Photo Illustration by Nigel Evan Dennis
As a musician, Prince could do anything (he played 27 instruments on his first album) and lead anyone—from the Revolution to the New Power Generation to 3rdeyegirl. Here’s a cheat sheet that distills the elements of his genius.
1. Guitar Hero
Prince is No. 33 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists. He starred in a number of the most iconic moments in guitar-playing history.
“If they really listened to my stuff, they’d hear more of a Santana influence than Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix played more blues. Santana played prettier.” — Prince, from a Rolling Stone story on the Hendrix comparisons that followed him throughout his career.
Prince’s Most Epic Guitars
- Purple Love Symbol guitar, played during his iconic performance of “Purple Rain” at Super Bowl XLI.
- Cloud guitar (four variations). The white version appeared in the film Purple Rain. The yellow version currently resides at the Smithsonian.
- Auerswald Model C, played in the Lovesexy era.
- Hohner Madcat Telecaster with leopard-print pickguard, played on multiple albums, including Controversy and Sign ‘O’ the Times.
The time he played one of the greatest solos ever: In 2004, George Harrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the same time as Prince, who was invited to join Tom Petty, George Harrison’s son, and others to perform “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Before the performance, Prince was talking with the producer and director of the ceremony, Joel Gallen, to work out where his guitar solo would fit. Prince told him not to worry and then, without rehearsing it, went on to perform what Gallen called “one of the most satisfying musical moments in my history of watching and producing live music.”
2. Studio Wiz
Prince could do it all in the studio. He produced a lotof his own music, could play countless instruments,and was an ace drum programmer and sound engineer. "We live in a singles-driven market,” he once told Arsenio Hall, “but, you know, I come from the old school of making albums, and that’s what I love.”
“Prince’s greatest gift to hip-hop—and most post-civil rights R&B—was his peerless and boundless ability to program and mix drum machines. He used his guitar effects to get new sounds out of them. He often substituted sounds for others (high-pitched tambourine was hi-hat, snare rim shot were congas, lowered cowbells were tom-toms). Not to mention, the actual programming was done so precise you too thought it was done by a human.” — Questlove, from his article “33 Reasons Why Prince Is Hip-Hop” for Wax Poetics magazine
7 essential Prince Albums
7 Essential Prince Albums
- Dirty Mind (in which he invited new wave to the party)
- 1999 (synth-funk masterpiece)
- Purple Rain (his opus)
- Sign ‘O’ the Times (his other opus)
- Emancipation (three discs of soul, jazz, and symphonic pop)
- Musicology (killer songwriting)
- 3121 (features “Black Sweat” and other dance floor jams)
The time he created the song “Dirty Mind” in one night: While recording Dirty Mind, Prince invited Revolution keyboardist Dr. Fink to his home studio to record a part for a song. When Fink was finished, Prince asked him to leave. “The next day, he showed up with a recording of the song finished—vocal, lyric, melody, bass, guitar, edit, everything,” Fink once told Reverb magazine. “He did all the engineering himself. He played it for the band and said, ‘This is the title track of the next record.’ That was ‘Dirty Mind.’ That’s how he worked.”
3. Virtuoso Bandleader + Transcendent Performer
Like James Brown and other funk pioneers before him, Prince was a demanding bandleader who craved perfection in rehearsal and onstage. His focus and drive often translated into live performances for the ages.
“He believed that you have to be noticed in order to be heard, and so he certainly was.” —Garrison Keillor, eulogizing Prince on an April 23, 2016 episode of A Prairie Home Companion
5 Essential Prince Performances
- Capri Theater, North Minneapolis, January 5, 1979 His first major local show wasn’t perfect but still left local critics comparing him to Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and Mick Jagger.
- Capitol Theater, Passaic, New Jersey, January 30, 1982
- First Avenue, Minneapolis, 1983 Prince and The Revolution debuted many of the songs that would end up on Purple Rain, including the titular single.
- “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” performed at the 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
- “Purple Rain,” performed at Super Bowl XLI, 2007 You remember it—the actual rain, the metaphorical rain, the blistering solo performed in high heels.
The time he showed New Jersey who was boss: Google “Prince 1982” and get ready for an hour of Controversy-era funk jams performed at a mid-sized theater in New Jersey. There’s simulated sex with his guitar, telepathic communication between Prince and his band members, and self-aggrandizement to spare (see the gospel-inspired intro that talks about the coming of “His Purpleness”).
4. Master Songwriter
In addition to writing his own hits, Prince penned tunes for Madonna, The Bangles, Stevie Nicks, Celine Dion, Alicia Keys, and many others.
“He wrote my favorite song of all time, ‘When You Were Mine.’ It’s a simple song with a simple melody that makes you wish you thought of it first, even though you never would have—a flirtatious brand of genius that feels approachable.” — Frank Ocean, eulogizing Prince on his Tumblr page the day Prince died
Songs About His Favorite City
- “Uptown” Everybody’s going Uptown | It’s where I wanna be
- “Calhoun Square” But it’s time for you and me to wonder | Why we’re here | Maybe we should roll to the rock and rumble | Calhoun Square (Let’s roll)
- “Laydown” From the heart of Minnesota | Here comes the purple Yoda
- “Purple and Gold” Forever strong as the wind that blows the Vikings’ horn | In the name of the purple and gold
- “Rock ’N’ Roll Is Alive (And It Lives in Minneapolis)” Sure as the drive around Lake of the Isles is cool I know | (Oh) | Rock ’n’ roll will never die like the Minnehaha flow
- “Call the Law” North side Minnie, Twin Cities, mid-summer on the scene
- “White Mansion” Back to Minneapolis, there you go | You can’t find your house underneath the snow
The time he wrote Lisa Coleman of The Revolution a love song: Coleman lived with Prince on and off for a couple of years, and one day the two had a fight, after which he suggested she should find her own apartment. “I left the house and drove around for a while,” Coleman told the Star Tribune. “When I got back, he had written me a whole song. It was so cute. The lyric was, ‘I guess I have a strange way of saying I love you.’”