Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Harping On: Peter "Madcat" Ruth

     While putting this article together, and trying to think about how to best introduce Madcat, I came across this quote. I simply can’t put it any better.

     "Madcat has got to be one of the greatest jazz soloists in terms of getting an audience. He's got that magical quality. It doesn't matter if he's playing a hoe-down kind of thing that evolves into a blues and pretty
soon into jazz. Audiences here and overseas go with him all the way. He's into music without categories."
      - Dave Brubeck

What is your background in harmonica?
I started playing harmonica in 1964, when I was 15 years old. I was playing guitar at the time and taking guitar lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. I also was a big fan of the Midnight Special Radio show on WFMT in Chicago. It was on that radio show that I first heard Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. I decided right then that I had to learn how to play harmonica! For the first few years I just tried to play Like Sonny Terry. Then in 1966 I started listening to Jr. Wells, Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, James Cotton, Big Walter Horton, Slim Harpo, Sunnyboy Williamson, Jimmy reed... It was an amazing education. And then in 1967 and 1968 I took three lessons with Walter Horton ! ! !

Why the name Madcat?
The name Madcat was a nickname I had in high school. I had a few friends that were into blues and since all our blues heros had cool names (Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Magic Sam, Sunnyland Slim etc...) we made up “blues names” for each other. That was in 1966, but it was just a nickname back then used by a very small circle of friends. . Then In 1969 I joined the band New Heavenly Blue and moved from Chicago to Ann Arbor Michigan. The drummer in that band was named Peter, so I started using the name Madcat full time starting then.

You had an interesting solution to playing guitar and harmonica together. How'd you do that?
I never was really comfortable playing harp in a harp rack, so I developed a system where the harp and the microphone were supported by a microphone stand. It’s my own invention. If you go to http://www.youtube.com/user/petermadcatruth you can see and hear the system in use.

You always seem to have a lot of fun when you're playing. What keeps performing so exciting for you?
Yes, I love music, and I love improvising, I guess what keeps it fresh for me is to always playing something new.

What harps do you play, and why?
I’ve played a lot of harps over the years, primarily Hohners, Huangs and now Herings. Hering has a new MADCAT signature model harmonica, and that is my favorite. It is the best harp I’ve ever played. There are many companies these days making great harmonicas, but I don’t believe anyone makes a harmonica better than the Hering Madcat.

I've come across new players who get very frustrated that the harmonica isn't as easy as they thought it would be. What advice would you give them?
Have fun with it and keep playing. The more you play the easier it gets and the more fun it becomes.

There are a great deal of resources for learning to play. What do you think are some of the better ones?
When I was starting out, there was very little out there for harp player, and now there is plenty. Homespun Tapes has some good lessons on DVD (including 2 by me). Jerry Portnoy’s Blues Harmonica Masterclass lessons are excellent. David Barrett’s Harmonica Masterclass lessons are excellent. Add there are a ton of lessons available on the internet these days. Harmonica clubs such as H.O.O.T are a great place to learn more about harmonica playing. And a trip to a SPAH Convention is guarenteed to inspire you and expand your horizons. The next SPAH Convention is in Minnesota in August 2010.

Is there a particular song that you enjoy playing more than any other?
I have hundreds of favorites... my favorite song changes a couple of times per day

What do you suggest a player should practice the most?
I think harp players gain a lot by playing new songs. Learn to play the melodies. Then try to play those same melodies in other positions. Always try new things. Don’t get in the rut of playing the same things over and over.

Any last words for HOOT?
Have fun!

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