At a recent Pearl Jam concert, on the day it was announced that Prince had passed away, Eddie Vedder told the crowd, “Prince was probably the greatest guitar player we’ve ever seen.” He certainly is not alone in this belief, as anybody who plays guitar is likely to tell you. Prince was the best. Yes, he was an unparalleled songwriter, pop star, and artist, but the dude could shred better than anyone on the planet.
Prince didn’t talk about his guitar playing much. While most prominent guitar players grace the cover of magazines holding their favorite six strings and often release a signature model or two, Prince seemed content to just rip. He had one-of-a-kind, near priceless instruments built and was known for keeping the specs under tight wraps. His guitars were extensions of his personality, of his image and his sound.
In a 1994 interview with Guitar World, Prince said something that made sense to everyone who ever watched him play: “I always wanted to be thought of as a guitarist.” In fact, that’s where he started, playing guitar on Minneapolis Genius – The Historic 1977 Recordings, and by all accounts helping write a number of the songs. In those early days, before he could command custom-made guitars, Prince favored Fenders, particularly Telecasters. Even in his later years, he was often seen playing Telecaster, wailing away on funky jams like “Chelsea Rodgers.”
In that same Guitar World article, the interviewer asked Prince’s guitar technician, Zeke Clark, about Prince’s skills as a player. It’s important to note that Clark had worked for guys like Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page, so it’s safe to say he was an authority on this sort of thing. Clark’s response, as quoted in Guitar World, was “The Boss just has it in his blood. He won’t sit and rehearse a lot. He’ll just pick up that guitar up and it’s like magic.”
Magic is a good word to describe it. There was a casual finesse to his playing. Prince was big, bold, and flamboyant in his personal style and showmanship, but as a guitar player he was measured and smooth. He never strayed too far from the song never let his noodling overtake the melody. The guitar was an extension of him, something he was rarely seen performing without.
You could fall down an endless rabbit hole trying to research Prince’s gear. His love of custom guitars, rigs, and pedals allowed him to create one-of-a-kind sounds and tones. At one time, he played a rack designed by Zeke Clark that could switch between a Soldano Caswell preamp and a mounted 100-watt Soldano head when he wanted to really rock. He even began mixing himself from the stage, apparently unhappy with the way that sound guys were capturing his guitar tones.
Like everything about Prince, his guitar playing is hard to peg down into one category. He drew from funk, rock, and blues, combining and shifting, mixing and matching, sometimes in the same song. His skills as a guitar player were unparalleled. The guy could shred with the best of them and shred he did.
In his later days, nearly everything he played was built just for him. We’re not just talking about the shape and look, but every inch of these guitars were designed for Prince. He liked rosewood, so they almost always had rosewood. He liked the feel of and tone of Fenders, but had customer necks that had a lot in common with a Les Paul. Hell, take a look at one of the last guitars he ordered. It’s a gold and purple monster that looks and most certainly plays like nothing we’ve ever seen.
Simply put, Prince was the greatest guitar player in the world. He played like nobody else and he did it with a casual grace and a sense of style and sensuality. In that same Guitar World interview, he is asked what his idea of the ultimate guitar tone is. His response, in perfect Prince fashion: “A woman in climax.” That’s freaking rock n’ roll, man, any way you cut it.
Image: Warner Bros.