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Donna Grantis Rocks Prince, 3rdEyeGirl, and the New Power Generation

June 24, 2014
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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 guitar style?

I would say Prince, Hendrix, Jimmy Page, John Scofield, and Jeff Beck.

How does your PRS CE 22 fit into your stylistic journey?

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 performance.

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 improvisation?

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 with it.

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 now [laughs].

Can you specify a lick you’d grab from Hannah?

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 high standards.

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 way up.

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.

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