Badass. That’s all I have to say. Actually, there
is more to reveal, because Donna Grantis didn’t just fall out
of the sky. She made the semi-finals in the North American
Jimi Hendrix Electric Guitar Competition at 17 years old, and
played “Red House” in front of Jimi’s dad, Al. Not bad for her
debut performance out in public. Then, she got a scholarship
and a Jazz Performance degree from McGill University in Montreal—a very long road from first teaching herself Zeppelin and
AC/DC tunes on her brother’s acoustic guitar when she was
a child. After graduation, she moved to Toronto to become an
in-demand session musician, tour the world with various acts,
and front the extremely heavy Donna Grantis Electric Band (the
group’s debut, Suites, was released in 2012).
Then, came Prince. Well, not exactly. Prince had delegated the
search for a new guitarist to drummer Hannah “Ford” Welton
and her husband. The duo found Grantis on the web, loved her
look and playing, and, soon, she was invited to join 3rdEyeGirl along with Welton, the Purple One himself, and bassist Ida
Neilsen. But that isn’t all that happened inside Prince’s Paisley
Park complex. Grantis also got dragged into the mammoth
big band that is the New Power Generation. She continues to
perform with Prince in two of the sexiest, funkiest, and most
exciting bands in the world.
So, back to that first word. It’s probably nice to peruse a bit
of Grantis’ biography, but all you really need to know is that she
is a badass. Her tones, attack, phrasing, melodic ideas, improvs,
grooves, and solos are as terrifyingly on point as a laser-guided
drone, and everything is delivered with the unselfconscious
swagger that identifies a musician truly in the moment. Too much? Well, consider this: Prince choose
Grantis as his co-guitarist, and that man is
also one hell of a badass.
What influences most informed your current
I would say Prince, Hendrix, Jimmy Page,
John Scofield, and Jeff Beck.
How does your PRS CE 22 fit into your
I felt like Strats and Les Pauls have really
distinct sounds, whereas I was attracted to
the uniqueness of the PRS. I felt like the
sound was a bit more transparent, and, as a
result, I could really craft my own voice on
it. The CE 22 has been my main ax since
’98. It’s strung with a D’Addario EXL 115
set, gauged .011-.049.
Speaking of unique, your 3rdEyeGirl
backline is kind of unusual.
You mean, all the vintage Traynor heads
and eight Traynor YBX212 vertical cabs? I
wanted something unique. I’m not attracted to
really high-gain sounds. I’m drawn to a dark,
fat sound with a lot of sustain and expression.
When I hit the guitar hard, I want to
hear the amp break up a bit, and when I play
something soft, I want it to ring out in a really
clear way. I also like an amp to have a really
amazing clean tone, so I can use my pedals to
color the sound. I had tried out some hand-wired
Traynor Bass Master heads from the
’70s, and I decided they were the foundation
for the vintage tone I wanted. But then, I had
the Traynors modded by Pat Ferlin—he’s kind
of a tone guru back home in Toronto—and
we went back and forth a number of times to
find the perfect sound. Now, I play through a
combination of Pat’s modded vintage Traynors
and some new Traynor YBA-1 reissues.
Your pedalboard—or should I say “pedalboards”—
isn’t exactly compact, either.
[Laughs.] I actually had a pretty small
pedalboard before I joined 3rdEyeGirl, but
now I need upwards of 20 pedals to have all
of my bases covered, and I actually use every
single one of them. We do a ton of improvising
in this group, and I love having all of
my rock, funk, jazz, and fusion sounds available
onstage with me.
Does the band employ preplanned improvisational
sections, or does Prince just
look at you and say, “Go for it”?
It’s a little bit of both. There are parts
of the set arrangements that we know are
areas where we can really open things up and
improvise. But, then again, Prince can call
a drum solo, a bass solo, or a guitar solo at
any moment. Sometimes, he’ll just hand his
solo off to me in mid performance, and I have
to take it over. That’s what’s really exciting
about Prince as a bandleader—he’s always
challenging us, and we have to be ready.
Obviously, being tossed into the unknown
doesn’t bother you, or affect your
Improvising is one of my favorite things
to do. It’s like, “This is what I’ve been waiting
for, now jump in and go for it!” It keeps
things fun playing songs in different ways
each night. I also think the audience picks up
on that, and it’s exciting for them, as well. I
certainly know that we’re up there onstage
wondering what’s going to happen next! But
it’s that sort of intensity and energy that creates
really magical musical moments.
You don’t have any comfort-zone licks
that you test the waters with, so to speak,
before opening yourself up completely to
I never got into memorizing stock licks
to insert into different chord progressions,
if that’s what you mean. What I’ve learned
from players such as John Scofield, Bill Frisell,
Wes Montgomery, and Kenny Burrell—as
well as Prince—is that you build on ideas.
Part of my job in the band is to constantly
try out new soloing concepts—otherwise
your playing can get stale and boring. The
magic is taking a theme or an idea and running
How do you set up your “subconscious”
soloing ideas for when you hit the stage?
I practice regularly, of course, and I also
transcribe other people’s solos, because
there’s so much to learn from doing that.
Listening to tons of melodies helps, as well.
Then, there are little things like listening to
what the drummer or bass player is doing
so you can steal licks or develop lines from
their parts. Hannah and Ida influence me
all the time. It’s cool because we push each
other and inspire each other. I think we’re
each other’s biggest musical influences
Can you specify a lick you’d grab from
Well, she has an amazing groove, and that
makes it easy for me to play with accents and
feels. I’ll do little exercises, such as playing
on top of the beat, or playing right in the
center of it, or playing a little bit behind it. I like to experiment with different feels, so
that the two of us can easily switch ourselves
into a deeper pocket.
I don’t think I’ve talked to a guitarist in
a couple of years who has explicitly discussed
shifting rhythmic emphasis.
But that’s so important if you want to
create amazing grooves. And, listen, there’s
also the fact that Prince is an absolute rhythm
master. He’s just unbelievable. His sixteenth-note
strumming patterns are incredibly precise.
We are always aspiring to lock in with
each other and hopefully reach Prince’s very
It must be awesome and terrifying to
play music with someone who maintains
such stratospheric quality standards.
Does he attend every rehearsal?
He’s really hands-on. I mean, we do a
lot of playing as a trio with just Hannah,
Ida, and myself, but we also do a lot of
jamming with him. He’s a master arranger,
so whenever we are working on the live
version of a song, he’s always with us. He
really brings out the best in everybody. He
pushes us to bring our level of musicianship
What aspect of your playing has charted
the most growth since joining up with
Prince and 3rdEyeGirl?
I think it would be my funk rhythm playing,
because I’m also playing in the New Power Generation—a 20-piece band with
horns playing Prince’s classic hits and funk
tunes. Between 3rdEyeGirl and NPG, that’s
a lot of going to school to learn grooves.
The other thing is that I learned to cover big
instrumental arrangements with far fewer
instruments. For example, 3rdEyeGirl has
to take some songs that were pretty heavily
produced, strip them down to a four-piece
live group, and perform them in a way that
sounds huge with just four people. I often
have to figure out how to play a combination
of keyboards and horn melodies on the
guitar. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but
we always seem to nail it.
Two bands! Both Prince’s? Do you have to
learn like 7,000 songs? Are you crazy?
I don’t know. But I have lost count of the
songs we’ve learned—it’s in the hundreds.
Some we’ve performed, and some we haven’t yet. Learning new songs and arrangements
is just a constant thing we do.
Do you get chord charts or lead sheets
when these songs are rehearsed?
There are no charts except for the ones
that we write out ourselves. These are only
used in rehearsals for notes. We don’t perform
onstage with charts, of course. As a learning
tool, the personal charts are really helpful—
especially as Prince has such an enormous
catalog of music.
Do you ever get stumped when he calls
out a song?
We play so much that we’re ready for
whatever he’s going to call. Sometimes, we’ll
get messages: “Learn those new tunes and
run them at soundcheck. Sometimes, he’ll
be onstage and start something we’ve never
rehearsed. It’s just a new jam. We just go
with it. It’s fun.