Prince died today. That alone probably has you digging through your record collection and/or iTunes playlists to tear through Sign o’ the Times and Around the World in a Day–and all number of tributes to the importance of Prince as an icon have already been crafted in response to the Artist’s death. And while we’re certainly sitting at our keyboards having just changed clothes so we’re dressed head-to-toe in purple and figuring out where exactly to get our “Love Symbol” tattoos as we reflect on what having drawn breath at the same time, on the same planet, as one of the most vital and transformative pop culture figures in memory–we’re also remembering that in addition to what he meant as a personality, he was also maybe the best guitar player to ever live.
That’s tall praise, of course, but don’t take our word for it: Eric Clapton, who would certainly be in the discussion for that title, bestowed it upon him in an interview (the sourcing of which may be apocryphal, but what kind of monster would bring that up today, of all days), when, after being asked the question, “What’s it like to be the best guitar player alive,” he responded, “I don’t know, ask Prince.” His prowess on the guitar is legendary. Sheryl Crow, who collaborated with him on the Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic album in the late ’90’s, told Billboard that “I’ve heard him play piano like Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock, move over to bass and play like Larry Graham, then play guitar like Jimi Hendrix or Buddy Guy.”
But the definitive proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and holy cow, what pudding it is. (Or whatever metaphor is appropriate–we’re in mourning.) Prince’s performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 might be the definitive confirmation of his absolute brilliance as a guitar player. While inducting George Harrison, he participated in a supergroup including Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, and Jeff Lynne, and emerged to transform the rendition of “While My Guitar Gently” from a nice tribute to the Beatle into a transcendent, utterly magical experience with a solo that stretched well over two minutes and made even the legendary talent on the stage with him seem like they were lucky to just be in the same room as the guy.
Prince didn’t just drop in on the performances of his fellow rock heroes like a guitar-slinging angel in order to demonstrate his virtuosity–but even at his own headline performances, he was fundamentally collaborative. That was on display in 2007, when he played the Super Bowl halftime show in Miami. The entire performance was epic in ways that befit the legend, but which couldn’t possibly be planned–Prince emerged to a downpour unprecedented in Super Bowl history (production designer Bruce Rodgers recalls that, when asked if he was okay to play in the rain, Prince asked “Can you make it rain harder?”) and performed a stunning medley. That medley didn’t just include his own hits, though–he also played a version of “All Along The Watchtower” that took the bluesiness of Hendrix and turned it into something that all of America wanted to hear, then seemingly randomly picked then-current Foo Fighters hit “The Best of You” to play, with a solo that presumably made Dave Grohl feel about two feet tall. Still, the performance of “Purple Rain” that night probably contained the most compelling Super Bowl halftime show moment in history (sorry, Left Shark)–when, as a marching band decked out in neon surrounded him, he asked the world, “Can I play this guitar?” then began to shred as his silhouette was blown up and projected to an audience of almost a hundred thousand people in the stadium, and tens of millions around the world.
Those latter-day Prince moments display plenty of Prince’s talent, but it’s not something he waited to unveil until the 2000s. Those were massive cultural moments that Prince somehow made bigger with his guitar and his very presence–but for pete’s sake, check out this display from a January 1982 show at the Capitol Theatre during “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” Prince keeps the guitar behind his back for the first three minutes of the song, then slings it forward at about the 3:15 mark, blisters through the song’s next minute like he’s possessed–down on his knees, back to back with his backing band, and utterly captivating.
Basically going through any live Prince performance will find you similar moments, and his own recorded discography will turn up plenty more. Dude opened “When Doves Cry” with a 10-second guitar solo before the track even really gets started, and the recorded version of everything from “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” to friggin’ “Batdance” has at least one “how the hell can anybody be that good?” guitar moment in it. (None of those recordings are available on YouTube, Spotify, or other streaming services, because Prince declared the Internet “over” in 2010, and was able to create a reality for himself where that was true.) His collection of guitars was legendary, from the “cloud guitar” to the surprisingly large number of guitars built to resemble his Love Symbol. While the world lost an iconic cultural figure who taught us a lot about different ways to perform masculinity, the importance of being funky, and how to be a sexy motherfucker–it also lost one of the finest musicians to pick up a guitar, and a creative force we’re unlikely to see paralleled in the near future.