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Five reasons Prince was a guitar legend

by Cory Wong

April 20, 2017

Prince has been called one of the greatest guitar players of all time — even the greatest. Yet, oddly enough, it seems like he’s been on fewer guitar magazine covers than Dave Mustaine, Billie Joe Armstrong, and Mark Tremonti (no disrespect). So much of what people focused on was the mystique of Prince as a performer, singer, and fashion icon, but so much can be learned from him as a guitar player. This playlist showcases his ridiculously funky guitar comping as well as his incredible lead playing. Although there are plenty to choose from, here are five of my favorite Prince guitar moments.

Fender Telecaster D.I. into an SSL console. On the first several records, his rhythm tone was defined by just plugging right into the console and not using an amp. The standard for most electric guitar players is to play everything through an amp, but Prince played his rhythm parts direct into the console which gave it a certain type of cut and exposure. It feels pure and downright FONKY. Guitar culture is driven by gear, and nobody loves to hide behind gear more than guitar players; but Prince went ahead and proved that none of that is necessary if you’ve got the raw talent.

"Computer Blue." This song has such a clear view of what “futuristic” sounded like in the '80s, and it’s amazing. The song could be broken up into two different “movements,” each with a guitar solo. The first solo has a great 16th note chromatic motif that is dissonant but still feels like a hook which is not an easy thing to do. The second guitar solo is a written out hook that gets doubled with the piano but slips in and out of some improvised lines. This shows his maturity as a musician with real intent to his compositions and guitar playing, which is a common theme in Prince’s music. At the very end of his life he got even more intense in the arrangement and orchestration of his guitar solos. He would track these epic solos, then Michael Nelson would arrange orchestra parts to enhance them, and often double them, to give it a larger than life feel.

Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a solo that surprised a lot of people. It feels like a classic Prince moment to anyone who knew about him as a guitar player, but there was a large portion of the audience who had no idea that Prince could shred so hard. I think that goes for some of the musicians on stage too. I heard from some of his friends that were playing in his band at the time that he was pissed about being snubbed by one of those “top 100 guitar player” lists that came out a couple weeks before that show. I don’t know if it was Rolling Stone or one of the guitar magazines, but he wasn’t on the list. He’s Prince; he doesn’t need to prove anything, but he sure made his presence known that night.

LOtUSFLOW3R. This record may not be his most critically acclaimed (judging by the fact that I found it for $3.99 at Target back when they sold CD’s) but it has some incredible guitar playing. It just has a fun kind of reckless abandon to it. There’s a lot of playing that feels like off the cuff jam sessions but also some really thought out targets that he was shooting at.

The obvious finale when talking about Prince’s guitar solos is his solo on “Purple Rain.” It’s arguably his most iconic solo and immediately recognizable as an integral part of the song, which is a testament to the solo itself. When you break it down, it’s basically several rounds through a four-bar chord progression. The first round starts out with screaming sustains that bring the aching feeling of the song to life. The bending of those high notes physically puts so much more tension and energy in the string. That, combined with the heavy overdrive, brings out the sound of raw emotion that continues into the second round of the progression. The third round starts to bring in fast melodic flurries and ends with a signature unison walkdown. At the fourth round through the solo, he starts the iconic melodic guitar line that puts more hands in the air than a Michael W. Smith concert. The fifth round continues the line and then he vocally takes over. As the song finishes out, he brings the guitar solo melody back in epic fashion. It continues to empty out while he goes back and forth between singing and crying out on the guitar, even singing part of the guitar solo as it comes to a close. From a guitar standpoint this is, for the most part, not a technically challenging or shredding solo; it’s the emotion and energy of it that is so inspiring.

My intent here is simply to shed some light on how Prince’s guitar playing was not only incredible on its own but how essential his guitar ideas were to his songs. Whether you study his solos or his iconic rhythm playing, you will find that not only was his voice deeply unique, but composed, forward thinking and masterful. Prince wasn’t just about shredding your face off but serving the song and performance with his guitar playing. I believe that Prince will continue to cement his legacy as not just a guitar god but also a composer and visionary.

Hear these songs and more in a special hour dedicated to Prince's guitar fireworks on The Current at 10 a.m. on Friday, April 21; and again at 3 a.m. on Saturday, April 22.

Cory Wong is a guitarist/producer based out of the Twin Cities who plays with Vulfpeck and Ben Rector.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.