This Article Was Originally Published On: February 3, 2015 #Issue 15.
When you speak of artisan luthiers, one name stands out from the pack, especially with regard to that “artisan” part. Jens Ritter has established himself not only as one of the top custom bass (and guitar) builders on the planet, he has also gained recognition as a bona fide pioneer in the art world. In fact, the Metropolitan Museum of Art obtained one of his basses to start their collection of electric bass guitars. Blessed with a unique and original sense of vision, Jens takes artistic leaps which might come across as audacious or pretentious in the hands of anyone else, but somehow seem entirely relevant and “right” when Jens rolls out the finished product.
If you have followed Jens Ritter’s work, you’ve seen instruments clad in brocade fabric, made from sand-blasted wood, or covered in Swarovski aqua-marine crystals. You’ve seen inlays made from fossilized conchs, and mammoth tusk nuts. The most extreme and unique examples of Jens’ artistic vision are given the designation of “Royal” and made part of the Ritter Royal Family. We are incredibly privileged to have been able to review one of the newest members of the Royal Family, “The X-Men” R8 Concept bass.
Setting the Stage
The Bass Gear Magazine relationship with Jens Ritter goes all the way back to BGM issue #1, which featured Jens on the cover and a tour of Jens’ shop in Deidesheim, Germany by Terry Buddingh. Since then, Ritter instruments have been featured in almost every NAMM Show (and Musikmesse) report we have published. At the 2013 Winter NAMM Show, we were blown away by the [then] new Ritter R8 Concept bass, and it garnered a Bass Gear Magazine Best of Show Award. At that point in time, I asked Jens about the possibility of getting our hands on an R8 Concept for review, and he agreed to build us one. This is no small favor, as Jens Ritter is one of the busiest luthiers you will ever find, and inserting a review bass into his production schedule is no small feat.
Later in 2013, Jens called me to discuss the review bass, and asked me to select my ideal parameters for a bass, such as the number of strings, body woods, fingerboard woods, electronics, etc. I gave him some general ideas of what I liked, but indicated that he should follow his own instincts. He did ask me several times about my preference in finishes, and I have to say, this was the most difficult parameter to discuss with Jens. Have you visited his webpage and checked out all the finish options? Have you perused the pics of prior builds? This guy basically knocks every single finish out of the park. How do you choose? Well, knowing Jens’ penchant for the unique, and having seen many of his one-off finishes in person, I didn’t give any preference for finish, and asked Jens to follow his muse. Boy, am I glad that I did!
Several weeks later, Jens asked me to name my favorite comic book, to which I immediately answered, “X-Men, of course.” Jens replied, “Excellent.” And that was the end of the finish discussion. What I did not know at that time was that Jens had recently watched an X-Men movie for the first time (on a flight to the United States, as luck would have it) and had his initial inspiration for this theme. What Jens did not know is that I’ve been buying and reading X-Men comics since I was seven years old (which was a few years ago), and well into adulthood. Well, they do say that great minds think alike…
A Bit More About Jens
Like many bass builders, Jens Ritter started off as a player looking for something more in his instruments. “In those days, I had no money for a good bass, so I started to improve my own instruments … I changed the pickups, I installed new electronics, did the setups, and stuff like this. And one day I wanted to know, ‘Can I make an instrument from a board of wood to the final instrument?’ So I started two instruments – a fretless and a fretted 4-string – and actually, that was my start.” After building instruments for four or five years, Jens decided to do it full time. Prior to this, he worked as a mechanical engineer, but as you might expect, “It’s definitely much more fun to make instruments.”
Ritter basses, more than any other custom brand I can think of, exhibit a strong sense of artistic impression. I asked Jens about the source for his artistic inspirations, and he explains, “I don’t have a specific source. I recognize that everything I experience influences my work; I just let everything in…” Though Jens has no formal training in the fields of art or design, he is a huge fan of art, and he has visited a lot of galleries and art shows around the world. Jens Ritter Instruments is not a one-man shop, but it’s still a smaller operation with four (soon to be five) people on staff (including Jens).
The Moment of Truth
“The X-Men” bass was built shortly before the 2014 Winter NAMM Show, and Jens sent me some sneak peak photos prior to the Show. As I read the e-mail and checked out the photos of this amazing bass, I was strongly reminded of the thrill sitting down with a fresh copy of The Uncanny X-Men and reading through it for the first time. Needless to say, I was anxious to see this bass in person, which occurred a short time later in Anaheim. The R8 Concept body style, with its clean lines and hidden tuners, really shows off whatever finish is applied, and in this case, the somewhat busy collage of images is especially well served by this particular body style.
Speaking of the body style, the R8 Singlecut is a newer model from Jens Ritter Instruments, and is, in fact, his first single-cut bass design. When I asked Jens about his goals for this model design, he replied that he just “wanted to make a single-cut model that I liked.” He adds, “I don’t normally really plan new models; they just appear” [after he has been working the designs around inside his head for a while]. The R8 Concept is an R8 Singlecut in “Concept form,” which is a minimalist design that moves the tuners to the bridge end of the instrument, with access to the tuners from the back side of the body (effectively hiding them from view). Though right-hand tuning designs often employ a headless design, for aesthetic reasons, Jens maintains the headstock. “I don’t like headless basses. I thought about the headless concept, but keeping the head as a design piece.” The strings seem to disappear into the headstock, and are secured in place by screw-down clamps on the back side of the headstock. One advantage of this design is that you do not need to use double-ball strings. Standard strings will work just fine.
When asked to explain the differences in playability and tone between a standard R8 and an R8 Concept, Jens explains, “… the Concept will be a little faster in attack – a little bit quicker and alive. The ergonomics and the weight on your body is also a bit different; I move the weight more into the center of your body.”
As you can tell from the photos, the finish on this bass is a collage of images from The Uncanny X-men. With regard to the specific subject matter, Jens explains, “I am a huge science fiction fan – of course I’m an X-men fan – and I wanted to handle this theme, somehow. I had this new technique to put pictures on an instrument surface.” The top of the bass is covered in images from the covers, whereas the back and neck are covered from images from the inner pages. Nice touch! Lest you are concerned about the fate of these classic comics, Jens did not remove the covers and paste them on the bass. Rather, he scanned them, scaled down the images and arranged them on a computer, and then printed them on super thin foil, which is applied to the body, before receiving the final hand-polished high-gloss lacquer finish. I cannot imagine the time and effort required to create this finish, but the end result is stunning and endlessly intriguing.
Not to be left out, Jens decided to treat the maple fingerboard to a special finish of its own. He wanted it to look very “high tech” to fit the X-men theme, so he applied an automotive industry lacquer mixture finish which looks like a titanium alloy. This treatment is normally applied to truck rims, and because of the look and the hardness, Jens calls this his “Stealth Finish.” The faux titanium alloy look carries over to the ramp and bridge plate, making them look like extensions of the bridge. Very cool. Attention to detail is also paid to the electronics cavity plate cover, which is made from water-cut aluminum that has been galvanized black, and then laser engraved.
Despite its modern and advanced look, the woods used on this bass are quite traditional, with an alder body, 3-piece, bolt-on hard maple neck, and a maple fingerboard. Of course, that neck happens to incorporate graphite stiffeners and is held in place by thirteen bolts, instead of the more typical four… The scale length is 34.5″, which I have encountered on a number of instruments, and which I happen to find to be very comfortable. The neck pickup is a Ritter Slimbucker, with a Ritter Triplebucker in the bridge position. One very cool feature regarding the Triplebucker is that it can be switched to hum-free single-coil mode by pulling out the treble pot. This provides you with two single-coil pickups, much like a traditional Jazz Bass setup.
The 18 volt preamp is an updated version of Ritter’s own C3-S circuit. It features master volume (push/pull for active/passive), blend control, and a 3-band active EQ (bass cut/boost, stacked on top of a mid cut/boost, as well as treble cut/boost). The active treble control is stacked on top of a passive tone bleed control, which is only available in passive mode. The treble control is also push/pull for the bridge pickup coil, as referenced above. The “updates” to the C3-S preamp were in response to player feedback, and include reduced intensity on the boost/cut, and a slight lowering of all three frequency centers.
Another trim pot, accessible through a small hole in the control cavity cover, adjusts the volume when in active mode. While Jens prefers there to be no difference in volume when switching from passive to active mode (this is my personal preference, as well), some players told him that they like to have some volume gain when switching to active mode (for a slight boost when playing a solo, for example). By adding this trim pot control, those players who want the volume boost can turn it up, and players who prefer consistent volume between active and passive mode can leave it turned down.
Of course, a bass like this can’t ship in just any old case. No sir. Jens packaged this baby up with a very sturdy, very nice custom flight case, complete with its own X-men graphic treatment! Inside, a protective cloth emblazoned with classic Marvel images lays atop the instrument. A complete set of tools for performing a setup is included, as is a high-quality leather Ritter Tempur® Strap – a leather strap with pressure-reducing Tempur material inside, and Dunlop strap locks (the bass is equipped with recessed Dunlop strap lock receptacles).
Hanging with the X-Men
One universal theme I have found with Ritter basses is that they certainly do look like sculpted works of art, but once you pick them up, they immediately make sense as a musical instrument. The organic qualities of Jens’ basses transcend both the aesthetic and the practical aspects, and The X-Men is no exception. As fun as it is to just sit there and stare at all the mutant goodness, this is a very fine, very compelling instrument. The neck is fairly wide and fairly thick, and imparts a feeling that is akin to a classic Fender neck, expanded a bit to fit that extra string. It plays very well, and felt comfortable either on the knee or on the strap. The right-hand tuning takes a little getting used to, but in practice, it works very well (though it is easier to tune when the bass is hanging on a strap). The deep lower cutaway gives great access to the upper register. The red position markers on the side of the fingerboard really look great with the comic book treatment, but I can see where they might be difficult to see on a dark stage. Of course, something tells me this particular bass might not see too many ill-lit barroom stages…
The tone is fat, solid and focused, with lots of fundamental. It has good clarity, brilliance and sheen up top (and that treble control is just wonderful!). I’ve played a number of basses with alder bodies and maple fingerboards, and in my opinion, this is an excellent and under-used wood combination. As you might expect from a German luthier, we are talking about soft European alder for the body. Here’s what Jens had to say about the wood choices, “To fit the bass’ theme, I wanted to realize a fat, but still clear, sound. Therefore, I decided to use a ‘slow’ body wood and combine it with an extremely fast neck and brilliant fingerboard. The fine treble comes from the pickups, which have no traditional magnets – the magnetic material is rare earth.”
Those neodymium (aka, “rare earth”) pickups do sound great. The Ritter Slimbucker neck pickup, in particular, really works some magic. I was surprised how far a little bit goes, compared to the Triplebucker in the bridge position, which doesn’t seem to change the tone as quickly or as drastically (as the neck pickup) as you adjust the balance to favor the bridge pickup [note: the relative blending impact of the bridge pickup definitely changed when in single-coil mode]. Despite the somewhat unusual fingerboard finish – which looks like it would be thick and stifling, but is actually relatively thin – the “maple” qualities of the fingerboard definitely shine through (sharper attack, open high end), though the increased hardness from the Stealth lacquer finish does move it a little more towards “ebony” territory.
I like to try and make meaningful comparisons when reviewing basses, amps, cabs, etc, but in this situation, I have to admit that it is kind of hard to find a meaningful comparison to this one-of-a-kind Ritter. Ultimately, I felt that my Fodera Emperor 5 Standard was as close to the mark as I was going to get. Compared to the Fodera, the Ritter is fatter and warmer, but has an almost “ebony like” clarity and “ping” up high. The Fodera, on the other hand, is a bit more detailed, and has a sharper attack to the note. The lows on the Ritter were also a little more round.
The Bottom Line
Jens Ritter is, first and foremost, an amazing luthier, and any bass he builds is going to perform at world-class levels. You can get into a “basic” Ritter bass for around $5,000, which is comparable to many other high-end custom basses. Even these “basic” models have drop-dead gorgeous finishes, play like a dream, and have tone for days. When you move into the one-of-a-kind Ritter “Royal Family,” however, the stakes have changed. We are treading rarified waters, here, and there is no doubt that we are dealing with a bona fide piece of fine art – as reflected by the $18k price tag. However, as proof of the appropriateness of the price, this bass sold within three minutes of being listed on Jens’ webpage. In fact, his basses are in such demand that every bass Jens builds sells pretty much immediately (to an end user or to a dealer).
With this in mind, we are again especially grateful to Jens for giving us the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time with The X-Men bass. Jens is currently working on two new models, one of which will be introduced at the 2015 NAMM Show. If circumstances and finances allow, I encourage you to get in touch with the visual, visceral and musical art of Jens Ritter.
|Ease of Use:||4|
In-hand Score 4.43average
This bass has a warm, full, solid foundation, with lovely soaring highs up top. The midrange character can be tweaked quite a bit by adjusting pickup blend and EQ.