JL: What initially attracted you to woodworking?
JR: I lived as a child (and still do) a few minutes away from our forest. We used to always play "Robin Hood" there and needed some bows & arrows. I carved this stuff with an old pocketknife. This was my first contact with wood. Also my grandfather was a carpenter. When I was a few years older, I used to spend hours and hours in his little workshop. He taught me a lot about handling wood and the treatment of surfaces.
JL: How did you make the transition from that interest as a young boy to becoming a luthier and full-time bass builder?
JR: Well, I didn't really decide one day to become a luthier. I just wasn't satisfied with the basses I had in my teenage years. Not really attractive shapes, bad sound, horrible playability... and I never had enough money to buy a good bass. So, I decided to build my own instrument with all of the features I liked. After it was finished, I made a few more improved basses. Also repairing and replacing for friends and local musicians gives me more understanding regarding bass guitars. One day I wanted to get a professional opinion about my instruments and showed 2 of them to a reviewer of the German Guitar & Bass Magazine. He was very surprised about the sound and playability and decided to write a review in the magazine immediately. I was very astonished and couldn't believe it, that my instruments were shown in the magazine. Unexpectedly the review was really good, and a few days later I got the first orders for RITTER Basses. It was a great feeling that people were happy with the instruments that I build with my hands. I started to love this feeling and now I'm addicted to it.
JL: How long have you been building basses?
JR: Building basses fulltime professional? Maybe since 7 years now.
JL: How did you come up with your original body designs?
JR: I have no idea how I "invented" my designs. They were just in my head someday and I had to draw them on a piece of paper. I always loved different, not traditional looking instruments. Especially for my first - the Classic - bodyshape the Thompson Basses were a big influence for me. I totally loved the language of his shapes.
|"Classic" : 5 -String / Spalted Maple Top and Orange Honey Finish |
JL: What led you to your current designs and how did you arrive at the various models of basses you build today?
JR: These models are just the result of ideas I had. I always designed basses inside my head when I saw cool stuff like Thompsons or old Atlansias or whatever. So I already had shapes I liked most in my mind before drawing them on paper the first time. Some of them I changed a very little bit, but most are original like in my mind.
JL: What has the response been to your unique body designs?
JR: Some of the "traditional bass players" sometimes have problems with the shapes. Esspecially the JUPITER and the RAPTOR. But mostly I get positive responses...also from people who are not players. That's cool also. I don't know somebody who really hates my stuff.
JL: Are you a musician? Who are your musical influences, and do they have an impact on you as a builder?
JR: Of course I'm a bass player! I have to. If somebody wants to create and build a new instrument, he or she must play exactly this instrument to know what's going on. How it has to feel, to sound, to act, to look...If you are not 100% familiar with the instrument you build, you are not able to produce a great one. I used to play a lot of fusion and -hmmmm - don't know how to say - strange experimental music. I love to experiment with different tones and sounds. Therefore, sound-wise I was influenced by players like Jonas Hellborg, Hellmut Hattler, Doug Wimbish , Les Claypool, and some local bass players here in Germany. Of course, I got also my "standard-bass-player- influences" from Bootsy, Stanley, Jaco, Marcus, Flea and all these guys. The impact on me - hmmmm - well the most important I learned from listening to the artistic message of these players was, to learn to be free in experimenting. Accept no limits - don't care about existing laws. Designing weird body shapes; using strange materials to get new unknown sounds out of; checking out new building techniques to get better playability. Just free experimenting. To do whatever you like. It's an internal desire. It's absolutely OK if some other bass builders make, for example, only slightly modified jazz bass copies or something like that for his whole life, but it's not my thing. I have to search for new stuff and steadily improve my instruments. You can't believe how many basses I put into my garbage can the last years because they were so horribly bad! :-) But from some of the experiments I got great helpful results for my bass building development. I'm very happy that I received all of these influences from these players and learned from it. It's a kind of steady moving musical energy. For example...Doug Wimbish. I tried to copy his playing techniques a lot of years ago and learned about his freedom to "design his playing". So I transferred this way of thinking - intentional or not intentional - in my bass making. Then, a few months ago Doug discovered my basses, recognized the new shapes and different sounds and told me that this is exactly what he has been looking for for years. Same day he ordered a 5-String. He got it a few weeks ago and now he is very happy with it, just like I was with his playing a few years ago.
JL: Where were you born and where are you currently living?
|"Seal" : 7-String Fretless / 24 Karat Gold Finish |
JR: I live only a few miles away from the place I was born. I'm still totally in love with my area. My village is located in the middle of a big winegrowing region [Wachenheim, Germany] ;-). The climate is very fine and I have only 5 minutes by bike to go mountain biking into the local forest hills. Also everything is very old. We have a lot of old castles from the middle ages around and my workshop is actually a house from the 17th century.
JL: What jobs did you have before building basses? Did any of these experiences contribute in any way to helping you become a better luthier?
JR: I'm actually a mechanical engineer. From this job I received a lot technical knowledge regarding construction, oscillation rules and stuff like this...
JL: Are you working full-time as a builder?
JR: Of course. I work 6 days, 11-12 hours in the moment.
JL: Do you do all of the work yourself or do you have assistants to help out?
JR: I couldn't handle all the orders last year, so I hired Dr. Daniel - a friend of mine - to help me with the woodwork. He's very talented and a good musician. It was a big problem to find a fitting person. Most very good craftsmen are non musicians and have not really an idea how to build basses. And most great musicians are not even able to hold a hammer the right way. So, with Dr. Daniel I get a real perfect person. He even cooks very well in our lunch break! ;-).
|"Raptor" : 5-String / Black Marble Finish |
JL: What is your wait time and how many basses do you build a month?
JR: Like I said before, the total from last year was around 45 basses. The waiting time is between 8-10 months.
JL: What is the funniest/strangest/most unique request you've ever had?
JR: I made some strange basses over the last few years, like a double neck 1 string bass and stuff like this. But for me, most things are not strange anymore after the bass is built and handed out to the customer. If you deal a lot with a strange body shapes or an extremely complicated inlay during the building process - it becomes "normal". A few years ago, if somebody would have asked me this question I probably would have told him "Oh, I just had a request for a 5-String bass with tremolo. Totally crazy!". But today, this is not strange to me anymore. I'm currently working on a 9-String bass with a custom made tremolo. I'm also working on a 4- string with some onboard effects for Doug Wimbish.These are my strange thinks of today.
JL: In your opinion, what is the most important factor in determining the tone of a bass?
JR: It's just not possible to name a special, most significant element. Many makers consider the wood of the body to be - exclusively - responsible for the (desired) sound. Others, however, claim that simply the pickup and electronics make up 70% of the sound. The next says only the neck makes the sound...... My experience tells me that the instrument can only deliver the perfect sound (of course: perfect as desired) if all components are carefully selected and composed to the ideal match. In other words: If for example, the wood of the body happens to produce a beautiful sound, and if you install a poor pickup, you are bound to lose the wood's natural sound. Vice versa, if you combine high-end pickups and electronics with plywood for cheap furniture production, you will end up with a similarly poor result. So for me, all elements employed ought to be of first class quality and to match each other: the wood, the electronics, the pickups, the hardware, as well as a lot of minute construction details.
JL: In your opinion, what has the least impact on the tone of a bass?
JR: For me it's not possible to pick one thing. There are a lot of minor things which don't have a very big influence. But the amount of all these small influences has a big effect. Hmmmm...... the least impact......... could possibly be the case which comes with the bass ;-).
JL: What is the one factor or element that defines you as a builder of high-end bass guitars? What are you known for best?
JR: Beside my different shapes, I my customers tell me that my instruments are on a high level in all of the three most important factors: Playability, crafts quality and the sound - the voice of the basses. They, for example, already had a bass with perfect playability but not a good sound. Or they already had a great sounding bass with an ugly look and horrible playability. My new customers always tell me that they spend more money buying a bass from me, but they end up getting a bass which satisfies them in every way.
|"Jupiter" 6-String / Futura Finish |
JL: What is the largest misconception that people seem to have about you and the job of a high-end, small production luthier?
JR: Well, I build mostly expensive basses. Some retail around $10,000 USD. So nearly all people think that I earn a lot of money and that I'm rich. But it's just not like that. I still have problems paying my workshop rent every month.
JL: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job? What do you enjoy the most about building basses? JR: Listening to music from customers that was recorded with one of my instruments gives me a great satisfaction. Also, it's always wonderful when the customer comes after a lot of months of building time to my workshop to pick up his ordered instrument and they are very happy with it. Or even people at trade shows just telling me "Wow! Beautiful stuff man...". All this acknowledgment from other people show me that it is really good to keep on building my instruments. The topping is: If you listen to records of a great bass player when you are 13 or 14 years old, and today you are at a concert of exactly this player and he plays the same songs like 15 years ago but now he plays on a bass made by your own hands. That's an unbelievably great feeling.
JL: Of all the instruments you've built over your career, which one was your favorite and why?
|"Classic" Figured Maple Top / High Gloss Late Lounge Finish |
JR: I have had different favorites. Mostly one of a kind prototypes. Or...basses I played live on a gig to check out before delivering to customers and there I discovered unbelievable characters. They all had some very strange specialties. Some basses I am really angry with me that I sold them. I have even already started to buy basses back from customers and I'm still looking for a few ones I totally must have again. But I don't want to tell which ones here........:- )
JL: Is being located in Europe an advantage or disadvantage in building basses? Does is present any significant disadvantages to selling basses in the U.S.?
JR: Concerning US customers, I first thought it was a problem because of the overseas distance. If a customer has a damaged bass for example, it's easy for him to ship it to his bass builder in New York or Los Angeles to let him repair it, but shipping to Europe looks like it is a big deal with customs and shipping cost. So therefore, I found a very good solution: I made a special contract with FEDEX and now the customer can call from anywhere in the world and the local FEDEX station will pick the bass up and ship it overnight to me, and I will fill out all the official paper work for the customer.
JL: Are you planning any changes to your business, such as adding new products other than bass guitars?
JR: Well, I actually opened an on-line shop on my website. I always have customers who want to get some accessories with their basses. They always ask me where to get hardshell cases or good strings or new cables. So, I got the idea to offer this stuff by myself. When selling my own stuff, I recognized that I can have accessories 100% like I want to have them. Also I only wanted to sell very high-end stuff that is similar to my instruments. I put a lot of time in searching out cool new things for my collection. The first project was designing a new bass string with progressive tension and high-density steel. I call them Swordsteel strings. Then I discovered a Teflon- based guitar polish; a very great dual conductor bass cable from Brazil, and some more stuff. This was a big project the last years and a few days ago I finally opened my web shop and got a lot of orders, especially on the strings. (www.ritter- basses.com/shop.php)
JL: Where do you see yourself and your business in 5 or 10 years?
JR: I will try to produce more instruments than I'm currently building. I built around 45 last year. And now - with Dr. Daniel - we are maybe able to make 60 a year or something like this. I have many backorders and a lot customers call every week and ask when there bass is ready. So I don't have time to produce basses for "me" (for tradeshows, reviews....). If I would produce a few more, it would be very great.
JL: If you weren't building basses, what would you be doing?
JR: Being rich!
Visit Ritter Basses on the web at http://www.ritter-basses.com/
Jay M. Lewis owns and operates Blueberry Hill Bass, a high-end bass store catering to bass enthusiasts looking for the ultimate in craftsmanship, playability, tone, and value. Blueberry Hill is an authorized dealer for Benavente, DHuff, Eshenbaugh, Lull, Nordstrand, and Roscoe basses.