A fully matured maestro of the guitar who was taken from us too soon

By Vicente Mateu

The stereotyped image of a late 20th century James Brown surrounded by beautiful, explosive women ended up eclipsing the many other sides of Prince we knew. Behind the Louis XVI style frills of his vividly coloured shirts beat the heart of a creative, provocative talent who left a visible mark on the music of the last three decades. Jumping off from rhythm & blues, Prince Rogers Nelson blazed the trail for funk, soul, rock and wherever else you care to look. A total artist, who sang, danced, performed and played everything that was put in his hands. But above all else, he was an exceptional guitarist, a tremendously talented player who never came close to running out of ideas on the incomparable solo of Purple Rain. An exceptional composer and spectacular virtuoso, his genius is only comparable to someone like Frank Zappa.

Something went wrong recently. What was officially labelled the "flu" that had been bothering him for a few weeks suddenly developed complications in some mysterious way that caused his death and have yet to be explained.  Just a few days before his body was discovered in Paisley Park, his home-studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota, his plane had to make an emergency landing so he could be rushed to hospital for treatment. Something went wrong because, despite his complicated birth and the fragile appearance of a man who only stood 158 centimetres tall (5 foot 2 inches), Prince wasn't exactly among the ranks of the numerous candidates who took it upon themselves to make us suffer even more in this star-killer year of 2016.

Curious fact: The 'anecdote' of his extended birth. A medical error that left him stuck halfway out of his mother's open abdomen during a Caesarean delivery for practically 24 hours split his biographers into two camps over whether his birthday should be the 7th or 8th June 1958. A pointless argument that unfortunately lost what little sense it may once have had on the 21st April 2016, very close to where it all began in his beloved Minneapolis.  

His death also just doesn't dovetail with someone who very recently signed a juicy contract with a major record label and was set to relaunch his career, who had just finished recording the latest of who-knows-how-many albums in his career and was booking concerts all over the world. It just doesn't fit, even with the dance party he organized at his home on what turned out to be the final weekend of his life. It was a party for friends and neighbours only, announced just a few hours beforehand on Twitter, to prove the rumours about his health were untrue. To make sure that the party was on record for posterity, Prince invited a journalist from the Minnesota Star Tribune, who left us this account of that night.

Prince wanted people to know he was still alive. That was the excuse for a party where he really only appeared to show off his new Yamaha piano and spectacular new guitar. For now, we only know the metallic purple guitar was made in Europe... and he unfortunately never played it during his brief appearance. Quite the jewel for collectors to treasure.  At least he left us a photo of his other new instrument on his Twitter account.

Prince shined with particular brilliance on guitar, as he did on all the instruments he could play so well before he turned 18. But the guitar was his favourite. So much so that in the days prior to his death he steered clear of it because he only wanted to play piano, just piano exclusively, looking to perfect his playing for his new show and the guitar distracted him too much.

It was enough for this child of two musicians to "produce, compose, arrange and perform" his early albums, the lord and master of the recording studio. His pre-eminence quite often bordered on arrogance, the aura of mystery he manufactured was worthy of Michael Jackson and the two of them certainly could have shared a psychiatrist. Prince battled his physical frailty, aside from sporting sky-high platform boots, by overwhelming everything before him with an undeniable talent that his peers had no choice but to acknowledge, and an egotism that wound up turning against him.

His burning desire to achieve creative independence led him into a commendable battle against the industry for fair treatment but it exacted a heavy toll on him. At this stage of his career, his superstar status gave him the luxury of fighting his own war without the risk of ruining himself. Purple Rain would take care of keeping the money flowing in. 

But this was a difficult period that probably was the cause of his 'identity crisis'. Apart from the legal questions, after the ‘disappearance’ of Prince and his metamorphosis into a symbol, he was never the same during that phase or apparently after returning to use his name shortly before he died. Maybe it fuelled his ego and nourished his legend, but it wiped him off the map. His reputation was still intact, his appearances to promote some beautiful babe with a pretty voice were always a success, and he preserved that flair for turning everything he touched into gold. 

However, his music vanished for a general public that paid little attention to the New Power Generation and the other projects he embarked on in the '90s. Albums full of funk-rock, most of them superb, that he brought to the 21st century through the back door by deciding to sell them only through his own website. Laudable but maybe just a little impractical.

Something that someone like Prince, who travelled to concerts in his own private jet, surely couldn’t have cared less about. To celebrate the new millennium, he became a Jehovah's Witness and composed one of his strangest albums, The Rainbow Children -number 24 in his official catalogue-, where he experimented with free jazz that dances with a “James Brown” only he was capable of reviving. That was in 2001 and, perhaps most importantly, he released it under his own name again.

In just a little over two years, a rejuvenated Prince made sure everyone found out he was still alive and kicking by releasing  Musicology, a critical and commercial success that earned another Grammy nomination. He was back.

The hyperactive Prince literally invaded the market with one album after another, promoting not one new singer but three at the same time. Most importantly, he scored a fistful of hits in the face of record labels that denied him access to the standard sales channels.

finally came full circle in 2013 by signing a contract with his archenemy, the same Warner Bros that had made his life impossible over the last two decades.  By chance or not, it happened to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain and the release of the special edition re-issue. That was the way a war with no clear winner ended or, to put it another way, there was only one victor, the presumed victim all those years: the music. 

The multinational stopped losing money and the artist apparently would continue doing whatever he felt like doing. For example, he could release a great album like PlectrumElectrum (2014) with 3rdEyeGirl, his new protégés, and not even put his name on the cover.

Although that didn't worry Warner so much as the fact that Prince had moved towards heavy metal with his three female musicians. Into heavy funk to be more precise, with displays of his guitar technique that inevitably recall Jimi Hendrix in every way. Prince, a genius to the end, surprised everyone again. PlectrumElectrum is a mandatory lesson in the mysteries of an electric guitar with its own image – the Auerswald Symbol Guitar- and above all, its own voice.

A voice that reached its moment of full maturity, the wisdom from seeing that turning 60 was just around the corner, in all its glory and that we have now lost. Prince will always be remembered for the great songs that made him a legend 30 years ago, but it's much more interesting for readers of Guitars Exchange to explore the last 10 years and discover various 'theme' recordings dedicated to the six strings that you can learn many things from.

One example is the first CD of the triple CD set Lotusflow3r, conceived as a kind of master's conference on Prince's technique. Essential.

Practically all of Prince's work revolves around our favourite instrument. From his very earliest records to the last CD, HitnRun Phase Two (2015), his guitar almost always ends up appearing in the climax to virtually every album. The jagged riff to Bambi on his second album, Prince (1979), clearly reveal the sources this young guy ready to conquer the world was drawing from.

A full lifetime later, with the NPG backing him, his death closes a career featuring great songs like Screwdriver, a slice of rock ’n’ roll that Jagger would have killed for. Prince continued to surprise us with new ways of making his guitar speak, even on the dance floor. As if that was now the most important thing in his life. His sudden silence robs us too soon of a new Prince: the maestro.