If he’d never picked up a guitar, Prince would still have been a groundbreaking musical revolutionary. His emergence on the music scene in 1978 was jarring, even for the most youthful and open-minded music consumers.
For You, released that year, and Prince, which went platinum in ’79, kicked off a string of successes and a fresh style of music that came to be called the “Minneapolis sound,” while his three subsequent records – Dirty Mind, Controversy, and 1999 – continued his new funk and introduced his persona to the world. It was a look, a sound, and a stylistic juggernaut baited with sexuality and theatrical provocation backed with the life-affirming syncopations of Sly Stone, George Clinton, and James Brown. He was his own producer, multi-instrumentalist, and freakishly prolific songwriter; today, one could make a strong argument that he shares space on the imaginary Mount Rushmore Of Music alongside Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis.
Prince died April 21 at Paisley Park, his home/studio in suburban Minneapolis. He was 57 years old. Born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7, 1958, he emerged a prodigy who reimagined funk, rock, gospel, R&B, and pop, and fought tenaciously against dodgy corporate music industry practices. He wrote Top 10 hits like “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” “Kiss,” “U Got The Look,” and “Raspberry Beret.” Dirty Mind, 1999, and Sign O’ The Times were full-blown concept albums, while 1984’s Purple Rain earned him an Academy Award.
Several other pop acts reaped the benefits of his talent; Chaka Khan went to #3 on the Billboard charts with “I Feel For You,” the Bangles hit #2 with “Manic Monday,” and Sinead O’Conner went to #1 with “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Cyndi Lauper covered “When You Were Mine,” and “The Glamorous Life” was written for Sheila E. He shared co-writing credit with Madonna on “Love Song,” Stevie Nicks on “Stand Back,” and collaborated with Miles Davis.
He produced 39 albums in 37 years, not including live discs, compilations, side projects, and material released under alternate band names. He was hyper-prolific and controlled every aspect of his music. Though his creative output was staggering, he also showed the world how to be an artist. Prince celebrated his uniqueness and spirituality. He flaunted it without self-consciousness, and switched directions on a dime, inspired by the changing world around him.
Prince admired women. He wrote music for them, worshipped them in his songs, and made them an integral part of his many bands. He also challenged the ideas of what it means to be a man. Though short in stature and facing derision about his image, he gracefully sidestepped the barbs and thrived while others lock-stepped into conformity. He showed the world that people of color are as diverse as their Caucasian counterparts, and encouraged musicians to educate themselves to break free of restricting stereotypes. He led by example; be yourself, follow your muse, work hard, and funk – heavily.
He altered the sound of black music as well as popular music, and influenced contemporary songwriting around the world. Recording studios were, under his guidance, musical instruments unto themselves, hosting his fearless explorations via everything from lo-fi drum machine masterpieces to elaborate multi-tracked compositions with large bands. The Beatles had George Martin, Michael Jackson had Quincy Jones, Springsteen had Jon Landau; Prince did it all by himself.
He disliked the internet, and learned how to wield it better than any other musician when it came to selling his catalog. He was one of the first to sell an entire album online, and aggressively controlled his music, angering a generation who thought music should be given away. But his stance was firm; there is no such thing as a free lunch, and he thought enough of his music to demand that it help him earn a living.
Prince’s live shows displayed a perfectionist’s polish and precision. Like the great band leaders of the past – Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Ike Turner, Duke Ellington – the musicians he chose had a unified but distinct flair that served as a key influence on many artists. He was a songwriting conduit who used many instruments to convey ideas. The songs came first, while the tools were there merely to execute the sounds he heard. Whether it was guitar, keyboard, bass, or a mixing console, they were only a means to an end and never an end in itself. Still, it needs to be stated clearly – Prince played the hell out of the guitar! Unlike most guitarists, he was never confined by its physical and sonic parameters. He played with an imagination that allowed him to create a cliché’-free vocabulary. He was melodic, clever, and his lines were catchy, producing an inimitable rhythm and lead style. And, he played for his fans or anyone who paid attention, not for “achievement guitarists.”
Groove, swagger, and inspired ideas have always been the hallmark of great rock-guitar playing. Prince had that. He could channel Hendrix, Santana, and Jimmy Nolen, then sing a ballad a la Marvin Gaye with an acoustic guitar that would melt your soul. To focus on his guitar playing, however, does him a disservice. Was Prince more technically adept than your local top-tier bar-band guitarist? Maybe, maybe not. But, is your bar-band player capable of authoring a sound that alters pop music? Which carries more weight?
Though a superb multi-instrumentalist, Prince had a fondness for the guitar. His most recognized was a Mad Cat/Hohner from the early ’70s built by a Japanese factory called Morris H.S. Anderson, which later sold the rights to the German company Hohner. The Tele knock-off was responsible for some of the distinct guitar tones on Prince’s first six albums. Other high-profile guitars included a custom Schecter Habibe, his custom Cloud made by David Rusan, a custom-painted Vox HDC-77, an Ibanez George Benson model, a Taylor 612CE Custom, and a Fender SSH Strat with a Floyd Rose vibrato.
Prince integrated his love of jazz on albums like The Rainbow Children and Musicology, and later returned to his rock roots with his all-female backed 3rdEyeGirl album Plectrumelectrum. His final albums, HitnRun Phase One and HitnRun Phase Two, saw him a return to his patented funk and soul stylings, bringing him full circle.
Disciples will remember him as a musical genius and philanthropist who donated millions of dollars to a number of humanitarian causes. He paid James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield’s medical bills when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
Casual fans may not be aware of his altruism, but are very aware of his inspired guitar solo during the tribute to George Harrison at 2004’s Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction. His performance at the 2007 Super Bowl is arguably the best Bowl half-time performance in history, and introduced him to a new generation of fans.
One of the greatest performing artists in music history, his only goal was to make good art. He was a bonafide crooner in the ’60s soul tradition, and expertly integrated dance steps into his performance. He maintained a distinctive band sound and understood that mixing dissimilar genres could create a musical hybrid that brought people together.
When someone like Prince passes, we not only grieve for the person, but for that part of ourselves that will be lost forever. We grieve for the person we used to be, and the music that was playing at that point in our lives. He represented more than just music – he represented a culture. We’re lucky to have had him as long as we did.
This article originally appeared in VG August 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.