I’ve just started reading a book about the making of Purple Rain (the movie and album) – and I mean just started. I’m only a handful of pages in. The author is gushing about Prince’s guitar playing. I can tell it’s gonna be a good book. But I have this thought – geez, Prince could be on that list, he could be considered the Best Guitarist in The World. If he wanted to…
In the Purple Rain book the writer is excited about hearing those first screams of guitar on that album – saying that it was the real start of Prince being noticed as a guitar player. He was good already, sure, fans knew he played – and could really play pretty good. But on the Purple Rain album he’s all fired up in the finale to opening cut, Let’s Go Crazy. All but shredding. And then the intro to When Doves Cry. And of course the onanistic wailing of the Purple Rain solo. Majestic. This album is probably when Prince The Guitarist arrives. And we’ve been hearing from him ever since. In fact in Prince’s current guise it’s all about the guitar – once again. He’s a rocker. Once again.
But the hints were always there.
And what I realise – thinking about it now – is that what makes Prince a Best Guitarist candidate is the fact that he does it so well while doing almost everything else. And – let’s ignore the 20 years of albums that appeal only to us mouth-breathing obsessives, that first decade of his work speaks for itself. There are more ideas in there than most other musicians will manage in a lifetime or two. And shit there’s some great guitar playing too. Almost it’s an afterthought. A sort of nonchalant ‘oh yeah, I can do that too…’
So, okay, Prince isn’t actually The Best Guitarist in The World. But he is most likely the Best Guitarist in The World Who Can Also Sing Like That. And Dance Like That. And Arrange and Produce Like That. And Play Pretty Much Everything Else. Like That. And Own The Stage Like That. And Write That Many Perfect Pop Songs. Like The Way He Did.
That’s why he is worth a mention.
There’s that clip of him – people pull it up on YouTube all the time. It’s where they’re at a tribute to George Harrison, and it’s an all-star line-up, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne and George’s son and so on. And they’re doing While My Guitar Gently Weeps. And what is so cool about the way Prince just owns it – just steps up and nails the solo and then bails – is the nonchalance. That and the element of surprise. (Always among the chief weapons, right?) Prince is a guitar-player through and through and yet you never quite know it. It’s almost as if he doesn’t quite know it. Or believe it. Or he at least knows he might well have something else to do – and lucky for him (and for his listeners) there’s every chance he’ll do it nearly as well.
For all the big, big hits there are songs like The Question of U and Computer Blue where that guitar is popping off. Huge and beautiful and clever. Expressive as well as explosive.
Prince knows oily riffs and squelchy-squall solos, he can peel out those notes. But what I love most about his guitar playing – and you’ll notice this the deeper you go, it’s there so fluidly on his most underrated/maligned/misunderstood album, The Rainbow Children – he knows how to play with space. Using space. Leaving space. You can hear that he spent so much time listening to Carlos Santana, a joke and a footnote a lot of the time these days, but in those magical moments that Santana had (1969-1977) there’s a tremendous use of space for lead guitar finding its place, and then nestling in and around electric piano and percussion. Prince has heard those records and soaked them up. He’s got the jazzy phrasing of the guitarists he heard on Joni Mitchell records and Steely Dan albums. And you know he was digging on Catfish Collins and Eddie Hazel. That Maggot Brain-scramble is there in Prince’s playing too. So obvious.
The player I think of most often though, and Prince has Cornell Dupree-like taste as a rhythm player too by the way, is Frank Zappa. Prince and Frank Zappa might not share many comparisons – beyond being singular talents, knowing their own vision and being dogmatic, driving a band hard…hang on, come to think about it a case can be made, there are a few comparisons…but I would always hear a Zappa-like quality in Prince’s guitar playing. That quality of space, one again. And of seizing the moment. Knowing the time to really shine.
Zappa played second fiddle to so many great players – Prince’s guitar is often the second fiddle to whatever else is going on in his song. Like Prince, Zappa was expressive whenever he was explosive on the guitar – and you get that feeling, with both, they could have been even better if it were their prime focus.
Okay, maybe you can say that of a great many musicians.
But you can spot Prince’s guitar playing in any line-up.
Not bad for a pop-star, huh?
This was originally published as part of a series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page.