Prince’s Guitars: Behind the Axes That Changed Funk, Pop & Rock

August 3rd, 2016

This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on virtuoso guitarist Paul Gilbert and his insatiable lust for guitars and passion for sharing his knowledge, the story behind Creedence Clearwater Revival’s breakthrough year, a visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and much more., and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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THE BEAUTIFUL ONES: Like his music and his incredible life cut too short, Prince’s guitars were wild, weird, and wonderful.

By Alan di Perna | Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images

“I always wanted to be thought of as a guitarist,” Prince told me in 1994. “But you have a hit, and you know what happens next.”

In the weeks and months since the passing of Prince Rogers Nelson on April 21st of this year, countless commentators have analyzed his rich musical legacy from various perspectives. Journalists have riffed on Prince’s in-your-face sexuality, his fluid sense of gender identity, his race, his bold fusion of multiple musical genres, and his larger-than-life role in the pop culture zeitgeist of the Eighties and beyond. All these approaches have been useful in shedding light on a complex and prodigious talent.

But a topic that might have been far closer to the late artist’s heart is the guitar and his role in American vernacular music’s vast tradition of guitar-wielding frontmen. Yes, the guitar was just one of 27 or so instruments that Prince played. But it was an instrument that occupied a central place in his music—a vital thread that runs through all the myriad stylistic shifts that defined a career spanning some 40 years.

Synth-pop hits like “Call Me” by Blondie, “Cars” by Gary Numan, and “Funky Town” by Lipps, Inc. dominated the charts in 1980 when Prince broke through with his Platinum-selling debut album, featuring the single “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and his follow-up album, Dirty Mind, released later that year. His guitar-driven music, based around tight grooves and dazzling showmanship, helped the guitar maintain a dominant role in funk, R&B, and pop during that period. Unlike the work of Talking Heads, Devo, or many other Eighties artists, there was nothing “deconstructed” or “ironic” in Prince’s musical approach. Perhaps this is why he appealed to a much wider audience.

Prince’s guitar playing was hot enough to inspire comparisons with Jimi Hendrix as well. He was a boldly original stylist and, like Hendrix, had a knack for fusing influences already in the air—R&B, hard rock, new wave, and dance music—in new and exciting ways. And he was certainly highly original in his choice of guitars.

Early in his career, Prince became attached to a fairly inexpensive Japanese Telecaster copy—the Hohner MadCat. He purchased the Hohner from Knut Koupee Music in Minneapolis in 1980, and it remained his main ax throughout his entire career, even well after he’d made enough money to fill a room with vintage Fender Teles. The MadCat’s maple body has a shape identical to a Fender Tele body, but it has a thin strip of walnut running down the center, joining the two blocks of maple that make up the main body. The bridge is more like a Strat bridge than a Telecaster bridge, which contributes to the MadCat’s slightly different tonality.

Prince loved the guitar so much that in 1984 he commissioned New York luthier Roger Sadowsky to make him two replicas of it. “The only thing that was at all different,” Sadowsky says, “was that the top was flame maple with a hand-finished strip of walnut as the centerpiece.”

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