10 Ways to Play Guitar Like Prince

April 22, 2016


EVEN IF HE HAD NEVER touched a guitar, singer, multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, actor, and all-around international sensation Prince would have still been a musical force to be reckoned with.
Initially influenced by, and now counted equally among one-man orchestras, visionary composers, and musical cognoscenti such as Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Todd Rundgren, and Joni Mitchell, as well as soul and R&B juggernauts like James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Larry Graham, and the Jack- son 5, Prince was recording one-man solo albums by the time he was 20. History already credits him with the invention of the Minneapolis sound and the restoration of funk to its rightful throne during the post-disco late ’70s and early 1980s. Add to this a hit movie and three more decades of self-produced recordings and you’ve got one of the biggest empires in the music business owned and run by an Artist 100% in control of his own work. And he also happens to play amazing guitar.
From his 1978 debut For You, to his most recent 20Ten, Prince has blazed new trails with some of the rockingest, funkiest, and most adventurous 6-string excursions ever to go down on record. Spin any of his 35 discs from beginning to end (the way you’re supposed to listen to a record) and you’re in for a trip through a truly diverse soundscape of guitar styles and tones, from subtle to in-your-face. While too numerous to cover in full, an abridged cross-section of Prince’s unique guitar stylings would range from sensuous, electric R&B ballads (“Crazy You” from For You, “Sea of Everything,” from 20Ten, “Purple Rain”), chicken-greased funk (“Sexy Dancer” from Prince, Party Up” from Dirty Mind, “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” from Sign o’ the Times, “We Gets Up” from Emancipation, “Mr. Pretty Man” from Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic), and infectious dance pop (“1999” and “Little Red Corvette” from 1999, “Let’s Go Crazy” from Purple Rain), to guitar-centric, Utopian rock and roll (“Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” and “Bambi” from Prince; “I Would Die 4 U” from Purple Rain, “Anna Stasia” and “I Wish U Heaven” from LoveSexy, “A Million Days” from Musicology), forays into Beck/Hendrix territory (“Bob George” from The Black Album), Return-to-Forever-tinged jazz-rock fusion (most of The Rainbow Children and N.E.W.S.), experimental soundscapes that would make Adrian Belew’s elephants envious (“Computer Blue,” from Purple Rain; “Play in the Sunshine,” from Sign o’ the Times), and even an early homage to Jaco and Joni (“So Blue,” from For You). The list goes on and on.
While Prince notoriously avoids gear talk, for his 2004 live rig he still favored a few key axes, including his iconic ’70s Hohner Tele-style solidbody, a custom Schecter named “Habibe,” a Schecter-made replica of his original “Cloud” guitar built by David Rusan, an Ibanez George Benson model, and a Fender Stratocaster fitted with a bridge humbucker and Floyd Rose tremolo, plus a pedalboard loaded with a half-dozen Boss stompboxes, a Dunlop CryBaby wah, and a Dunlop Rotovibe, all run into Mesa/Boogie Heartbreaker amps feeding Recto 2x12 cabs. (See GP 1/00 for details on Prince’s rig ca. 2000.)
During a rare interview with GP in the July, 2004 issue, Prince laid his feelings about the state-of-the-guitar on the line, and his point still resonates today: “Kids don’t learn to play the right way anymore. When the Jackson 5 came up, they had to go through Smokey Robinson and the Funk Brothers, and that’s how they got it down. I want to be able to teach that stuff, because kids need to learn these things, and nobody is teaching them the basics. See, a lot of cats don’t work on their rhythm enough, and if you don’t have rhythm, you might as well take up needlepoint or something. I can’t stress it enough. The next thing is pitch. That’s universal. You’re either in tune or you ain’t. When you get these things down, then you can learn how to solo.” U heard the man. So let’s get to it.
While we’re awaiting a Prince Master Class, let’s get a thorough mental and physical grasp on exactly where each sixteenthnote— the basic rhythmic division for most funk grooves—lives within a single beat.

Ex.1a presents for your strumming pleasure a dozen equivocal and multi-functional Prince-approved chord voicings grouped into six pairs.
Ex. 1a
Get to know them, and then choose one (or any single note, for that matter) and, at a comfortable tempo, apply it to Ex.1b to confirm each sixteenth-note’s rightful place in the groove. Observe how the silent alternate picking motion on beat two keeps you in sync with the tempo. This and the following rhythmic examples have been notated in 2/4 to conserve space, and I recommend the following practice regimen to reveal each motif’s full potential. First, play each 2/4 example followed by two beats of rest. Next, play each example twice as written (with repeat) to create a full measure of 4/4 with each motif occurring on beats one and three.
Examples 1b-1f
Finally, reverse the rhythm in each 4/4 bar in retrograde so the motifs shift to beats two and four. (Tip: Try playing each example using swing sixteenths at 85-100 bpm.) You can also combine both of these approaches and play each motif on all four beats, but some may get too busy. Remember, funk is about the space between notes as much as the notes themselves. Follow the same drill with Examples 1c through 1f, which isolate the first, second, third, and fourth sixteenths respectively, and play ’em ’til U own ’em. As simple as these rhythms might seem, your goal should be internalizing and learning to relate them to and recognize them in daily activities, such as walking, talking, dialing, or texting, as well as in the sounds around you produced by both humans and nature. Believe me, the funk is everywhere!
Examples 2a through 2f double our pleasure with two accented sixteenth-notes per beat, and cover all of their possible rhythmic combinations within a single beat. Even with just two notes per bar, you’ll surely recognize several of these as classic funk rhythms (Examples 2a, 2c, and 2e, in particular). Follow the previous drill to discover how each motif behaves on different beats.
Examples 2a-2f
Be sure to spend however long it takes—hours, days, weeks, or even months—to drill these rhythms into your head, hands, and heart. Now...
Examples 3a through 3d introduce a threesome of sweet sixteenths to the party, and they’re anxious to show off their four permutations suitable for any given beat. (Tip: Ex. 3b is particularly seductive.)
Examples 3a-3d
Once again, follow the previous drill and you’ll be rewarded with a dozen funky rhythms, many of which you may already recognize. Master these important building blocks and you’re ready to move on to some real funk-a-teering.
As crucial to any funk rhythm figure as what notes and rhythms you play is how you play them, and there are three basic funk attacks: the chika, the chank, and the choke. (Tip: See Jude Gold’s lesson with long-time Prince guitarist Mike Scott in the May, 2007 issue of GP for details and origins.) The onomatopoeic chika, where every sixteenth-note not played is articulated with a muted-string “chik” is accomplished via fret-hand muting, be it a single note, diad, or chord. The staccato chank effect is accomplished by quickly releasing a chord with the fret hand immediately after it is struck. Mute, or “chik” on all six strings (the “chika” effect involves two notes) and establish the stream of uninterrupted sixteenth-notes in Ex.4a, and then articulate the sparse rhythm integrated into Ex.4b with either chords or choked single notes, as shown. Choked single-note lines generally involve heavily strumming all six strings while the fret-hand and/or thumb mutes everything except the note being played, and should be used when you want to really want to attack a part with a lot of muscle. Ex.4c illustrates the chank with choppy F7 chords played and quickly released on the notated sixteenth-note rhythm, which is itself a composite of Ex. 1b in retrograde paired with Ex. 3b. (Tip: Try the F7 voicing from the second pairing in Ex. 1.)
Examples 4a-4c
Ex.4d shows one more attack utilizing a trademark stacked-fourths Prince voicing (also found in the Average White Band’s “Pick up the Pieces”) that could be construed as either an Fm7add4 (or Fm11) I-minor chord, or a C7#9sus4 (or Cm11) dominant V chord, depending on the bass note it’s played over.
Ex. 4d
This loose-limbed, ring-y strum encompasses every sixteenth-note in the measure, and may be accented liberally, as in bar 1, or less so and embellished with a characteristic half-step rhythmic slide, as in bar 2. Once you’ve got these attacks wired, apply them to your favorite rhythms from Examples 1, 2, and 3. When you absolutely own every one of them, the key to the castle of funkdom is to...
Now that you’ve acquired the proper tools to craft endless funk figures of your own design, it’s time to assemble these discrete one-, two-, three-, and four-note sixteenth groupings into funky-ass rhythm guitar parts that make you wanna shake your booty! Many of Prince’s funk rhythm figures commonly encompass two bars and impart call-and-response phrasing within this time frame. Witness the familiar figure that emerges in Ex 5a when we add a second measure (consisting of Ex.2a and Ex.3b in retrograde) along with a second chord (F7sus4) to the F7 motif from Ex.4c. Get the idea? Keep it clean by chanking as written, or add chikas at will.
Ex. 5a
Ex.5b shows a two-bar single-note D7-based figure ideal for choking. (Tip: Try playing the last three notes in bar 2 as staccato eighths.)
Ex. 5b
Ex. 5c is a good example of funky call-and-response phrasing, and features an upper-register F#m7 move in bar 1 (that’d be Ex.3c’s rhythm in reverse) answered in bar 2 with a less accented F#m6-based lick (comprised of the rhythms from Examples 2b and 1b) played an octave lower.
Ex. 5c
A slow, smoky, funk groove frames the contrasting skittery funk figure notated in Ex. 5d, which uses a single upper-register Bm13 voicing, plus its lower chromatic neighbor. Don’t let those thirty-second notes throw you.
Ex. 5d
Double the tempo and duration of each chord (and rest), and you’ll see that this is simply a half-timed combination of the rhythms from Examples 3b, 1e, and 2b, respectively. Now that you’ve got a set of blueprints, let’s...
You’ll find dozens of two-guitar funk rhythm figures that run tighter than a Swiss watch throughout Prince’s catalog. These figures often overlap or share one rhythmic part, and then break off into opposing counterlines and counter-rhythms. This whole-is-funkier-than-the-sumof- its-parts approach is evident throughout Ex. 6a, where Gtr. 1’s choked, single-note B7-based octaves-and-b7 figure combines rhythms from Examples 1a, 2a, 2f, and 2d against Gtr. 2’s sparse chordal part, which is set to the rhythm of Ex. 1a and features the F#m6 voicing from Ex. 5c recast as B7.

 Ex. 6a


Ex. 6b, an A7-based two-parter, highlights the precise interplay between Gtr. 1’s sliding fourth intervals and Gtr. 2’s repetitive single-note riff (especially in bar 1) before both join in thirds harmony and rhythmic unison on beat three of bar 2.

Ex. 6b


Sometimes Prince sounds like two guitarists at once (or even a horn section), a good case in point being the F7-based vamp in Ex. 6c, which appends the spot-on parallel major-third slides in bar 1 with bursts of funky, James Brown-approved F6/9 or F9 chords in bar 2. Now it’s up 2 U 2 keep the funk alive.
Ex. 6c
As a soloist, Prince can unleash the fury along with the most furious shredders, but it’s something he usually keeps in check until just the right moment, and which often surfaces as a climactic flurry of sixteenth-note triplets featuring some exotic, chromatic note choices, such as those in the Dm lick in Ex.7a and the V-I (F-to- Bb) run in Ex.7b.
Ex. 7a
Ex. 7b
http://www.guitarplayer.com/uploadedImages/guitarplayer/NewProd.JesseEx8c.jpgPulling back slightly to straight sixteenths, a strategically placed rest early on in Ex.7c turns this hybrid E minor/major pentatonic run into a fusion-y Jan Hammer excursion.
http://www.guitarplayer.com/uploadedImages/guitarplayer/NewProd.JesseEx8d.jpgNext, a mix of sixteenth-note triplets, straight sixteenths, and thirty-second notes ups the rhythmic ante, while an E whole-half diminished scale provides exotic melodic fodder for the almost Zappa-esque E7#9 lick in Ex.7d.
http://www.guitarplayer.com/uploadedImages/guitarplayer/NewProd.JesseEx8e.jpgBut just when you think Prince may have taken it too far out, he’ll bring it home with something like Ex.7e, a greasy, E funk/blues ensemble lick guaranteed to make Larry Graham proud and Bootsy flash his pearly whites.Experiment and see how many different variations of these riffs you can come up with, because making it your own, as the Artist says, is where it’s at: “I don’t like to talk about gear because people will go out and buy that stuff thinking it’s going to make them sound like me, and that’s not where it’s at. Go get your own stuff and come up with your own sounds. If you need a path to follow, a good place to start is by listening to Ike Turner—he was as tight as they come— or James Brown, who is all about rhythm. Put any colors you’ve learned from Joni Mitchell on top of that and then you’ve got something.” So, what are U waiting 4? Add a little Prince to the equation and the rest is up 2 U!
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