Why Prince May Have Been the Greatest Guitarist Since Jimi Hendrix

Jack Hamilton writing at Slate:

There’s a famous tale that’s floated around for years and has enjoyed a resurgence since last Thursday. The story goes that sometime during the 1980s, Eric Clapton was asked how it felt to be the best guitar player in the world, and responded, “I don’t know; ask Prince.” The story is almost certainly untrue (what the hell sort of interviewer would ask someone that question in the first place?), but the vaguely awestruck reverence with which it circulates, like some divine validation of Prince’s greatness, is irritating.

Personally, I would have thought any questions as to Prince’s greatness on guitar would have been put to rest after his blazing solo to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from the 2004 Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony for George Harrison. Or, his incendiary February 4, 2006 appearance on SNL performing “Fury” from his album 3121.

Prince was an incredible singer, keyboardist, and drummer, too, but as a guitarist he leaves behind a truly singular body of work. There are so many spectacular performances, but one I keep coming back to is one of his earliest. “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?,” the second cut on his 1979 self-titled sophomore album, was Prince’s first single that found him working in a “rock” vein, all snarling guitars and thumping backbeat. It failed to make the Top 40 upon its release, but it’s one of the finest compositions in his early catalogue, a pristine love song whose heartsickness is belied by its near-impossible musical exuberance. “I play the fool when we’re together/ but I cry when we’re apart/ I couldn’t do you no better/ Don’t break what’s left of my broken heart,” sings Prince going into the first chorus, lyrics that sound simple but couldn’t articulate their sentiment any more perfectly.

And then at the end of the song the solo happens, a solid minute of sustained instrumental greatness. The guitar is saturated in distortion but it warms rather than scalds, tearing through beautiful melodies and exquisitely crafted phrases. It has blazing 16th-note runs; it has sustained, soaring vibratos that absolutely sing. It’s all here, everything from Mississippi John Hurt to Sister Rosetta Tharpe to B.B. King to Revolver to Hendrix to Clapton himself, pouring out of the fingers of a 20-year-old kid. There’s a sort of joyous fury and defiant reclamation to it, like someone who’s just heard his generation flip out over Van Halen’s “Eruption” (released the previous year) and is letting anyone within earshot know that he could do that, too, but chooses not to. To paraphrase another Minnesotan out of context, it’s the sound of when he was hungry, and it was their world. But they were wrong—it was always his.

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