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Lutherie beyond national

by Timo Östman

Many Finnish guitar builders have gained international recognition with their quality instruments.

When Ronnie Wood played a Versoul guitar at the Rolling Stones’ 50th-anniversary concert last year, it was probably the most visible recognition for a Finnish guitar maker so far. A self-taught luthier with 40 years of experience, Kari Nieminen’s distinctively designed instruments display his strong perspective on the art of drawing, painting and sculpture, gained from studies in Industrial Design, in addition to the flawless luthiership. But he is not the only one, since several of our newgeneration, high-end guitar makers such as Ruokangas, Amfisound, AJL, Keijo Korelin and Flaxwood have reached a steady international clientele.  

Flying to publicity  

In many ways this started with Matti Nevalainen, a veteran luthier and a teacher at the Ikaalinen College of Crafts and Design Lutherie Department, the cradle of many Finnish guitar builders. In the early 1990s, while still holding his teacher’s position, Nevalainen came up with the electric guitar model Flying Finn. In that instrument he cleverly combined influences from classic Fender models, coated in distinctive celluloid material familiar from accordions. The guitar got a great review in the prestigious Guitar Player magazine in 1994; but to get his instrument reviewed resulted from a lucky connection.  

“The Guitar Player reviewer Art Thompson had played a gig in Finland about 30 years ago and became a friend of one of my buddies,” recalls Nevalainen, now in his sixties, on the phone from his Finnish Guitar Works office in Ylojarvi, near Tampere. “So my friend Aki called Art and said: ‘There’s this Finnish guitar you should really check out.’ During his visit Art had become excited about the modern Oras water tap mixing system that was not common in America, so he said: ‘If that guitar is as good as the Oras tap, send it in.’”  

“Remember, back then we lived in the telefax age, so the day the review came out in America, my fax started receiving inquiries in the middle of the night,” he continues. Manufacturers often consider reviews to be an important piece of their marketing puzzle.  

“For us the reviews are probably the best advertisements, because we’ve always been very successful in the tests,” says Jukka-Pekka Karppinen of Flaxwood, a company based in eastern Finland making guitars from patented wood-composite material. “Of course, to get your guitar reviewed, it often helps if you also advertise in the magazine. Reviews bring more credibility to the brand and are particularly important to the distributers and retailers.”  

However, Juha Ruokangas of Ruokangas Guitars argues that the major guitar magazines cater for another kind of business.  

“We operate in the so-called ‘boutique guitar business’, which is a kind of underworld of the big guitar business run by the mass manufacturers. To some extent the guitar magazines are in a way in the leash of the manufacturers that pay their bills by buying ads in the magazines. It’s just how the business works, and I guess there’s nothing wrong about it as long as you acknowledge that. So for this reason our guitars don’t show in reviews other than in those magazines who offer visibility also to those who can’t afford to advertise.” Just such a specialist US magazine, ToneQuest Report, published a long feature on Ruokangas in 2005.  

“We got a lot of orders from around the US after that. For instance, one day the phone rang and a voice said: ‘Hey, this is Jay Jay French from Twisted Sister and I want your guitar, man.’ Later a little caption of that interview was published in Time magazine − and this resulted in my work being included in a coffee-table guitar book, A Celebration of Pure Mojo [by David Schiller].” But these days print media is not the only option for publicity. Ari-Jukka Luomaranta, the only luthier in Scandinavia specialising in Selmer/Maccaferri-style guitars, relies, like many others, heavily on the web.  

“For me it is the most essential channel in marketing,” he says. “My clientele is international, and although rather few in numbers, they tend to find each other on the internet. But of course in the end all that matters is to have a good brand, whatever one considers that to include.”  

Technicians and endorsers  

So reviews and other publicity help, but there are also other ways to get your guitar into the hands of bigger stars. For instance, the guitar technicians can open some doors, as in the case of Versoul and Flaxwood.  

Roger Daltrey (The Who) was the first famous musician who started using my guitars. He got the acoustic Buxom model through my Los Angeles retailer. Later he got in touch with the legendary guitar technician Alan Rogan, who has worked with Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, AC/DC and John Fogerty, to name a few. So I sent two guitars to Alan in London, and Ronnie Wood was the first musician Alan showed those instruments to. Subsequently Ronnie has bought a total of eight guitars from me, and I also presented one as a gift for his 60th birthday. Ronnie’s also been a great help for me to get in touch with other major guitar technicians,” says Nieminen.  

“We have used guitar technicians successfully in our showcases for the stars,” adds Karppinen. “It really works because they usually understand the sonic and technical aspects of the instruments best. Once we even used a guitar tech in our advertisement in the case of Rascal Flatts guitarist Joe Don Rooney. His manager did not allow us to use Joe’s name.”  

As in sport, endorsement deals are common in the guitar world, especially when aiming for mass production. This means that a company can use a musician’s name in their publicity in exchange for a free guitar or a guitar at reduced price, and in some cases even paying money to the artist.  

“In the end, it all comes down to relationships and money,” says Karppinen. “You have to know someone who knows how to get the musicians to test your guitar. The more famous players using our guitars have first tried the instruments and then given their approval for endorsement. And if you’re looking for the really big names, you would have to pay five- or six-figure sums.” However, custom builders such as Ruokangas and Amfisound feel they have no use for endorsement and Versoul has done it only with jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell. Nevertheless, Luomaranta pays attention to its interactive side.  

“Rather than speak about endorsement, I would stress the mutual aspect of the builder–player relationship, which at its best is like a helping hand in the marketing.” Of course, sometimes it may only be a custom guitar at reduced price, but it’s usually complementary in the sense that the luthier can learn more about the requirements of a great instrument.  

Images and exhibitions  

How about using our northern image as part of guitar designing? Amfisound, a company based in Haukipudas, northern Finland, has successfully created a Finnish heavy metal guitar line.  

“From the start we aimed at something beyond the conservative ‘wood-joining’ culture dominating the Finnish luthiership in the past. A custom guitar in its purest sense means something different altogether,” feels Tomi Korkalainen.  

“I came up with our model names around 2003−04, when the Finnish metal scene was rising fast. The first word on my mind was Routa [frost in the ground], and we followed with a whole catalogue of Finnish-named models. Along with location, this has really boosted our northern European visual image.” tattoo artists and airbrush painters.  

“I have a great respect for their work, and I wanted to bring that idea to guitar building. For us the Finnish Metal Expo in 2006 was the first trade fair and it showed that we were on the right path. In 2009 we went to Frankfurt and started marketing more actively abroad.” So the trade fairs are considered essential, of course. Frankfurt Musikmesse and NAMM have the highest profile, but they are not the only places to be, warns Keijo Korelin, a maker of highly regarded double-top classical guitars.  

“I have participated at guitar trade fairs in various countries such as the US, Germany and Belgium, and that has really boosted my international recognition. Being at the 2009 La Guitarra California exhibition led to my deal with Reverie Classical Guitars. And my retailer in Hungary heard about my guitars through a Finnish guitarist living in Budapest, whom I’d met at the Tampere Guitar Festival. Also my website has proved to be an important factor in my marketing.” For Flaxwood, participation in trade fairs has paid out in terms of better understanding of their innovation.  

“Another long-term impact has been the growing awareness of Flaxwood materials. That’s why I believe that OEM manufacturing of guitar parts and patent licensing will probably be more important for our future growth than just the selling of guitars,” Karppinen predicts. However, the purpose of international trade fairs has changed over the years, finds Ruokangas.  

“Today all the suppliers and buyers are online all the time, so the deals are more and more done that way. The role of the trade fair has evolved more into a media event. To be honest, I’m not so sure if these big events are the best place for boutique makers such as ourselves. A few years ago we stopped going to NAMM, and instead headed for the Montreal Guitar Show targeted solely at master luthiers − factories not allowed at all.” And in the end, guitars are made for the music, so for a builder like Luomaranta, a music festival associated with the instrument is the most crucial.  

“For me it’s the annual Django festival in Samois, France. It gathers an audience of over 20,000, being the major gathering of the whole Gypsy jazz music scene. So it’s crucial to be there for some business, but especially to meet and make contact with future customers,” he concludes.  

Timo Östman specialises in guitar-related journalism and is a regular writer for Finnish magazine Riffi. He also teaches guitar and works as a musician. He holds an MA in Musicology, with additional studies at SOAS, London, in ethnomusicology and music performance.