Dreaming in Paisley: The Royal Gear of Prince Rogers Nelson

Born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958, Prince became a driving force in the pop scene in the ‘80’s. His interest in music began early in life and in 1978 he released his debut album For You at just 17 years old. This was quickly followed up in 1979 with his platinum sophomore release Prince.

From there, his success continued with his next three albums, as well as the release of the Purple Rain and its accompanying soundtrack. Prince was giving even Michael Jackson a run for airtime on MTV and his controversial lyrics and erotic live show continued to keep him in the spotlight. Besides his multi-instrumental talent, he is also has produced artists such as Sheila E., Carmen Electra, the Time, and Vanity 6. Throughout his career, he has been controversial and enigmatic, from pushing the boundaries of public decency to changing his name to a symbol; Prince has kept himself in the public eye despite a slump in album sales in the mid ‘90s.

Combined with his flamboyancy, this behavior is what first comes to mind when Prince’s name is mentioned, along with the melody to “Little Red Corvette,” among others. What isn’t always apparent is his astonishing instrumental talent. He could play practically any instrument with style and does most of the writing, arranging, and recording of every instrument on his albums; he played all 27 instruments on his debut album as well as writing and producing the entire thing (the song “Soft and Wet” was co-written by Moon) himself.

We’re guitarists and as such, we are interested in his guitar playing and his gear. One thing that is overlooked in lieu of his eccentric behavior and odd-looking custom guitars is just how well the guy can rock an ax!

The Technique

Prince

Prince was much more than just a guitarist. He is a composer and producer with the ability to conduct a group like it was a symphony. His instrumental abilities supersede most mortals and his guitar playing is no exception. He is extremely skilled and well-versed in many styles and by not tying himself to any particular one he has total freedom in songwriting and expression in his music. He is a master of call and response, using two instruments or an instrument and vocals to play off each other in what could be called an instrumental “conversation.” Prince was an accomplished funk guitarist with a unique sense of when to throw in a classic rock solo. His melody and texture can be felt in most every note he played. He knew how and when to shred but most of all, he seemed to know how to make every note count, something not many guitarists can claim. He was also a fan of awe-inspiring sustained notes and bends, knowing how to use his fingers and volume to get unending sustain and feedback control. This added up to a ranking of number 27 on the list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time by Rolling Stone.

He has been compared to legends like Hendrix and Santana for his extravagant bends and vibrato as well as his harsh stabs and guitar grunts. Though he loved to play fast, every note is accounted for and they all have feeling. From gorgeous acoustic to ‘80s shred, Prince seemed to have no limits on what he can make a guitar do.

The Gear

Given that Prince had a career spanning over three decades, the list of gear he has used is surprisingly short; he seemed to have his mainstays but there has been some rotation throughout the years. His philosophy was that everyone should find their own tone, so he didn’t go out of his way to be forthcoming with his rig contents. There is some info out there but it’s not exactly easy to track down, and the timeline is somewhat confusing unless you saw him live many times throughout his career.

Amplifiers

One brand that seemed to have made an impression on him is Mesa/Boogie—he had been seen playing several models of Mesa/Boogie amplifiers throughout the years such as the Heartbreaker, Nomad, and Lonestar as well as a Strategy 500 power amp paired with a Soldano/Caswell preamp. These Mesa heads were usually paired with either Mesa Recto 4x12 cabs or Marshall 4x12 cabs loaded with Vintage 30s. Earlier in his career, there is evidence to suggest he was playing through Soldano SLO-100 heads and he had also been seen playing Orange AD140HTC heads with Orange 4x12 cabinets. He had also been known to play through Peavey 5150 4x12’s loaded with Electro-Voice speakers.

Guitars

A part of his rig that has stood out for a good portion of his career is the guitars. Known for the unique Cloud guitars as well as his Symbol guitar, Prince’s instruments reflect his personality and stage presence. Let’s have a look at some of his main axes.

MadCat H.S. Anderson/Hohner Telecaster

One of Prince’s mainstay guitars that he has been using since the early ‘80s is the Hohner MadCat Telecaster, a Japanese-made Tele copy. These were designed in the early ‘70s by H.S. Anderson, and later, the rights were sold to Germany’s Hohner. Production then stayed in Japan but kept the Hohner logo. The MadCat had a 25 ½-inch scale, two single coils and a fixed bridge with a maple body built with a walnut strip down the middle. The front and back were book-matched maple with faux tortoiseshell binding and a leopard print pickguard and plastic pickup ring. The proximity of the bridge pickup to the bridge itself produced a unique tone that had the perfect funky honk, causing Prince to fall in love with it. He owned several MadCats, most of which have had the neck replaced at one point on account of him wearing them out.

Cloud Guitars

The Cloud guitar was first seen in the movie Purple Rain. There were four of these originally built by David Husain, a luthier at Minneapolis music store Knut Koupee. This unique-looking instrument caught Prince’s eye as well as his fans. The original Cloud guitars boasted all-maple, neck-through construction with Love Symbol inlays at the fret markers. They had a 24 ¾-inch scale length with 22 medium jumbo frets and a 12” radius. They were loaded with an EMG 81 in the bridge position and an EMG SA single-coil in the neck position with one volume, one tone, and a three-way pickup selector. The Cloud guitars had a brass nut and truss rod cover and Schaller hardware was gold-plated.

Only four were ever played by Prince throughout the years, though there are replicas in the some Hard Rock Cafés around the world. These were built by Prince’s guitar tech at the time, numbered, and included a Certificate of Authenticity but were not actually played by Prince himself. Schecter was also commissioned to build replicas that were available only through Prince’s website and at his live shows. These were available in bolt-on and neck-through body types with Seymour Duncan-designed pickups and Grover machine heads. Some later examples of these had a 25 ½-inch scale and were missing the brass nut and truss rod cover.

Love Symbol Guitar

Perhaps the most standout guitar model in Prince’s stable is the Love Symbol. Originally built by German luthier Jerry Auerswald, the original was made from antique maple and painted gold. It is a neck-through design with 24 frets, a 24 ¾-inch scale, and the same EMG pickups as the Cloud guitars. The bridge was made by Jerry and was equipped with Schaller M6 machine heads.

Two copies of the Love Symbol guitar were built by the man’s techs—a white and a black one. These were made from mahogany and as such, they were not very durable, especially considering that Prince loved to throw his guitar up in the air and let it crash to the stage. As such, the lower horn on the white model has been reglued. Other models of the Symbol were built by Schecter in its USA facility, with one being equipped with a Floyd Rose.

These are the most recognizable guitars in Prince’s stable but he has also played a Les Paul Jr. covered with fake fur, a Lake Placid Blue Stratocaster, Dark Blue Telecaster with flowers, a George Benson autographed Ibanez archtop, and Auerswald Model C guitars equipped with sustain bows.

Effects

When it comes to effects, Prince seems to like Boss—nearly all of them! While it very well could be that Prince owned the entire Boss line of effects, he is commonly seen with the BF-2 Flanger, BD-2 Blues Driver, OD-2 Turbo Overdrive, MT-2 Metal Zone (yep), DS-2 Turbo Distortion, VB-2 Vibrato, DD-3 Digital Delay and OC-2 Octave.

Along with his love of Boss effects, Prince was a regular user of the DigiTech Whammy, Dunlop Crybaby Wah (though he had been known to use a Colorsound Wahas well), and Line 6 MM4 modulation modeler. He had also been known to occasionally use the Dunlop RotoVibe, Roland GP-16, and Zoom 9030.

Prince was much more than just a guitarist but often his skill was overlooked in lieu of his extravagant live shows and pop sensibilities. As guitarists, we felt it only proper to give some love to one of the industry's greats, his majesty Prince, for his stellar musical abilities but also for his mastery of the six-string. Thanks for the memories, Prince Rogers Nelson.

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