff Gibson used only
in the ‘50s and beginning of the‘60s) is wood called Spanish
Cedar (Latin, Cedros Odorata). It’s the wood that classical
guitar makers build the necks from and it has nothing to do
with Western Red Cedar. It’s a nice tone wood with a surprisingly similar appearance to mahogany, even though these
woods are different species. The cellular structure of Spanish
Cedar is very similar to mahogany, the wood is lightweight
yet very stiff (it doesn’t bend easily) which makes it excellent
and stable for necks. When I tap a piece of genuine Honduran
Mahogany it rings like a bell. So does Spanish Cedar. When
I tap the modern, so-called Honduran Mahogany (which is
not from Honduras and hasn’t been for decades), it rings very
much lower-pitched, and the tone is sort of dull and muffled.
And yes, the mahogany today weighs a ton, generally. The
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
Latin name for
Spanish Cedar
comes from the
odor of the wood,
which is very distinct and strong.
The most common thing built of
Spanish Cedar must
be the expensive cigar humidors. Also, an interesting detail
from history is that Lebanon Cedar (also a species belonging to the Cedros Odorata family) is the very wood that
the temples of God were built from in the ancient times of
Europe. So, the body and neck of my first official model, the
Duke, are of Spanish Cedar. It works so well that I haven’t
really considered using any other wood. I use mostly ebony
for the fretboard of the Duke. Generally, the quality of ebony
has gone down and it takes a lot of time to dry it long enough
to make it safe to use. Some manufacturers don’t use ebony
at all anymore, but I do, and I still give a 20-year warranty
for these guitars. When selected and dried properly, ebony
is superior for this kind of guitar, with no dead spots, a slick
feel, and a very even tonal response. The Duke tops used to
be made from either maple, alder, or our specialty, Arctic
Birch. Nowadays it’s quite rare for us to build anything other
than Arctic Birch top guitars.
We also use
Spanish Cedar for
tops occasionally,
as well as spruce.
The look of the
Finnish Birchwood
is unique, and it
works perfectly
in union with a
Spanish Cedar body and neck and ebony fretboard. The figured Arctic Birch is very rare; we go out and buy whole logs
and cut them ourselves. We are currently the only company
on earth that can actually supply guitars with Arctic Birch
tops on a consistent basis, and I’m very proud of this, no matter that it takes a lot of work to get the wood. It’s worth being
able to offer something unique that has a personal touch from
my home country. The Duke guitars are built with traditional
techniques and no CNC is involved. The series are kept very
small (10-15 pieces in each batch) to maintain focus on the
detail. When there are too many guitars in a series, you very
easily get blinded by the mass of it. I don’t want that to happen, of course. Extreme quality is our number one priority
always, in everything we do.
We use polyurethane lacquers for all our instruments. I know
some nitrocellulose fans may be shocked by me saying this,
but I’ve gotten far better tonal results by using polyurethane
rather than nitro. You see,
nitro lacquers today are
definitely not the same as
they used to be in the ‘50s.
Modern nitro lacquers
include plastic components to
make them work a bit
easier and have better filling
and sanding qualities. The
major drawback of having
plastics in nitro is the way
they dry. A new nitro-lacquered guitar feels gummy and sticky
for many, many years to come. Dirt gets into nitro lacquer
very easily, but is very difficult to remove from the surface.
On top of these “feel” issues, using rubbery lacquer doesn’t
exactly improve the tone… The secret of an old guitar having
thatthin nitro finish is the fact that the guitar has been played
a long time, and the lacquer is brittle and dry, so it doesn’t
muffle the vibrations. The best method of finishing an electric
guitar in my opinion is to do it with polyurethane as thinly as
possible. This lacquer dries hard with no gumminess. It’s easy
to keep clean and the feel is nice and smooth. I like it.
We use a unique drying method for the wood that is different
than others called
for all alder, maple
and Arctic birch we
use (Spanish Cedar
is not treatable,
at least yet). This
process dries wood
in a very special
manner, imitating
the natural aging process. When wood ages, the cells harden,
resins crystallize and the organic “junk” from the pores of the
wood cleans out over years. The ThermoTreatment does these
same things. These are studied facts – the cellular structure
of treated wood resembles the aged wood cells near 100%.
The pores are clean, all resins have either dissipated or crystallized, and the stiffness of the wood is increased. Also, the
wood is more relaxed after treatment, as the mechanical tensions are relieved during the process.
Tone is a more subjective matter. I share the opinion of many
of our customers, as well as various magazine reviews that
have stated that there does seem to be a difference compared
to “an average new, good quality instrument.” The key factor
to achieve the “vintage vibe” everyone keeps raving about
seems to be able to make the instrument vibrate in certain
ways while playing. The highs, middles and bass must resonate in correct relation with each other, and the neck has to
be stiff in order to avoid dead spots and overbearing individual resonant frequencies. The ThermoTreatment does
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
dry the wood differently from the usual
methods – that’s a
researched fact. The
most apparent tonal
change caused by
is in the middle
Juha and Jol Dantzig frequencies, which
are always quite different when comparing a new “average”
bolt-on guitar and one that has been played and aged. The
middle rings differently. The first impression might be, “This
new,‘average’ guitar sounds brighter than the aged one.” The
actual phenomenon is that as the mids ring better, the highs
aren’t as emphasized, making the guitar sound more balanced
and fuller. While I am perhaps incapable of being totally
objective in evaluating this, many people – not knowing each
other’s reactions – have felt this same thing about our guitars.
At present, Mojo and VSOP models make the most of this,
as alder and maple are always ThermoTreated for these guitars. For Duke series guitars, the Arctic Birch tops have been
dried with this special method. Spanish Cedar we’re working
on, but it seems not as crucial to do, as this wood performs
perfectly as it is, dried with conventional methods, seasoning,
etc. Another nice thing about ThermoTreatment is the appearance. As you look at the neck wood of the Mojo Grande
you notice that it has this nice tanned look – and that is the
natural shade – no color is added to the lacquer at all. The tan
shading caused by this method goes through the wood, not
just the surface.
Tone Caps
I recently spotted a common but incorrect explanation
of what a guitar tone control does in your magazine that
states, “The tone cap isn’t conducting your tone at all – it’s
merely rolling off some treble to ground.” This is a common
misconception... What you actually have is known as a
resonant circuit. When you put an inductor (pickup), resistor (tone pot), and a capacitor (tone cap) in series as used in
a guitar, you indeed have a resonant circuit. I have enclosed
photocopies from a classic textbook on the subject, and I’ll
give you a few tips on how to tell if your resonant tone circuit is working properly: As you engage your tone control
(turning it down, or more ‘on’) the color of the tone should
change, a bit like a wah pedal, but not as radical. A wah is a
resonant feedback
circuit controlled by
your foot changing
the resistance setting
of the pot. B. As you
turn down the tone
control, the volume
of the treble strings
should not
drop more
than a
very slight
amount, if
at all. Think
of the early
Clapton and
Leslie West
tones.’ If the volume of the high strings dropped much at all,
there would not be enough signal to get that excellent sustain
they both achieved. Since a pickup has inductance and resistance, it’s a resonant circuit unto itself. The volume pot adds
additional series resistance and affects the total resonance.
That is why the value of the volume pot is so important. A
high-value volume pot tends to raise the resonant point, while
a low-value pot of course will lower the resonant point. One
last little tip that may be hard to believe until you try it...
When installing a tone cap in your guitar, use test leads to
jump in a particular cap and listen to how the cap affects the
tone as you turn the tone control down. Then, if you reverse
the leads on the same cap, it will sound different! Solder the
cap in permanently using the direction that sounds best.
The Duke
The Duke is the first
guitar model I designed
and I still make. I built
the first prototypes
back in 1995-1996.
The Gibson Les Paul
was my first love of
electric guitars, and
the Duke follows the
Les Paul footsteps in
many ways, even though I aimed at a more modern and ergonomic design. The scale length and neck angle are however
the same as Les Paul. With the Duke I also introduced two
unique wood materials that we’ve become known for over
the years. The body/neckwood I use is Spanish cedar, and
at the time I started using it, nobody else did –– in electric
guitars, I mean. Spanish cedar has been traditionally used in
the more valuable classical guitar necks for its stability and
light weight. I apprenticed at a classical guitar workshop as a
young man, and that’s where I found the material I remember
carving two necks – one of light weight Honduran mahogany,
and another one of Spanish cedar. I was thinking that both of
those necks were super light weight, they behaved the same
way when carving, they had the same tonality when working
with the wood and tapping them – but they smelled very different from each other! I asked the master builder about this,
and learned a lot about the qualities of Spanish cedar, which
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
aroused the
(for me, at
least, cause
I was definitely geared
making electrics rather than classical guitars) idea: I wanna
make electrics out of this stuff! At the time it was already really difficult to find consistantly light weight Honduran mahogany, and I – like so many other builders before and after me –
was on the trail to find my Holy Grail of electrics – and I had
a feeling that Spanish cedar could be my ticket. When I built
the first electrics out of the stuff, I was totally thrilled – such a
fantastic, BIG sound! Nobody used Spanish cedar in electrics,
so I would stand out from the crowd... I thought this is a good
thing, but oh boy…
Another wood species I introduced with the Duke was arctic
birch. It’s a special type of birch that grows here in Finland
and elsewhere in Scandinavia. The flamed figuring can be
super beautiful, and a little bit different from maple, too. The
most important thing is however the tone. When I first built
a guitar made of arctic birch and spanish cedar, I totally fell
in love with it, and
now, after 1200
or so instruments
made with this recipe, the love affair
has just gotten
deeper and deeper.
When designing the Duke, I felt that the most important thing
for me was to overcome the cumbersome playing position
when strumming a Les Paul on my lap. It felt like the guitar
is so back heavy and wants to lean backwards, no matter how
I sit. So I came up with the asymmetrical shape of the Duke.
The asymmetrical headstock shape also has a point to it - the
bass strings travel longer distance whereas the treble strings
a bit shorter. I was looking for easier bending, and more open
and dynamic low notes… I’m still really proud and happy
about how the Duke turned out. I went back to the “Les Paul
inspired” subject more than 10 years later, that time challenging myself to offer something that is very retro in sound and
looks, but nevertheless offers something new and unique to
the table. That guitar was to become the Unicorn model.
We started with special humbuckers for the Duke. I had many
ideas, first tonally and then also visually, after I realized that
this guy could actually build me something else other than
the usual humbuckers. It turned out that some of my visual
ideas actually had some affect to the tone also, and so by
this “accident” we got it even better than we had hoped for.
Sure, I’ve played guitars
with great humbuckers and
been very happy with them,
especially many wonderful
vintage bridge pickups, so I
could have been happy with
many commercially available
brands of bridge pickups. My
concern was always the neck humbucker, which more or less
always seemed not to be on that same tonal level as the bridge
unit in many expensive, calibrated sets available. I thought
they were either too loud, muddy, or not singing enough.
I have a good friend and customer, Peter Lerche, a top
Finnish player, with whom we started developing the idea
of a specific neck humbucker which would solve all those
problems. Peter had very interesting ideas of how to make
the tone right. A year or so later we came up with the current
Dukebucker Classic neck pickup, which can be described
with one word… clear. With clarity I don’t mean that you
can’t overdrive it into a huge, thick singing voice, but I mean
it’s all there – string-to-string definition, punch, and attack
no matter what settings on an amp you use. You can make
it as muddy as you like with the tone control, but still the
distorted tone is usable and you have a certain amount of
articulation left so the pickup is usable virtually with any setting you can imagine. I haven’t heard another pickup like it.
The bridge pickup follows the classic recipe except for the
visual things that altered some of the inner construction, but
it ended up sounding killer! The
Dukebucker Classic set is the
most popular of our humbuckers. We don’t have many humbucker options and I don’t think
you need many options, only
a few very good quality things
that will work perfectly when
matched to a guitar. The guitar
itself shapes the basics of the
tone – the pickup can’t invent
missing frequencies or attack
for you!
I am a big fan of P90 pickups, and therefore it was a natural
thing to develop something related to that for our guitars. I
want to keep things focused and simple in a functional way.
That’s why our P90 style pickup – the SingleSonic – is available only in our special humbucker-sized housing. When you
order a Duke or one of our bolt-on models, the Dukebuckers
and SingleSonics are interchangeable without alterations to
body cavities, pickup-rings or pickguards. It’s a nice thing
because tastes change, and our guitars can be fine-tuned easily
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
with different types of
our original pickups
specially developed
for these guitars. The
SingleSonic housing, as
stated earlier, is the same
as the Dukebucker. The
bottom plate is vulcanized
fiber instead of metal and
the coils and magnets are
seated on a custom-routed
maple ring. The coils are
vacuum-waxed and after
assembly the whole unit is
waxed again. The pickup
is covered by a nickel silver open cover fitted with an ebony
faceplate with mother-of-pearl or abalone ‘R’ inlay. One build
detail worth mentioning is the stable, 3-point mounting, which
enables more precise height
adjustment. The build quality
of this P90-style single coil
pickup makes it as quiet as a
true P90 pickup can get. In my
personal opinion, there’s nothing that beats the SingleSonic
pickup with its powerful,
open, breathing tone. It truly
succeeds to combine the meaty
tone of a humbucker with the
dynamics of a Strat single coil.
No compression here…
Last time we spoke it was late 2005 I think – that’s 10 years
ago! My company celebrates it’s 20 year anniversary this
year – time flies! I actually dug up that interview you did
back then, and read it through out of curiosity, and to sort of
“calibrate” myself as to what I have already told you. And
yeah, I’ve talked a lot! I noticed that basically my philosophy as a builder hasn’t changed at all, but I have re-focused
in some ways, too.
Back in 2005 I said that I use CNC for cutting bodies, necks,
etc. Well, I would guess that these days most builders, big
and small,
do that. But
I have actually abandoned all
in 2008! In the article written 10 years ago I talk about smallscale serial production, the modern technology serving us
better in certain things, etc. That’s all true of course, and I see
the CNC, laser and all the modern gadgets basically as tools
that enable people to do what they want, just like the oldfashioned routers and milling machines. However, at some
point I realized that the business growing from a one-manshop to a (very) little factory was not what I wanted. Today
Ruokangas Guitars is a total of 5 persons, including myself
and my wife. All of us are professional luthiers –- also my
wife. She doesn’t build guitars anymore (due to wood dust
allergy) but the rest of us make guitars from scratch, master
built, the old school way. We don’t do any serial production
at all, and we use no automated production methods. I find
this the optimal way towards absolutely non-compromised
quality, starting from the very roots of the process. It’s all
about love and passion, priorities… In that old TQ article
I talk about that love. I also talk about choices in life, and
living in the moment. This decision to abandon the modern
production technology was for me simply a continuation of
that ideology. The modern way easily detaches you from the
roots, and you may end up unwillingly on a path you never
wanted to embark on.
The Unicorn and Beyond
2008 was a
big change
for my
company. I
had partners
who felt
otherwise about the direction my company should take, and I
decided to buy them out. So I ended up selling my house and
my Harley – a very enlightening “letting go” process, actually,
and took the wheel 100% back to myself. That same year I
also started designing the Unicorn model, that has become my
best selling model. It’s very obviously also a continuation to
my earlier guitars, using the same tonewood species that I so
much love to use, still doing the thermo treatment cause it’s
every bit as great a method as it ever was…
A few years after buying the company back I also bought
an old manor building which was renovated to “the perfect
guitar workshop,” or at least the kind I envisioned it to be.
That’s where we have continued our work ever since, in the
countryside, happier than ever. And by the way, I also got my
official Master’s Degree as a luthier in 2009… Not perhaps
something that was much needed, but it meant a lot to me
personally, and also it forced me to study some areas I felt I
was weakest at. In Finland, to achieve the master’s degree in
our profession is a really thorough and demanding process.
Therefore there isn’t more than a handful of master luthiers
in Finland…
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
The Unicorn
For me, the Unicorn was a second
challenge to solve the same equation
that first time resulted as the birth of
the Duke model. The Gibson Les Paul
1959 is often depicted as the holy grail
of electric guitars. I’ve had my chances
to play a few of those old instruments
over the years, and there were two particular instruments, owned by collectors
in Finland. One was a 1957 gold top,
and the other one a 1959 burst. Both
all original. Both light weight. Both
of them excellent, transparent sounding musical instruments. A quality not
so often found in newer guitars of this
type. As we all know the mahogany
quality changed, the Les Pauls became generally a lot heavier
(than they were ever designed to be!), and eventually these
problems were solved by drilling or routing holes to the body
(weight relief, as it’s called). Well sure, it helps with the
weight a bit, but a heavy piece of wood drilled full of holes
does not equal with a light weight solid piece of wood – it’s
just common sense.
I have my “trademark recipe” of tonewood, that I knew
would sound awesome also
with a more traditionally designed guitar than my Duke
was. So I decided to challenge myself back in 2008.
Could I create something
that captures the essence, the soul of those old wonderful
guitars from the 50’s? Something that would feel and sound
familiar, but at the same time offer something genuinely fresh
to the table as well.
I found myself struggling with the exact same problems as I
did more than 10 years earlier with the Duke. My way is not
to replicate what already exists. I look at the essence of a
guitar with the attempt to understand why does a guitarist
experience this instrument
to be so exceptionally great?
What makes the guitar tick?
Next I look at the shortcomings – does it break easily? Does it balance nicely? Are there
some details that I can do better with what my know-how and
experience? The next step for me is to see where do I have
room to make the guitar look like mine without compromising
the big picture, which in this case was to create my interpretation of a classic. My take on a myth.
The material choices were
obvious to me. We had by
the time built hundreds and
hundreds of guitars made of
Spanish Cedar and Arctic
Birch, and it was a killer
combination, that provided
such a lively, warm tone
every single time! And I was really curious whether there is a
clear audible difference between the Duke and the new guitar
(that didn’t have a name yet..), given the fact that the Duke is
a more modern design, and I was attempting to dig down to
the roots with the new design…
When you look at the Unicorn body shape in general, it looks
familiar all right, but I’ve actually tweaked the position of
the waistline of the body quite a bit downwards. This makes
a dramatic difference in the balance of the instrument when
you play it sitting down. The Unicorn balances on your lap
perfectly well. A detail that can not be said of it’s role model..
The round body cutaway pays homage to such iconic luthiers
as Charles Stromberg and John D’Angelico, so in that sense I
decided to go even further back to the past than the Les Paul
was. The headstock shape continues my thematic 2-step carve
design. This is something that I introduced first time in the
Duke model. I had never seen anything like that before. Later
on many have done something similar, and I’d like to think
that maybe I have a small role to play in introducing such a
detail back in the 90’s for the first time.
As every guitar repairsman knows, the Achilles’
Heel of Les Paul is the
headstock. It snaps off all
too easily. I would estimate
that there must be tens
of thousands of Gibson
Les Pauls out there with
snapped off & repaired headstocks..! So when designing the
Unicorn I wanted to make sure my guitar is not that fragile
to break. With the Duke I had improved this detail with two
things, making the headstock angle less steep, and by adding maple splines into the neck to strengthen the fragile area.
With the Unicorn, I desperately wanted to make the steep 17°
headstock angle, cause it does have an affect to the tone, and
also playability. I did not want to sculpt a volute behind the
neck, either. I wanted to see if it’s possible to make a stronger
neck without compromising the angle or the delicate looks.
So I ended up making a quite a complex construction where
the grain-runout of the headstock is minimized by making the
headstock of a separate piece of wood, adding maple splines,
which together with the laminated structure of a thick ebony
veneer and fretboard create a multiple laminated structure
that is much stronger than the old guitars. There is a massive
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
video diary on YouTube of the design process of the Unicorn
guitar. On the 17-episode documentary I go through every step
of the design process and reveal a lot of detail on my approach
to making guitars. In episode 6 (I believe that’s the one) I
talk about the neck construction, and end up standing on the
laminated Unicorn neck - without breaking it. Up to this day I
haven’t heard of one single Unicorn that would have a broken
headstock, and there are already way over 100 of them out
there, shipped all over the world. However, don’t start stepping
on your guitar necks now at home – not a good idea, ha..!
you hear
these claims,
that the
wood of an
electric guitar doesn’t
matter cause it’s the magnetic pickup that catches the signal
solely from the string. True – the magnetic pickup doesn’t understand wood vibration. But the string does. The string is attached to the guitar from both ends, and when you put energy
to the string with your fingers, the vibration transfers to the
body and neck of the guitar through those connection points.
The guitar itself starts to vibrate. And as any vibrating object,
the guitar has it’s resonance peaks, and frequencies that couple other frequencies that stop vibrating faster, and so on. So
you could say that every detail in that guitar – construction,
wood materials, finishes, types of bridge and tuners down
to the smallest detail like the bindings, screws and all that
contributes to the way the guitar vibrates. This vibration transfers also back to the string, manipulating the way the string
vibrates.There are harmonics that couple, others that decay
faster. If the guitar has for example strongly vibrating mids,
then you hear the acoustic sound of the guitar mid-rangy.
The strings sounds more mid-rangy too. And this “filtered”
sound of the string is then
caught by the pickup, and
the energy travels through
the cord to the amplifier and eventually to
the speaker element and
back to the room. When
you dial up volume higher, you won’t hear the acoustic sound
of the guitar anymore. But STILL you can hear that midranginess, if that was in the acoustic sound of the guitar. And
now, in fact, the guitar itself acts in another role as well. The
sound pressure in the room makes the guitar vibrate, too. Now
the body and the neck vibrate not only by the energy fed by
the string, but also by the energy “on the air”. And everything
affects to this signal chain – the type of amp, speaker element,
cabinet, room size, wall materials… So there’s a complex
amount of variables that contribute to how does that electric
guitar sound like. But still, the bottom line is, that you have
to have a healthy starting
point. A healthy frequency
range in your guitar, that
is! For example, if your
guitar doesn’t have crystal
like highs, you won’t hear
crystal like highs from
the amp either, no matter
what pickups you swap in,
or whichever amp you choose. If the highs aren’t there, they
aren’t there. You can’t create the highs from thin air!
So what is the role of a pickup, then? My idea to make the perfect electric guitar is to succeed in creating a guitar with open
sounding and dynamic properties. An instrument that reacts
sensitively to what the player is doing. The acoustic tone of
the guitar needs to be balanced in a certain way. It’s important
to have emphasize certain lower mids in the tone, otherwise
the tone won’t cut through. So when I have that transparent,
unlimiting tone in the guitar, I try to emphasize this transparency to the pickup as well. So I’m not usually too keen on
super high output pickups, cause they tend to shape the sound
so much – filtering is another word for it. You can tweak a
lot the character of your guitar by choosing the pickup right.
A humbucker always compresses the tone a bit, but that’s ok,
that compression is
part of its charm and
soul. Old humbuckers aren’t often 100%
humbucking though,
cause the coils are
not identical with
each other. This can
be an asset – you can have a great humbucker tone, but still
maintain some of the dynamics of a single coil pickup. So this
is one of the features I wanted to do with our Unicorn Custom
pickup. I also wanted to tweak the outputs of the bridge and
neck pickups so that they would make sense. All too often the
neck pickups push too loud in relation to the bridge unit.
So we made the neck pickup quite a bit weaker than usual.
You can balance with this really nicely by magnets, coil
height, wire gauge and type and other mechanical details
of the pickup. Even though you put less windings on the
coils, you don’t need to lose the singing quality of the neck
pickup. You can have it every bit as creamy and thick, but
at the same time, you can gain tons of clarity. I don’t mean
necessarily cleanliness. Clarity means better definition.
With such pickup you can crank up your amp and drive it
with heavily layered overdrive, and still you can hear all
the notes of a chord. You gain versatility and musicality.
I feel I succeeded with the Unicorn very well. It is a different guitar from the Duke. It is also a different guitar from a
modern Les Paul. But it IS surprisingly similar with many of
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
the old ones. When I had built
the first Unicorn guitars I had
chance to arrange a very interesting A/B test that featured an
original 1959 burst Les Paul,
an R7, R8 and R9 reissues,
and 2 of my Unicorns. We had
a bunch of good guitarists, a
choice of amps, and we did
some recordings too – those are
online, it’s the episode 16 of
the Unicorn Video Diary. I’m
sure you’ll find all the vids by
googling “Ruokangas Video
Diary”. Listen to the video with
high end speakers or quality headphones and form your own
opinion. When that A/B test was made, most people in the
room shared my (understandably extremely biased) opinion,
that surprisingly the Unicorn was more a soulmate of the vintage Les Paul than the modern lookalikes (which were great
guitars too, by the way!) by the original manufacturer...
I’ve been working the
last years on a very
special guitar – sort of
like a fantasy trip to an
alternative past. It started on a long car ride
with a friend – a crazy
friend, I might add… We talked about the evolution of guitar,
and somehow our conversation boiled down to this question:
“What if the electric guitar would have been invented in the
19th century?”… I was driving, and my friend was checking
the internet on his cell phone, scanning through historic facts
about the era of the second industrial revolution, leading to
inventions like electrification and the telephone. We were
conjuring up theories about why wasn’t the electric guitar
invented earlier than in the 1930’s, while a magnetic pickup
was a much older invention (telephone, 2nd half of 19th
century). Digging up more and more facts we came to the
conclusion that technically the electric guitar could have been
invented for example in 1885. But – the motive to invent it
would have needed to be something else than what it was in
the 1930’s. Why? Because the loudspeaker was not invented
until the 1920’s! So why would some wacko even come to
think of an electric guitar so much earlier? Well, assuming
that someone would have come to think of it, we went on
brainstorming on all the possibilities. We were like little kids,
enjoying the high ride of creativity…
After this initiation, I continued working on the idea, fascinated by certain elements that had popped into our minds on
that car ride. 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 a logical step for me, since I
had designed the Unicorn model to
show my respect for the traditional
elecric guitar. I wanted to challenge myself to create something
that looks familiar enough so that
the players would not be scared of
it, but at the same time would be a
genuinely new, fresh take on the design. The Unicorn is influenced by the original Gibson Les Paul guitar in some ways,
while the body shape pays some homage to old jazzboxes by
Stromberg or the old German manufacturer Höfner. So back
to my project… It was to become a some sort of mash-up of
the Unicorn, a violin and a classical guitar. Heavy European
influence – that’s what I wanted to achieve.
The most intriguing feature of this new old guitar was to be the pickup,
however. This is the idea
that blew us away on
that brainstorming car
ride. We were reading
through history – we read that the vacuum tube was invented
as early as in the late 19th century in order to amplify the
telephone signal to enable long distance calls. That was
the “Eureka!” moment for me. I asked: “Has anyone ever
tried to do an active guitar pickup with tube technology?” I
couldn’t find anything. Well, yes, I did find that there’s been
some acoustic guitar piezo preamps with tubes in them, but I
couldn’t find any reference anywhere about an active pickup,
made with tubes. I’m now talking about a pickup like EMG
does, for example, but in this case we wouldn’t use transistors at all. After this initial idea I started to play with the
visual design, and the pickup morphed into this large round
object resembling the placement and looks of a classical
guitar soundhole. One idea led to another – magnetic pickup
stuck to the round hole, tubes and the preamp glowing below,
an old, framed convex glass covering the whole thing… It
looked wacko all right, but at the same time, this thing could
have actually been invented in 1885, and it could have looked
like my invention too. TQ
Captain Nemo
Somewhere down the road the guitar was renamed Captain
Nemo. I guess it came from the looks of the pickup (like an
ancient diving helmet glass) and maybe also from the whole
Victorian style the guitar had developed into, resembling
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
a Jules
item. I
intended to
make this
though. I was on the trail to make something that could have
existed for real, and I also wanted to make it fully functional
– unlike most steampunk stuff is.
Jorma Kostamo, the father of one of my employees is a
retired army intelligence officer, an engineer by education,
and has worked all his life with vacuum tubes. Jorma has
designed the preamp schematics for the ValveBucker® (as
the pickup was named and trademarked later on), and he
also was happy to work on even my craziest ideas, which
were then executed if they felt right. So I was figuring out
the motive – why was this electric guitar invented, if you
couldn’t plug it
into an amp and
Well, a “telephone speaker”
was invented
all right (obviously, being
the same thing
as the magnetic pickup in a telephone, just reversed), even if
the signal quality was somewhat poor – so in theory a person
could have plugged the guitar into a headset and rocked on
without disturbing others. Another motive could’ve been that
the player could’ve plugged the thing into the telephone line,
called the operator, asked to connect (distant call) to his guitar teacher (who has also such an electric guitar in his possession), and the two of them could’ve done the first remote guitar lesson “online” – each of them playing the electric guitar
and listening to each other through the headsets. Wild, haha!
So anyway, this very rational path of thought was the source
of my next bright idea for the guitar. If the player can plug
it into a telephone line, it means that he can’t hear the signal
by himself, so the guitar needs two things: 1) A sustain meter
to tell that the guitar is operational, and 2) A display to show
how loud the signal is.
Obvious, right?)
First of all, the tube
preamp needed an
external power source.
So we made a box to
be held on the floor,
probably the first
active DI box in the world, ha! Basically the box was only
needed for the power transformer to provide the correct voltage to the guitar, but we figured that we could put a dual
nixie tube display in the box as well. The idea was that the
display would show the guitar volume pot position from 0
to 11. A great idea (!), and my engineer told me: “Yeah, no
problem” – and then a year later he comes up with this pile of
schematics and explains that it’s a bit of a challenge to show
the display and what position the volume is in. But we did it
anyway, and the size of the box on the floor grew considerably bigger! We also placed the sustain meter to the guitar,
in the position where you would traditionally have the 3-way
pickup selector toggle switch. I also wanted the guitar to have
4 pots just like the Les Paul, just because it was a fun detail.
But I only had one pickup. So we ended up in installing a 3
band tonestack to the guitar!
When the Captain
Nemo was getting
ready, I have to confess that I had no
freaking idea what
it would sound like.
Nobody knew! We
were experimenting
on so many levels,
that the outcome was
a complete mystery. I guess I was hoping that at best the
pickup would work decently. Maybe like a regular guitar with
a tube preamp on the floor, or something. I humbly admit that
I did expect that the project would be more of a gimmicky
sort than something fundamentally successful. You know, all
the elaborate wood carvings (by master carver Jani RintaKeturi) and other visual details turning heads, but that’s about
it… And I really thought that would be enough, cause such
an outcome was worth the fun of the process itself!
The Captain Nemo was for a some sort of a trip - conceptual
art, one might call it. I’ve received quite a few emails and
phone calls asking about the availability and price. This guitar took many years in the making, and like every prototype
of something, it’s really impossible to give it a pricetag that
would even pay the cost. I have thought about it back and
forth whether I should offer the guitar on A custom order
basis. At the moment, I’d say it might become available at
a later point, once I figure out in what exact combo should
that happen. The way the first one was done is totally over
the top mad, but surely we could tweak this into something
doable and accessible. However, first of all I want to focus
100% into the development process of the ValveBucker,
which I find might be something remarkable, big time.
Something, that could be applied to many of our guitars and
even beyond. So those of you waiting for the Captain Nemo patience, please! TQ
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
The ValveBucker
So when I plugged the thing
to an amp for the first time,
oh, boy was I struck with
surprise. We have a stock
Peavey Classic 30 combo in
our guitar assembly room,
and that amp had never ever
before sounded like THAT.
The dynamics were superb,
and the depth of the tone was indescribable – such clarity
and musical definition, that I must say I hadn’t heard anything quite like it ever before. There was an acoustic quality
to it, something like having a piezo installed in the guitar,
except this one didn’t have any of the typical piezo sizzle,
but instead a beautiful acoustic timbre to the tone, unique and
very surprising. I was absolutely stunned by the sound quality, and at the same time puzzled like hell! How could the
guitar sound like that? We had a long talk with Jorma about
it, and finally we came to realize, that our idea that evolved
to be the ValveBucker® – to make a round box in place of
the sound hole of a classical guitar, and to place the magnetic
pickups and the tube preamp in that box – these elements had
caused an unexpected “side effect”. The magnetic field of
the pickup is right next to the tubes, which have iron inside
them. The magnetic field “talked” to the tubes! This added
a whole new dimension to the tone! It’s not the same thing
at all as having a signal chain of a passive pickup, combined
with a tube preamp placed somewhere outside the guitar, or
even inside the guitar, but further from the magnetic field of
the pickup(s). The tonestack also functions in this application
in a very interesting manner. You can tweak a dozen different
sweet spots from the pickup, sometimes sounding like a powerful rock guitar, other times deceivingly close to an acoustic
steel-stringed guitar and then some!
At this point in time we
are experimenting with
the next prototypes of the
ValveBucker®. We’re learning to understand better why
it works like it does. We’re
trying different things to learn
the fundamentals better. I’m
convinced our R&D process
will have great results already during 2015, and I feel strongly
that the ValveBucker® may well be one of the greatest and most
important inventions I’ve ever had a chance to work with in my
whole career. The next goal is that you’ll hear the ValveBucker®
in our “normal” range of guitars.
This crazy trip to an alternative past resulting in the birth of the
Captain Nemo guitar was quite a lesson to me personally. It was
a great reminder: Let your creativity roam free! That is the only
way to genuine innovation – to tune up your antennas to the
most sensitive frequencies, to listen, to have fun, to free your
mind! The Captain Nemo guitar is a very cool conceptual design
project for me, but the outcome was so much more than any of
us involved could have ever anticipated. We did not expect to
invent the ValveBucker®, and even if we did, we never expected
it to sound like it does, in such a fundamental way different from
anything that existed before. What a joyful ride it has been, and
I’m so much looking forward to what comes next!
The Duke
Since they are somewhat rare, and especially in the USA,
we asked Bob Willcutt to send us the Ruokangas Duke he
had in stock. We have reviewed thiis top of the line model
before, but it had been a long time and we wanted to experience Juha’s work again. We are happy to report that little has
changed with the Duke, still one of the most finely crafted and
designed guitars we have ever played.
In terms of appearance and tone, the
Duke uniquely combines Spanish
cedar with an Arctic Birch top. As
Juha observed, Spanish cedar shares
the appearance and resonant properties of rare Honduran mahogany. You
can hear and feel the resonance when
you play – even unplugged. Weighing 7.6 pounds, theDuke is perfectly
balanced. The ebony fingerboard
is utter perfection, the fret work
perfectly executed and the rounded
neck shape is brilliantly conceived,
uniformly comfortable with no taper evident along the full
length of the neck. The carved arctic birch top is highly figured
with a 3-D quilted pattern, and the unique carved shape of the
Duke body is perfectly proportioned. Th headstock features a
raised, carved top in black laquer with matching ebony 1:21
tuners that work flawlessly. The Duke features three controls
– a single volume knob and dual tone contros for the 3-way
pickup selector switch. The custom Ruokangas pickups utlilize
adjustable polepieces witha distinctive pearl inlay on both.
The Ruokangas humbucking pickups deliver all the tones you
could want from a traditional two pickup neck/niddle/bridge
arrangement. The Ruokangas pickups are exceptionaly toneful with treble that is pleasing without soundng shrill or too
thin, excellent midrange balance and deep bass tones, even on
the bridge pickup. String definition and note separation are
excellent, enabling each string to be heard as part of a chord
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
rather than sounding murky and
vague. These pickup also capture
a certain single coil quality of
clarity and definition despite being
humbuckers. They are very clear
in the style of a single coil, with
excellent clarity and presence, yet
entirely noiseless. Even players who don’t normally wam to
humbucking pickups will like this set. Excellent all around.
The Ruokangas Duke is a testament to the highest aspirations
of the builder’s art, perfectly executed, brilliantly conceived,
inspired and inspiring. You can see, feel and hear the quality
of this guitar, once again confirming that we truly do live in
the golden era of guitar building. Quest forth…
Chuck Thornton 10th Anniversary
If you have been with us for
a while, you know something
about guitar builder Chuck
Thornton. We won’t pretend for
a minute that Chuck isn’t one of
our very favorite guitar builders.
In fact, many of his customers
own many of his guitars, like
20 or more. He’s that kind of
builder, inspired by a vision that
is entirely unique, yet stunningly
approachable. Working solo in
the woods of Maine, Chuck has a
vision that translates into beautifully made instruments with a
big WOW factor, as in no one else on the planet is building
guitars quite like Chuck’s. Still, you needn’t make such a
huge leap to embrace them – they are familiar, with thoughtful design enancements that make them so appealing. Now it’s
fine to build attractive and creative instruments, but they must
also be great players, too, and this is where Chuck’s guitars
really shine. The man has a feel and a keen eye for ‘playability’ that is difficult to describe., but he clearly understands
how to design and build guitars that are a joy to hold and play.
Chuck understands what we like in exceptional instruments
– the feel and look of them – and he builds guitars that meet
that rare standard of being playable, toneful and attractive in
a uniquely appealing style. If you were to play a Thornton we
have no doubt that you would agree. The goal of this article
is to inspire you to do just that, and who knows? You may
be lucky enough to win one of the very same guitar models
reviewed here. Enjoy…
request of some of his collectors
to commemorate being in business
building guitars for the past ten
years. “Since the occasion is a
special one, I wanted the guitar
to reflect that. While it came in
three variations, I started with a
three piece neck of figured maple
with a rosewood center strip. The
sides are curly maple with a rosewood center strip, and the back is 5A Western maple with a
rosewood center strip. Rosewood bound F-Holes with B/W/B
purfling, B/W/B side purfling, B/W/B top purfling with Ivoroid binding on the top, fingerboard, headstock and pickguard
and an added white accent line in the fingerboard, headstock
and pickguard. As a finishing touch, there is a strip of the
Brazilian rosewood under the fingerboard binding, headstock
binding and pickguard binding. The fingerboard, headstock,
pickguard and tailpiece are Brazilian
rosewood, and I designed a fingerboard and
tailpiece inlay specifically for this guitar. I
really put my heart and soul into this one.
(Though, I could really say that about every
instrument I make!) There are three variations of the 10th Anniversary model:
Curly maple neck, back and sides with
the rosewood center strip and Brazilian
rosewood fingerboard, headstock, pickguard & tailpiece and
a master grade Sitka spruce top with either a neck humbucker
or two humbuckers. Same as 1. but with a 5A western maple
top and two humbuckers. Mahogany neck and sides with a
curly maple center strip, a Tasmanian Blackwood back with
curly maple center strip, Tasmanian Blackwood top with
curly maple bound F-holes and ebony fingerboard, headstock,
pickguard & tailpiece. The spruce top with a neck humbucker
is set up with flatwound strings for a warm Jazz tone.
The all maple or Tasmanian Blackwood guitars with two
humbuckers I setup with roundwound strings, these models
have a big full sounding semi-hollowbody tone with very
impressive feedback control. The first ten of these guitars will
have the 10th Anniversary inlay in pearl at the 12th fret and
serial number 1 through 10 in pearl at the 22nd fret. As of today, 8 of the 10 anniversary models have been sold. After the
first ten the guitar will get a standard serial number and inlay
at the 12th fret.
Our 10Th Anniversary Model is a classic 16” archtop with
3” sides and a 25” scale. Chuck designed this guitar at the
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
One of the biggest blessings I’ve had in the last ten
years of building guitars
is having clients turn into
dear friends. This last
September we celebrated
our 10th anniversary with
some of these friends and
collectors from all over the country. It was a wonderful time
hanging out with and having dinner with people who I’ve
been building guitars for for years but hadn’t met. Of course,
some of my clients come by at least once a year to have dinner
and see the beautiful state of Maine while others come by
as many as three times a year to eat, drink, and play guitars.
I can’t fully express how much each of these relationships
means to me and how thankful I am for the passion they bring
to my shop.
gracious, warm and wonderful human being, I always come
away feeling blessed to have had the time to get to know him.
The Contoured Legend
Special is my take on one
of the all-time classics, the
Les Paul. A client asked
me to design this guitar for
him because he wanted a
Les Paul-style guitar that
was highly contoured and
much lighter. The CLS
starts with a one piece
Honduran mahogany
body and neck with either
a rosewood or Macassar
Ebony fingerboard. It can
be built with either P-90’s,
mini humbuckers or full size humbuckers. I love this guitar
– it is so comfortable to play and has this really cool single
cut SG vibe about it. It weighs in at just over six pounds and
sounds fantastic.There is a great story that goes with this gold
top Contoured Legend Special. This is the second gold top
that I built for this client, who also happens to be a ToneQuest
reader. The first one was finished in April, 2014, and I had just
shipped the guitar to him and posted pictures of it on my website. I don’t think he had it two weeks when my phone rang,
and it was Walter Becker of Steely Dan asking me if the gold
top was for sale. I said it wasn’t and he asked if I would contact the owner and see if he would sell it to him. Of course he
sold it to Walter so Walter gave tickets for him and his wife to
see a concert and played the gold top on a few songs and even
called my client on the phone to thank him for parting with the
guitar. A few months later, Steely Dan played in Maine where
I got to meet Walter for a second time and deliver to him a
Blues Queen he asked me to build for him. I also had one of
my 10th Anniversary guitars with me that I wanted to show
him, and he bought that as well. Walter has now purchased
nine of my guitars. Both times I’ve met him and every time
with him
on the
he has
a very
Thornton 10th Anniversary
We have a new website that I hope will be up by the time
you’re reading this article, cpthorntonguitars.com. Please check
it out to see pictures of the 10th Anniversary model and hear
new sound clips of these guitars as well as the rest of the CPT
models. Also look for the next addition to our lineup… we’re
bringing back a bass guitar!
Thornton’s 10th Anniiversary #5 is an elegantly
built archtop with dual
humbuckers, and you
won’t find anything
remotely like this hanging
in a typical guitar store.
Thornton uses 5A figured
Western maple for the
body, and 5A eastern maple for the neck, creating a
striking custom instrument
that defies the concept of
mass production. With a
Brazilian rosewood fingerboard, headstock inlay and bridge,
the 10th Anniversary is a truly striking guitar, clearly built to
the highest standards of the builder’s art, subtle straight-grained
flame figure gracing the top, sides and back with a 3” depth.
The amber sunburst nitrocellulose finish is flawlessly applied,
and the large oval removable back panel is carved from the
same Western maple as the body. A center seam of rosewood
runs from the body back through the neck and the sides of the
guitar, with fine double black binding decorating the sides of
the guitar with cream binding surrounding the top. The two
large F-holes in the top are bound with a double layer of fine
white and black binding, and the ivorid Gotoh tuners feature a
1:21 gear ratio for smooth, easy tuning. In addition to handcut
fingerboard inlays, a 10th Anniversary pearl inlay is set into
the fingrboard at the 12th fret, and a small #5 is set into the
fingerboard at the 22nd fret. Scale length is 25”, nut width 1
11/10” with a 12” fingerboard radius. The amber volume and
tone knobs perfectly match the hue of the amber finish. We
should also mention that we really like the modified cutaway
on this model…
The pickups in this model are Wolftone Dr. Vintage, and
“vintage” they are. The 10th Anniversary sounds adequately
vintage in all three pickup positions, with a soulful tone that
does not mirror that of typical new guitar. Treble tones are
properly bright in all three positions without sounding shrill
or spiky, the middle tones are lush and rich, and the bass tones
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
are warm and
The 10th
does have a
center block,
and while
not feeding
back and
at higher volume levels, you do get some added sustain and
moderate feedback at high volume through our vintage Princeton Reverb. More importantly, Thornton’s guitar produces a
fascinating range of clean tones supported by acoustic sustain
that creates a very cool and desirable voice for an electric
guitar – call it old school and very vintage. The treble tones
from the plain strings remain clear at all volume levels, while
the midrange and bass tones acquire a unique character and
sustaining qualities depending on volume. For creative players who really pay attention
to what their guitar is giving
them, Thornton’s 10th Anniversary really serves up a wide
range of tones that can support
an equaly wide range of musical styles, from subtle jazzy
tones to more intense blues
and rock. This is a guitar for
creative players who can fully
mine what the guitar can give
them. As far as the 10th Anniversary goes, you will only be
limited by your imagination.
This guitar will willingly take
you to a lot of fascinating places if you let it, further defining
what a true instrument really should be.
Thornton 10th Anniversary Number 1
We were fortunate to have had
a subscriber offer
his Thornton single
pickup model #1
for review – a
beautiful blonde
with spruce top and
flamed maple sides
and back – the fist
built in the series
and a real looker!
Weighing 7.35
pounds, the single
pickup Anniversary
#1 is built with a
beautiful, closegrained spruce top
and gorgeous curly
maple back and
sides. Also featuring a Brazilian
rosewood headstock
veneer, fingerboard
and tailpiece, this
guitar is built in a
similar style as the #5 but with one less pickup. It would be
fair to say that the lack of a bridge pickup does alter the tone
and character of the guitar. Even though we were hearing just
the neck pickup, this model seems to sound slightly clearer,
with excellent treble and mid tones in addition to bass. The
concept of a single pickup model seems to work extremely
well, with an excellent, balanced tone that is brighter then
the tone of the neck pickup in the two pickup model. In other
words, you shouldn’t assume that you’ll necessarily miss the
bridge pickup. We really like the tone of this single pickup
model – it is versatile, toneful and unique in an old-school
fashion. This guitar shares all of the cosmetic appointments
described for the #5 Thornton – the bigget difference being
the beautifully blonde spruce top. We love this model as
much as the two-pickup version, and again, for experienced
players this guitar will take them to a lot of fascinating places
that other guitars just can’t go. Quest forth…
Contoured Legend Special
The Legnd
Special is
a ‘Junior”
guitar with
Mahognay body
and neck,
and enony
headstock. Weighing just 7 pounds 4 ounces, the Special has
a 24 5/8 scale length, 1 11/16 nut width and a 12” fingerboard
radius with trapezoid imlay and ivoroid binding. Fretwire is
6150 with Gotoh 510 tuners, a Faber bridge and Resomax
tailpiece. Pickups are Zhangbucker Cherrick P90 neck and
Honk 90 bridge. You’re getting Chuck’s take on a Special
in gorgeous, premium mahogany. that features a super deep
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
neck pocket that extends midway between the two pickups.
Beautifully built with a contoured cutaway, this is an elegant
Junior that plays, feels and sounds as good as it looks.
The Zhangbuckers are
comparatively clean
and don’t
dirty up the
tone at high
volume the
way many
P90s will.
The bridge
pickup is
moderately bright with excellent treble tones on the top, but
equally good mids and lows – again, more balance than many
P90s. The neck pickup also remains cleaner and less woofy than
many neck P90s, with a tighter response and overall voice. Combined in the middle these pickups create a smooth midrange tone
with excellent string definition. Turning up the guitar or amp
still doesn’t compromise the clarity or string-to-string definition
of these pickups or create a muddy tone. The Zhangbuckers are
clearly built to maintain clarity and definition, and this is good.
Individual notes hold up well in chords, and single notes ring
with a bell-like quality. Overall, the Zhangbuckers enable the
Thornton guitar to avoid stereotyped tones and resonate with
clarity and excellent harmonic overtones. The Legend truly
sounds and plays as good as it looks.
If the “junior” solidbody design is for you, you won’t find a
better playng or more toneful choice than the Legend Special.
Lightweight and easy to play, it is a fully optimized and
tweaked version of a classic that can really do it all in terms of
classic guitar tones. Price: $4,390 as reviewed.
You’ll have no trouble appreciating the higher standard the
Thornton’s guitars represent. The obsessive build quality and
design are evident as soon as you open the case. Chuck’s
guitars sing with a cohesive voice that is entirely unique to his
instruments, and in this regard they are not simply beautiful
guitars… You can actually hear and feel the difference, and
the difference is why so many guitarists own full collections
of these wonderful instruments.
Win A CP Thornton
Goldtop Contoured Legend Special with P-90s
That’s right, be entered to win a $4,390.00 CP Thornton gold
top Legend Special just like our review instrument in this
issue! All active subscribers will be automatically entered,
so simply keep your current subscription active to enter. The
drawing will take place when the guitar is available to ship
in October 2015 and the winner will be announced in the
November issue of TQR. Good luck! TQ
True NOS tubes are now in short supply, but we contacted
Mike Kropotkin as KCA and asked him to send us whatever he had in stock. We received a pair of Philips JAN 6L6
WGBs, TAD 6L6WGCs and a pair of Philips JAN 6V6GTs
that didn’t survive the trip. They would have sounded truly
awesome in our 1960 Deluxe no doubt.
The JAN Philips 6L6s sounded extra fine in our blackface
1x15 Pro as you can imagine. These tubes being small bottles,
they possess a unique old tone that is instantly addictive.
Notes bloom from these tubes and pick attack is vivid yet soft
rather than harsh and abrupt. The sound tends to surround
you with a vivid presence and attack like only NOS tubes
can. They are magical tubes, and if you haven’t tried them
it’s time you did. You’ll be humbled and amazed by how
good your vintage amp will sound, and for us there is no going back once you have experienced the magic of true NOS
vintage tubes.
The Tube Amp Doctor (TAD) 6L6WGCs are also excellent.
We aren’t going to tell you they sound exactly like a pair
of NOS RCA 6L6s, but they do get close enough the make
these tubes a solid buy that will do justice to your vintage
amps. They possess the depth and feel of vintage tubes, with
a warmth that is captivating, excellent mids and a smooth and
gentle top end that is silky and lush. Recommended for any of
your big 6L6 amps.
We were sorry to see that the JAN Philips 6V6GTs didn’t
arrive intact, but we have deep experience with this tube and
they are simply outstanding in all of your smaller 6V6 amps.
If you have not dabbled with NOS tubes and you own vintage
amplifiers, it’s time you realized what you’re missing. Even
at today’s prices these tubes are worth every penny, especially if you aren’t planing on taking your amps on a 40 city
tour… They will outlive you and bring a lot of smiles in the
meantime. Tubes are the heart of tube amps, and you owe it
to yourself to use the very best. Once you hear the difference
you’ll be sold – trust us.
TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
Mike also sent some really nice preamp tubes - a Mullard
12AT7, GE Jan 5751, NOS Tesla EF86 and a new production
Svetlana 12AX7. All were excellent, and we can recommend
the Svetlana as a worthy hedge against true NOS RCAs. It
isn’t quite the same, but close enough to make this tube a
strong buy. Most of our amps are loaded with NOS tubes, but
if it makes you feel any better, our supply is pretty much gone
now. When we first began publishing TQR you could buy
NOS RCA preamp tubes for $25.00. Now they are frequently
four times that much, although you can buy used but good
preamp tubes on eBay for less, and we do. If it makes you
feel any better, just understand that a lot of tubes were used
in equipment that did not get heavy use. It isn’t uncommon to
find tubes with pleny of life left in them at discounted prices,
so if you can’t pay for NOS, we urge you to check out various
auctions for used but good vintage tubes. You’ll be glad you
did. Many vintage tubes simply sound magical compared to
modern alternatives. Quest forth.
KCANOStubes.com, 703-430-3645
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TONEQUEST REPORT V.16 N.5 March 2015
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The ToneQuest Report™ (ISSN 1525-3392) is published monthly by Mountainview Publishing LLC, P.O. Box 717 Decatur, GA. 30031-0717, 1-877-MAX-TONE,
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