Prince’s Relationship Status Gets Complicated on ‘Guitar’
If you polled Prince fans about the greatest guitar solo in his legendary career, dozens of songs would be wildly debated, from the opening riff of “When Doves Cry” to the dusty blues of “The Ride,” the first 13 minutes of the Small Club bootleg to the crescendo of “Purple Rain.” But even of you made the list 100 songs deep, one single that would not make the cut is actually called “Guitar.” That song, the second track on Prince’s 32nd album Planet Earth, amplified quite a few of Prince’s many complicated relationships at the time.
“I always wanted to be thought of as a guitarist,” Prince told Alan di Perna in a 1994 interview for Guitar Aficionado. “But you have a hit, and you know what happens next.” For Prince, that meant 18 years of consecutive hit albums between 1978’s For You and 1996’s Emancipation. For these records and other side projects, Prince played most of the instruments, more than 25 in total, with his guitar typically front and center. For the rest of his career, guitar pyrotechnics that drove his live shows became less frequent in his studio recordings in favor of synths, piano and programmed rhythms. “Guitar” showed up smack dab in the middle of his last act, and while the lyrics are an ode to his love of the six-string, the musical arrangement is all talk and no action. When an actual guitar solo shows up past the three-minute mark, the song inexplicably fades out.
According to PrinceVault, “Guitar” was likely tracked in November of 2004 during a three and a half hour monster session that resulted in a full album’s worth of songs including the title tracks of two future albums, “Planet Earth” and “3121." An alternate version of the song was released five months prior to coincide with Prince’s Super Bowl appearance. The album version was released in an exclusive download deal with Verizon Wireless.
The Verizon promotion, and the decision to distribute Planet Earth for free in the U.K. and Ireland as a cover-mount CD in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, contributed to Prince’s eroding relationships with record store retailers, instrumental partners in Prince’s success at the peak of his career. Instead of patronizing a record store, Prince fans in the '00s could get his albums for free with a concert ticket purchase or by joining his NPG Music Club online service, which ran from 2001 until 2006.
Many U.K. retailers refused to stock Planet Earth. Only late in his career did Prince extend an olive branch through a revised deal with Warner Brothers that continues to this day with the release of Originals (but even that deal gave a two-week jump start to online streamer Tidal).
Perhaps one of the song’s greatest gifts is finally revealing the identity of the true love of Prince’s life. His lovers included pop stars, movie stars and a full roster of protégées, not to mention two wives and a storied relationship with the Family lead singer Susannah Melvoin, twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy. “I love you baby, but not like I love my guitar" alludes to the fact that music was where his heart was all along. He spent the majority of his life in studios, rehearsal spaces and concert stages; he died alone in his beloved Paisley Park.
Lyrics further into the song note another of his troubled relationships – the one with himself. “I’ll write a letter when I learn how to spell / Until that day you can go to," Prince goes silent for a beat in the song and winks to the camera in the video, but what he doesn’t say here speaks volumes as to where he was at the time. Setting up the word “hell” but not saying it seems quite bizarre. The word was widely used on television long before Prince even hit the scene. But after converting to the Jehovah’s Witness faith, Prince disowned much of his spicier material, changing Controversy's “Sexuality” to “Spirituality” and later on, “The Cross” to “The Christ." Prince bypassed this controversy altogether in the alternate mix of “Guitar,” replacing that line with “I know I planned a trip, but then I fell in love with something else.”
Back in the '80s, Prince’s Dirty Mind was perfectly paired with an equally naughty guitar. Remember the guitar used on the Purple Rain tour – the one that climaxed onto the audience mid-concert? Contrary to popular belief, that wasn’t a guitar-shaped water gun in Prince’s hand. It was a specially engineered guitar that squirted Ivory dish soap.
“We ran copper tubing inside the neck, alongside of the truss rod, that terminated right at the tip of the headstock,” engineer Roger Sadowsky told di Perna. “The tubing extended into the body, where we routed a cavity where they could retrofit their valve mechanism. And it had an extra hole in the side for the pressurized hose to come into that cavity and connect to the valve.”
That particular guitar was a replica of one of Prince’s all time favorites. Alan di Perna notes, “Early in his career, Prince became attached to a fairly inexpensive Japanese Telecaster copy—the Hohner MadCat. He purchased the Hohner from Knut Koupee Music in Minneapolis in 1980, and it remained his main ax throughout his entire career, even well after he’d made enough money to fill a room with vintage Fender Teles.”
A third version of the song “Guitar” was released through protégée Andy Allo’s Facebook page, complete with artwork metadata and an artist credit of "Prince/Allo." While at best, the recording sounds like a guitar lesson, complete with Prince giving notes to Andy, it also includes an actual guitar solo (not one for the record books, but better than the other two versions).
While “Guitar” today holds up as a perfectly enjoyable pop music romp, complete with one of Prince’s more playful videos, critics were not as kind when it was first released. Matt Thorne, author of the book Prince: The Man and His Music, called the song “the reductio ad absurdum (Latin for 'reduction to absurdity') of Prince music.” He also called Allo’s version “a Suzanne Vega-esque shuffle.” In the book, Prince Life and Times: Revised Updated Edition, author Jason Draper called the song “a rock riff in search of a song.”
In his Pitchfork review, Douglas Wolk put the song in perspective: “We always expect too much of Prince, because it's difficult to accept that somebody who made records as astonishing as he did in the 1980s could repeat himself as egregiously as he has for the past 15 years or so. He hasn't been doing r&b-by-numbers or rock-by-numbers, which is why he gets away with it; he's just been doing Prince-by-numbers. And yes, he still brings it live. But his albums used to send everyone scrambling to catch up; now they're self-evidently whatever he deigns to knock out. ‘Guitar,' a reminder that he plays guitar, doesn't even have much of a riff.”
In his album review for Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield called “Guitar” Prince’s “most slamming summer jam since ‘P. Control’” while noting, “He’s decided to jack the post-punk revival, so he swipes a guitar riff from U2 (“I Will Follow”) and a bass line from Duran Duran (the same song that provides his album title). Wily bastard.”
Prince Vault notes that even though his final concert series was the guitar-free Piano & a Microphone Tour, “Guitar” made one final appearance mere months before his death, when it was listed as the first song of an encore for a small star-studded concert hosted by Russian mogul Roman Abramovich in St. Barts on January 1, 2016. It is not confirmed as to whether Prince, known for his improvisation, actually played the song during this set.
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