“I love you, baby. But not like I love my guitar.” -Prince on “Guitar” from Planet Earth
In the previous installment of this column, we began to explore some of the many things that made Prince so great, starting with his uncommon drive and commitment to his craft. And, as I noted last time, such determination proved to be the perfect accompaniment to his immense talent and musicianship.
Quite frankly, I find it exceedingly difficult to talk about one without the other. That said, let’s talk for a minute about Prince, the guitarist. In 1994, Prince told Guitar World magazine, “I always wanted to be thought of as a guitarist. But you have a hit and you know what happens.”
About twenty years ago, Charles Smith (aka Chazz), Prince’s cousin and founder of their teenage band Grand Central, told me about his experience hanging out with Micki Free of both Shalamar and Crown of Thorns fame.
Free, who modeled much of his early image after Prince and ultimately became a guitar guru himself, informed Chazz that since Prince didn’t need to practice, he didn’t feel he had to either. Chazz replied by letting Free know he had it all wrong, “Prince practices all the time.”
The legendary Sonny Thompson, bassist for Prince’s New Power Generation from 1991 to 1996, shared a somewhat related story (at least in spirit) shortly after Prince’s passing.
Thompson, the multi-instrumentalist whose band The Family challenged both Grand Central and Flyte Tyme for supremacy on the local music scene back in the early to mid-1970s, was idolized by the adolescent Prince.
In return, Thompson’s admiration of Prince was evidenced in that same Guitar World story when he spoke reverently of Prince’s own guitar prowess. Long after his tenure with the NPG ended, Thompson was invited to play on Prince’s 2006 track “3121” and found himself in awe of how much better Prince had become on his signature instrument in the preceding decade.
Perhaps these two personal accounts demonstrate what the right mix of ability and ambition can do: give us someone like Prince. But then again, there’s never been anyone else like Prince. Which is why, for much of his career and seemingly to his own chagrin, he wasn’t always given the accolades that he was due as one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
The perception of Prince as a “guitar god,” began to change somewhat among many nonbelievers following his incendiary solo on George Harrison’s “My Guitar Gently Weeps” during the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Prince’s longtime guitar tech Takumi Suetsugu has noted that in the rehearsal to honor Harrison, Prince, although amazing as always, held something back.
That would no doubt explain the astonishing reaction from fellow Hall of Famers Steve Winwood, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne, along with Harrison’s son Dhani, as Prince and his iconic T-style Mad Cat guitar literally owned the stage that night. Prince had something to prove that evening, and man did he ever.
Yet again, beyond that night, there are dozens upon dozens of examples of Prince’s guitar genius both on record and on stage. I think that the only reason those are not more thought about is because, as we know, Prince could do it all.
Prince could sing, write, produce, arrange, and dance. He was a master on any instrument that he touched; piano, bass, organ, drums, keyboards, guitar, whatever. As a bandleader, he was akin to the likes of Little Richard and James Brown; or as Miles Davis might even say, legends such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk.
And, as a live performer (with the possible exception of Michael Jackson), it appears that the preponderance of music critics and his fellow artists across the generations agree that Prince, simply had no peer.
Prince was funk, soul, rock and roll, blues, jazz, hip hop, pop, alternative, house, and R&B. He could write folk, country, and during the early years, Prince even incorporated punk and new wave into his music. And, early songs like “I’m Yours” and “Bambi” (as well as a myriad of others throughout his career) proved that he could shred with the best heavy metal guitar virtuosos.
As a singer, Prince was famously known for his stunning falsetto. Yet a 1992 study revealed the Prince (at that time) had the widest vocal range in the history of recorded music, outdistancing Mariah Carey by two notes. A similar, more recent study suggested that both Carey and Axl Rose ultimately surpassed Prince’s range. Regardless, as one of less than a dozen or so singers with a range of five octaves, Prince is in rare company as a vocalist.
Moreover, the B6 note Prince hits on the song “God,” the b-side to “Purple Rain” secures his place as the male singer with the highest vocal range ever (third highest overall next to Carey and Christina Aguilera). I think Questlove may have said it best when he proclaimed, affectionately so, that “Prince is the boldest Black singer in postmodern music, hands down. His voice has multiple personalities, he’s fearless, and when he screams, he truly sounds like he’s crazy.”
Over the years, when asking a number of artists who they would consider the greatest musician of all time, the most common response was Prince. Malo Adams, who fronted the local front rock trio Tribe of Millions and was mentored by both Prince and André Cymone, said that the answer has to be Prince, noting that even if he wasn’t the “best” at anything, he was absolutely one of the best at everything. Who else could you say that about?
In the next edition of “Purple Music,” we will talk about Prince, the songwriter. And let me just leave you with this until next week: “How is it that Prince Rogers Nelson has, as of yet, not been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame?
Tony Kiene’s experience in the Twin Cities nonprofit and entertainment industries includes work with Minneapolis Urban League, Penumbra Theatre, Hallie Q. Brown, and Pepé Music.
He welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.