Who has never heard of Prince? Certainly no one now that his sudden and unexpected passing shocked the world on April 21, 2016. He was just 57 years old. It has been said for ages that an artist is never fully appreciated during their own lifetime, and it certainly seems that this will be the case with the Purple One. He’s gotten more love from the press in the past two weeks than the past two decades. There are fans and there are critics, and between them, there are those who remain ambivalent beyond a recollection of hearing Little Red Corvette at some teenage school dance. Whichever camp one might fall into, one thing that those in the know seem to be able to agree on is that he was a musical genius.
I experienced the height of his career through the eyes of a young boy, not old enough to appreciate his music beyond a catchy pop tune. Quirky, enigmatic, and sensuously androgynous, he knew how to put on a show and thrived as the center of attention. Between his pop stardom of the eighties, ignited by chart topping album and film Purple Rain, and his reemergence as lurid provocateur of the nineties, I had picked up a cheap department store guitar and started bleeding on the fretboard. It was many years, and guitars, later when I finally got a taste of what Prince was capable of doing on a guitar.
Looking for a safe act, read no exposure of private parts on live TV, Prince had been booked to perform the Halftime Show at Super Bowl XLI. This was the moment when he suddenly showed up on my radar as a guitar player, and not just a blip, but a brilliant, howling, hair-raising beacon on the screen. That unforgettable moment when, during his performance of Purple Rain, he cried out to the stands, “Can I play this guitar?” What followed was one of the most spectacular guitar solos I had ever heard. My jaw hit the floor. It was like seeing Jimi Hendrix inexplicably reborn on stage.
Prince was a multifaceted musician who had some twenty plus instruments under his belt. He could fill every position in his band, and did on his first five albums. In respect to guitar, he was capable of soaring highs, flamboyant as his stage presence, lightning licks, deep funk groove, and a tone all his own.
But it wasn’t just the peaks of his memorable solos that made him one of the most underrated guitarists in the history of rock and roll; it was the fact that he was the total package.
Guitarists spend years developing skills, increasing finger speed, learning new chords, riffs, and scales. However one of the most important, and difficult, aspects of playing guitar is the ability to become one with the music. The master guitarist can slide from point to point, accentuating the structure of the total song, rather than pulling attention away with constant playing. Indeed, the mark of the master guitarist is an understanding of when NOT to play.
In respect to this ideal, Prince was indeed a master guitarist. He had all the skills of any of the storied Rock Gods, and yet he often chose to keep that fire in his back pocket, just waiting for the perfect moment to unleash it. His style was defined by syncopation, a dedication to tight, timely grooves that enhanced the feel of each song perfectly, sliding under effortlessly delivered vocals.
This overreaching vision of what his music was about led many of us to overlook Prince as the virtuoso guitarist. Everything in his repertoire was a tool to be used in a meticulously constructed work of art that we know as the music of Prince. He saved much of his flashiest playing for intros and outros, flanking the body of his songs rather than bisecting them. When Doves Cry opens with a blistering intro that settles into a very minimalist aesthetic, focusing on his lyrics rather than his chops.
Before anything else, guitarist, writer, producer, vocalist, the man we knew as Prince was simply this: a performer. He was arguably one of the best performers of all time. He controlled the scene, drawing his audience in with a look and a pose. With a wink and a subtle nod, always perfectly timed, he allowed us in on some private joke. He was an evoker of deep, pure, sexual, visceral feeling. He created his art inside of us all. Whether those feelings were conveyed through masterful guitar playing or dynamic vocalism, he painted with emotions that were undeniably real.
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