Guitar Aficionado

Prince's Guitars: Behind the Axes That Changed Funk, Pop & Rock

Like his music and his incredible life cut too short, Prince’s guitars were wild, weird, and wonderful.
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This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on virtuoso guitarist Paul Gilbert and his insatiable lust for guitars and passion for sharing his knowledge, the story behind Creedence Clearwater Revival’s breakthrough year, a visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and much more., and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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THE BEAUTIFUL ONES: Like his music and his incredible life cut too short, Prince’s guitars were wild, weird, and wonderful.

By Alan di Perna | Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images

“I always wanted to be thought of as a guitarist,” Prince told me in 1994. “But you have a hit, and you know what happens next.”

In the weeks and months since the passing of Prince Rogers Nelson on April 21st of this year, countless commentators have analyzed his rich musical legacy from various perspectives. Journalists have riffed on Prince’s in-your-face sexuality, his fluid sense of gender identity, his race, his bold fusion of multiple musical genres, and his larger-than-life role in the pop culture zeitgeist of the Eighties and beyond. All these approaches have been useful in shedding light on a complex and prodigious talent.

But a topic that might have been far closer to the late artist’s heart is the guitar and his role in American vernacular music’s vast tradition of guitar-wielding frontmen. Yes, the guitar was just one of 27 or so instruments that Prince played. But it was an instrument that occupied a central place in his music—a vital thread that runs through all the myriad stylistic shifts that defined a career spanning some 40 years.

Synth-pop hits like “Call Me” by Blondie, “Cars” by Gary Numan, and “Funky Town” by Lipps, Inc. dominated the charts in 1980 when Prince broke through with his Platinum-selling debut album, featuring the single “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and his follow-up album, Dirty Mind, released later that year. His guitar-driven music, based around tight grooves and dazzling showmanship, helped the guitar maintain a dominant role in funk, R&B, and pop during that period. Unlike the work of Talking Heads, Devo, or many other Eighties artists, there was nothing “deconstructed” or “ironic” in Prince’s musical approach. Perhaps this is why he appealed to a much wider audience.

Prince’s guitar playing was hot enough to inspire comparisons with Jimi Hendrix as well. He was a boldly original stylist and, like Hendrix, had a knack for fusing influences already in the air—R&B, hard rock, new wave, and dance music—in new and exciting ways. And he was certainly highly original in his choice of guitars.

Early in his career, Prince became attached to a fairly inexpensive Japanese Telecaster copy—the Hohner MadCat. He purchased the Hohner from Knut Koupee Music in Minneapolis in 1980, and it remained his main ax throughout his entire career, even well after he’d made enough money to fill a room with vintage Fender Teles. The MadCat’s maple body has a shape identical to a Fender Tele body, but it has a thin strip of walnut running down the center, joining the two blocks of maple that make up the main body. The bridge is more like a Strat bridge than a Telecaster bridge, which contributes to the MadCat’s slightly different tonality.

Prince loved the guitar so much that in 1984 he commissioned New York luthier Roger Sadowsky to make him two replicas of it. “The only thing that was at all different,” Sadowsky says, “was that the top was flame maple with a hand-finished strip of walnut as the centerpiece.”

Sadowsky’s next commissioned work for Prince was a little more bizarre. Prince asked him to make two more Hohner Tele copies with an added feature: The guitars had to be working versions of a prop guitar that appears to ejaculate out of the headstock, which Prince used in in his film Purple Rain. Actually the white substance it spewed was Ivory dishwashing liquid, released by a valve fit into a cavity that was routed into the back of the prop guitar’s body. All Sadowsky had to do was create two fully playable MadCats that could also cum on command.

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“We ran copper tubing inside the neck, alongside of the truss rod, that terminated right at the tip of the headstock,” Sadowsky explains. “The tubing extended into the body, where we routed a cavity where they could retrofit their valve mechanism. And it had an extra hole in the side for the pressurized hose to come into that cavity and connect to the valve.”

With all the guitars Sadowsky made for Prince, his actual interaction with the artist was minimal. This was a fairly typical situation with the eccentric superstar. Sadowsky remembers a meeting during rehearsals at an arena in Minneapolis.”

“I had some questions about the neck profile,” he recalls. “Prince was standing about 15 feet away, literally, with one of his bodyguards. I would ask a question, and Prince would whisper the answer to his bodyguard. The bodyguard would then walk over to me and tell me what Prince had said. That was exactly the extent of the communication.”

It’s not that Prince didn’t like Sadowsky—he later commissioned the luthier to build two more Tele-style guitars with floral designs (as shown on this page) on the body and fingerboard. The indirect-communication tactics were just part of the mystique he cultivated.

“He only wanted to go through a couple of key people in his organization,” says Zeke Clark, Prince’s mid-Nineties guitar tech. “If you were one of those people, you then had to deliver his message to everyone concerned. Sometimes people would say, ‘Shit, why can’t he just take this call himself? He’s the one who’s going to make the decision.’ But he liked that sensibility of not being able to be reached quite so easily.”

Prince soon moved to more original and unique custom designs. He had a working relationship with Dave Rusan from Knut Koupee that went back to Prince’s pre-fame teen years, and eventually Prince hired Rusan to build custom guitars.

“Prince was still in high school when I first met him,” Rusan recalls. “He had a big Afro, and he’d often come in to the store to try stuff. You could tell he was a virtuoso already, and he was only 18.”

In 1983, while Prince was preparing to make his breakthrough film, Purple Rain, he commissioned Rusan to build him a wild new guitar that would be prominently featured in the film. It became known as the Cloud guitar, one of Prince’s most iconic instruments. The design was loosely based on a bass built by Sardonyx luthier Jeff Levin that Prince had bought at Matt Umanov’s guitar shop in New York. The unique body shape is notable for its dramatically extended upper horn, terminating in a fanciful, hand-carved scroll that’s somewhat reminiscent of the Memphis style of furniture design in vogue at the time. The horn also seems an ideal visual analog for Prince’s androgynous image. It’s phallic, yet feminine.

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A neck-through-body instrument fashioned from hard rock maple, the Cloud guitar (as shown on this page) is equipped with gold-plated hardware and EMG pickups, all in accordance with Prince’s specifications. As was Sadowsky’s experience, Rusan had minimal one-on-one contact with his elusive client during the making of the guitar. But Prince was apparently very pleased with the end result.

“We thought it was a guitar he was just going to use for the movie,” Rusan recalls, “but then he started using it in live shows and he commissioned two more. All the ones I built for him were white, but they later were repainted in other colors.”

Another 18 Cloud guitar replicas were subsequently made for Prince by Andy Beech and Zeke Clark. Beech did the woodwork, and Clark installed the electronics. It would become fairly standard practice for Prince to commission multiple copies of much-loved guitars. He played the instruments so aggressively onstage that he would wear them out. Also many were damaged onstage when he’d toss them in the air and let them crash to the ground. This became a sore point for Clark, given his role in making many of the replicas Prince played.

“I actually said to him, ‘Hey, fella, a lot of love and work went into putting these together for you,’” Clark recalls. “‘I think it’s a little disrespectful that you just take it and toss it over your head.’ And he said, ‘Hey, Zeke, I understand where you’re coming from. But that’s me.’”

Like any successful guitarist, Prince amassed an impressive arsenal of working guitars—the usual array of vintage Les Pauls, Strats, and Epiphones, as well as a selection of Gibson, Guild, Takamine, and Taylor acoustics. Prince notably helped Taylor Guitars gain attention when his custom purple Taylor Artist Series guitar prominently appeared in the hands of Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin in his “Raspberry Beret” video in 1985. Prince also owned a custom-made electric sitar, and very early in his career he commissioned Knut Koupee to embed flashing LEDs along the body perimeter of a Gibson L6S that was his main guitar before he acquired the Hohner. According to Clark, Prince owned “anywhere between 60 and 70 guitars, including in his home, Paisley Park, various studios, and guitars on display at his Glam Slam clubs…���

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This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on virtuoso guitarist Paul Gilbert and his insatiable lust for guitars and passion for sharing his knowledge, the story behind Creedence Clearwater Revival’s breakthrough year, a visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and much more., and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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