When Joe suggested the “Discover a Guitarist” series and asked if I would write an article, my first thought was, “Who is the most obscure, avant-garde, post-bop, minimalist 9-string shredder that only people in New Guinea have heard of?” And I would assign bonus points if they played Hendrix licks with their teeth.
Before that thought could fester into an article that would make Joe smack his head, I decided to get my soap box out and write about a musician that everyone has heard of, but few truly know what an incredible guitarist he is.
This post has been tested by the CGPF and has been found to be “Purple Rain” free.
Let’s go ahead and get these points out of the way:
- Yes, he can scream like a banshee.
- Yes, he has worn pants with the butt cut out (ass chaps).
- Yes, he used to wear heals. (Now, past 50, it is more of a Dr. Scholl’s orthopedic pump.)
- Yes, he did change his name to an unpronounceable symbol in the nineties and then back to Prince.
- Yes, being a white guy in the South who has been a Prince fan since the early eighties has been tough at times. (Too many discussions along the lines of “Forget the heels and makeup for a second will ya’? Did you not hear that lick? Listen to that greasy rhythm. That bass line is stanky. No wait, wait, just check out this…” At this point, most friends would change the station and listen Kix or Bananarama and proclaim “Now that’s good music!”)
In my opinion, based on trying to hip people to Prince’s music since the eighties, the world view of Prince is that of a Pop Star and an entertainer, sometimes an eccentric, along the lines of Michael Jackson and Madonna. Too often though, music fans will listen as much with their eyes as they do with their ears. Sadly, if they don’t like what they see, they won’t give the music a chance. And I’ll admit, Prince pushed boundaries from day one with his fashion and song content.
Since the first Prince lick I stole, I’ve heard Prince run the gamut of styles on his tunes. Rock, funk, jazz, blues, R&B, country and even shred (yes, he had a shred tune that he released through his old online music club, NPG Music). With 35+ official albums released, hundreds of bootleg albums and a vault of unreleased material, it seems he has the ability to play anything he wants.
So, keep an open ear and read on.
Prince performing at the MTV Music Video Awards circa 1987:
How I Discovered Prince
My first Prince tune that I remember was “I Want to Be Your Lover” from 1978. I didn’t know it was Prince. All I knew was that the tune was catchy. The lyrics were a little saucy, but at 8 years old, I didn’t have a clue. It wasn’t until later when I was a fan and bought his back catalog that I realized that was his song.
My first memory of Prince was an argument I had with a friend in study hall in 7th grade. We were talking about music videos on MTV (yes, they used to play music videos) and we both liked the video for “1999.” The conversation was essentially me saying the band is called Prince because there is no way someone’s mama would name her kid Prince, that’s just too weird. My friend argued, correctly, the band is not called Prince, the dude is called Prince.
Well, from the song “1999” until the end of the eighties, Prince was a chart topping monster and critic’s darling. Not only did he have his own hits, he wrote hits for other artists such as Stevie Nicks, The Bangles, Chaka Khan, Sinead O’Connor, Sheila E., Sheena Easton, The Time, and more.
In the eighties, when you bought a record, you studied the album cover, read the liner notes and listened to the tracks for hours. What made me a fan, more so than just good tunes, was the fact that on every other album I had, the songs were performed by a singer, a few guitar players, a bass player, a drummer, etc. You know, the band. In the eighties, on a Prince LP, every instrument you heard was Prince.
Around this time, ’83-’85, I had not started playing guitar. Even so, I knew there was something unique about a person that could play all the instruments on their album. The concept of how he did it was beyond me at the time. It wasn’t until I learned about multi-tracking with my first Tascam Portastudio that the light bulb went off.
Prince in the studio laying down bass on “Partyman”:
In order to save space and talk more about guitar, find a copy of Prince in the Studio (1975-1995): Volume One by Jake Brown. Jake interviews engineers that worked with Prince in the studio. He covers gear, mics, his recording process and more.
To a person, every engineer told the same story about Prince and how he created music. Prince expected the board to be ready, mics in place, all instruments connected, and the tracks armed for recording. Prince would then put the drum track down, bass lines next, then lay the keys and guitar parts down, kick the engineer out, and record vocals by himself.
In the time some bands used twisting knobs on their amps trying to get the tone, Prince would record a song, mix it, and then play it on his car stereo going to dinner that night.
Yeah, that’s cool.
Dig, If U Will, the Guitarist
Being a Prince fan who also is a musician is a frustrating experience. I’m sure you have heard of Guitar Hero. Well, you can say Prince is the anti-Guitar Hero and this is why.
Open up any guitar mag today. I’ll guarantee you will find bands that have just broken onto the scene that have full page endorsement ads for strings, gear, amps and more. They will likely also have an article in the magazine that goes into detail about why they prefer X strings for their Drop A tunings, how they worked hard with amp manufacturer X to create the sickest sounding amp and that they are so proud of their new, environmentally friendly, guitar straps made from baby seal skin harvested in the wild… because we all know baby seal farms are bad. (Proceeds from the strap sales will go to moving baby seals out of the farm and into the wild, where they can be green-harvested.)
To this day, Prince has not endorsed any gear. He has been associated with gear from constant use, like his use of Boss pedals and Tele-style guitars, but never an endorser. So, when he gets the cover of Guitar World or Guitar Player, and the typical guitarist questions are asked about favorite strings, amps, effects, guitars, etc., he tells the interviewer it’s not about the gear, it’s about the music, the groove, the vibe. You make the music, not the equipment.
Strike One: There is no secret piece of gear, brand of string or amp that will help me play like Prince.
That’s cool. I’ll keep reading and find out what makes Prince tick as far as the scales he uses, how he approaches licks and fills, playing tips, creating cool parts. You know, all the guitar questions we jones for.
While every other guitar player would break it down to metronome settings, picking direction, maybe even wrist placement, Prince lays it out straight. I remember one Prince quote, to paraphrase, “Cats worry too much about soloing. They need to focus on rhythm guitar first. Because if you can’t play rhythm guitar, you might as well learn how to knit or something.”
I’m sure if the interviewer would have asked about rhythm guitar at that point, he wouldn’t have shared anything specific. Probably something like, “I feel rhythm everywhere. U know how a big woman’s thighs sound when she’s running to Taco Bell? Swish, swishy swish swish? Just play an E9 chord with that and you’ll learn rhythm guitar.”
Prince asking “Where all the big girls at?”:
Strike Two: There’s no secret or tips to playing great like Prince. You have to work, put the practice in, rehearse, do it all again. You will eventually get it together.
Still cool, because we all know guitar magazines provide artist tab when they’re covered. Let’s get to that tab for the solo to “Peach.” Can’t wait to get my hands on the tab for the funky intro to “Controversy.” What? No song this issue? What does the guy mean “in the style of ‘Let’s Go Crazy?'” I don’t want “in the style of,” I want “this is how he played it!”
Well, it seems Prince doesn’t approve the publishing of his songs in guitar magazines. So you’ll never find an accurate transcription in one of the popular issues like Guitar World, Guitar Player, etc. Every now and then, you may see an artist profile in the vein of “How to play like.” They’ll show you style and technique, but not a song.
Strike Three: If you want to learn Prince tunes or steal a lick or two, you have to do it like he did it. Learn it by ear and then make it your own. You will have trouble finding published music or guitar tabs. The few I have seen were for piano and were not transcribed from the record.
Strike Four: (We’re playing 4 strike ball today.) Prince always does his own thing, even when it bucks the system. Having as much control over his music as possible is such a case.
Having control of your music is the artist’s right, but it seems he takes it too far, in my opinion. He threatens to sue YouTube if they post videos of his songs or even others playing his songs. Fan sites are worried he’ll sue them off-line if they talk about bootlegs. Guitar tab sites have had to remove user-transcribed tabs for copyright issues and more.
Being a Prince fan, you have to work to find the gems.
The best tip for you: Google is your friend. Search and you will (eventually) find!
Here’s a gem I found for this article, from the The Undertaker Sessions:
Can you see my point about Prince being an anti-Guitar Hero? He doesn’t endorse gear, publishers can’t get rights to print tab in guitar magazines, and when it comes to the music, he looks at the big picture, not just the guitar. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear a story about him recording a killer lick that we would all drool over and then think it would be better to sample it, play it on the keyboard up an octave with a envelope filter and delete the original guitar lick.
With so little information available in print, there are few people besides Prince and his guitar tech that can accurately discuss his gear. I am sure he has a warehouse full of gear and tries out everything new on the market. I’ll talk about what we dig the most, guitars, effects, and amps.
I’ve seen Prince play a Les Paul, Floyd Rose-equipped Strat, Taylor acoustics, Ibanez George Benson, Teles, and custom-built guitars. His main axe until the Purple Rain era, and starting again in the 2000s, is a Blonde Tele copy made by HS Anderson/Hohner.
For all you players that think you need an expensive guitar with top end woods, inlays, and electronics to sound good, think again. His Tele is a knock-off that is pretty much stock when it comes to woods (ash body and maple neck) and hardware (tuners, frets, bridge). I’ve read that Prince has used Lace Sensor and Kinman pickups on this guitar. Strings? Who knows. Probably .009s.
The Cloud Guitar, first seen in “Purple Rain,” was custom built in 1983 by David Husain. The neck had a Gibson scale length, 25.75″, and active EMG pickups. Over the years, I’ve seen Clouds in white, peach, black, yellow, and blue. My bet is that he had a few of these and then refinished when he wanted new colors.
Schecter made Cloud copies for a few years so that all Prince fans could get their geek on. Mass market parts and build. Nothing special about the Schecter copies. (Besides, your tone is mostly in your fingers, right?)
Strangely, I haven’t seen him play a Cloud in about 6-7 years.
Prince performing “Peach” on his yellow Cloud Guitar:
With the name change in the nineties came the need for a new guitar. The Symbol Guitar was built by Jerry Auerswald in the early nineties and shared some of the Cloud specs: Gibson length and pickups. It was an awkward looking guitar in the shape of his symbol. I always wondered how he didn’t break the horns off every day just setting it down when he was going to the kitchen to grab a bowl of Apple Jacks.
There is one guitar called the Model C that I saw him play once during the Lovesexy era. This guitar is a rarity, so I will not spend too much time on it. As with his other guitars, he scored on the unique look category. With the single humbucker, this guitar would be limited compared to his others.
The one I have heard discussed most often is Mesa Boogie. I’ve also read that he has used Marshall, Soldano, even the Carvin Vai Legacy. Again, all just from internet discussions. If you listen to the recordings, I would bet some of his really punchy rhythm parts were sans amp, just straight into the board.
From various sources (a nineties Guitar World article, Jake Brown’s book, and pictures), Prince seems to favor Boss stompboxes, Dunlop Cry Baby Wah and the Digitech Whammy. Check out his cool, half-moon, pedal board.
As with everything else, I’m sure he has tried everything out and kept what he can make music with.
Check These Songs Out
I’ve noticed a few Prince songs that have no guitar at all. I’ve also noticed several songs that have great guitar that is buried so deep in the mix, you have to have headphones to make it out.
Since we’re talking guitar, here is a list of tunes to check out that are heavy on the guitar and cover a range of styles (rock, fingerstyle, jazz, funk). Since you’ve likely heard the radio hits like “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Kiss,” and others, I’ll mention those you’ll need to find on YouTube or borrow from your local Prince geek.
Try to find a live version, that’s where you’ll see him rip on guitar.
- “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
- “I’m Yours”
- “Crimson and Clover”
- “Purple House”
- “Dreaming About U”
- “Peach” (there is a rock and a funk version)
- The Undertaker Session (all tunes)
- “Why U Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”
- “We Can Funk”
- “Endorphine Machine”
- “The Question of U”
- “The Cross”
- “Computer Blue”
- N.E.W.S. (his fusion album: “North,” “East,” “West,” “South”)
About the Author
Jason Priest is the owner and head janitor at Little Rock Jams, a teaching studio that offers music lessons, workshops, and jam sessions to the future breed. He enjoys chords that hurt, new strings, and a touch of reverb.