By JP Holesworth
Editors note: Some of the information in this interview is out of date as it took place in 2012
“…I like unique stuff. It doesn’t matter if it is a unique car, a futuristic design chair, a modern arranged opera, a new sushi roll creation, or other food!”
In a world where even the best guitar builders struggle, especially when their instruments stray too far from conventional design platforms, German renaissance luthier Jens Ritter is clearly an exception to the status quo. Producing 50-60 guitars/basses per year, with one partner, Ritter considers guitar as a prestigious symbol of the culture and thus strives to create extreme hi-end musical instruments that are pieces of art.
It makes sense that Ritter is known first and foremost as a fine bass builder. Bass players were getting into enhanced, boutique instruments earlier- and still are on a larger scale (pun)- than the more conservative guitar community. Still, Jens has more recently introduced two luxury guitars for discriminating players and collectors ready to move on from the usual fare. And it’s great to have him serve up Princess Isabella and Monroe guitars for us! Both guitars are stunning visually for their aesthetics and meticulous German craftsmanship. Ritter continues a craft ethic passed down from generations.
Regardless of your tastes and preferences, the Ritter Instruments website is a must-see destination, if only to discover & confirm that such wonders actually exist. And every instrument he has ever built is carefully cataloged there. Jens even has an instrument in the Smithsonian!
Ritter’s facility is actually in a centuries-old German winery. I, living in the US Pacific NW, where wineries are the new/hip thing— had a strange surrealistic thought that someday we too might evolve from winemakers to guitar makers… But only for a few seconds, because obviously, we need both!
Guitar Connoisseur is proud to bring you a look into the world of one of the luthier’s more imaginative characters. An interview with Jens Ritter is bound to provide insight and inspiration!
Guitar Connoisseur: To get this out of the way, I saw the Youtube video from the 2012 Winter NAMM in which you posed as a journalist to uncover info about knock-offs of your designs being displayed by a very tight-lipped exhibitor. I was surprised at your humorous approach to such a serious issue. What’s your secret recipe for staying so cool in a situation where your creativity is being violated and blatantly ripped off?
Jens Ritter: Well – before judging this company or person, you need to think about this: The Chinese culture is totally different from our “West world” culture. If somebody copies another person’s creative work in Germany or the USA, our cultural education tells us he is a thief; illegally using a product of creative energy of another person and – mostly – making money with it. In China, it’s totally different. If a Chinese artisan copies another craftsman, he or she is granting honors to a master. A few years ago, I exhibited in Shanghai at an instrument fair. I had several small Chinese builders visiting me and showing me their copies of my instruments. My first reaction was always getting ready to kick these guys’ asses with all my rage. But I had a great “Chinese Culture coach” beside me, and he taught me to handle this situation correctly. In the end, I even taught these builders what they could improve on their instruments. I know this sounds hilarious in a mind of a “West world business mind.” Anyways – the instruments at the NAMM show really looked like my designs. But – of course – functionally and sound-wise, they (would) have been a different level, fortunately.
GC: Besides lutherie, what are some of your other interests?
JR: I like art a lot. I’m often traveling to art shows and like to hang out in galleries. Also, I like unique stuff. It doesn’t matter if it is a unique car, a futuristic design chair, a modern arranged opera, a new sushi roll creation, or other food! Oh man – I like food a lot! I like to travel through the world and just trying special and (for me) unknown food! I like to watch the development of any vanguard culture in our time.
GC: I understand that you come from generations of artisans, woodworkers, and engineers. Are you the first in your family to bring these skills to guitar and bass building?
JR: Right. I had no money for a good bass guitar in my youth. So I had to use my technical skills to make it better in function and sound.
GC: Being still relatively young, and living in a small town in Germany, what key factors have assisted your world-renowned status as a top instrument builder?
JR: I guess if you speak of marketing, of course, the internet is my big friend and partner. 20 years ago, it was impossible to build up a company like JENS RITTER INSTRUMENTS by living in a 4000 people village here in Germany. Having a website moves my company into each house on the planet with internet access.
Also, celebrities like Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, Jazz legend George Benson, Mary J. Blige, Prince, and so on, are, of course, important factors. Most artists get instruments for free from big companies, so the companies can use their name to do marketing. It’s even cooler when celebrities and superstars pay full price on my instruments.
GC: What are some of the reasons behind your decision to add guitar models to an already expansive line of basses?
JR: My first guitar – the “PRINCESS ISABELLA BARITONE CONCEPT” – was actually a fun project. It was supposed to be a one time happening. But then George Benson came by. He fell in love with the princess, I added some features to her, and now we have the Benson Tribute. People love this guitar and keep on ordering…
GC: How do you find working with the guitar market compared with the bass culture?
JR: For the guitar market, I produce what I have in mind. I have my product, and the guitar market is purchasing my product. On the bass market, I work more in custom building. I build more to the ONE customer’s specific feature requests.
GC: Trade shows like Musikmesse & NAMM provide ample opportunity for many people to get one of your instruments in their hands finally. How are the Princess Isabella and Monroe guitars being received?
JR: Both guitar models have been received very well. The Princess got a lot of attention at the NAMM Show because George Benson came by my booth and was fascinated by the sound. He actually wanted to tell me that this guitar is a hollow body and not a solid body. This was the biggest compliment for me and a great confirmation of the goal I had in mind while designing the Princess.
GC: Tell us about the “attack delay mechanism” aspects of the string bows (individual tailpiece units) featured on the Isabella. How did you arrive at this solution?
JR: In my “first life,” I’m a mechanical engineer. I worked a lot on projects where we analyzed specific materials in terms of vibration transmission. From this experience, I designed the hardware parts of the Princess. It’s basically a mechanical way to “slow down” or even kind of “hinder” and delay the instrument’s attack.
GC: You are obviously fond of the traditional woods, i.e., mahogany, alder, maple & ebony– along with some “exotic” woods. Do you also experiment with composites?
Yes – I experimented with a special plastic called Galera a few years ago. I used it for bass bodies. Also, at the moment, I’m experimenting with a material called “Ebonite.” I want to use this for fretless fingerboards. These experiments are not for developing a new kind of sound material and going away from traditional wood. These are more for me to get a wider range of understanding material vibration performances.
GC: Besides cosmetic reasons, how often do you find the need to incorporate an exotic wood to achieve a specific tone result?
JR: This totally depends on the ONE specific customer. It depends on the instrument’s sound I want to realize or this customer. I build more and more instruments with less exotic woods, actually. The construction details are also a huge factor in designing the sound.
GC: Among the various challenges of sourcing high-quality tonewoods and components, do you have difficulties making guitars the way you want them due to laws and regulations?
JR: These difficulties I only have if the customer wants absolutely a specific wood for their instruments. Then I need to make sure that the used wood has all the needed forms and documentation that comes with it.
GC: Both guitar models are set-neck designs despite employing 10 bolts with your bolt-neck basses. What are some factors involved in approaching the neck joint of a guitar differently than with a bass?
JR: Speaking technically, a bass and a guitar are different vibration energy systems. The forces and frequencies are different by still using (in general) the same vibration transmission material (wood). Therefore you need to adjust the sound result by construction details.
GC: Are you working on special guitar string designs to follow your Swordsteel bass strings?
JR: Yes! Wait another 5 months for details!
GC: I know you utilize pickups of your own in addition to those by Häeussel. What percent of the build process time involves matching and dialing in the electronics side of a project?
JR: Not much these days because my electronics and pickups’ development is pretty much done for my regular instruments. I only have to put development time into electronics and pickups if a customer wants to have specific requests for their instrument.
GC: In your experience and circles, does this profession involve sharing friendships and ideas with other builders, or is it more about being cautious with one’s own discoveries and techniques?
JR: I think it has not much to do with the profession or the kind of business. You can find everywhere people who are open to share and people who don’t share. It’s just about the specific persons. If I think about it longer – there is maybe a little difference between the international guitar-making specialists and the international competitors of nuclear weapon research…
GC: How much do you learn working with musicians who can tend to be abstract about what they’re hearing?
JR: Very much! It’s the key resource for my development.
GC: The original Princess Isabella project for George Benson was a baritone, which Benson loved so much that he ordered a 24.75 scale version, now a standard model. What can you tell us about the process and George’s input?
JR: You will not believe it – it was a 5 min conversation. He clearly had the features in mind and told me. Then I made the prototype and delivered it to his house. He was delighted, and we changed nothing.
GC: What music do you enjoy, especially while deeply involved in a build?
JR: This depends on my mood. But mostly while I’m working, I’m listening to – I know you don’t expect this – minimal electronic or deep house music. Working on an instrument, I don’t want to be distracted by similar frequencies and voices, like, for example, the guitar I’m working on.
GC: We also understand you’re something of a wine connoisseur. Without getting into favorite wines or anything like that, as a luthier, do you share any common perspectives on your process with winemakers or any other areas of old-world craft? Any parallels there?
JR: Sure. It’s pretty much the same with all handmade products. I like wines if they have a special character or something unique. I even like wines that don’t taste good (speaking of a mainstream way) because I like to increase my knowledge range in any direction. Of course, I have my favorite wines for “normal use” in my cellar, but I love to taste new winemakers’ products to see which direction the evolutions will.
GC: Someone on an internet bass forum insists you have a CNC secretly hidden away down in the wine cellar… Care to address that rumor?
JR: This is happening all the time. A few years ago, there was even a rumor that we actually don’t build the instruments by ourselves – the production was supposed to be somewhere in Asia. But since the first day I build instruments, I have an open atelier (the French word for “Workshop”), and people can come in anytime, and of course, they always see us working on the instruments.
GC: Is it safe to say that you’re not building counterfeits of the third world, sweatshop designed instruments?
JR: Yes! 100%! 1000%! 1000000%! Why should these guys have all the fun to carve and sand our instruments!?!?!?!?
GC: Thank you for sharing your time and thoughts with us! And mostly, thank you for sharing your work with the world!
JR: You are very welcome! Thank you for choosing to interview me!
To learn more about Jens Ritter Instruments, please visit: ritter-instruments.com