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Why Prince May Have Been the Greatest Guitarist Since Hendrix (and Why That Shouldn’t Seem Like a Surprise)

Prince was a black guitar god at a time when it had become unexpected to be a black guitar god.

Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a famous tale that’s floated around for years and has enjoyed a resurgence since last Thursday. The story goes that sometime during the 1980s, Eric Clapton was asked how it felt to be the best guitar player in the world, and responded, “I don’t know; ask Prince.” The story is almost certainly untrue (what the hell sort of interviewer would ask someone that question in the first place?), but the vaguely awestruck reverence with which it circulates, like some divine validation of Prince’s greatness, is irritating. Eric Clapton remarking in the 1980s that Prince was a better guitar player than him proves nothing more than that in the 1980s Eric Clapton was listening to Prince records. The story’s “punch line” relies on the implied unexpectedness that a) Prince was in fact a great guitarist; or b) that Eric Clapton was a Prince fan. In other words, it relies on some pretty pernicious assumptions about what sorts of people play guitar and what sorts of music those sorts of people listen to.  

Throughout his career Prince’s greatness as a guitarist was widely acknowledged but often as a sort of curiosity, which is the product of two developments that predated Prince’s late-1970s rise. The first was the electric guitar being reimagined as a predominantly “rock” instrument, and the second was rock being reimagined as an overwhelmingly white form. (To read more on the first check out Steve Waksman’s excellent book Instruments of Desire; to read more on the second, well, feel free to check out my own book, out this fall.) To this day, this has largely remained the case. In 2011 Rolling Stone magazine, probably the closest thing left to a journalistic wing of the classic rock establishment, published a list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists.” While there were a handful of black players on the list—Jimi Hendrix, of course, topped it—only three were born after 1950, one of whom was Prince himself.

By the time Prince emerged into superstardom, the notion of a post-Hendrix black rock guitar god had become more or less unthinkable to rock fans, who were mired in the throes of the “Disco Sucks” movement. (Never mind that the best guitar player on the face of the Earth in the late 1970s was probably Chic’s Nile Rodgers.) Purple Rain, the 1984 film and accompanying album that made Prince a superstar, brought the Minneapolis prodigy’s guitar chops to the forefront, literally: The soundtrack’s lead single, “When Doves Cry,” opens with a distortion-drenched run that’s one of the more breathtaking displays of virtuosity ever heard on the instrument. (In a recent interview with the Washington Post, ZZ Top’s great guitarist Billy Gibbons spoke of the many hours he’d spent over the years trying pin down that opening lick.) The movie included copious footage of Prince as guitar hero, from the torrential outro of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the soaring, gorgeous solo that closes “Purple Rain” itself.

But in years since Prince’s position in the rock pantheon has remained unstable. On Rolling Stone’s list, he ranked 33rd, five spots beneath Johnny Ramone, a guitarist widely beloved for not being very good. Any list like this is stupid, but this is really, really stupid. Prince may have been the greatest guitarist of the post-Hendrix era and often seemed to carry Hendrix’s aura more intrepidly than anyone, most notably in his incredible versatility. Our pop-cultural memory of Hendrix is dominated by gnashing feedback squawls and pyrotechnics both figurative and literal, a misguided belief that his signature moments were the last few minutes of “Wild Thing” at Monterey or quoting “Taps” in the early morning at Woodstock. But Hendrix’s true greatness lay in his ability to do almost anything and everything with the instrument, from the dreamy Curtis Mayfield-isms of “Little Wing” to the psychedelic frenzy of “Purple Haze” to the chicken scratches and pentatonic howls of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” to the sumptuous melodicism of “Burning of the Midnight Lamp.” Take a moment to watch this incredible footage of Hendrix covering Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1967 (also at Monterey) and marvel at the flawlessness of his rhythm guitar playing.

Prince could do all of this as well. As we might expect, his guitar playing is most frequently celebrated for its moments of showy heroism, such as his murderous solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in front of a bunch of classic rock luminaries at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. It’s great theater—writing in the New York Times Magazine last weekend, critic Jody Rosen aptly described it as “pure blood sport”—but as a rhythm guitarist Prince may have been even more monstrous. The album version of “Controversy” sprawls over seven minutes in length with a crispy-clean, dazzlingly intricate rhythm guitar part that you could set the world’s funkiest watch to. “Alphabet St.,” the biggest hit off 1988’s Lovesexy, boasts a guitar part whose tone is so bold and brassy it sounds like a New Orleans horn section, and moves like one, too. And for all his virtuosity, Prince also possessed exquisite taste, wielding the instrument with the care of a paintbrush. The snarling fills and flourishes that oh-so-gradually seep into “Sign o’ the Times” remind us that this song, with its drum machines and synthesizers and references to AIDS and nuclear war, is nothing more or less than a blues at its heart.

Prince was an incredible singer, keyboardist, and drummer, too, but as a guitarist he leaves behind a truly singular body of work. There are so many spectacular performances, but one I keep coming back to is one of his earliest. “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?,” the second cut on his 1979 self-titled sophomore album, was Prince’s first single that found him working in a “rock” vein, all snarling guitars and thumping backbeat. It failed to make the Top 40 upon its release, but it’s one of the finest compositions in his early catalogue, a pristine love song whose heartsickness is belied by its near-impossible musical exuberance. “I play the fool when we’re together/ but I cry when we’re apart/ I couldn’t do you no better/ Don’t break what’s left of my broken heart,” sings Prince going into the first chorus, lyrics that sound simple but couldn’t articulate their sentiment any more perfectly.

And then at the end of the song the solo happens, a solid minute of sustained instrumental greatness. The guitar is saturated in distortion but it warms rather than scalds, tearing through beautiful melodies and exquisitely crafted phrases. It has blazing 16th-note runs; it has sustained, soaring vibratos that absolutely sing. It’s all here, everything from Mississippi John Hurt to Sister Rosetta Tharpe to B.B. King to Revolver to Hendrix to Clapton himself, pouring out of the fingers of a 20-year-old kid. There’s a sort of joyous fury and defiant reclamation to it, like someone who’s just heard his generation flip out over Van Halen’s “Eruption” (released the previous year) and is letting anyone within earshot know that he could do that, too, but chooses not to. To paraphrase another Minnesotan out of context, it’s the sound of when he was hungry, and it was their world. But they were wrong—it was always his.

Read more from Slate on Prince.