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Best of 2022: Prince Rogers Nelson was born on the 7th of June 1958 to a jazz pianist father and a jazz singer/social worker mother in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
While the elder Nelson encouraged his son’s musical interests and was optimistic that he would go on to have a successful musical career (even choosing his unusual first name in the hope it would help him stand out), nobody could have predicted the seismic impact Prince would wreak upon music and culture - both during his lifetime and beyond.
Known for his flamboyant, androgynous persona and talent for writing sexually charged hit singles, Prince also occupies a position in the relatively exclusive club of guitar gods whose appeal extends far beyond the realm of just guitar fans. In fact, his incendiary six-string prowess often ranks second or third on the long list of extraordinary talents the man possessed.
While many of his pop contemporaries embraced ‘80s instrumental staples like synths and drum machines at the expense of more traditional guitar-based badassery, Prince was remarkable for his ability to unite the two aesthetics with his visionary approaches to composition and production.
Between the 39 studio albums that were released in his lifetime, and the three that have been released posthumously, there’s an overwhelming number of tracks, licks, riffs and solos that deserve to be celebrated.
Before you have us thrown in a cell for heresy, let’s first address the fact that nothing from Prince’s career-defining masterpiece Purple Rain appears in this list.
Yes, the title track’s opening chord is a thing of mysterious beauty that has sustained arguments in guitar circles for decades, and its expressive solo is absolutely other worldly. Let’s Go Crazy is a guitar-stuffed slice of pure ‘80s exhilaration, and, frankly, it’s a crying shame that the ‘exploding head’ emoji (and indeed smartphones) hadn’t been invented when the octave pedal ravaged opening lick of When Doves Cry first hit the airwaves. The whole album is astonishing.
But it’s well-travelled ground and there are countless articles out there to champion Purple Rain’s chart-topping, Academy Award-winning brilliance.
So, in this by no means exhaustive list, we’ve decided to take a look at five slightly deeper cuts from elsewhere in His Royal Badness’s wildly diverse and prolifically inventive career. There are some absolute doozies, and if you find yourself in any way disappointed, we’ll happily eat our raspberry-hued hat.
1. I’m Yours – For You (1978)
While Prince’s 1978 debut record might not boast the most remarkable songwriting of his career, there are endless other reasons that might mean you have to scoop your jaw up off the floor and strap it securely back onto your face after listening to For You and learning a little about how it came to be.
Firstly, Prince was just a teenager living at home in Minneapolis when he landed a deal with Los Angeles-based Warner Bros. Records to cut the album. Not only that, but his proficiency and professionalism in the studio convinced the label’s head honchos that he was the right - and only - man for the job of producing the record. Add to this the fact that the multi-talented 19 year old wrote every song and played every single instrument - from acoustic and electric guitars to bass, piano, keys, synth, drums and percussion - and you have the makings of a truly remarkable artist.
Album closer, I’m Yours bookmarks just how shockingly good Prince’s guitar playing was, even during the earliest chapter of his career. For context, Van Halen’s self-titled debut had dropped just a couple of months earlier, with Eddie shaking up the notion of what unchecked creativity could look like on the fretboard. Packed with epic bends, stunning shreddy endurance runs and casual smatterings of contemporary techniques like pinched harmonics, the solo sections of ‘I’m Yours’ evidenced a startling realisation: this upstart kid from Minnesota could keep pace with America’s new six-string hero.
But Prince had no intention of being cast as a mono-dimensional guitar god. On ‘I’m Yours’, his flying rock n’ roll chops collide with a Funkadelic-style groove and silky falsetto vocals. It’s a confounding mix that demonstrated his desire to cross boundaries and reach both black and white audiences.
The band that was hired to perform the album live in January of 1979 (because even Prince couldn’t manage that superhuman feat on his own) reflected this too, with a line-up of black, white, male and female virtuoso musicians - a configuration partly inspired by late ‘60s integrated funk collective, Sly And The Family Stone.
2. Bambi - Prince (1979)
Funkier than Parliament and more metal than Sabbath, Bambi is another top notch example of Prince’s ability to bring disparate genres of the day crashing together with style and charisma.
The main power chord and triad-based riff is so densely enshrouded in lowdown and dirty definition-masking fuzz, that the accompanying lead lick shines through all the brighter above it the mix.
By the time the verse slinks into earshot, the rhythm guitar part has synchronised seamlessly with the underlying slap bass groove (also performed by Prince, naturally) to create a funk-metal fuzz-fest of seriously head-bob-inducing proportions.
The gear that Prince used on this album isn’t all that reliably well documented, but we do know that he had Mesa/Boogie Mark II in his arsenal that he used routinely for live shows from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s - so it’s reasonably safe to assume that he used it in the studio, too.
Featuring a five-band graphic EQ, unlike Marshall and Fender amps of the time, the Boogie would have afforded Prince lots of extra scope for accentuating or scooping out specific frequency ranges on different guitar tracks as he saw fit.
For the distortion, it’s thought that he probably just pushed the Boogie into overdrive, but - certainly later in his career - he also developed a fondness for the Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal, and an inexpensive effect like this will go a long way towards replicating the ‘Bambi’ sound. The rest, we’re sorry to report, comes direct from the fingers and the imagination.
Howling Hendrixian unison bends, gutsy rakes, warp-speed neck-slides and a squealing outro solo complete the rock n’ roll histrionics of this absolute firecracker of a track.
3. Alexa De Paris – from the film Under The Cherry Moon (B-side to Mountains) (1986)
After the rip-roaring success of the Purple Rain movie that was released in conjunction with the album in 1984, Prince again decided to try his hand at acting and composing for film with 1986’s Under The Cherry Moon. It also marked his directorial debut, and perhaps a venture into one creative discipline too far.
The black and white romantic musical/comedy/drama was a flop by all accounts, but buried in its soundtrack is the instrumental gem, Alexa De Paris, which was also released as a B-side to Parade single Mountains in the same year.
If you’ve never heard this track before (and, to be honest, there are lots of good reasons why you wouldn’t have), you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a lesser known Eric Johnson or Jeff Beck number – maybe even an instrumental Genesis tune or something from the mind of Mike Oldfield.
Backed by an orchestral arrangement provided by long-time collaborator Clare Fisher, Alexa De Paris has a symphonic rock quality, and although it revolves around a central melodic theme, it captures some gloriously freeform guitar explorations.
The medium-paced proggy adventure meanders through some exotic modes and a dramatic key change or two, while maintaining all the fun characteristics we know and love about Prince’s playing - such as casually deployed pinched harmonics and some jaw-droppingly speedy runs.
Alexa De Paris didn’t get all that many live airings, but when it did, guitarist Wendy Melvoin actually more commonly played the lead guitar part because the song would function as an instrumental interlude while Prince changed costumes.
4. U Got The Look (Long Look) – Ultimate (2006) / Sign O' The Times – Super Deluxe Reissue (2020)
The ‘Long Look’ version of U Got The Look is an expanded six and a half minute upgrade to the hit single/side three opener from Prince’s ninth studio album, 1987’s double disc electro-funk freak-out, Sign O’ The Times.
The main thrust of the track revolves around a chord progression as age-old as popular music itself: the 12-bar-blues. But Prince transforms it almost beyond recognition into a gyrating ‘80s pop banger - topped with all manner of squealy atonal suggestiveness to accentuate the overtly x-rated lyrical themes. (Yep, he really does rhyme “heck-a-slammin’” with “let’s get to rammin’” - but who needs subtlety when you’re a bare-chested guitar mangling demi-god in a white fur coat?).
The original album version is noteworthy enough for its use of an intensely over-saturated tone that pushed the main riff into a sonic space so synth-like that it’s hard to believe it ever came from a guitar at all. But, the ‘Long Look’ version also has the added bonus of a couple of extra clean guitar tracks that strut their funky stuff all over the top of the original mix.
Prince was a masterful rhythm player, and his precisely strummed, minimalist grooves (also exemplified by tracks like 1999 or Kiss) are easily on par with any of those crafted by the planet’s most revered practitioner of fretboard funkery, Chic’s Nile Rodgers.
Often utilising triad chord shapes that omit the lower strings, Prince’s nimble rhythm work is clean, full of feel and completely devoid of all those muted ‘chicken scratch’ filler strokes that often appear in the playing of less nuanced funksters - usually when the right hand is left to motor away on autopilot.
On You Got The Look (Long Look), a particular highlight can be heard around the four minute and twenty second mark, when two funky clean guitars meet for a brief exchange of absolute syncopated perfection.
5. Dolphin - The Gold Experience (1995)
In 1993, Prince turned himself into a symbol. Then, with the help of the luthier Jerry Auerswald, he proceeded to turn said symbol into a guitar which he’s believed to have used during The Gold Experience sessions that took place at his own Paisley Park studios throughout 1993 and early 1994.
You can check out the guitar in all its (quite frankly ludicrous) glory in the music video for the promotional single, ‘Dolphin,’ in which The Artist (now) Formerly Known As Prince appears with the word “SLAVE” graffitied on his cheek, in reference to an ongoing battle for artistic freedom against his label, Warner Bros Records.
The track serves as a colourful metaphor for these frustrations, and its soaring solo is a suitably theatrical and melodic reflection of the pent-up emotions Prince was writing about during this fraught time. On a lighter note, its final high-pitched squawk sounds a bit like an angry dolphin on helium, which is impressive and fitting whichever way you cut it.
The guitar itself was constructed from maple and painted gold, with brittle-looking limby offshoots to complete the ‘Love Symbol’ aesthetic. But the idiosyncratic instrument didn’t function solely as a head turning prop, and it may take the cake for being the most insane, but still playable guitar ever built.
It features a locking bridge and tremolo system, designed to keep it in tune when Prince performed dive bombs and other whammy-centric techniques, as well as the choice of a single coil in the neck position or an EMG humbucker in the bridge for tonal diversity.
Prince also appeared with purple, white and black versions of the Symbol Guitar from the mid-1990s onwards, although he did continue to use his favourite H.S. Anderson/Hohner MadCat and his custom Dave Rusan-designed Cloud Guitar from the Purple Rain era more frequently live on stage.
Thanks to his penchant for throwing guitars in the air for his techs to catch (or not, as the case sometimes turned out to be) only the original gold Symbol Guitar survives. It’s now owned by and resides at Paisley Park.