Prince

For someone as multi-talented as Prince Rogers Nelson, it's hard to highlight any one as aspect of his dazzling craft. Singer. Writer. Dancer. Fashion icon. Producer. Multi-instrumentalist...

After all, he could move like James Brown. Sometimes bore a visual resemblance to Little Richard. Sang falsetto as sweet as Curtis Mayfield. Could shred and wail like Jimi Hendrix.

Yet as much as Prince's influences were pretty clear, he simultaneously remained unique. To fans of his guitar playing, he wasn't merely “underrated”: he was clearly the greatest guitarist of modern times.

Famously, Prince rarely gave interviews. When he did, they'd usually be for television where your average chat-show host is unlikely to ask about the influence of Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel. In Prince's own weird purple world, it's actually astonishing that, in mainstream media at least, his sheer musicality often sneaked under the radar. The TV anchors were more interested in his shoes.

Funk 'n' Roll

When it to funk guitar patterns, Prince often used classic 16th note patterns, often with mutes (“chukka” chords), “jazz” voicings (often m7s or m9s), doublestops and slid notes and chords (listen to “Kiss”).

This style wasn't exactly without precedent: listen to Sly and The Family Stone, Parliament/Funkadelic and Chic/Nile Rodgers for some earlier signposts on Prince's road.

It's interesting that Prince originally gave “Kiss” away to another Minnesotan band, Mazarati, after he struggled over a suitable arrangement. Bootlegs later circulated amongst fans suggesting “Kiss” started life as an acoustic blues (yup, not even Prince was infallible), but he just couldn't make the song work.

"I had that song for a long time," he said. "Changed it around a lot. Happens all the time.” But once he heard Mazarati's dizzying electro-funk arrangement, though, he demanded the song back – even retaining their backing vocals.

For his funkier tracks, Prince usually stuck to a very clean, glassy tone – despite the flamboyant custom guitars, his signal chain from guitar to FX to amp was actually relatively simple. Single-coils are your friend for regal funk.

Prince

Rock 'n' Funk

Jimi Hendrix, of course, remains something a key influence on rockier tracks, even down to the way Prince would flail/make a salute with his picking hand. For soloing, he often stuck to regular pentatonic scales, but his phrasing was always on the money and he had a strong vibrato, too. Importantly, he had a sense of the epic.

The soloing in “Purple Rain” is pretty “standard” in terms of notes, but is crammed with emotion, a storm of note flurries, yet never loses a grip on the melody. The “epicness” was writ even larger when he played a rain-soaked Super Bowl show in 2007. He'd earlier been asked by organizers if he was okay to play, to which Prince quipped "Can you make it rain harder?" He stole the show. Prince touchdown!

The likes of “Purple Rain” is classic Prince: passages of slow, aching notes interspersed with super-speedy flurries that would walk him into any shred band.

Want even more epic? Prince liked reserving it for TV shows. Again he stole the show, this time at the induction of the late George Harrison into the Rock Hall Of Fame in 2004. “You could see this was going to tear the roof off the place,” remembered Paul Shaffer later, who led the band that night. “But Prince kept a little something in reserve for the actual performance itself. He really did show what a great guitarist he was. He just killed it that night.

“Watching this clip always wrecked me for its/his sheer brilliance; tonight, even more so. The Kid could play. Never Doubt that The Kid could play.”

While Harrison's Traveling Wilbury bandmates Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty played “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with an air of respectful sombreness for their passed friend, >Prince launched into a lava-hot shred solo (from 3m 24s) that astonished everyone. Possibly even himself. Prince admitted he didn't really know the song. But it didn't matter. His bravura shredding face put a massive smile on the face of George's on Dhani Harrison, which completely validated Prince's “outrageousness”.

The Unheard Prince?

There's already much talk of how much music is in the Prince vaults yet to make it for public consumption. Perhaps, just maybe, there'll be an official release for The Undertaker from 1994. This is the live heavy rock guitar one-pass session Prince recorded with New Power Generation drummer Michael Bland and bassist Sonny T. It has been leaked in various forms, but it's incredibly rare.

Prince originally intended to give this live CD away free with 1,000 copies of Guitar Player magazine in 1994 (and upload it to iTunes), but was reportedly barred from doing so by his label Warner Bros. The Undertaker includes a cover of The Rolling Stones' “Honky Tonk Women”, an updated recording of "Bambi" (originally from 1979's Prince), while "The Ride", "Zannalee", and "Dolphin" would all be re-recorded for future releases. For guitar-head fans of Prince, it remains something of a Grail.

Maybe it was Prince's sheer diversity that made his 6-string prowess overlooked? Sheryl Crow, who collaborated with him on the Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic album in the late ’90s, 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.” That was Prince's “problem”, maybe. He was too damn good at everything.

In an interview, Eric Clapton was once tritely asked, “What’s it like to be the best guitar player alive?” Clapton simply responded, “I don’t know, ask Prince.”