Iconic singer-songwriter. Musical genius. Renaissance man. Funk innovator. Slicker-than-slick dresser and dancer. These are all ways that we’ve described the late, great Prince Rogers Nelson since his untimely passing nearly a year ago.
But there’s one honorific that the we’re forgetting: Prince is the greatest guitarist of all time. Fight me.
Maybe it’s because The Purple One was a polymath talent who played every instrument on nearly all of his classic records, or maybe it’s just because he’s mainly thought of as an R&B singer rather than a towering rock god. The fact remains: Prince is regularly and criminally underrated as a guitarist.
Rolling Stone‘s top 100 list had him at a lowly #33, with some utterly ludicrous names ahead of him. Prince gets left all off these kind of lists all the time. Here’s a case for our dearly departed hometown hero using the 5 factors that define a guitarist’s greatness.
Aka “sheer unadulterated guitar-playing skill.” This should be a pretty easy case to make, as Prince was an apocalyptic shredder from the moment he burst onto the scene until the day of his untimely passing.
Observe, Exhibit A: “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad.” Prince was 20 when he wrote that solo. That’s four years younger than Jimi Hendrix was when he recorded Are You Experienced?.
Exhibit B: The year is 1985, and Prince sweeps the American Music Awards and rubs it all up in Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie’s faces with this thunderous clapback of a solo.
Exhibit C: Just in case you forgot about Prince melting 111 million faces simultaneously at Superbowl XLI, here it is again!
This is what separates session guitarists with incredible skill but nothing new to say from the true guitar-slinging elite. Again, Prince scores incredibly high marks here for his innovative approach to the instrument, single-handedly creating a new language for R&B guitar by ushering it into the synthesizer era.
Along with being an early pioneer in the realm of guitar effects pedals, Prince can lay claim to two signature sounds: The paper-thin, metronomic stabbing on tracks like “Controversy” and the blistering harmonized leads present on songs like “Let’s Go Crazy.”
The big secret about the usual “guitar greats” like Jimmy Page, Angus Young, Eric Clapton and the like is that they’re often one-trick ponies. Once they found a lane early in their careers, that was it. Even if we remove the significant factor that Prince was an exceptional pianist, drummer, and bassist, the Purple One’s sheer breadth of musical expertise on the guitar is dizzying.
The man could play everything from silky soul ballads to bombastic rock, and even stretched the far edges of the guitar’s sonic properties on more experimental tracks, like “Computer Blue.” Finally, if that wasn’t enough for you, the man was capable of captivating a room with just an acoustic guitar, and did so memorably during his MTV Unplugged performance.
Legacy and Influence
Flip on your favorite R&B record from the ’90s or aughts. Listen to the guitar. Who does it sound like? Yup. But let’s not stop there, what about your favorite hip-hop artists who used live guitar sounds on their beats? Prince again. Quite simply, Prince created the prototype for guitar sounds in the sample era, and his acolytes are innumerable and influential.
Just listen to Questlove talk about it in this panel discussion at NYU from last year. Even shredding rockers like Vernon Reid from Living Colour and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine followed the formula set out by Prince. Unlike Hendrix, who perished too soon to truly see the scope of his influence as a player, Prince was able to interact with his legacy, and even riff on sounds his disciples found.
The Defining Guitar Solo
For a guitarist to be truly the greatest of all time, they must submit a masterwork thesis. Hendrix had his performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Prince has the moment where he eviscerated Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, and a theater full of rock stars with a brain-numbing, stratosphere-shattering solo on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Watch poor Tom Petty’s face during the video. It’s the exact face that guys make right as they’re about to get dunked on in the NBA. A mix of admiration, fear and respect. This is the moment when Prince became the Greatest Guitarist of All Time. Hopefully, that guitar he threw headed straight toward the ozone layer and never returned to earth.