Prince and the Disappearing Guitar Act

As the story goes, Eric Clapton was once asked, “What is it like to be the greatest guitar player who ever lived?” His response, “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask Prince.” It’s a great one-liner. It’s also completely made up. Another urban legend spawned from the information cesspool now known as the internet. Yet, while the anecdote may be false the overarching premise is spot-on. Prince most definitely was (and is) one of the greatest guitar players to ever strike a chord.

For most of us, Prince’s musical persona was shrouded in extravagance and mystery. His fashion trends, music, and death all shared a common thread—unpredictability. Prince routinely abandoned convention in favor of the egregiously unconventional.  His birth-name (Prince Rogers Nelson) was truncated and changed, then changed back, then truncated once more until all that remained was a symbol, difficult to draw and impossible to pronounce. Ultimately, Love Symbol #2 (as it was known) was abandoned and “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” became “The Artist Formerly Known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”—or just Prince for short. And yet to call Prince an artist places too much responsibility on the word “art” and not enough value on other words—like magic. In addition to being one of the greatest guitar players to ever live, Prince was a magic mystifier of the highest order. Case in point: The 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction of George Harrison.

To honor the legendary Beatle, an all-star cast of musicians were assembled to perform “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the iconic Harrison piece featured on The Beatles’ White Album. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is an amazingly bipolar number. Harrison’s vocals embody sadness and despair while the instrumentals are powerfully driven by a clanging guitar riff timed to a galloping drum beat, which at times resembles a thoroughbred’s cadence. The verses are heavy, yet the chorus floats weightlessly through the air. The bedrock of this juxtaposed landscape is a stunningly simplistic guitar solo, which epitomizes The Beatles’ musical philosophy—simplicity is the pinnacle of beauty. To cover any Beatles’ song is daring to say the least, to cover “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is futile.

The band for the induction ceremony included Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Dhani Harrison (George’s son), and Steve Ferrone (drummer for the Heartbreakers). Prince was originally recruited to play the seminal solo, but there were no guarantees. Rehearsals didn’t go well and Prince was taciturn. There were no clear indications that Prince would be playing the solo come showtime. For the moment, there was no magic—only mystery.

The curtain fell on a world that would be a little different (maybe even better) in six minutes time. The Beatles cover band (for the night) sounded, well, a lot like The Beatles—honest and unindulged. Petty carried the verse, while Jeff Lynne sang backup vocals and nailed the chorus with that heavenly falsetto, but there was one problem….no sign of Prince. Instead, the principle solo was played by Marc Mann, a guitarist in Jeff Lynne’s band. All signs suggested that Prince was absent, either literally or figuratively. As Petty and the band repeat the fade out lyrics: “Look at you all/Still my guitar gently weeps,” a figure appears from the shadows as if, well, by magic.

Prince Rogers Nelson is revealed, outfitted in a bright red Homburg hat, oversized black pinstripe suit, and red blouse. The spotlight shines brightly on a man who, seconds ago, was all but nonexistent. Describing the next three minutes of controlled musical chaos is an impossible feat. Let’s put it this way, the opening bars sound like enhanced interrogation of guitar strings—torture, in the best possible way. Prince beats his flamed maple telecaster into submission with dramatic string bends and sweep-picked arpeggios. The tele begs for mercy with loud and piercing wails, perfectly in tune. At one point Prince reverts to an Eddie Van Halen-like finger tapping technique which forms a bridge to a modern rendition of the original solo. One can only guess what Marc Mann was thinking.

The second half of the solo systematically defies the laws of physics. The energy that Prince expends into his instrument seems to revert back into his fingers. The first law of thermodynamics was temporarily challenged that night: Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, unless Prince decides otherwise. His body is a slave to the music—it does as it’s told. As a brutal round of hammer-ons ensues, the magician faces his crew and begins to fall off stage, but he’s not falling, he’s floating with the help of a mysterious assistant dressed in black. Petty’s face lights up like a kid who just ditched his training wheels for the first time. As he returns to the upright position, Prince gives us a personalized tour of some of the greatest guitar solo techniques of the last 30 years. The curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum, Craig Inciardi, was there to witness it first hand:

You hear what sounds like someone cocking a shotgun. There’s all these strumming power chords that really, really connected…. As he ends the song, he plays this flourishing thing that sort of ends up sounding a little bit like Spinal Tap, but in a good way.”

It ends as it began, mysteriously. A relentless string of hammer-ons and finger taps signal the closing chord for the band. As Steve Ferrone crashes the symbols for the last time, Prince lifts the leopard-print strap of his telecaster over his red Denton hat. As he divorces the instrument from his body you can sense the onset of Stockholm syndrome. A guitar, enslaved by man, begs for its captor. The axe seemingly continues to groan despite the absence of a player. For his final feat, Prince hurls his guitar into the air and walks off stage with a pimp’s strut. As Prince leaves, the telecaster soars towards the crowd and disappears as if called to the heavens by God himself. Ferrone was dumbfounded: 

I didn’t even see who caught it. I just saw it go up, and I was astonished that it didn’t come back down again. Everybody wonders where that guitar went, and I gotta tell you, I was on the stage, and I wonder where it went, too.”

In true magician style, Prince leaves as abruptly as he arrived. The band is left to the applause of a crowd who surely must have been reeling from stimulus overload. Prince’s absence in the closing moments only heightens the allure of his performance. Prince the magician danced on the edge of a mighty cliff that night; to cover a Beatles number so boldly was risky and could have quickly turned disastrous. Prince the musician was aware of the boundary and proceeded with caution while ostensibly reckless. He defied logic and reason—making the song his own without insulting or “showing up” the original creator. His presence of mind to include fragments of the original solo is a sign of respect and humility. The solo that almost never was, is a public display of mastery to a world naïve of his full talent. The artist and grand mystifier known as Prince gave the world a little more of something it desperately craves—unadulterated originality.

Prince would have been 59 last Wednesday.


Featured image by Derek Jensen

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