German master bass luthier Jens Ritter''s first electric guitar, the Princess Isabella baritone jazz solidbody, is reviewed.

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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.

A Solidbody Jazz Guitar?
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 resonant 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 does work.

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.
Buy if...
you’d like a fine, world-class instrument that looks like nothing else.
Skip if...
you are old-school and broke.

MSRP $10,000 - Jens Ritter Instruments -

Learn how to zone in and play, no matter your skill level

Longer ago than I care to admit, I attended a seminar with one of my all-time favorite pickers, Howard Roberts. It was a two-day deal, and for the most part I was too inexperienced to have a clue about much of what he talked about. But one thing that stuck in my head (and I am sure he wasn’t the first to say this) was to study your instrument—but, when you go out to play the gig, forget everything you know and just play. At the time, this seemed completely unfathomable to me. How could you forget what you know—and why in the world would you want to? I guess the reason it stuck was that it was so far off my does-not-compute scale that I just had to file it till later.

It’s Later Than You Think…

Meanwhile, I was playing in bar cover bands and waiting for my genius to be discovered (I’m still waiting, by the way). One night at the OK Lounge in Marion, Iowa, we launched into our version of “I’m a Man” (a la Chicago). During my solo I had what I can only describe—and, believe me, I hate to say this—as an out-of-body experience. I had no sense that it was me playing and somehow, at least in my head, I entered “the zone.” Before I continue, I will splash some cold water on this and say that I have no idea if anyone else noticed—or even if what I played was actually good. But the important thing is that it was just the music sailing under its own power. I had no sense that it was me doing anything. I saw my hands doing things I didn’t think they could do and I was amazed.

Years went by with a few repeats of that moment. Like many, I was on a quest to find my spiritual path in life. This finally led me to some study of Buddhism. After a fair, though not vast, amount of reading, lectures, and retreat attendance, a couple of things dawned on me. First off, Buddhism really should just be a philosophy and not a religion—it seems that was what the Buddha intended anyway. So whatever your religion, Buddhism is worth a look. Just skip past all the supernatural stuff and look at the basic nuts and bolts of what the guy said. One of my favorites: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” I can’t say it any better than that, and it seems to me now that that was just what Howard Roberts meant.

Another book I found along the way was pianist Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within. This book has caused quite a debate in online music newsgroups, because Werner talks about telling yourself that you are a master. Many people get hacked off at this, saying they know they aren’t masters and that so-and-so is a real master and how dare anyone compare themselves to that person and blah blah blah. They are missing the point entirely. What Werner is saying is that, whatever level you are at in your playing, own it, be it, be in the moment. If you walk onstage worried about how you don’t measure up to whomever you regard as a master, it will be impossible for you to play at the top of your game, because you are wasting energy and mind space with stuff that has nothing to do with the present. He doesn’t mean you have to think you are God’s gift to the guitar. When you are practicing, you can compare yourself to Joe Pass or Buckethead and decide that perhaps they play better than you. Big deal. Just sit down and start practicing.

Here’s a fact: No matter what guitar you own or how much you practice, you will always just be you—no more, no less. So we just need to find peace with that and give ourselves permission to be who we are. Someone (I forget who) said that your style is made by your limitations. It might have been Miles Davis that said that, but it was certainly true of him. Miles, for me, was one of the all-time greatest musicians—but he wasn’t the fastest trumpeter, nor did he have the highest range. What he did have was great tone and a musical sense that seemed to never fail.

Wile E. Coyote Syndrome

Watch out for your inner critic, because he won’t help you. I’m talking about that voice in your head that will list, at great length, all the reasons why you can’t be a master—or even play well…and what were you even thinking being onstage…and these guys are better than you so what are you doing here…and…HELP!

Remember the old Road Runner cartoons? There was always a moment when Wile E. Coyote would go off a cliff and run through the air. Then he inevitably looked down and had that moment of “Oh no!” and down he fell. The zone can be the same way. When you have that out-of-body feeling and you’re soaring, the critic inside you can shoot you right down. Practice playing and just having the critic shut up. At first you may only be able to make it go away for a second, but try to remember how it feels so you can try to expand the feeling. Don’t think about expectations. No worries about playing faster or being cool/hip/rad or whatever. Remember, we are just talking about feelings here, so pay attention and find your way through. (I so want to say “Use The Force,” but I won’t).

Being in the zone means you are there for whatever happens. You are locked into the present moment. Relax. Breathe. And just be…there.

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Paying homage to the guys who did it first.

A seemingly endless discussion on guitar news groups concerns the idea of who is (or isn’t) an innovator. In the sense that to innovate is to introduce something new, there are lots of them in the history of guitar. But let’s think about what kind of innovator we’re talking about. There are two basic ways a musician can innovate: by composing or by playing. For the moment, let’s stick with players. Most will agree that an innovator must influence others to follow in their footsteps. Then there is the small matter of whether the musician influences players of their same instrument, players of all instruments, or whole genres of music.

Let’s be brutally honest here. Most of us, myself included, are basically imitators. Before you go medieval on me, I don’t mean to say we never have an original thought—just that we take all we’ve heard and bend it to our own uses. Some will just be mimics. Others will make a personal style out of it. Very few will take what they have heard and forge it into something new and amazing that will change how the instrument or music in general is played.

The Biggies
Time to name some names! And, (disclaimer here) all of this is debatable. I think the most important musician in the last 100 years to influence everything was Louis Armstrong. The way he played changed the way every non-classical player played their instrument. In my humble opinion— and rest assured that no opinion could be more humble—number two would be Miles Davis. He was the catalyst of at least four jazz movements, from bebop to fusion, and the who’s who of great players that went through his band is unprecedented. Miles’ trumpet playing was influential, but in his case it was Miles the bandleader and visionary who affected music as a whole. Charlie Parker was also an innovator, stylistically. But without Armstrong, the others wouldn’t have happened the way they did.

From Innovators to Influencers
Sadly, there are no guitar players who even come close to Louis and Miles as innovators. There are players who innovate or influence other players of the guitar who are important at least to the rest of us guitar pluckers. Numero uno is Andres Segovia. He moved the guitar into the realm of being a legitimate instrument, and he was also the reason many composers wrote for the guitar. The next two are Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. Django has followers who’ve made his style into almost a religion. It’s surprising how many people try to just play exactly like him. Few seem to take his style and build on it. I will credit Bireli Lagrene as a great player who takes Django and knocks it up a notch. Other Django-influenced players include Les Paul and Danny Gatton. Charlie Christian, on the other hand, inspired a generation of players such as Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, and Tal Farlow, who in turn influenced the players that came after them.

Hoppin’ Around

That brings us to the ’50s and some genre jumping. Another guitar church founder is the great Chet Atkins. Chet’s picking influenced players in many genres, and I will go as far as to say he pretty much influenced all guitar players to some extent. Chet is also interesting because his playing not only spawned a mass of imitators, it also influenced many players to play fingerstyle and do it with their own flavors: Lenny Breau, Tommy Emmanuel, Tommy Jones, George Harrison, Leo Kottke, Scotty Anderson, and on and on—Chet was and is huge.

Rock’s daddy has to be Chuck Berry. I also think many people took up guitar because of Buddy Holly. Was Buddy an amazing player? Nope, but he made some great rock music and looked cool with his Strat. The Ventures were gigantic in their day, and I know a bunch of guys who started playing guitar because of them. Mike Bloomfield’s frantic blues playing got people running to play Les Pauls. Obviously, The Beatles also got people to buy guitars, though like Buddy Holly I think it had more to do with things other than their guitar playing. The two biggies of the ’60s are Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. The influence these two guys had is almost beyond description. Though both of them were very much based in the blues, their use of distortion, effects boxes, volume, and of course epic solos touched every bit of rock guitar that came after.

So you get the upshot here? There are innovators who change all of music, but it’s a small number, and there are players who innovate and influence the way the instrument is played, and there are many of them! Bottom line? Take all the things that you love and play from your heart. You may or may not change the world. I don’t think you can actually set out to change the world—but you can play as you play, and it will go where it goes. Listen to your heart when you play.

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The Moog Guitar challenges you to rethink the way you play

Moog has been at the cutting edge of music technology since Robert Moog began selling theremin kits in 1961. In 1968 Moog built a synthesizer system for Walter (now Wendy) Carlos for the groundbreaking album Switched-On Bach. Moog synths became ubiquitous in the ‘70s with the advent of Prog Rock and Fusion. Bob Moog also worked with Gibson to develop the RD Artist series guitars, which were the first guitars with onboard compressor/expander electronics. In the ‘80s, with the popularity of digital synths, Moog’s analog machines dropped in sales and the company went out of business in 1986. Bob Moog went on to start Big Briar and went back to making theremins and researching new ways to make wacky sounds. In 2001 Big Briar was able to reacquire the Moog name and has since become Moog Music. They have produced some amazing effects boxes, and with analog sounds getting popular again, they’ve brought back the Mini Moog synth. After all these years they have turned their creative energies to the guitar, thanks to Moog inventor Paul Vo. Moog Music first produced the Paul Vo Collector Edition, which had fancy wood and $6500 price tag. The new E1 has the same guts and is basically a less fancy version for 3k less.

The Naked Facts
The E1 has an Alder body with a 25.5"-scale maple neck and ebony fingerboard. The guitar is USA-made and looks clean with excellent fretwork. It is available in three colors: Candy Red, Black, and Butterscotch. Our sample has the Wilkinson by Gotoh vibrato bar, which is much better than your average non-locking whammy. There is also a piezo pickup system to give simulated acoustic sound that can be mixed in with the electric sound as desired. The two pickups are made by Moog and are an essential part of the system, so don’t plan on replacing them. To me, the pickups sound all right but not exceptionally good. They are not super hot, and the overall guitar sound is very clean, albeit somewhat sterile. The natural sustain is very good. For more on features be sure to read Michael Ross’ article, “Hands On With The Moog Guitar” in the Oct. 2008 issue of PG.

You Want Sustain? No Problemo
Now let’s get down to it. The reason you’d spend over 3K for this axe isn’t because of the guitar; it’s because of what it does. When I was asked to review the E1, I was expecting some sort of new guitar synth. Well that’s not what this is—in fact, Moog has only just made MIDI compatibility an option, and our review sample doesn’t have it. Even so, I was surprised by what I found. The sounds the E1 makes basically all come from the strings, and they’re very organic. Moog and Vo have made a system that will stimulate the strings to sustain endlessly. Conversely, this same technology allows for the system to mute the strings. There is also the Controlled Sustain mode, which mutes the strings you’re not playing and gives energy to the strings you are, which is a neat feature for soloing. In addition, they include the Moog Ladder Filter, which is a sort of tone shift—think new fangled wah-wah.

The guitar, let’s face it, tends to be a staccato instrument, so for a long time players have searched for ways to get more sustain. This path led from nylon to steel strings to electric guitars and experiments with feedback, fuzz boxes, compressors and a host of other stuff. With the Moog you can just skip all that, sustain is here to spare. There are three positions on the Mode Selector: Mute, Controlled Sustain and Infinite Sustain. You won’t hear a huge difference in sound between the two sustain modes—the Controlled Sustain mode blends the Infinite Sustain and the Mute modes by giving energy only to the strings being played while muting those that aren’t— but the way they respond differently to your playing is pretty cool. This makes it easy for players who want sustain for soloing, but don’t want to worry about muting the other strings with their right hand.

How the sustain actually feels as you play is a bit curious. There is a slight delay in the time from when you pluck the string to when you feel the sustain grab on to the sound. The result, to me, is that the E1 is best at a legato approach—long, sustained chords work great. For single-note lines you really aren’t going to play fast shred stuff, as it just misses the point of the sustainer. Playing up and down on a single string works really well, since the string stays stimulated and you avoid the restart delay feel. The infinite sustain really does require you to rethink the way you play guitar, as does the mute function. The mute can give you a sort of banjo-like attack, basically all attack and no sustain.

All this would be more than enough for most, but wait, don’t order yet… the E1 comes with a control pedal, so what you hear is the low harmonic and with the pedal you can move to the high harmonic. In sustain mode you can use the pedal to control which pickup generates the sustain, and when you move the pedal to either the heel or toe position, the other pickup is actually muting the strings at that position. With the control pedal centered, both pickups give equal amounts of energy, giving you the strongest response to the strings. When you engage either the Controlled filter or the Articulated filter, that Harmonic Blending option becomes available on the E1’s control panel (the center-notched knob next to the Filter Toggle switch). This is way cool, and it offers such a great textures that you’ll want to spend a lot of time exploring it.

Flip the Filter
Toggle switch and the pedal controls the ladder filter for what Fareed Haque called “a wah-wah pedal for the new millennium.” Of course it’s not a wah-wah, but that’s the neighborhood it lives in. I would be remiss to not make a quick mention of the classic EBow, which was the first thing that gave infinite sustain to guitarists. It is a great product, but the E1’s possibilities go much farther, as it’s polyphonic. The E1 is easier to use and can do all the EBow does and frankly, it does it better. The E1’s response seems smoother and much more controllable, and with the pedal and everything else I mentioned there’s just no contest.

The Final Mojo… or Is It?
The E1 is a whole new deal, which requires you to completely rethink the way you play guitar and how you make music in general. There will be players who will have no interest in this at all, but for others this will be the ultimate instrument. If Allan Holdsworth doesn’t have one, I would be surprised. The recent inclusion of MIDI compatibility seems only natural to me; in fact, it’s hard to imagine why they even made these without it—perhaps to show how much can be done without a synth? Anyway you look at it, it is amazing to have synth-like sustain coming from strings. I can see the E1 being a staple in every studio in the same way the Yamaha DX7 was in the ‘80s. The possibilities for orchestral music also seem very exciting. I mean, why not skip the fake string ensemble and have real string sounds? I am also sure we’ll be hearing sustained single-note solos in songs on the radio real soon. As many times as reviewers will say something like, “This changes everything,” I guess I’ll say it anyway. This changes everything, so go check it out.
Buy if...
you want cutting-edge tech and infinite sustain.
Skip if...
you’re resolved to sticking to the old school.

MSRP $3649 - Moog Music -