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I first heard of Ruokangas Guitars when Premier Guitar covered the Pinkburst Project, a charity for which Twisted Sister guitarist Jay Jay French commissioned an array of pink guitars and amps. Amongst the iconic instruments from Gibson, Gretsch, Martin, PRS, and more, Finnish luthier Juha Ruokangas’ name was noteworthy as much for its unfamiliar origins as its inclusion alongside world-renowned brands.
When I had a chance to talk to Ruokangas and see his guitars at Musikmesse last year, I understood why French had become a fan: Juha is a passionate, adventurous builder with an admirable dedication to using locally sourced materials. Of all the Ruokangas designs I saw at the Frankfurt show, the Mojo King stood out most: The T-style outline sports a Bigsby vibrato, a series switch for a circuit that has a P-90 neck pickup and T-style units in the middle and bridge positions—the latter also features a steel “Twang Ring” surround intended to impart the sonic properties of a vintage Telecaster’s ashtray bridge.
Fit for a King
You don’t have to look long to see the Mojo King is something special. The chambered alder body’s immaculate “silver moon” finish, the matching sculpted headstock, and the space-age vibe of the etched pickguard look simultaneously classic and unique. And from the bridge’s individually adjustable saddles to the guitar’s switches, jack, knurled knobs, and tuners, the Mojo King’s components are clearly chosen for their quality.
But the neck is what did it for me. Not because the pocket is virtually airtight, but because in 30 years of playing guitar, it stands out as the most comfortable and inviting I’ve ever encountered. I’m typically not that picky: If I can get my hand around a neck and not end up bleeding from jagged fret ends, I don’t complain much. That said, I’ll probably always remember the sensuously smooth finish and expertly rolled edges of the Mojo King’s neck. It’s a luxurious, effortless feeling neck that rivals the neck on my old Hamer Korina Vanguard.
The Mojo King’s electronics are upscale too. Its pickups are made to Ruokangas specs by Europe’s most respected winder, Harry Häussel. The neck unit is a humbucker-sized P-90 that looks a little like an old Gretsch HiLo’Tron. The angled middle pickup is reportedly inspired by a Fender Broadcaster pickup and features alnico 3 magnets, while the T-style bridge single-coil uses alnico 5 mags.
Court of the Tone King?
When I tested the Mojo through a 6V6-powered Rivera Venus Deux and a brutishly British-sounding Jaguar HC50 running in tandem with a Goodsell Valpreaux 21, I was surprised in multiple ways. For starters, though so many of the MK’s features seem explicitly intended to capture the raw, twangy tones of the Fender’s first electric, it excels most at more Strat-like sounds. When the Mojo King is running clean (or semi-clean) it conjures lush, airy, three-dimensional tones. The P-90 is thick and warm but retains a bell-like character, shaming P-90s that veer into grinding corpulence like wannabe humbuckers. The Broadcaster-inspired middle pickup is brawny and chiming, with discernibly rounded trebles, and the 5-way selector’s second and fourth positions deliver clucky tones perfect for funk grooves, jangly strumming, and rich rhythms that can hang with any good Stratocaster.
All these tones are generated with the upper-bout series selector in the downward position. How does it sound when you pull the switch up? It gives the Mojo King a little more beef—but at the expense of the guitar’s liveliness. Chords and licks have a little more power, but it also makes everything feel more indistinct. There wasn’t a single setting in which I felt the trade-off of power for chime was worth it.
Perhaps the Mojo’s biggest surprise is that, for all its efforts to capture vintage Tele twang, it comes up short on some essential Telecaster strengths—especially when you’re going for grit. Click to first position and bust out your favorite chicken-pickin’, rockabilly, or garage-rock licks, and the attitude is just a little lacking. Dig in, and instead of compression and wiry snarl, you get a slightly harsh, unforgiving response. Overall, the results are more like what you’d get from a really refined Strat tuned for noise-free clean tones—a guitar too concerned with manners to get loose. I was also stumped to find that the pickups do not perform as well when driving a dirty signal, be it a wound-up amp or a clean one with an overdrive pedal out front. There’s an almost hi-fi-like character to the Mojo King that makes it thrive below the grind threshold but lose some magic when moderate gain or external compression is added to the equation.
Life is full of surprises—some are inconsequential, some are annoying, some are devastating. What the Ruokangas Mojo King ends up being for you is bound to be a mixture of some or all of the above. If your interest is piqued by its seductive T-style form and appointments, you may find yourself a little confused. The MK won’t take you to the honky-tonk or an indie/garage-rock rave up as readily as Leo Fender’s iconic single-cut does. But what it lacks in T-style twang it largely makes up for with positively addictive clean textures.
If you’re hell-bent on having the best of Juha Ruokangas’ building genius and your Bakersfield-approved tones, I’m certain your favorite set of pickups and/or some one-on-one consultation with Juha will remedy the situation. What’s more, the Mojo King’s neck will surely have even the pickiest fretters drooling. And I’ll venture that the execution, materials, and superb construction on this beautiful T-style will knock out any boutique guitar collector on the planet.