By Adam Perlmutter
Kari Nieminen was on a transatlantic flight, pondering the design features of a guitar he would build for ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, when he looked down at the sea below and was visited by sudden inspiration. “I envisioned building an oceanic blue light into the guitar, since Billy likes strange designs,” the Finnish luthier says.
As the sole creator of Versoul instruments (versoul.com), Nieminen incorporates blue lights and other nonstandard features in an idiosyncratic line that includes acoustics and electrics of all varieties, to say nothing of a sitar-inspired 12-string acoustic guitar and stunning amplifiers. These creations are informed both by an exhaustive exploration of classic guitars and a proper art-school education. “While I have an MFA in industrial design, I’ve very carefully analyzed the histories of guitars—different brands and styles, manufacturing techniques, and materials—to arrive at designs all my own,” Nieminen says.
The custom Raya ($15,400) shown here is one of a handful of Versoul guitars that feature Nieminen’s blue light, which uses LED-studded lenses powered by a nine-volt battery to create a gentle glow when the guitar is plugged in. While at first blush it might look radical, the Raya, which boasts a single pickup and 24 3/4–inch scale, is in some ways quite old-fashioned. Nieminen says, “The first thing I think about when designing a guitar is creating a tool for the musician. I never go against tradition just for the sake of creating something new.”
Having said that, this Raya features no shortage of unusual construction features. Its sides are made from corrugated steel, and the alder body sports two massive chambers, a configuration that makes the guitar lightweight—around six and a half pounds—and astonishingly resonant. The neck is a sandwich of maple and aspen, a locally sourced tonewood. “Not only is it more ecologically friendly to use aspen instead of a tropical wood like mahogany, it is reliable in its stability and sound,” Nieminen says.
Rather than slip another maker’s boutique electronics into this guitar, Nieminen handwound his own alnico bar humbucker for an output of around 8.5K. He designed the distinctive oval cover, which can alternatively accommodate his own single-coil and bass pickups. Nieminen explains, “I wanted the pickup to look like no other, but more important it had to have a great sound, responsive to subtleties and a bit brighter than a traditional humbucker, so that it wouldn’t muddy up when played quite loud.”
In lieu of a standard solid or sunburst finish, Nieminen applied genuine palladium leaf, which lends a complex variegated texture to the body of this Raya. He took a centuries-old approach for the body bindings and purflings, inlaying them by hand using small segments of natural and colored maple and black fiber. “This was the most time-consuming part of building the instrument,” he says. “It probably took around two weeks total but was well worth it for the distinctive look.”
Hardware on the Raya is fittingly deluxe, including gold-plated, open-geared Gotoh SE700 tuners and a Gotoh 510 bridge. The frets, which are impeccably dressed and polished, are made from a special bronze alloy and, with their diminutive crowns, have a vintage feel. Curiously, the nut is made from moose shinbone. “Moose bone is very hard, so it has sonic benefits over cow bone,” Nieminen explains. “Plus, it often comes in a nice amber color.”
To complement the custom Raya, Nieminen designed the dual single-ended Versoul tube amp head ($3,100) and 2x12 cabinet ($2,100). Both are wrapped in blue leather and sport special flourishes, like pressed brown leather corners and, on the head, rosewood control knobs. “I tried to make the best-sounding amp I could,” Nieminen says of the Raya’s counterpart. “And the end result responds like a very good acoustic guitar.”