In addition to his sheer musical genius, Prince has always had an eye for style. And as any experienced axe-spotter knows, it didn’t stop with the Purple Dandy’s amazing suits. His Dave Husain-built cloud guitar and Jerry Auerswald-built symbol guitars became some of Prince’s most identifiable style trademarks. But though those larger-than-life guitars were among the flashiest of his accoutrements, Prince will probably always be most associated with his comparatively pedestrian H.S. Anderson-designed Hohner T-style that he used on albums like Purple Rain, 1999, and Musicology.
The Hohner’s subdued style had a way of enhancing the mystery around it. It wasn’t a vintage Fender, and yet one of the most inventive and ripping guitarists of the day was doing major damage with the thing—there had to be more going on than meets the eye. Indeed, Prince’s Hohner was more than just another cheap Fender knock-off. In fact, Prince’s Hohner is a Japanese version of the H.S. Anderson Mad Cat, which was released in 1973 by the Morris company. The über-rare originals (there were only a little more than 500 produced) fetch top dollar whenever they pop up, but there have been quasi copycats under various brands over the years, too.
Over the years, Hohner released several versions of the guitar—Prince’s Japanese version and a Korean incarnation made by Cort. In 2009, Morris got back into the action and released a limited run of the Mad Cat to commemorate the company’s 45th anniversary. But more recently, European distributor Amptec persuaded Moridaira to release the H.S. Anderson Vintage Reissue Mad Cat. The reissue is handmade in small batches of about seven instruments a month in Japan at the original factory.
When I first opened the case, I was knocked out by the instrument’s upscale looks. The decorative pearloid H.S. Anderson logo, walnut center strip, ash wings, highly-figured maple top and bottom, and top and back binding, and super-shiny polyurethane lacquer finish, all exude a luxurious image that is nicely offset by a leopard-print pickguard very similar to the original (H.A. Anderson says the material’s supplier is no longer around and that the new version warps less). The pickguard gives the Mad Cat a sexy, classy-meets-trashy vibe that playfully offsets the otherwise upscale character. The headstock shape has been changed a touch, but in general, the Mad Cat reissue is a faithful rendition of the classic with a more up-market glow.
The Japanese-built Mad Cat is more-or-less impeccably crafted throughout. On my test model, there were no finish flaws, misaligned binding, or wood blemishes. One minor issue that I noticed though is that the guitar had a few sharp, protruding fret edges, which could be chalked up to a the transatlantic shipment, but nothing so serious that a competent luthier couldn’t easily fix.
The all-maple neck with 21 vintage medium frets, 9.4" radius, bone nut, Gotoh SG360 tuners, and medium C profile has a familiar vintage feel that’s very comfortable. Upper-register bends never fretted out and my hands never tired even after long periods of holding full 5–and–6 string chords. This guitar is a player.
Mad Cat Meow
Acoustically, the Mad Cat is a vibrant and resonant guitar, and there are no harmonically dead spots anywhere along the length of the fretboard. Of course, it’s meant to be plugged in, and I tested the Mad Cat through several rigs including a blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb with a Fulltone GT-500 for dirt. Even though it’s a T-style guitar, the Mad Cat is outfitted with S1 and S3 model Bill Lawrence USA Strat pickups. Lawrence designed these for Stevie Ray Vaughan, and they replace the original’s Keiyo pickups. The Lawrence pickups are a nice choice that sound very warm, if not especially loud.
I began my tests with some funky rhythm guitar à la “Kiss,” and the Mad Cat delivered those shimmery tones in spades, particularly in the middle position. All of the pickup positions sounded great—harmonically rich chords sustained nicely and single-note melodies rang bold and clear in all three positions. Output is also remarkably consistent, and even with the bridge pickup engaged and the tone control wide open, the sound was civilized and never too shrill. I never had the itch to roll down the tone knob, as I usually do with this type of pickup through a Deluxe.
With the overdrive engaged, the Mad Cat really shines. It has an authoritative and brash-but-refined smoothness reminiscent of the tones Prince used in “Little Red Corvette” or the fierce intro to “When Doves Cry.” Even when you really pile on the gain, the Mad Cat doesn’t have the ragged edge you hear from lesser single-coil guitars, which you might chalk up to the ash-and-walnut body composition, as well. Note-to-note definition was excellent when I played double-stops or chords, and this articulation prompted me to play in a more harmonically oriented and less linear style than I usually do with that much gain—a sure sign of a balanced and truly performance-oriented instrument.
At $3,100, the Mad Cat is definitely boutique priced—which is to say, steep. It’s in the same price class as instruments like Fender’s Custom Shop Teles or Suhr Classic Ts. The Mad Cat can certainly hold its own against those axes, though. And if you can get around the fact that this very expensive guitar is based on what was once an affordable Hohner, the price isn’t all that out of line. To be fair, the Mad Cat is much less ostentatious than many other artist-inspired axes, and stylistically speaking, a very cool twist on a classic template. So even if you’re not a big Prince obsessive but you’re looking for a masterfully built T-style with some unique quirks, the Mad Cat is a straight-up killer guitar.