“Underrated.” That is the word that best describes Prince, the Guitarist. Why? Because his phenomenal guitar-playing was just one arrow in a quiver full of remarkable talents. He was such a masterful singer, songwriter, producer, performer, bandleader, dancer, multi-instrumentalist and global sex icon that his overall Prince-ness often eclipsed what may have been his most formidable talent: playing guitar.
There are many pop stars who are great performers – but there is no chart-topping pop star in history who could play guitar like Prince. Imagine if Michael Jackson had played the solo on “Beat It”?! That was Prince on a Tuesday. His playing always sounded inspired, soulful and fearless. He combined the showmanship of Jimi Hendrix with the incredible melodic sensibility of a seasoned jazz cat. He could play funky James Brown-style rhythms, like on “Kiss,” and he could play avant-metal solos like the intro to “When Doves Cry.” It’s an outrageous solo; certainly not the kind of sound that you’d expect to hear on a pop single – and he starts the song with it.
I saw Purple Rain in the summer of ’84, and, Spinal Tap notwithstanding, it’s the greatest rock & roll film of all time. There’s so much Prince coming at you that you have to remind yourself he’s also a breathtaking guitar player. When he plays the “Purple Rain” solo, it’s life-changing. Put that on right now and try not to cry. And at the end of the movie, he conjures this genre–destroying guitar storm – and does it in high heels on top of a piano while his guitar is squirting. You just can’t compete with that.
Purple Rain, the album, is a great guitar record. “Let’s Go Crazy” has that driving rhythm riff that I loved playing at keg-party–cover-band shows in college, and “Darling Nikki” is a fantastically slippery, sleazy guitar song, perfectly matching tone with intent.
But let’s not forget Prince’s guitars themselves. From the male/female love-symbol guitar to the curlicue one that kinda looks like an ocean wave, every guitar was a statement. How is it possible that guitars that look that crazy could also sound that good? It’s not the guitar, of course, it’s the player. Every guitar was an extension and an expression of the awesome Prince fire that was screaming out of the amps.
Since his death, I’ve been watching videos of Prince’s performances. Check out that great clip of him playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2004. He’s onstage with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Steve Winwood. Now those people are all-time rock icons. But then Prince steps forward like a badass gunslinger to play the solo. All eyes and ears turn as he effortlessly demonstrates a confident, cocky mastery of the instrument; his playing is deeply emotional, beautifully melodic, raw, inventive and soul-stirring, and then when you least expect it, he just fucking flat-out flies up and down the neck shredding like Paganini and whirling like a dervish. The solo goes on for, like, 80 bars, building to a soaring, roaring crescendo of finesse and nuanced fury, and by the end of it the other rock luminaries onstage have all faded into the background, left behind in a purple cloud. Spectacular. There was nobody like Prince.
As told to Kory Grow.