Photos: Gus Guitars
In 2007, Prince announced that he’d be in residence at London’s 02 Arena for 21 days to promote his Planet Earth album. It would be a monumental venture, with Prince playing to audiences of more than 350,000 people in August and September.
Around the same time, luthier Simon Farmer, owner of Gus Guitars in Heathfield, England, had started building a guitar he named a G1 Purple Special. It was the first “Special” in a line of color-themed variants.
“Everyone always told me it looked like the sort of guitar Prince would play,” Farmer said. “It is the embodiment of a showman such as Prince, who throws so much of his personality into every artistic endeavor.”
Farmer began to work on the Purple Special specifically for Prince. For three months, Farmer worked night and day on the guitar. “I did nothing else,” Farmer said. “I put all of my other work aside. I was like a man possessed trying to get it finished.”
With its unique teardrop-shaped body and compact, lightweight design, Farmer thought it would work for Prince. The guitar is very easy and comfortable to play, especially for smaller players. Farmer also wired the electrics specifically for Prince, making holographic carbon fiber inlays on the fretboard.
“As a guitar maker, it’s the stuff of dreams to make an instrument for someone famous,” Farmer said. “And it really doesn’t get any more famous than Prince, and it doesn’t get any better as a guitar player. Getting it to him was a long shot, but the thought of him playing my guitar was just so awesome that it drove me, inspired me. It was almost as if I had an epiphany to build this guitar.”
But the clock was ticking. Loudly. Farmer was intent on delivering the Purple Special to Prince. He finished the guitar in the middle of Prince’s London tour, but Farmer’s odds of delivering it to him were dwindling.
“I had a friend who worked with Prince in the Eighties, so that’s why I thought I’d be able to get the guitar to him,” Farmer said. “With Prince nearby in London, it seemed everything was aligned, but sadly, it wasn’t mean to be. We tried our best, but it was really hard to get in contact with him.”
Prince left London, never knowing the Purple Special existed. Time passed and the Purple Special was still orphaned in Farmer’s studio, but as word spread about his unique guitars, the world started taking notice.
In January 2008, Guitarist, a UK-based magazine, gave Farmer’s guitar positive reviews and Prince fans got behind it, sharing it on social media and various online fan forums. Among Prince’s super-fans, it became known as “the guitar Prince left behind.”
After Prince broke with Warner Brothers, he used the Internet to disperse his music and connect with fans. Around 2015, followers of Farmer’s Purple Special guitar began tweeting images of it to Prince’s Twitter site. And Prince noticed.
Fast forward to February 2016. Kirk Johnson, Prince’s friend, former drummer and estate manager at Paisley Park, emailed Farmer. ”Please contact me at your earliest convenience. We would like to discuss the purple guitar you have on the market.”
Farmer thought it was a joke. But, after more emails, Farmer realized this was it—the moment he’d dreamed of for the past nine years. Johnson arranged for a special courier to pick up the Purple Special from Farmer on March 8, 2016.
“That moment was surreal,” Farmer said. “All at once, I was nervous, excited and surprised. I had built the guitar nine years before, so I was used to seeing it in all its purple loneliness in my shop. When it was finally on its way to Prince, it was unbelievable.”
After the guitar arrived at Paisley Park, Farmer received positive feedback from Johnson. A few days later, Prince asked Farmer to build him a new bass guitar similar to the Purple Special. On April 16, 2016, just days before his death at Paisley Park, Prince introduced his new Purple Special guitar with almost giddy excitement during what turned out to be his final After Dark Party and last performance.
Five days later, Prince was gone. Farmer, shocked by the news of Prince’s death, received hundreds of emails from all over the world. More than a year later, Farmer said he’s still getting inquiries about Prince. Farmer pauses, then goes on, “You can’t comprehend genius like that. He just made his music so accessible and so cool and for my guitar to even play a small part, it was unimaginable.”
Paisley Park is displaying the Purple Special and highlighting the fact that it is the last guitar Prince received before passing away. And, as a way to honor him, Farmer is putting the finishing touches on the new bass Prince commissioned.
“If you can make a guitar feel ‘alive’ in a player’s hands, you will create an instrument that musicians have difficulty putting down,” Farmer said. “I hope he felt that in the Purple Special at least a little before he died. Because any guitar is just a guitar in the hands of someone that just can’t play. And Prince could play. There is no doubt about that.”