The passing into the afterlife of Prince Rogers Nelson was sudden, it was unwarranted, and, because of his very reasonable wish for privacy, it was inexplicable. The outpouring of sentiment that followed has by and large orbited around things we know well about Prince Rogers Nelson—we know the high period of his celebrity, his unparalleled showmanship, the variety of his output. In this period of loss, though, I looked for a way into the immense body of work that postdates his well-known hits of which just a few rose up out the immensity. I hit on the idea of trying to talk, first of all, about Prince Rogers Nelson as a guitarist. Mostly, especially in later life, he’s an artist of the studio, and a bandleader, but because of a lovely and warm thread organized on Facebook by the novelist Darin Strauss, I started thinking about additional, more slantwise ways we might talk about his legacy. What if I organized a bunch of guitar players?
The group that I assembled to talk about Prince that follows herewith is simply friends and acquaintances known to be Prince aficionados, really excellent musicians, or especially fine writers about music, or combinations thereof. The sorting mechanism for personnel is this: I knew each participant well enough to ask. The goal was to start by talking about Prince Rogers Nelson as a guitar player, but also to feel free to roam. Though symposium implies, in the Platonic/Socratic model of the thing, an actual sitting around a table with containers of wine that can only be called flagons, disputing in ways both deadly serious and comical, no such actual sitting around ever took place, and the republic in which the dialogue happened is none other than the Internet. However, it’s in the nature of Platonic dialogues that discovery takes place, and there is drama, and there are reversals, and ideas that seemed utterly reasonable at the outset at transmuted into something deeper. Another way of saying this is as follows: this is one of the Swinging Modern Sounds columns where I personally learned a great deal, and my idea of who Prince Rogers Nelson was, and how he did what he did, expanded by leaps and bounds over the course of the ten days that we accumulated these thoughts (in early May 2016).
My recommendation is that there is a great wealth of links to follow and even a cursory examination of them, a dipping in and sampling, will bring near an artist who in many ways, in ways understated and melancholy and hortatory, was hiding prodigious talent and wisdom in plain sight. Have a look. We are not going to bear witness to the likes of Prince Rogers Nelson again.
And: let me not neglect to thank everyone involved.
Michael Hearst (guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, composer, member of One Ring Zero, etc.)
Bill Janovitz (guitarist, writer, songwriter, member of Buffalo Tom, etc.)
Hannah Marcus (guitarist, fiddler, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, member of Wingdale Community Singers, etc.)
Shahin Motia (guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, member of Oneida, People of the North, Man Forever, The Unspeakable Practices, etc.)
David Rakowski (trombonist, pianist, composer, member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, etc.)
Mark Rogers (guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, member of Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne, etc.)
Darin Strauss (guitarist, novelist/essayist, professor of writing at New York University, etc.)
Indigo Street (guitarist, singer, songwriter, member of Shy Hunters, Jolie Holland Band, etc.)
David Ulin (writer of just about everything under the sun, etc.)
Rick Moody: I am going to first share a video.
This is the by now very famous footage from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” performed by, among others, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, and Dhani Harrison (son of the late George Harrison). I note that while this footage enjoys considerable esteem in rock and roll circles, at 26 million views, this particular video recording is not at all as popular as, say, Justin Bieber’s “Purpose,” which has 610 million views. The scale of Prince’s latter day success is more like art than pop. Nevertheless, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” suggests to me some questions about Prince’s legacy that I have been thinking about these last couple of weeks.
Prince’s solo in the performance represents at sudden, startling turn in what is otherwise a reverential and perfect recreation of the song. Petty sings the verses, and Lynne sings the hard part (the bridges, with the falsetto), and a guitar player I’m not familiar with recreates the lead guitar parts in the verses which mimic the keening Eric Clapton original. Everything proceeds in an orderly way, including Prince’s own participation in the song during its vocal section. He stands at stage left, doesn’t call any attention to himself, with the professionalism you would expect.
And then when the song gets to its out-solo, Prince simply erupts.
I watched this footage long ago, long before Nelson’s death, for the simple reason that I am a very keen student of, and appreciator of, George Harrison. “While My Guitar” has been a particularly dear song to me my whole lifelong, from first hearing it, in first grade, in Darien, CT, when the album called The Beatles was first released. I remember well figuring out, in my teens, that the solo was Clapton’s, and marveling over the weird processing of the signal that George Martin subjected the signal to, so that it feels a bit microtonal. I always loved that solo, and it never, to me at least, felt like an Eric Clapton solo. It always had the kind of melodic discipline that I associate with George Harrison. Or, perhaps more exactly, it was a solo that seemed halfway between a Clapton solo and a Harrison guitar part.
Prince Rogers Nelson has none of this discipline at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! He lights into the solo with only a modicum of restraint (and I love the look on Dhani Harrison’s face when it is clear that Prince is about to start). Or, he starts with a modicum of restraint, for the first few bars, and then goes down a fifth or so, for a bit, in the second position, and hammers on for a bit, but basically settles at the very top of the range of the guitar pretty quickly for some note-bending stuff. He does not hold back in the performance of his solo either. There’s a little Hendrix, and, as I have said elsewhere, a lot of Eddie Hazel in him. He leaves it all on the stage.
There seem to me two ways this solo could have gone. One direction would have been to serve the song, and, in so doing, to articulate the principle at stake in the lyric of Harrison’s masterful composition. He could have caused his guitar to weep, I mean. The other way the solo might have gone was that it could become a particularly whacky example of guitar prowess. While Prince Rogers Nelson gives a nod in the direction of the weeping (which Clapton so successfully sketched out in the original), he is more passionately concerned with the guitar prowess. There are four of five ideas of virtuosity in the solo and each is pursued with a vengeance, and you kind of come away, if you are rock and roll partisan, with the sense that Prince Rogers Nelson could do anything with his guitar, that night. This is admirable, and as I heard someone say recently it represents a kind of “peacocking” that one has to admire, but it’s not necessarily serving the song. I happen to love this moment, because Prince comes out of nowhere and steals the show, and he seems to be enjoying himself. But I also wonder if it’s not a little over the top.
Which leads me to the point of origin for this conversation: the idea of talking about Prince’s guitar playing is of interest because it is an under-examined part of his legacy, which tends to concentrate on his writing, and his facility with just about every instrument in the modern arsenal of pop music orchestra. I wanted to see what talking about the guitar playing might tell us about his work generally, and also to see what other guitar players think of it, as we begin to reckon with who he was and why his music was valuable. Is his guitar playing not, in some sense, the not-fully-understood key to his legacy?
Okay, have at it.
Darin Strauss: I’d also watched that video many times before Prince’s death, and I always chuckled at the audacity of it—which is a way of saying I enjoyed it, and also kind of delineates the extent of the enjoyment. Prince was a show-off; of course, he often was many other things, besides. (Genius melodist; clever lyricist; great arranger; nonpareil harmony vocalist, like that). But he came to that HOF stage to cut heads, and that’s what he did. He cut heads. Like Rick—like everyone I’ve talked to about the video—I love watching his stage-mates’ reactions. L’il Harrison is giddy; Petty is bemused at best; Prince himself looks on the cusp of a giggle.
But this is guitar solo as athletic performance, a technique display; it’s like a figure-skating compulsory—which is to say, guaranteed to excite. But not to make anyone feel much, beyond “Holy shit.” If Prince has a weakness as a guitarist, it’s that. Too frequently, he gives you frosting on top of frosting, to quote Updike. Compare Prince’s “Red House” to Hendrix’s. And Jimi Hendrix, of course, wasn’t immune to flash. And Prince, for all his technique, isn’t an Eddie Van Halen or a Steve Vai, which is maybe why I’m often impressed by his flash, but not moved.
To me, Prince’s brilliance as a guitarist comes through in solos like the one on “Purple Rain”—flashy, sure, but emotive. Or, on this acoustic set’s version of “Cream,” where he essays melody, lead, and rhythm, all at once.
Shahin Motia: To me, video is a medium where Prince’s many talents—technical and otherwise—stack in a colossally entertaining and meaningful way. Maybe I’m an MTV kid. I don’t think I’d ever listen to this clip for any reason, but I’ve watched it again and again over the years, and I still grin.
I remember this performance feeling overtly boastful when I first saw it, but I don’t feel that way now. I’m not sure what’s happened (maybe all it took was seeing Prince play a Prince concert) but now, I see an almost slapstick attempt at restraint on his part. It’s funny to me, and I agree you do seem to catch him cheesin’ too, like: Sorry fellas, this is my lowest gear. It’s a very telegenic telecaster performance. You’ve got about a half dozen guitar faces, exclamations, a modest-for-Prince suite of postures and grips, a disciplined slow turn on the wah, the choreographed trust-fall, and it just creates this air that the guy is earning extra time without demanding it from the band—it’s self evident. I mean it’s funny even to think about Prince doing this at an all-star tribute. He’s not even wearing purple, Tom Petty is. He’s got this extraordinarily red, dapper, 40s sideman thing going on, and he barely appears in frame for the longest time but when he approaches his pedal board all turns to cherry, maybe not exactly in that order, but he seizes the shot and it’s really, really difficult to cut away from that moment on. I agree with Darin: he’s a technical wizard on the guitar, but there are plenty of those, many more notable in that regard. None of them would’ve done what Prince did for me, given the same opportunity—integrate the guitar into a much larger, mysterious, multimedia narrative of who you purportedly are and what you’re here to do.
Bill Janovitz: Very glad to be part of this discussion with you all.
In this instance only, I have to dip into something I have already written. I saw this clip not long after it first appeared around the Internet, I think. It compelled me to post something on my own site, in 2009. So I can’t ignore that I wrote it and my feelings are the same. Forgive me if I go too long (not fast).
What you see here until about the 3:30 minute mark is a perfectly serviceable and respectful cover version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” a tribute to George Harrison. You have the studied aloofness of Tom Petty, sleepwalking through the vocals and acoustic strumming. You have Jeff Lynne doing his part perfectly reasonably, thankfully unable to weigh the song down with goofy backing vocals and other shit he piles on when he is in a studio. You have Stevie Winwood—arguably the most soulful Englishman next to Jagger, Rod Stewart (and who else?)—on the B-3 organ. You see the latest incarnation of the Heartbreakers being what they have always been: one of the greatest backing bands of all time, Petty’s not-so secret weapon. And you have Dhani Harrison, George’s son, strumming along.
And there is the guy in the cap, aping, note-for-note, Eric Clapton’s original solos from the legendary White Album recording. It took me a bit of searching to figure out that his name is Marc Mann and, as far as I can gather, he is talented enough to be chosen as a sideman/session guitarist for Lynne and George at various junctures. Now, you watch and you might think, “cool, he is nailing the bends, the notes, the whole original solo.” And the Clapton part was more than just soloing; it was a wholly integrated arrangement for guitar parts. Yet, when it came time for the actual solo, Mr. Mann—who I am sure is quite capable of striking out with his own improvised solo—makes a respectful choice to play the parts Clapton laid down. Totally fine, if forgettable. And unnecessary.
Then you notice the pimp-hatted Prince playing sideman on stage left. But he seems like a loaded gun with a hair trigger. And sure enough, around the 3:25 mark, you see Dhani—who should never play poker—unable to stifle a grin; he has an idea of what is coming.
And sure enough, the soloing, the song, perhaps the whole night is then turned over to Prince, who in the last few years (for me) has made the argument that he is the greatest lead guitar player since Hendrix. He is truly heir to Jimi. As we all know, Hendrix revolutionized lead guitar playing. And he did so without the benefit of some of the technological advances made since his death, stuff like intricately balanced distortion pedals and other devices that are made to harness the sort of feedback and sustain that Jimi, Townshend, et. al. had to rein in by manipulating volume controls and primitive distortion stomp boxes before their signal reached ridiculously loud tube (valve) Marshall and Hiwatt amps.
So Prince has the benefit of a few more devices to exercise a bit more control, but it really does not matter much; what made Hendrix’s playing so distinct was his laying it all out there, performing without a net, taking chances that only bop and post-bop jazz guys were taking, and doing so at massive volume, so that he in turn influenced the most forward-thinking of jazz cats like Miles Davis.
And here, in one single performance, Prince comes on like an atom bomb and levels the place, destroys everything in his path, devastates the stage and the players. He performs at a whole different level. He goes out there with no regard for tradition, for the original solos; no, he goes out there and shreds it, putting his own stamp on the song, and in doing so, shines up an otherwise dull rendition. He brings out the best of the song. He takes it to new place, while leaving the rest of the band to keep one foot in the original. As such, he pays the greatest respect to the song, its author, and to Clapton’s original sign posts pointing the way to the potential.
While the rest of the band, the old guys, all kind of lay back and play it cool, keeping the song grounded—to the point of keeping every backing vocal part in place (“look at you all… still my guitar gently weeeeeeeeps”)—Dhani’s face is aglow. He looks around at the other guys with a sort of “Can you fucking believe this?!” expression, hoping to make eye contact and get some acknowledgment and musical communion. He seems to get no such feedback from the grizzly old dinosaurs. Dhani is our—and George’s—stand in and representative. He is there to express what we sitting at home feel: “Holy Mother of God! Is this not one of the greatest virtuoso guitar solos of the past couple of decades?!” Dhani was quoted at the Guardian, saying,
All the records I like are hardcore. Bob Dylan is the hardest core of the core. Air are chilled out, but they’re hardcore musicians. U Srinivas is a hardcore dude from Madras. Leadbelly? He killed a man! Enough said!
I’ve never been a big fan of basketball, but one of the only analogies that springs to mind is that of a perfectly average team of aging pros all of a sudden spiked with a young Michael Jordan or LeBron James; a superstar who opens the game up to spectacle; someone who is so comfortable in his own skin, with Zen-like presence in the moment and absence of extraneous thought and second-guessing. They rise above all the other players, but lift the whole team up to a new level. Sure, there are other players who are jealous and resentful. But then there are players like Dhani, who are playing without ego and who appreciate being in the presence of greatness.
Okay, some (likely some of the guys on stage) might just shrink from this and see Prince as showboating. And the way Prince just struts—struts—offstage after his seemingly pre-rigged guitar just swoops up and disappears above the stage surely indicates the same sort of arrogance displayed by Jordan when he would refer to teammates as “my supporting cast.” But for Jordan, the ball was just an extension of his hands and he was one with the whole court. For Prince, it is the guitar and the stage. He is not composing the solos before he plays them; it is all one subconscious stream. He has tapped in. These are the great ones.
Others might claim, “sacrilege!” for messing around with Clapton’s original solo, as old timers who watched and idolized Bob Cousy might claim that the game should be about passing and set shots. And I would agree that Clapton’s solos are perfect for the song: the weeping, the tasteful use of bending strings as displays of sorrow. But that’s been done. That recording is over forty years old and has been played somewhere every day of those subsequent years. Now George is gone, and the world is even more in need of “sweeping.” George sang, against hope, “with every mistake we must surely be learning.” Prince is the post-modern answer.
So Prince takes up where Clapton and Harrison left off, changing the weeping to the outright gnashing of teeth, moaning, yelling and raging. He performs without fear, though, without the net, as he went on to do in the also-legendary performance on SNL two years later, of the song “Fury.”
The rest of the band should have kicked up some dust, as well. But they are just guys in suits playing for other old guys in suits, the worst of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concept; by its very existence, the HoF fossilizes vital music. Crusty rockers content with their place in the lineage. It is, arguably, a place that had a hard time making space for someone like Prince, who defies categorization. The performance is from 2004, the year that both Prince and George (posthumously, as a solo artist) were inducted into the Hall. It feels like Prince is out to prove he can out-rock any straight-up “rock” artist. He is the rightful heir to the Hendrix mantle. I choose him over Stevie Ray. You heard me. Any day of the week.
I think George would approve of the new take on the song. Many, if not most, of his songs had the conscience of Eastern thought running through them. LSD and the Maharishi woke him up in the mid-60s and he kept on teaching: “All things must pass away”; “Isn’t it a pity/Now, isn’t it a shame/How we/break each other’s hearts/And cause each other pain/How we take each other’s love/Without thinking anymore/Forgetting to give back”; “The love you are blessed with/This world’s waiting for/So let out your heart, please, please/From behind that locked door”; “Beware of sadness/It can hit you/It can hurt you/Make you sore and what is more/That is not what you are here for.”
These are all paraphrases of the teachings of the Buddha and other Eastern philosophers. They taught that so much of the negativity in the world is borne out of fear. As a result, most of us live defensively most of the time. Buddha says get back to your original self, who you were, your face before you were born. Everything after that is adding to a mask, a shield, buttressing yourself against the pain and suffering in the world. Open yourself back up. Live in the moment. Realize we are here for a limited time. Don’t be afraid of making a fool of yourself. I’m not saying go to work at your office in a pimp suit and strut out of a meeting after making a particularly astute and bold point. But live it up a little. Just ask yourself every once in a while, “What would Prince do here?”
Yeah, I know, now it all seems trite, “Dance like no one is watching,” and all that Chicken Soup kind of shit. But it’s because it is all true: “He not busy being born is busy dying,” as Bob Dylan sang.
Almost everyone on that stage with Prince is playing defensively. Prince is busy being born.
David Rakowski: Classical music is my day thang, and Prince is my largest non-classical collection of physical CDs and live performance bootlegs. This performance was actually new to me, so I had to watch the Holiday Inn band of the video run it a few times to put Prince in context.
Obviously, I’ve known the song for years and years, and listening again I noticed some of the genius of its construction. The verses in minor with the terribly constricted melody and bass (I thought “incomplete 25 or 6 to 4” when it started) opens up marvelously in the bridge, where the mode also changes from minor to major. Then the bass and especially the melody range more freely, and there is a feeling of, for lack of a less icky word, optimism. The stark change back to minor when the verse returns is such a striking change of harmonic color that my face gets all pouty every time it happens. Which is, in this performance, twice.
I confirm everything that’s been said about Mr. Nelson’s solo by others, so I won’t state any of it again. How he manages such a soul-searing solo limiting himself pretty much to the notes of the A Dorian scale is beyond analysis. I would add that my limited purview caused me to think Terry Kath on some of the high licks, both the licks themselves and the timbre. Speaking of “25 or 6 to 4.”
Given the built-in affect of the mode change between the verses and the bridge, I am just a bit cosmically disappointed that the solo happens only under endless iterations of the verse. I want to hear what Prince would have done with the mode change.
And I, too, wish the band had risen to Prince’s level.
Michael Hearst: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a guitar is just a guitar. And it starts off that way, but within a few seconds, the guitar clearly becomes a giant cock protruding from Prince’s groin, pointing toward the television cameras, audience, and fellow musicians. That said, he publicly strokes his guitar with brilliance! I was in awe the first time I saw this video, and I still am. There’s no doubt the dude could play (almost as if he were, er, one with the guitar).
This conversation got me thinking, “What is it about Prince that I like.” Truth is, I’ve never really been a fan of Prince’s compositions. I think his production is really good, but that’s not enough either. For me, it’s always been his persona that’s intrigued me. Like Freddy Mercury or Johnny Rotten, he’s definitively got his thing. He’s kind of one the original “divos,” before the word was applied to people like Rufus Wainwright. (Though, Freddy Mercury was also very much a divo.) In fact, I’ve sort of always thought of Prince as a bit of a dick. But that’s also what has intrigued me about him. And here we go again with the dick references. Not to lessen his amazing performance here, which really is spectacular for both its musicality as well as the display itself. The performance, however, will not alter my view of what makes the song so great. It will always be the repetitive piano note in the opening, which is perhaps the utter opposite of a wanky guitar solo.
My favorite moment is when he falls back and the guy catches him. Clearly one of his own dudes. I can only imagine the conversation beforehand, which Prince probably had with one of his minions, who then spoke to the other guy. “P is going to lean backwards off the stage about one minute into his guitar solo. You’ll be there to gently catch him, and then gently prop him back up on his feet. Don’t fuck up.”
Strauss: Anyway, if Rick doesn’t mind my adding videos to this thread (is that okay, Rick?), I found what I think is the beau ideal of Prince guitar. His performance at the 2009 Montreux Jazz Festival. Maybe because he was playing before jazz fans? Regardless he has an amazing band here, and goes all out—opening the set with a Billy Cobham number. The whole show is amazing, but here’s the fusion thing, which morphs into an Elvis cover and is just really cool.
Hannah Marcus: Looking forward to sinking my teeth into these videos, but apropos of Michael Hearst’s commentary: the one time I saw Prince was with my mother, my autistic sister, and my mother’s ex-art student who was taking pictures for his Purple Rain tour. We were pretty close to the stage but not that close—kind of high up because she had to get a clear angle for the pictures. The one moment I remember from the show was his escalating guitar cadenza, which culminated in white semen-like goo shooting out of the headstock. Apparently it’s my mother’s only memory of the show as well. I can’t really say what my autistic sister remembers, but I have a feeling it may be more musical. On the other hand, perhaps not! I have become a bigger fan of his since the show, and I sometimes regret not having paid a bit more attention to the subtler moments at the time.
David Ulin: It’s a cutting contest, yes? And Prince blows them all of the stage, as has been noted eloquently above. I love this version as someone who doesn’t love the original—it’s too stately, too self-conscious in its own importance, a statement song… and I’m a big admirer of Harrison, maybe primarily as a songwriter. But that’s the point here: classic song, classic band, slow and stately, and then Prince comes out and takes it over, changing or obliterating the terms. I like that, as an act of audacity, although I agree with Darin that if you take the solo apart, it’s all (or mostly) flash. But what amazing flash.
I also agree that the “Purple Rain” solo is his most resonant—or the most resonant I know. I’m not the biggest Prince fan, so I have heard what I have heard. But I should also say that I agree with Dhani Harrison about loving the hardcore, the ones who want to burn it down, and here we get to see that side of Prince. I like flash—it’s what drew me to rock and roll in the first place, and it is the last lingering thing that keeps me interested in the music. These are not museum pieces, after all. (Or, as Lester Bangs said, “This is not jazz.”) I like watching guitarists shred just for the sake of the shredding, and that’s what I make of this performance, most of all.
Mark Rogers: Mostly, it was a relief to see him perform and appear in public without the word “slave” stenciled on his face. Something felt renewed and the atmosphere was lighter even though “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is always an epic (heavy) jam. But he was in his element: an honored guest who was about to make everyone forget they ever heard of Eric Clapton. His future seemed bright again at a very young forty-six. He was smiling, keeping it fresh, and he played his ass off. I loved him in red and I was glad to see him here so at ease and having fun.
The solo was a master class; he tended to have the last word on many of the styles he played: Minor third (or more) bends ala B.B. King, 80s-style LA metal pull offs and—yes—the guitar as phallus and the guitar solo as simulacrum of the sex act. Throw in LA studio tricks like Vai/Satriani-style whammy bar flicks, 64th note octave figures, pick scrapes, glissando slides, muted chugs. Add the opening unison bends, his funkface, wah+fuzz wailing, and top it all off (before he throws his guitar) with a Purple Rain-era Boss Flanger activated at the end of the solo. It most certainly did not go astray… there were complete sentences amid the improv; it was a conversation.
What was he saying? I tend to think all of his guitar solos were saying, People Think I’m Rude / I Wish We All Were Nude / I Wish There Was No Black And White / I Wish There Were No Rules. I would often remind myself that the people who grumbled about his showboating never really understood the man. Or anything.
Prince brought palpable energy onto that dinosaur stage and even zombie Petty was stomping and crouching. I loved to see the younger Harrison’s thrill and thought Petty led George’s anthem with due respect for the composer and for the generation who lived vicariously through it. I loved the impish little smirk on Prince’s face and was glad to see Petty cheer him on. Eye contact! I dug the stage dive and the throwing of the guitar into the air was the cherry on top. The side of me that said to “dial it back, man” was shouted down by my inner thirteen-year-old. “Mark! Don’t you remember sitting at your desk in your bedroom doing homework and the first time you heard ‘Let’s Go Crazy?’ That song re-arranged every fucking molecule in your body. Why are you wishing he’d act like John Kerry or something? It’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not a state dinner.”
Maybe his solo sums up as “Clapton is God but I am the Savior”(?)
Aside from being a solid, fun performance it was not of those timeless moments where you knew he was really feeling it. The Hall of Fame spectacle was not Prince “in the zone” even if everyone was aware that “Prince was in the house.” It felt like an explicit, well-earned victory lap; acrobatics and flash and master class of technique. It never really seemed that his sole purpose for playing a long guitar solo was just to hear himself play. A great soloist always takes you somewhere.
The legendary 2007 Super Bowl Halftime Show. Classic Prince guitar moments always seemed to happen when he was at one with the song, the audience, the moment, his band. And once in a lifetime, you’d get the perfect storm. He walked on water that night. They said “Prince, it is raining cats and dogs” and he said “Can you make it rain harder?” It is the definitive live performance. I love it.
1981, “Get It Up” (Morris Day) with Prince as Jamie Starr; a master class of funk-rock-glam guitar playing (the magic starts at 2:55 and goes on for almost 2 minutes).
1985, jazz fusion chops at an after-show jam.
Recreating B.B. King’s 1963 stage show in 1988. Check out the time-honored guitar and dancer interplay at 2:38.
Coachella, 2008. Yet another stroke of genius. He re-purposed it. He said that we’re all “Creeps” when we don’t feel like we belong. The solo(s) are explosive and the entire performance is moving; Hendrix and Santana sitting in with sullen UK post-punks. “Creep” basically rips off “The Beautiful Ones” anyway. Maybe he was taking back what was his after Radiohead took back what they thought was theirs—this all took place during the pay-what-you-will In Rainbows era.
Rick’s question was, Is his guitar playing not, in some sense, the not-fully-understood key to his legacy?
Yes, but I think that it is essential to say that there are great guitarists and then there are great guitar soloists. Prince was all of the above (and more). I wonder if it might be instructive to recognize that he most likely knew a famous quote attributed to Hendrix: “The world is full of fancy Dan guitar players but the rhythm is the thing.”
Just check out his minimalist post-funk/disco pop song “Kiss.”
“Kiss” was a re-write of J. Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Prince changed the key and updated “Country” Kellum’s 9th chord with his own suspended 7th chord (neither major nor minor; tense with a compulsory resolve) for the chorus hook. But it was the solo that showed how Prince could be an innovator—a syncopated minor 6/diminished 7, 16th note chord solo (complete with wah) over the top of a 12 bar I-IV-V progression. The solo culminates with some funky vamping and an ear-catching reverse wah figure over a minor 7 chord… and a kiss.
“Kiss'” solo is everything you want when you don’t want to wail away on upper register blues bends for 8 or 16 bars. I think it is one of his best and a perfect example of how his guitar playing reflected his holistic approach to music. He could have done anything there but he turned in a clean (but so very very dirty), energetic, playful, fun, daring performance that you could dance to. (The whole thing was supported by an updated blues shuffle rhythm employing a synth combining sampled banjo and a marimba in place of guitar.)
The #1 hit song’s guitar solo showed that you could be a different type of guitar player than the masses of noodly wankers or brooding anti-solo guys. That song got me into Earth Wind and Fire, P-Funk, Isley Brothers, James Brown and the JB’s, etc. I learned my 16th note rests. I made sure to leave some space—there is music in the spaces.
One last observation: If your female friends (or your mom) liked Prince and did not turn the song down during a guitar solo, you knew he was on to something. Extended guitar solos can often be the realm of mopey, self-congratulatory dudes; they can be boring and they can be a reason why you rarely saw a woman at a pre-“Enter Sandman” Metallica concert. Prince’s total guitar approach was welcoming, open-minded, lithe, flirty, interesting. His solos actually went somewhere. You could hum them.
I took note of this as a guitar player and a young man. Whenever I was dancing with a girl I liked to a Prince song, the solo would send things to an interesting place; she’d pull me closer to her when he took a lead.
Women, not girls / they rule my world / I say they rule my world.
Janovitz: I know we might not all be able keep up with each video link, but before any of us, myself included, is tempted to say, “as good as Hendrix,” we are reminded in such clips as this, that there has been no one as good as him. I’ve only recently heard this particular performance and it stones me to my soul. Stones me just like Jelly Roll. It just happened to come up for me on a playlist of mine and reminds me to simmer down with comparisons.
One of the issues that keeps me from putting Prince up there in the Pantheon is his penchant for thin, buzzy, 80s transitor-like tone. Much of his production lacks a certain bottom. Jimi here has everything: tone, control, inspiration, technique, and execution.
Enjoy, if you have the time.
Strauss: Wow, Mark—that was a mic drop.
Bill, I don’t think anyone’s saying he’s quite as good a guitarist as Hendrix; but, as you put it, he’s the one who best carries Hendrix’s mantle. That European show that we keep coming back to has Prince playing “Spanish Castle Magic”—check out the tone here. I think you’ll like it.
Moody: I agree that “Spanish Castle Magic” establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Prince can be an able imitator of many of Hendrix’s mannerisms, and as one has to have legitimate chops to be in the vicinity of Hendrix he must be said, on that basis, to be have reserves of guitar talent that we didn’t really much know about until Montreaux. I am going to go further into that Montreaux show, too.
But, that said, Mark’s link to “Kiss” alludes to a direction I wanted to go in, and that was to establish Prince’s bona fides as a rhythm guitar player. I wanted to remark again that soul and funk often feature a completely different use of the guitar, in which virtuosity has nothing to do with shredding, with throwing down, but rather with kinds of understatement that are about making a groove, rather than soloing over one. “Kiss” has two first verses happening over a keyboard riff (even though Wendy, or is it Lisa, apes the part on guitar in the video), but then it features a magnificent bridge that certainly, as Mark points out, borrows from JB’s playbook, as far as rhythm guitar of the funky variety goes. If you know Prince primarily from his hits, this is the guitar that he most frequently plays (“Purple Rain” aside), the kind where he’s locked in with the rhythm section.
Prince can play this James Brown style rhythm guitar, and he makes it look easy (though there is that very brief wah-inflected solo in the bridge of “Kiss” too), and this is not a thing that a lot of white lead guitar players can do. Every now and then Jimmy Page would play in the funk style (“The Crunge,” e. g.), and there’s Keith and Ronnie doing it now and again in the mid- and late seventies. But Prince is versatile the way these guys are not versatile. His rhythm guitar playing is so understated and perfect on “Kiss,” that later in life he didn’t bother to play guitar on the song at all. He let someone else do it. Subtlety of playing to the point where his guitar is indistinguishable from the silence!
After Purple Rain, and some of the paisley period stuff, Prince took some shit in the black community for neglecting black music, and simply crossing over to the white audiences. The Black Album, it’s said, was to try to win back black listeners. I think that some of the funk guitar playing was to play intentionally in the black popular music idiom. To represent. To speak (as Miles Davis did on On the Corner) to the youth of the black community.
The fact that he can do all this stuff—play on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” play “Spanish Castle Magic,” with a solo so Hendrix-ish that he plays with his thumb on the solo, just like Hendrix, and then play James Brown funk guitar—indicates that proficiency for Prince indicates a diversity of influences and styles in his playing. It also suggests, to me, that part of Prince’s greatness is simply in stagecraft. He would play in almost any style, it seems, as long as he could win an audience by doing so, and he was expert at coaxing out the performances out of his band that were almost always rearrangements, and unusual covers, and the guitar was the articulator of this range, fine-tuned to do whatever a particular song needed it to do.
Motia: More thoughts on tone and rhythm. I think it’s difficult to isolate and abstract the value of Prince’s guitar playing, when mostly everything you hear him play, including guitar solos, is nested within the context of an arranged song, with lyrics, hopefully in service of both an immediate and long-term artistic end. I don’t necessarily care to evaluate the tone of the guitar without evaluating the tone of everything else in the arrangement. How are things getting along? To what affect? Is this servicing the arrangement? Imagine a different choice, what opportunities does the artist/listener gain/lose? Do I care?
I feel similarly about guitar figures. When I hear “Tony Iommi (or Angus Young, or whoever) is a riff monster—he came up with these timeless, heavy guitar riffs,” the arranger in me always thinks show me the most amazing “guitar riff” and I will set it to a drum beat that will make it sound ridiculous. In my mind it is very difficult even to evaluate a guitar part without considering the rest of the score. Who is responsible for this funkiness I am hearing? It’s a holistic thing. Prince is an interesting case because 99 times out of 100, the dude was responsible for the entire score, and made the decisions about what was going to play what, when.
Regarding Prince’s “rhythm” playing, I share Rick’s reverence. There’s plenty of funk I haven’t heard, but I consistently find Prince’s choices and his execution dazzlingly precise—80s precise—and ambitiously funky, whether harmonically, in tempo, even in concept. I find him asking me to accept a lot regarding the relative funkiness of some of his choices, and dammit if he doesn’t usually win. As a kid I often doubted what I was hearing was guitar, and I will never get over the arrangement of “Erotic City,” a track that for me typifies what I find superlative about his playing, singing, and arranging.
The overbearing compression on this stream kind of highlights the insanity of the picking/plucking/slapping?/clawhammering?/pitchshifting?/wahdling/ funkadelicious performance.
Marcus: My Prince fandom has also been more about the arrangements and the interlocking funk fugue magic (“Erotic City,” “Trust,” etc. ) but in the service of this thread I’ve spent some quality time with his lead guitar playing. I’ve really enjoyed the posts, and have been going through the links and trying to locate something meaningful to share at the intersection of my own experience of his playing and the proliferating exegesis that’s already so far along.
But there is that 900-pound sausage in the room. I think you may know where I’m going with this—collective groan—The Lady Issue.
I mean you just cannot help but notice that among the multifarious YouTube videos of Prince solos, attempts at recreating Prince solos (or Hendrix solos, or Clapton solos, or Steve Vai solos, etc. etc.) there is nary a lady in sight or sound. And the two ladies Rick so carefully enlisted to participate in this thread are so far absent from the shop-talk.
So one question is: do we need to talk about this?
And if we go ahead, what’s a productive path?
How much time do we really need to spend musing upon why there are barely any ladies who seem to give enough of a shit about deconstructing screaming rock guitar solos in word or deed?
The reasons I figured I’d bother to bring it up was because A) so much good stuff has already been said about the music B) the two women recruited for this thread haven’t said anything yet, and C) it started feeling weird.
The tension between Prince’s femme-positive affect and his assertive macho heterosexual antics makes for some good electricity. It’s absent here for instance, in this adorable white youth male attempting to recreate Prince’s “Guitar Weeps” Hall of Fame solo (and it ain’t bad at all, though really gets kind of boring by the middle).
Anyway I’m not sure what the hell to say about the Lady Issue, except that there it is. Prince has so much juicy gender-bending going on and has included such powerful women in his band that it’s funny that this issue, such as it is, should persist.
I do get the geek pleasure in comparing solos, but I’m a latecomer to it. I never really got that kind of giddy enthusiastic music consumerism till I got into old-time fiddle in my forties and had long discussions concerning Marcus Martin’s version of “Citico” with a dropped G string vs. Brad Leftwich’s in DGDG and Tommy Jarrell’s bowing lick, etc. etc. So I don’t want to play the woman card just because I haven’t put in the time in this particular arena. Trying to listen with Darin Strauss’s ears and hear the novelty of Prince’s take on guitar-codifying. Also been going through all Mark’s links and loving it.
It’s a valuable project. I keep getting drawn away to the videos of Chuck Berry schooling Keith Richards… I am more of a rhythm junkie—is it because I’m a girl?
Patti Smith at some point implied that electric guitar should be left to the men—I remember she said something about tits getting in the way, ‘who wants to be slapping your tits on the guitar’ or something Patti-esque. Naughty sexist Patti. In this dawning golden era of gender exploration perhaps we will move beyond these reified notions. But I do think it might just be a lot easier to have faith in guitar prowess when you have an actual meatstick to begin with for practice. It’s just a different motion, if you know what I mean. And the boob issue, sure. Or is it overwhelmingly cultural Whatever it is, it’s still happening. (And of course it happens the other way too—in my Medicinal Botany class Wednesday there were three men and seventeen women. What is it about herbs?)
In the “Weeps” video with the sweet aging white rocker dudes doing that relentlessly epic version of the song, Prince emerged like a drag version of rock guitar god. Taking the “gently weeps” somewhere a bit more explicit and calling it out. Like ‘we all know what George was really doing while he was looking at the floor.’ The sartorial originality helped but compared to the other links it does seem a bit silly.
I’m currently being amazed by this wonderful 2011 Rotterdam show. What is the song he’s doing at forty minutes in? I think it’s “Alphabet Street.” Those ostinato (spellcheck corrected it to “obstinate” which is also accurate) patterns going right into sparseness and out again—incredible. Incredible guitar playing. Not pointing to itself, just coming out of him. And a fantastic band. Thanks for making me do this, boys! Haha.
Indigo Street: Please accept my apologies for such a tardy entrance to this conversation.
I’ve never been a fan of all-star tributes, as they tend to strike me as tiresome and bloated, and often, in the pile up of frontmen, seem to obscure whatever is particular and great about the individuals in the first place.
A performance I saw at LPR a few years ago comes to mind—Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline—three guitar geniuses, yet somehow the result was a bit like if you took the yummiest pizza ever (Marc), covered it with Sashimi (Nels), and then tossed your grandma’s finest strawberry rhubarb crumble (Bill) on top. Ew.
By which I mean to say, I’ve been conveniently “forgetting” to watch this. But after reading Hannah’s contribution, I had to jump in.
So I want to start by addressing Hannah’s excellently put gender questions. Though female, my relationship to the guitar in particular and music in general has never fit into a characteristically female mold—I don’t enjoy rhythm guitar at all, and if you want me to play it, you need to tack an extra zero onto the check :). I naturally fell into the lead, or as I prefer to think of it, “decorative,” guitar role, as that’s where I feel most comfortable, engaged, and best able to express something meaningful, satisfying, and personal.
And yet, I also don’t feel at home in the more typically masculine interest in and glorification of wanky, shreddy solos. I’ve transcribed a great many solos, but have always been drawn in by melodic interest, or construction and composition, and never really motivated by the flash. For example, the first minute and a half of any Pat Metheny solo is usually brilliant, and then to my ear, increasingly boring as he moves from masterfully manipulating harmony and melody to senseless, formless shredding.
As far as I can tell, the difference is emotion. As a woman, and a particularly reclusive and musically self-directing one, I find myself caring exclusively about feeling. Which I think is pretty girly. Hannah? I want to be emotionally excited, and don’t really give a fuck about anything else. It so happens that what excites me seems to be a bit different, and at first glance a bit more “male,” than what excites most women, but I find myself, none the less, unimpressed by technique and bravado, and worshipfully devoted to whatever effects and moves me. And I’ll add, reluctant to limit or preconceive what may or may not fall into that coveted category.
That said, I felt deeply bored as i watched the once lovely old codgers paint by numbers through “My Guitar Gently Weeps” (a song I was never particularly fond of in the first place). Does it “sound good”? Sure. It’s very, very good. As Bill pointed out, the guitar parts are perfect, and Marc Mann (thanks for that, Bill) apes Clapton’s original solos note for note with perfect inflection. But do we care? Clapton, for me, though melodic and tasteful, is one of the most boring guitarists of all time, and the song just plods along, a bunch of sleepwalkers, serviceably resurrecting something that was once, long ago, alive.
What’s really capturing my attention at this point is Dhani Harrison. His jaw is tight, eyelids fluttering, he casts furtive glances at the others, clearly nervous as fuck, happy to be there, yes, but unable to relax, and certainly not enjoying himself. He reminds me of his dad, who always seemed dwarfed by his guitar and sweetly uncertain in contrast to the blustery, unwavering confidence of Lennon and McCartney.
The rest of the cast is opaque, lidded— they may or may not still be alive (or enjoying themselves) under their masks.
Enter Prince. My attention is piqued for the first time, initially because of the goofy outfit, but then quickly because he appears inhabited—he’s the first person on stage that appears conclusively alive. First of all, he moves. He steps up to the front and doesn’t recreate anything, doesn’t pay homage to anything, doesn’t seem to give a fuck about anything. He’s a laissez-faire punk, tossing a bottle through the plate glass window. Music doesn’t belong in a museum, and he wants you to know that if you’re going to ask him to perform for (or with) the ladies who lunch, he will oblige, but be prepared for broken glasses, beauty, mayhem, sex, and possibly a small fire.
But look at the result. Dhani is smiling. He’s laughing, moving to the music, head-banging? The tension is broken, and suddenly he’s having a ball. And everyone else is moving more, too. I’m now up on my elbows in bed, leaning closer to the laptop, giggling in appreciation.
Then the arch and perfectly orchestrated little dive backwards off the stage, some serious guitar faces, a lazy pause, and some more off the cuff, un-considered, baddass shredding. Is it a good solo? Does it fit the song? Is it tasteful? Do I “like” it? Again, I feel compelled to ask, do we care?
I don’t. I’m just grateful that I’m finally being entertained. I’m grateful that Prince is loose and free. Grateful that he’s happy in his own skin and prepared to be fully himself, and to fearlessly show that self on stage, on TV, especially when no one else is. Just as I find myself grateful to anyone who moves through the world this way, whether in their work or personal life.
Which brings me back to the gender question, and guitar taste in general. My impression?
Exposure is sexy. Risk and vulnerability create the conditions in which something truly beautiful, exciting, or new can come to be. Technique on its own is worthless. Feeling on its own can create moving work, but only inconsistently. It’s in the marriage of feeling and technique, specifically where technique exists and is developed exclusively in service of content, and not for its own sake, that the most exciting music is made.
I love a good shred, but only when to do so is to reach inside and move emotion around, to provide relief, to shake things up like a thunderstorm on a sweltering summer day.
My favorite Prince guitar work is his compositional soloistic parts, rather than the improvised solos. Virtuosic and compositionally awesome—maximum marriage of the two.
Strauss: But why is it a given that guitar solos are just a Guy Thing?
Sure, the iconography of the guitar hero is masculine. But it was a lovely ex-girlfriend—a self-described “super-feminine feminist”—who got me into Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. My sixty-four-year-old aunt spent the 70s and 80s as (of all things) a Jeff Beck fanatic. Not to mention Carrie Brownstein and St. Vincent (who evidently designed a guitar for women with “room for a breast.”)
There are some guitarists who display meathead tendencies—the Yngwies and Zakks of heavy-metaldom provide the obvious example—and I can see how off-putting that would be. But you can find the attributes that stand in opposition to such testosterony stuff—that is to say, delicacy, nuance, thoughtfulness—in lead guitar, too.
I put this forward as among the most perfectly gentle and pensive music I know. B.B. King, 1969, the Village Gate.
Rogers: Very briefly, I think this is one helluva good thread. So glad to hear from Indigo and Hannah. I agree with the growing consensus that Prince was another one of those great 20th century synthesizers of styles.
I’m learning so much and having my “first thoughts” challenged. I think it missed me that it was Prince on “Like a Virgin” and I did some digging (this thread does what every good thread does: I’ve been totally slacking on my work in favor of glorious rabbit holes all week) and there was again (perfectly tasteful and lightening up a heavy track) on “Like a Prayer.” I had forgotten how incredibly incendiary that video was and what a powerful piece of pop music.
He was just pushing everyone and every envelope imaginable. I was telling Mary last night that I think we’ll be excavating his civilization for many many years to come.
Hearst: Loving all the posts, though I must confess I’ve not clicked on a single link other than the original. Feeling over-linked at the moment, and in some ways, (perhaps it’s the feminine side in me), feeling less and less interested in guitar solos in general… not necessarily because of this chain. Yes, Prince is without a doubt a great guitar player (and perhaps an even greater showman). This we’ve established. And there are numerous great guitar players out there, though, like Hannah, I’ve always been much more of a fan of composition. In fact, playing hot licks and/or flashy guitar solos is right up there on my list of dislikes, alongside jazz flute and rock sax. Flashy guitar solos, no matter how impressive the player might be, can’t help but remind me of visiting a guitar store in the 80s and being subject to some dude trying out a new telecaster at a volume loud enough to make sure everyone is aware of his abilities to play Living Colour. I don’t recall ever seeing a woman in a guitar shop trying out solos on an electric guitar?! Something Dungeons and Dragons-like about the whole thing. But yes, so that male thing is there. And this is somewhat off-topic from the original Prince discussion, however I’m now super intrigued. Why is electric guitar (in particular, flashy soloing) such a dude thing? And then there’s the totally irony of so many flashy guitar players, especially of the glam rock era, being so incredibly homoerotic. Prince certainly exuded his share of homoeroticism, too. All very baffling to me.
Rogers: Hannah (and all),
So to maybe take the discussion out of the zero-sum solo (and keeping the focus on rhythm and how his guitar playing mirrors his entire approach to music), maybe the direction that we should head into in order to be productive is the riff and how he carried it past “classic rock”? The guitar riff is democratic and inclusive—both women and men have created great riffs without all the hubbub that comes with the solo. In his hands, the riff occupied the middle ground between the solo and rhythm. Everyone on this thread can attest that if you can play solid rhythm, come up with riffs that the whole band wants to join in on (in place of a solo), and solo like a demon… you’re pretty much a guitar hero in a lot of people’s eyes.
In short, Prince was a rhythm ace + epic solo hero + riff master = worthy of worship.
I loved his riffs in “When You Were Mine” (a stab at New Wave), the terrifying riff in“Darling Nikki”, the Egyptian motifs in “Gett Off” (he paired searing Mesa Boogie+Boss Heavy Distortion with a flute), the simple low blues riff in “Sign O’ the Times” and “I Could Never Take the Place,” the full band interlude riff in “Raspberry”… I could go on and on. My wife brought up the sitar riff in “Seven.”
Anyone have a favorite Prince riff?
Moody: I will say, in the spirit of Mark’s note also, that I have found the “shredding” argument, in which solo-ing in general, or more particularly in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame video of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” is merely gendered, only masculine, slightly reductive, as I have also, in another way, resisted the argument that “shredding” is beyond reproach as some highly refined definition of what great guitar playing is. Neither argument seems entirely adequate to the theme of the exchange (“Prince Rogers Nelson, Guitar Player”). Neither seems totally satisfying.
In this regard, I did, following Darin’s and Mark’s leads, suggest that we talk about “Kiss,” and the James Brown idea of the “chicken scratch,” as a different, parallel, counter-narrative idea of great guitar playing, in which being completely rhythmically one with the composition was the height of guitar playing excellence. That some arguments have been advanced, at this point, without reference to the “Kiss” video (either the “official” one that goes with the song, or any of the interesting live versions available now) makes this second argument kind of hard to support. Any argument about Prince that limits him to one idea of who he was as a guitar player, that is, or as a musician generally, misrepresents the scale of his achievement.
“Controversy,” a song by Prince, also quoted by Mark, kind of gets at the range of interpretive possibilities that might orbit around Prince Rogers Nelson:
I just can’t believe all the things people say
Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?
Do I believe in god, do I believe in me?
I can’t understand human curiosity
Was it good for you, was I what you wanted me to be?
Do you get high, does your daddy cry?
Do I believe in god, do I believe in me?
Some people want to die so they can be free
I said life is just a game, we’re all just the same, do you want to play?
Yeah, oh yeah
(Lord’s Prayer Section)
Love him, love him baby
Oh yeah, yeah, controversy
Controversy, oh yeah
People call me rude, I wish we all were nude
I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules
People call me rude, I wish we all were nude
I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules
The indication here is that an either/or or dialectical reading of the artist is an inadequate reading, and it was the case going pretty far back, well before the glyph and its arresting replacement of signifier with non-English language symbol. Beware of an interpretation of Prince that favors a simple, linear argument based on a small body of evidence. A compelling line, I think, “I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules.” While the “shredding” argument depends on what seems like masculine desire curve that is already in the condition of being surpassed by the “Am I straight or gay?” line, it also may depend on a black/white dialectic that is always inadequate with respect to the work at hand.
Which means, according to the way I think about these sorts of things, that Prince is frankly postmodern, always recursive, always toying with expectations of what he’s meant to represent, dashing off The Black Album to answer critics that his music is too crossover, or making a “psychedelic” album after his most populist masterpiece. He’s a gay-friendly androgynous performer who claimed to oppose gay marriage, an anti-drug crusader who died (it seems) addicted to opioid medication, a man who avoided cursing who wrote the song “Head,” and the song “Jack U Off,” an apostle of the epic party, who also wrote songs about religious feeling (like “Revelation” on HitNRun, Phase Two). Postmodern in the sense of Nietzsche, meaning no dialectic could contain him, all oppositions with their surfeiting third term that would render any reduction of material, any definitive meaning, pointedly less rich and less perfect as a description of what he did.
The glyph, in this sense, is like what Derrida calls the “transcendental signified,” the symbol beyond all other symbols, that meaning that can never totally be understood, because it is defined as the thing that cannot. Maybe the glyph enabled Prince to get out of a recording contract, but it’s so much more clever than that. He branded himself, he came up with an incredibly clever bon mot that has lingered ever after (“the artist formerly known as…”), and he dealt forcefully with the “slave name” problem that had been simmering ever since the Black Power Movement.
It is true, yes, that talking about Prince as a guitar player limits, apparently, a discussion of Prince as multi-instrumentalist (there is that video of him soloing on the bass that we have not talked about yet), or as producer, or as studio wizard, etc. But it is precisely the oddness of this way into the work that I thought would appeal to a bunch of people who really know a lot about music. What would be a shame is if all we did was talk about dissemination and the wanky solo. That was why I mentioned “Kiss.”
So I would like perhaps to turn to one most performance here, one Darin already linked to, and which I’m betting many of you have not watched yet, and that is the acoustic television performance that he did of “Cream” and some other stuff, in 2004, at, it would seem, the height of his powers. A solo performance, and therefore of the high-wire variety (no rhythm section to hide behind). The interaction with the audience is magnificent, the singing is strong, the guitar playing is wonderful, but in a way that doesn’t depend on the kind “peacocking” of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance. In my view, this is an incredibly lovable performance.
This particular piece of video again, for me, supports the idea that the major part of Prince’s creative thinking was about the nature of performance, with particular emphasis not only upon what it means to perform musically, but also about what persona is, and especially what persona is in the racially-charged environment that is the American popular song.
By suggesting we look at this of videotape, too, I do not mean to bypass Mark’s thoroughly admirable challenge, to speak to the riff as an important part of what might amount to guitar playing of note. I really, really, really love “When You Were Mine,” and its slightly tinny guitar part (a Telecaster on the “treble” pickup?) that becomes melody of the song. Just a perfect guitar part, really.
Hearst: Yes! This unplugged performance, for me, is perhaps one of the best showcasing of Prince’s raw talent, in particular for his banter with the audience, his singing, and his guitar playing. I first saw this video on a Facebook feed the day after he died, and in many ways it catapulted my admiration for Prince by leaps and bounds, placing him into superhero territory. I remember watching the eight-plus minute clip and thinking: When is he going to play one wrong note? When is he going to sing one pitch out of tune? When is he going to strum the guitar slightly off rhythm? It never happens! And to go back to the original title of this thread, “Prince Rogers Nelson, Guitar Player,” this video, in my opinion, is a much better example of how “his guitar playing (might be) part of the not-fully-understood key to his legacy.” But I also don’t think it’s any more a key to his legacy than is his singing, perhaps his compositions, and most definitely his character.
Janovitz: Oh lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.
I have to jump in with my defensive reaction. I also have always erred toward the composition over showboating, and I have a particular appreciation for rhythm playing. If for no other reason, because I had slow fingers, and no real desire to be a lead guitarist. When I was learning guitar in the late-70s, I resented the school of playing inspired by Eddie Van Halen and his ilk. He represented a real line in the sand.
But, as has been noted more elaborately in this thread, it really is not an either/or choice. I appreciate, for example, Neil Young’s songwriting, acoustic pastorals, and electric blow-outs, and his place in music as a singular stylist in his solos. I also love discussing the context of Brian Jones more or less introducing stinging Elmore James-informed slide playing to England, and what Mick Taylor’s inspired flights of lyricism brought to the Stones as his replacement. And to belabor the Stones example, it seems we all must dig the “ancient art of weaving” interplay of lead and rhythm that Ronnie Wood brought to the Stones, a whole new legacy.
Those of us influenced by punk rock should hold on to that healthy skepticism of the wanky solo. But we should not allow that to keep us from appreciating that long line of virtuosos, from Peter Green, to Jerry Garcia, Tom Verlaine, J Mascis, and Derek Trucks. Oh, and Prince!
All in service of the song.
Marcus: Great posts. I’m thinking about the race issue—I was watching the Keith Richards documentary where he describes Muddy Waters thanking him in the elevator at Chess Records for covering his songs and calling wider attention to Chicago blues. Chicago blues is somewhat more a shredding style as opposed to Mississippi blues, say? I’m thinking of the great R.L. Burnside vs. Muddy Waters or Buddy Guy.
Filtered through the Stones, Eric Clapton. Then Prince on stage at the Hall Of Fame with all the white dudes. Also thinking of Joni Mitchell, another kind of virtuoso. and his reverence for her. Wouldn’t mind talking a bit about that.
Strauss: …I agree with Bill, and Mike (hi, Mike!): the secret resides not just in the rhythm, the chicken-scratch mastery; and it’s certainly not just in the shredding, or even the more ruminative soloing; it’s the combo platter. That’s why I first posted that acoustic show. It demonstrates a player in command of it all.
Chet Atkins kept what he called a CGP list: a census report of the world’s best all-around guitarists. It was country-heavy and very short (Chet seemed like kind of a dick) and actually stood for “certified guitar player.” (I think he had five total on the list.) But that’s Prince: a CGP, a master of it all.
I’d like to go back to the masculine/feminine thing again, and answer Hannah’s last post, if I may.
1) Chicago Blues: the classic stuff is really not played in a shredding style. B.B. King was the first Chicago blues guy to focus on electric guitar virtuosity, and it’s not his fault that he was followed by a lot of frat-guy types and English droogs. And the others? Muddy Waters almost never solo’d; he’d play some slide intros that were perfectly integrated with the song. Howling Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson almost never feature any lead guitar, certainly not any flash guitar.* Which brings me to…
2) Not all lead guitar work is “shredding.” By shredding, I mean the hyper-masculine stuff with which many people here (rightly) have a problem. But whatever attributes we usually, with admiration, call “feminine”—sensitivity, a non-aggressjvenes that isn’t passivity; grace—can be found in the best lead guitar. That B.B. King link that I can’t get anyone to watch is a perfect example. As is the Prince of “Purple Rain” (as opposed to the Prince of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the HoF).
*Elmore James was a special case. He did solo, but it was often the same solo from to song, and was part of the architecture of any given composition. I love that guy.
Moody: I have also been thinking the last couple of days about the Prince and Miles Davis footage that Darin sent me not long ago.
And how curious and interesting it is—for the signs of what is useful to Prince from this interaction. I think there are vibes in the band, and there’s the big sort of R&B/fusion tag thing happening with the horns between portions of the solo. Some scat-singing that has a kind of Grover Washington/George Benson thing happening. Something that actually resembles jazz is not necessarily the first thing you associate with Prince, but he seems to have command over it (even if it’s the very accessible end of a jazz idiom), and he is, it appears, making it up mostly on the spot. Miles is, as Darin noted to me, not necessarily at the most productive stop in his career, and there are, as always, the vexations of the later careers of the jazz masters of the fifties (Sonny Rollins and the Calypso!), but Miles as always finds rhythmic accents in the piece that are interesting to me, and passing tones. I feel like the story of contemporary popular music is the story of the suppression of passing tones, and Miles, even in his slightly wan later period (like on that “Sun City” song) always has these bursts of tonal accidentals that are incredibly satisfying to me. Like here.
Prince, it bears mentioning, plays no guitar during the relevant passage.
Everybody probably knows that the whole last tour was supposed to be just piano and microphone, that is with no guitar at all. As the acoustic footage (“Cream”) is remarkable for its intimacy, it’s hard not to think that the piano and mic idea was incredibly gutsy. Maybe driven in part by economics—no band to pay—but also by what was physically possible (hip pain and/or, as some have suggested, HIV), but also really gutsy. Recreating band dynamics with just the piano always seems so scarcely feasible to me, no matter what Brian Wilson says. You have to be a really incredible singer.
What did it sound like? Below are some highlights from the last show.
Apparently it sounds a lot like the audience singing along throughout. Something about the compendium of cell phone videos feels really amazing to me, because it’s like, at the end, Prince started to vanish into the conception of his fans. He went from a guy who would control every possible digital release to a guy, who even on this last night, was becoming the multiple perspectives of himself. Moreover, the very fact that we have had this conversation is an indication of the shifting landscape with respect to his genius. In the old days, most of this footage we have watched would have been taken down quickly. And part of what happened with all that control was that the scale of his particular genius, the way he was represented, was always about understating particular instrumental abilities, such that he appeared more about the songwriting and more about the themes than about his abilities. Which is why the words “Prince” and “guitarist” always have the word “underrated” next to them.
But there’s also this to consider. A piano and mic (and bass and drums) recording of Joni Mitchell.
A really beautiful reconsideration of the song, in which not playing the guitar is central to the conception. We have alluded to the particular beauty of Mitchell’s tunings, and the open tuning of “A Case of You” is remarkable in this regard. But Prince removes the guitar altogether, and teases out the jazz flavors that Mitchell didn’t even know she had yet. Also the vocal arrangements are really nice.
The more I watch all of this stuff, the more is my conviction that you don’t see this much talent in one package very often, and with such a forceful, revelatory idea of what performance is. It is sort of the same as David Bowie, a horrible loss, because an idea of what a musician is, is dying off with these guys.
Street: It’s so moving to watch Prince just hanging out, dancing a little, digging Miles. It strikes me as quite unusual how deeply relaxed he always appears on stage, and how comfortable he is letting everyone else shine and take up space. The records always feel meticulously composed and orchestrated to me (in an great way), whereas the live stuff always feels very loose and free. I’m sure he was very much in control of it all, but not a tight fist, like one normally sees in a big, live show, where everyone knows their parts (even down to the solos), and plays them perfectly and the same every night. His is a deeper kind of control, more of a jazz approach. It seems his level of mastery over his instrument (his instruments being, in this case, his guitar, his voice, his physicality, sense of theatrics, and his band) is such that he can truly relax, breathe, and therefore improvise—really inhabit the moment, and therefore be truly alive and interactive with his onstage decision making.
I’ve always felt caught between the two worlds myself, and it just floors me to see his freedom. He’s a virtuosic punk, and a true artist, making something bold and personal of whatever he touches, right down to beautifully pulling off that simple and barely altered, yet wholly new, version of “Case Of You.”
I agree with you that one doesn’t see all of this (even a fraction of it?) in one package any more. I was trying to think about why that might be. I think it may be a more difficult time for the creative arts in general and music in particular. Maybe it’s just more difficult to feel free in our heads, to find the swaths of time and space necessary to develop such skills and deeply explore our chosen areas. So many musicians now go to four years of college for music, and therefore begin the journey with an external voice dictating good from bad and right from wrong, which still seems very strange to me. Then theres the skyrocketing prices of keeping oneself fed, housed, and taken care of medically, which coupled with the growing numbers of people interested in doing creative work, and the shrinking pay for that same work, has a lot of people who wish to become true artists scrambling for approval, and therefore, seriously muddled in the head.
Forgive me if this is off topic, but i can’t help but think about this stuff, particularly in reaction to that incredible freedom of his. Most artists I know and/or observe at close range, seem outright skittish these days. If they’ve got something thats “working,” meaning, paying the bills, they still don’t feel secure, and are therefore addled with worry over extending themselves into new areas, at the risk of losing approval. Yet often just as concerned that not extending themselves into new areas creates the risk of becoming tedious or irrelevant, and again, losing approval. I do have a few friends who don’t seem to be privy to these worries, but they’re musicians with a previously existing financial setup that cushions them from all of this, allowing them to spend years and huge sums of money in retreat, finding and developing the best their minds and voices have to offer, without the mind-numbing tedium of day jobs or pressure to tailor art to commerce.
Whatever the case, thank god for Prince and Bowie and Joni and Miles, and the unending inspiration such beautiful idiosyncratic artists have given us.
Marcus: Yes, yes. Your words really resonate Indigo.
But in exchange we have this overflowing, overwhelming, never-ending fountain of archived information—that is, YouTube and the Internet in general—to dip into at whim and volley around to each other. it’s a strange exchange.
Speaking of which, I got to wondering what newer artists Prince was into and I found a “top ten” list that included Kendrick Lamar. Here’s a video clip of them playing together in 2014 at Paisley Park—watch it fast if you want to see it because it seems like its being pulled from the Internet for some reason (rights?). Lo and behold there’s a lady burning it up on guitar; she takes a smoking solo toward the end. The whole thing is pretty great, I like it a lot.
Rogers: His fearlessness included a willingness to fail, a desire to explore, break the rules (“cuz U know that U are the best…”) and included the same willingness to depart from the subjective that Bowie had. He was willing to be someone else—his desire complicate gender and race–for arts’ sake.
We’ve been talking about this for a week but does anyone still know who this man (?) was? Will we ever? You can sit and talk about guitars and 16th note chicken scratches but as soon as you bring gender, race, class, morality, sexuality, nationality, religion (we have not touched much on his lifelong journey as a Jehovah’s Witness—Michael Jackson and the Jacksons were Jehovah’s Witness too) into it, he’s nearly impossible to “know.” We can do the postmodern two-step of deconstructing symbols and the text in order to get at the “truth” but any cursory read of the tenants of his faith could illuminate that they were deconstructing long before Derrida 1966. I think a lot of it is covered in 1999 and pre-Purple Rain era (I’ve been told more than once that the song is actually “Purple Reign” as in the Reign of Jehovah in Imperial Garb.)
Oh and Hannah—I think it is important to name that guitarist. I think that Donna Grantis might very well be Prince’s greatest legacy to guitar players. She more than held it down in 3rdEyeGirl. She showed her boss up more than once, according to my viewing.
When Lamar is on stage and they’re giving him sort of a “Voodoo Chile/Machine Gun” style vamp to support his flow, Prince is acting as the conductor of the band. He was asked what he enjoys playing these days the most and he said, “My band.”
And then Donna just rips a solo. Prince is all like “Oh, I’m just PRN. I’m sitting here behind the keys while this lady melts faces.”
I’m totally running out of time here—I have to thank all of you for including me in such a great thread. I’ve learned and seen so much in this past week. Rest in Purple, Prince.
Street: Wow, Hannah, thanks for that. Is anyone skilled enough at using a computer to be able to burn this before it disappears? Such a great video.And yeah, Donna Grantis (thanks for the name, Mark) is killing it. I love the way she plays the C section, that big open Hendrix-y bit. So I looked her up and found this. And it’s actually a good interview. She talks about the space around the beat (Check!), cites Wes Montgomery, Frisell, and Scoffield as influences, and gives it up to Prince’s own masterful command of rhythm. Pretty cool.