Rick Ruskin. Interview. Review.

Rick Ruskin | 2009 | Interview |

Rick Ruskin

Rick Ruskin started playing guitar in 1962 and in just one year became a respected professional musician in his native Detroit, Michigan. In 1964, while still in Jr. High School, he was chosen to open the bill for the Reverend Gary Davis at Detroit’s legendary Retort Coffee House. This engagement resulted in a fast and permanent friendship with the master blues, ragtime, and gospel guitarist. Rev. Davis was so taken by the young Ruskin’s skill and eagerness, that he invited Rick to spend that summer with him at his Long Island home. By the end of the summer, Davis stopped teaching Rick new material and told him, “It’s time you started paying attention to your own music.” Ruskin has been doing that ever since.

Stay tuned for the tab Rick has very graciously provided to us.

TT- Rick, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us.

RR- My pleasure.

Rick RuskinTT- Can we ask how you got started with playing?

RR- I can’t remember when I wasn’t interested in music.  I sang all the time and started listening to classical stuff when I was about 4 years old.  I got into pop and rock a few years later.  I might have become a violinist were it not for a deformity (the ulna and radius are fused together in both arms) that makes it impossible to hold and manipulate the instrument in the proper manner.

I was about 7 when that came to light.  At that age, when everyone says, “it can’t be done,” you tend to believe it so I let that particular thing go.  Singing became the thing then – every choir or glee club in school from 4th through the 12th grades plus outside vocal activities. I discovered the guitar during the US folk music boom of the 60’s.  I had a chance to mess around with a neighbor’s guitar one afternoon and realized I finally found an instrument I could physically deal with.  I went home, told my parents of this discovery, and asked for a guitar.

I got it for my 14th birthday and started learning the chords to the folky tunes I wanted to sing.  Just about every new tune demanded that I learn more chords so by the time I got into fingerpicking, my left hand was in pretty good shape. I had no designs on becoming an instrumentalist.  That just evolved over time.  Someone showed me how to play a couple of basic alternating bass patterns and a few tunes that went with them.  Eventually, I came to the realize how limiting the whole concept of patterns was and began to work without that particular “net.”

A new coffee house opened in Detroit that became a hang-out for some pretty good players.  They introduced me to the likes of Bob Gibson, Pete Seeger, Brownie McGhee, and of course, Rev. Gary Davis.  This all happened over a 2-year period.  By the time the Rev. and I met, the die was pretty much cast.

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TT- Your version of A Teddy Bear’s Picnic really blew away what I thought could be done with that tune! Could you tell us a little about that tune and about your process for arranging tunes?

RR- I got the inspiration from a Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band version from one of their albums.  I used their cut as a basic road map of the chords and melody to the tune and then started experimenting with the bass line. When it comes to arranging a piece, I will usually figure out or somehow obtain the chord structure and go from there.

I’ll move it around to different keys to see what works and what doesn’t.  Once the key is decided on, I’ll put together a “bare bones” arrangement – nothing fancy but with all the basics covered.  From there I’ll move on to incorporate either the more interesting elements of what drew me to the tune in the first place and/or some musical quirks of my own.   I try to maintain the groove to keep things sounding sexy.  To my mind, all good music is sexy.  It stops being that when it gets to cerebral/technical sounding.

TT- So you develevoped in the 60’s coffee house culture?

RR- For the most part, yes.

Rick RuskinTT- How have things changed for players since then?

RR- There is much more educational material available now than there was when I was getting my act together.  Almost nothing was being published specifically for fingerpickers.  That’s the biggest difference.  I’d been playing for over 2 years before I’d even seen my first piece of TAB and it was a mimeograph of something that a private instructor was handing out to his students.

It looked pretty useless to me because it had no rhythm designations.  Personally, I ignored all things TAB until I started teaching classes @ McCabes sometime in the mid-seventies.  That’s when I started writing my own.  I made a point of including rhythm in anything I wrote out, though. Today’s entry-level guitars are mych better in all repsects than the crap that was built in the 60’s.  Decent sound and ease of play make a huge difference for a beginner.

TT- And do you think the better playability of intruments in general has lead to more and more complex and technically challenging tunes being written??

RR- No.  It just means that fewer newcomers are getting discourage just because of crappy instruments.

TT- So Rick, what’s your usual practise routine like?

RR- I usually don’t work on tunes unless I have a gig or gigs coming up.  I’ll just keep a guitar in my hands as much as possible.  Noodling on one idea or another.  I call it the “hunt.”  I love that process.  A good deal of the time, I’ll mute the strings with wadded up kleenex woven between the strings and watch the tube – just to keep the machinery oiled.  I’ve written some of my best tunes that way.

Rick RuskinTT- Any advice on budding fingerstyle guitarists?

RR- Slow down!  And I don’t just mean tempos.  I’m talking expectations, too.  I see players/students all the time that were in such a hurry to learn new material that they never completely learned anything. If you can’t play a simple arrangement of “Freight Train,” how do you expect to be able to pull off even the simplest Rev. Gary Davis piece?

Anyone wanting to become a truly good player needs to start simple and stay on a thing until it’s learned, not just “good enough” but completely.   Then move  incrementally to something new.  Don’t go from “Freight Train” to “Blue Rhondo Ala Turk.”

TT- What guitars and equipment are you using at the moment?

RR- My 2 main guitars were built by Roy McAlister.  The oldest was built as a prototype in 1998 with the designation “Model FA.”   It’s now called the “Rick Ruskin Signature Model.”  It’s 00-ish in size but the shape resembles a classical guitar more than any traditional steel-string instrument.  I don’t memorize specs but off the top of my head, it’s a long-scale 12-fretter with Brazilian Rosewood back & sides and a German spruce top.

Rick RuskinIt is possibly the best sounding guitar I’ve ever played in my life.  Roy shipped it to me for evaluation but after having it here for less than an hour, I called him to say he wasn’t getting it back.  The other is a Lucas-bodied 13-fretter, also long scale, made of Honduran mahogany and German spruce.  Both guitars are braced, as per my request, very lightly.  The Lucas is so light that it weighs less than 1/2 of the gear set that is on it.  I only use extra light strings so I need my guitars to be very responsive and these puppies move alot of air.

None of my acoustics have pickups in them.  Whether gigging or recording, I use microphones.  I usually let the live venue choose the mics because they know or should know their own system better than I do.  If I feel I need to do something, I usually take an Electro-Voice CS-15E for the guitar and a Shure SM-59 for the voice.   When recording myself I tend to use either Sennheiser MKH40’s or the E-V CS-15E’s.  I don’t go in for the “more is better” in the studio so 2 mics as a stereo pair is as much as I’ll use on the guitar at any one time.  Decisions regarding what and how many are always determined by the kind of piece being recorded.  Solo and light ensemble stuff gets stereo treatment.  Denser tracks will go mono.

My studio started out as a 16-track analog facility but is now a hybrid analog/digital room with as many tracks as I want.  I record digitally but mix through an analog console.  I can have up to 32 discreet tracks coming back through the board on remix without any technical grief.  Getting to 48 would require jumping through some technical hoops.  After that, I’d need to go “virtual” but it’s my belief that if you can’t get it done with 24 or less, you can’t get it done.  My music is most often 16 tracks or less but I’d rather have the capability “just in case.”

Unlike most home-studios, the monitors are large-format instead of near-fields.  I hadn’t found a near-field that I felt I could trust so when a friend’s JBL 4315’s came up for sale 20 years ago, I bought them.  Smartest studio purchase I ever made.

Rick Ruskin

Rick Ruskin http://www.liondogmusic.com/

©2008 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Rick Ruskin ©2008.
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