Guitarists Rule the World, Part IV: Prince

Sheer talent doesn’t really mean that much to me. But the talent to convey complex ideas and emotions through a wordless and abstract medium means the world to me. What makes me love Derek Bailey’s playing more than just about anything is not his prowess but his expressiveness. Those two qualities aren’t independent of each other, of course: it takes some technique to translate your soul into sound. But with my favorite players, there’s something that comes before instrumental prowess.

There are, however, some things that are so perfect that they transcend personal tastes. Aren’t there? It seems to me that people who doesn’t understand this are aesthetic infants believing that everything is here for them to put in their mouths. Not liking mysteries shouldn’t have anything to do with recognizing the mastery of Alfred Hitchcock. Not liking smooth jazz shouldn’t have anything to do with recognizing the mastery of Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra. Not liking folk music shouldn’t have anything to do with recognizing the mastery of Joni Mitchell. And liking architecture shouldn’t have anything to do with questioning the mastery of Frank Gehry. You can hate jazz, but you can’t deny “Lush Life.” You can hate Dylan, but you have to own up to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” And not liking funk, or disco, or dance music, or pop, or jams, or whatever it is you want to call it shouldn’t have anything to do with recognizing the sheer mastery of Prince.

In other words, talent-in-itself doesn’t hold enormous sway over me unless you’re as good as Prince. He can spin Santana into pure honey. He can twist Marc Bolan into a smirk and a grind. He can loosen up James Brown and tighten up P-Funk, and do the reverse as well. He could sweet talk your mama and leave your sister dizzy, all with nothing but his Hohner.

One thing about Prince is he doesn’t have a lot of guitars. Or he does but he likes them to look the same. There’s a couple of colors of Strats, there’s the occasional acoustic, there’s a couple designers that seem to be put to bed (the sweet-ass guitar Apollonia bought him in Purple Rain and the happily retired “symbol” guitar of the ’90s), and there’s his mock Tele. The Hohner Tele, with its bookmatched curly maple, is easily my favorite axe to see slung over his shoulder. Of course they’re reworked and rewired — the man can afford it. But he just looks good with an off-the-rack looking guitar, and his Strats are always stupid colors.

Isolating him as a guitarist, however, is oddly difficult since it’s so much a part of his mythos. Ever since Purple Rain exploded close to 30 years ago, it’s been part of the thumbnail sketch: eccentric, effeminate, great dancer, great guitarist. You didn’t have to think about it, which can lead to not thinking about it. Sure, I marveled at the solos. That was just what you did. But the first time I actually internalized it was in college. While listening to Lovesexy, my roommate pointed out how often there’s a guitar solo going on through the background of a song. There’ll usually be a solo in its proper place, out front and after the second chorus, there’s also one half buried but carrying on throughout. It’s as if he can’t stop playing, like Coltrane going backstage after a solo to keep playing rather than having to stop.

And, of course, it’s not just about the playing. Prince is so about the guitar. The scene in Purple Rain where Apollonia buys him the curly axe he’d been coveting is dead-on geek cool romantic. There’s the scene on the b-side track “Shockadelica” where he is under the sway of a woman named “Camille” (who is also his alter ego, figure that one out) until she does the unthinkable and he yells “Get up! You be layin’ on my guitar!” How could she not know she was laying on a guitar? I used to wonder if maybe she has scales instead of skin. Years later, on the album Planet Earth, he warned a ladyfriend that he loved her, but not like he loved his guitar.

But where he got to me, and where he melts me every time, is on a single he released during the throes of his dispute with Warner Bros. “Pink Cashmere” is a fantastically catchy ballad, dripping with syrup and strings, and with a blistering solo. The distorted guitar against violins (real or fake) is electrifying. I don’t know what guitar he plays on it, but it sounds like the way the one Apollonia bought him looks.

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