When you do gear reviews, once in a while
you get handed something that is at once
amazing and confounding. And that’s certainly
the case with the Jens Ritter-designed
Princess Isabella Baritone jazz guitar, which is
part of a limited run of 50 instruments.
German luthier Jens Ritter is a trained engineer
who got into building guitars and has since
attained a fair amount of fame as a custom
bass builder. If you have a look at the instruments
on his website, you can’t help but be
struck by the fact that they have an artistic look
and give the impression of being well engineered.
Maybe that’s why I was a little unsure
what to make of this guitar when it showed up,
but I jumped in to see where it took me.
Crowning a Princess
The Princess Isabella got its start when Ritter,
during a trip to New York City, visited Rudy
Pensa at Rudy’s Music shop. Pensa wondered
aloud what sort of jazz guitar Ritter might
come up with, and the wheels started to turn
in Ritter’s mind. When he completed the
design work, he even decided to name the
guitar after a young girl he met on the trip.
But while the Princess Isabella was built to
emulate the sound and feel of an archtop jazz
guitar, it certainly doesn’t look that way. We’ll
get to the sound shortly, but let’s start with
what it is. The most obvious thing about the
PI is that it is white from stem to stern. Every
bit of wood is finished in a lovely white shade,
and while one of my core beliefs is that the
only guitar that looks good in white is a Strat,
the finish work here is flawless. The trim is all
in 24k gold plating, and there is even a faux
f-hole rendered in gold. The body is made of
very thin and light swamp ash, while the neck
is mahogany with a maple fretboard. The striking
tailpiece is made of hand-cast spring steel
that was gold plated by a jeweler in Ritter’s
hometown of Deidesheim. The tuners are
gold Gotoh 510s—the best money can buy.
The bridge is a Schaller GTM custom, which
is much like a Gibson Nashville Tune-o-matic.
It sits on a 24k-gold-plated brass foot that
floats on the guitar’s top over a hollow internal
chamber that is meant to enhance attack.
The pickup, which fits the guitar’s vibe perfectly,
is made to Ritter’s specs by Häeussel
Pickups. It uses rare-earth magnets that are
quite powerful, facilitating a very thin, good-looking
design. The guitar also has a very
large 24k-gold-plated backplate
that covers the pickup wire
channel as well as the hollow
space under the bridge.
This brings us to the fact
that this is, in fact, a solidbody
guitar. And when I tell you it’s
thin, I mean thin—about an inch
thick. So if you are used to a hollow
body and resting your arm, forget
it. It’s really too thin for comfortable
arm resting. But, the
body shape is wonderfully
comfortable and feels
great when you’re
standing. It also
rests very nicely in
your lap. Further,
the body is amazingly
and vibrates like
a living thing in
your hands. Ritter
takes particular pride
in jazz-great George
Benson’s amazed reaction
to this being a solidbody, and
rightly so. And the playability of the Princess Isabella is everything you could
want from a $10,000 guitar. It plays effortlessly.
Playability and Tones
The PI has a scale length of 28", which
makes it a baritone. However, it arrived
strung for standard tuning. After spending a
lot of time with the guitar I can tell you that
it plays so well that I didn’t notice the longer
scale length at first. If you have big hands,
this will not be a problem—and it may be
what you’ve wanted all your life. If you have
small hands, you’ll have to try it and see how
it works for you.
Tone-wise, the PI has a really lovely sound.
Overall, it has a very organic, acoustic quality.
Ritter chose to build it with no onboard controls
so the sound would be as pure as possible. So,
between the fine-quality wood, great pickup,
and excellent playability, what you have seems
to be quite true to what Ritter was going for.
The PI sounds simply wonderful for solo guitar.
It has perhaps more sustain than an archtop,
but it retains a seemingly delayed attack very
much like a traditional jazz guitar. This attack
is the result of two key things (among others):
the spring-steel tailpiece and the hollow area
under the bridge. I asked Ritter why he didn’t
go for a wooden bridge if he wanted arch-top-type
response. He told me he tried quite a few
different bridges of various materials and got
the best response from the metal bridge that
is now part of the design. And it makes sense
when you consider that banjo mutes work by
sticking a lump of brass to the bridge. I should
also note how much I like the sound of brass
saddles on a Telecaster. So, however it works, it
As a long-scale standard guitar, the PI is quite
successful. However, I was curious how the
guitar would respond with the bigger strings
and B-to-B tuning. The answer is that the
very resonant swamp ash body really rattles
your teeth—in the good way. It’s good to be
reminded that one of the things about luthier-
built guitars is the care they take in wood
selection, and it really shows in the PI.
The Final Mojo
I’m not sure how many jazz guitarists are
searching for a baritone, let alone a bright
white-and-gold solidbody. Nevertheless, the
Princess Isabella is the result of a great deal
of research by a very thoughtful man, and
it shows in spades. You already know from
looking at the pictures if you like it’s look or
not. But nobody will find flaw with the quality
craftsmanship and design work. Further,
though our review guitar was numbered 3 out
of 50, Ritter still considers it a prototype, and
he has already made refinements in the design
of subsequent PIs—including getting rid of the
ample neck volute. (He did so by impregnating
the area between the peghead and neck
with a resin that makes it stronger.) The guy is
always thinking about his next move.
Needless to say, the PI is quite an unusual
guitar with its long scale, unique look, lack of
onboard controls, and steep price. But, get
over it. It’s a big world and it is made richer
by artists that think differently. As for the
price, I know guitar players are, let’s face it,
cheap. But all I can tell you is that there are
tons of cheap guitars available, and you often
get what you pay for. When you want the
upper-echelon quality of a handmade custom
instrument, you have to save your pennies and
get ready to pay. Sometimes it also helps to
remind yourself that, price-wise, guitars are
still at the low end of stringed instruments.
As for Ritter, keep in mind that he’s a custom
builder, and as such he’s open to what you,
the customer, want. So if you want a short-scale
Isabella made with exotic, beautiful
woods and 10 knobs, he’ll build it for you.
And I am betting it will be extraordinary.
you’d like a fine, world-class instrument
that looks like nothing else.
you are old-school and broke.