Prince: The Unsung Guitar Hero
Born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958, Prince became a driving force in the pop scene in the 1980’s. His interest in music began early in life and 1978 he released his debut album For You at just 17 years old. This was quickly followed up in 1979 with his platinum sophomore release Prince. From there his success continued with his next three albums and the release of the major motion picture Purple Rain and accompanying soundtrack. Prince was giving even Michael Jackson a run for airtime on MTV and his controversial lyrics and erotic live show continued to keep him in the spotlight. Prince played all 27 instruments on his debut album as well as writing and producing the entire thing (the song “Soft and Wet” was co-written by Moon) himself. Besides his multi-instrumental talent, he is also has produced artists such as Sheila E., Carmen Electra, The Time, and Vanity 6. Throughout his career he has been controversial and enigmatic, from pushing the boundaries of public decency to changing his name to a symbol; Prince has kept himself in the public eye despite a slump in album sales in the mid 1990’s.
This behavior combined with his flamboyancy is what first comes to mind for the general populace when Prince’s name is mentioned, along with the melody to “Little Red Corvette”. What isn’t always apparent to the mass public is his astonishing instrumental talent. He can play practically any instrument with style and does most of the writing, arranging, and recording of every instrument on his albums. But we aren’t interested in all the instruments he plays now are we? We’re guitarists and as such, we are interested in his guitar playing and his gear. One thing that is overlooked in lieu of his eccentric behavior and odd looking custom guitars is just how well the guy can rock an ax! Don’t believe me? Check out this all-star performance at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Prince’s guitar solo begins at 3:28):
Prince is much more than just a guitarist. He is a composer and producer with the ability to conduct a group much like a symphony. His instrumental abilities supersede most mortals and his guitar playing is no exception. He is extremely skilled and well versed in many styles and by not tying himself to any particular one he has total freedom in songwriting and expression in his music. He is a master of call and response, using two instruments or an instrument and vocals to play off each other in what could be called an instrumental “conversation”. Prince is an accomplished funk guitarist with a unique sense of when to throw in the classic rock solos. His melody and texture can be felt in most every note he plays. He knows how and when to shred but most of all, he seems to know how to make every note count and not a lot of guitarists can make that claim. He’s also a fan of awe-inspiring sustained notes and bends. He knows how to use his fingers and volume to get unending sustain and can control feedback like a conductor leads an orchestra. He definitely deserves his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his ranking at #27 for the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine. He has been compared to legends like Hendrix and Santana for his extravagant bends and vibrato as well as his harsh stabs and guitar grunts. Though he seems to love to play fast, every note is accounted for and they all have feeling. From gorgeous acoustic to 80’s shred, Prince seems to have no limits on what he can make a guitar do.
Given that Prince has had a career spanning over three decades now, the list of gear he has used is relatively short. He seems to have his mainstays but there has been some rotation throughout the years. His philosophy is that everyone should find their own tone so he doesn’t go out of his way to be forthcoming with his gear setup. There is some info out there but it’s not exactly easy to track down and the timeline is somewhat confusing unless you saw him live many times throughout his career.
One brand that seems to have made an impression on him is Mesa Boogie. He has been seen playing several models of Mesa Boogie amplifiers throughout the years such as the Heartbreaker, Nomad, and Lonestar as well as a Strategy 500 power amp paired with a Soldano/Caswell preamp. These Mesa heads were usually paired with either Mesa Recto 4x12 cabs or Marshall 4x12 cabs loaded with Vintage 30’s (the Marshall’s). Earlier in his career (I believe) he was playing through Soldano SLO-100 heads and he has also been seen playing Orange AD140HTC heads with Orange 412 cabinets. He’s also been known to play through Peavey 5150 4x12’s loaded with EV speakers.
One part of his rig that has stood out for a good portion of his career is his guitars. Known for the unique Cloud guitars as well as his Symbol guitar, Prince’s instruments reflect his personality and stage presence. Let’s have a look at some of his main axes.
MadCat H.S. Anderson/Hohner Telecaster
One of Prince’s mainstay guitars that he has been using since the early 80’s is the Hohner MadCat Telecaster, a Japanese made Fender Telecaster copy. These were designed in the early 70’s and later H.S. Anderson sold the rights to Hohner in Germany. Production stayed in Japan but with the Hohner logo. The MadCat had a 25 ½” scale, two single coils and a fixed bridge with a maple body built with a walnut strip down the middle. The front and back were book matched maple with fake tortoiseshell binding and a leopard print pickguard and plastic pickup ring. The proximity of the bridge pickup to the bridge itself produced a unique tone that had the perfect honk for funk causing Prince to fall in love with it. He owns several examples of these, most of which have had the neck replaced at one point due to him wearing them out.
The Cloud guitar was first seen in the movie Purple Rain. There were four of these originally built by David Husain, a luthier at Knut Koupee music store in Minneapolis. This unique looking instrument caught Prince’s eye as well as his fans. The original Cloud guitars were all maple, neck through construction with Love Symbol inlays at the fret markers. They had a 24 ¾” scale length with 22 medium jumbo frets and a 12” radius. They were loaded with an EMG 81 in the bridge position and an EMG SA single-coil in the neck position with one volume, one tone, and a 3-way pickup selector. The Cloud guitars had a brass nut and truss rod cover and Schaller hardware was gold-plated.
There were only the four that have been played by Prince throughout the years though there are replicas in the some Hard Rock Cafés around the world. These were built by Prince’s guitar tech at the time, numbered, and included a Certificate of Authenticity but not actually played by Prince himself. Schecter Guitars was also commissioned to build replica’s that were available only through Prince’s website and at his live shows. These were available in bolt-on and neck-through with Duncan Designed pickups and Grover machine heads. Some of the later examples of these had a 25 ½” scale and were missing the brass nut and truss rod cover.
Love Symbol Guitar
Perhaps the most standout guitar model in Prince’s stable is the Love Symbol guitar. This was originally built by a German luthier, Jerry Auerswald. The original one was made from antique maple and painted gold. It is a neck-through design with 24 frets, 24 ¾” scale, and the same EMG pickups as the Cloud guitars. The bridge was made by Jerry and it was equipped with Schaller M6 machine heads.
Two copies of the Love Symbol guitar were built by one of Prince’s guitar techs, a white and a black one. These were mahogany and as such, not very durable, especially since Prince loves to throw his guitar up in the air and let it crash to the stage. The lower horn on the white model has been glued back on. Other models of the Symbol guitar were built by Schecter Guitars in their USA facility, one being equipped with a Floyd Rose. These are the guitars Prince currently uses on stage.
These are the most recognizable guitars in Prince’s stable but he has also played a Les Paul Jr. covered with fake fur, a Lake Placid Blue Stratocaster, Dark Blue Telecaster with flowers, a George Benson autographed Ibanez archtop, and Auerswald Model C guitars equipped with sustain bows.
When it comes to effects, Prince seems to like Boss, all of them! While it very well could be that Prince owns the entire Boss line of effects, he is commonly seen with these:
Boss BF-2 Flanger
Boss OD-2 Turbo Overdrive
Boss MT-2 Metal Zone
Boss VB-2 Vibrato
Boss OC-2 Octave
Along with his love of Boss effects, Prince is a regular user of the Digitech Whammy, Dunlop Crybaby Wah (though he has been known to use a Colorsound Wah as well), and Line 6 MM4 modulation modeler. Other effects he has been known to use include the Dunlop Rotovibe, Roland GP-16, and a Zoom 9030.
Prince is much more than just a guitarist but often his skill is overlooked in lieu of his extravagant live shows and pop sensibilities. As guitarists here at PGS, we felt it only proper to give some love to one of the industry's greats, his majesty Prince for his stellar musical abilities but also for his mastery of the six-string. Thanks for reading folks! We’ll see you next time, in The Corner.