Prince was a groove machine, his music always heavily syncopated and sculpted around clever chord changes and unique melodic twists. But whether it was Purple Rain or Party Man, tightly woven into the fabric of his sonic palette was the sound of the electric guitar.
Of all the instruments he wanted to excel at (and he played at least 40 musical instruments), the guitar ranked as his top priority. Even from his early days as a growing artiste in the late 1970s, he was already compared to the great Jimi Hendrix. Eric Clapton has waxed lyrical of the enigmatic one’s abilities and Queen’s Brian May is known to be a fan, too.
In fact, I had always envisioned Prince playing Hendrix’ The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam’s Dice at a musical event like a Grammy Awards show. He would saunter right onto the stage at the second half of the song when Hendrix launches into his guitar pyrotechnics, and annihilate the audience with his take on it.
Since that’s never going to happen, here are some of his most memorable moments of burning on his beloved axe:
Purple Rain – During his 1999 tour, Prince was stumped by how an artiste like Bob Seger could write songs that cut across all generational and racial barriers in the United States. So, he sought an anthem of his own. Sure, we’ve all heard it a million times, but perhaps the most standout performance of this masterpiece was at the 2007 Super Bowl in Miami, Florida, on Feb 4.
The highly anticipated sporting extravaganza had never been disrupted by any weather conditions in 40 years, yet on that fateful day, a Miami rainstorm of Teutonic proportions came down in the city.
Don Mischer, internationally acclaimed producer and director of television and live events, the man behind the half-time show for the game, called Prince to tell him that it was raining, wanting to clarify if the guitar-slinger was up to going on. Prince’s response: “Can you make it rain harder?” Stuff of rock n’ roll legend.
Needless to say, with stage and setting completely inundated, and the rain still pelting hard, Prince burst onto the stage with full band in tow, blasting away to Let’s Go Crazy. Of course, with coloured purple lights refracting off the raindrops, his rendition of Purple Rain that night has Super Bowl fans claiming that it’s the best edition of the sporting event ever.
Let’s Go Crazy – Next to When Doves Cry, this easily ranks as one of his most famous tunes. How many songs open with the exchange of matrimonial vows? If you didn’t know what that sounded like to the English-speaking Christian community before, the words “Dearly beloved” should certainly be etched in your consciousness now. During Prince’s recent, guitar-driven tour, this was the rip-roaring curtain-raiser that never failed. Dance music in the 1980s may not have jived extensively to guitar music, but Let’s Go Crazy was a different animal … like its creator.
Kiss – His royal badness, while adulated in rock circles, was first and foremost, a funk machine. Taking his cue form the likes of Sly & The Family Stone, Parliament and Funkadelic, who all invariably owe a great debt to the godfather himself, James Brown.
Kiss has all the trappings of classic funk and R&B, again explored with minimal bass, which lets Prince’s funky guitar twangs chill right to the bone.
When Doves Cry – How many crazier guitar intros exist? This is in the same league as Hendrix stuttering with his wah wah on Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’s beginning. That angular melody set the tone for a Billboard No 1 hit like no other – it has no bass line. The song spent a staggering five weeks sitting on top of the charts, and broke all manner of convention. The guitar may not feature highly in the tune, but When Doves Cry earns the distinction of having one of the most iconic guitar intros in rock.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps – It was the 2004 edition of the Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame. Traveling Wilburys alumni, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne were paying tribute to the posthumously-inducted George Harrison, a former Wilbury. Harrison’s son Dhani was there for the ride, and while a session guitarist pulled off all of Eric Clapton’s tasty licks on The Beatles original, it was a wired Prince (an inductee for the night himself) who shot that song into the stratosphere with a face-melting outtro solo that left tongues wagging.
The once-symbolled one never gets the credit he deserves as a guitar player, but on that night on March 15, the uninitiated finally understood. Sure, this is not even a Prince song, but this is certainly a Prince performance.