The Frantic History of Prince’s Last Guitar
Six days before his death, Prince introduced a small audience in his Paisley Park residence to his latest guitar. “I have to leave it in the case or I’ll be tempted to play it,” he explained. If he had, it would have been the last time he played any guitar in public, and it would have meant a lot to Simon Farmer, the person who created the instrument and had a frantic experience of trying to get it into his hero’s hands.
Farmer is the proprietor of Gus Guitars, based in Heathfield, England. He’d created the G1 line in 1994, but the one-off Purple Special was a labor of love. “Ever since I’d introduced the G1, people had suggested to me that it was the sort of guitar that Prince would play,” he told Ultimate Prince. “I began to think there might be something in the idea.”
Around the same time, Prince announced his 2007 residency at London’s O2 venue, and that focused Farmer’s thoughts. He was experimenting with an aluminized glass material, which offered the opportunity of making vibrant colored guitars – and purple came to mind. “I decided to make the first special version of my G1 purple, and to go all out to try and get it to Prince,” he said.
Not that he had any idea of how to do it; but first, the guitar had to exist, and so he threw himself into a relentless three-month period of doing nothing but working on the G1 Purple Special. “My build time for Specials is 18 months to two years,” he noted. “I dropped everything else and just worked flat out on that project. It was intensely exciting too though, partly because I was creating something new, but also because of the idea of where the guitar would hopefully be going! I remember feeling that I had nothing to lose – I just had to keep going and see it through.”
Towards the end of his labors, Farmer attended one of Prince’s London shows, and was blown away once again by an artist he already admired. “I loved his work with 3rd Eye Girl and really enjoy listening to (2014's) PlectrumElectrum,” he said. “It has a raw, funky drive to it and you can tell that they were all really into the project and enjoying every minute of it! As for favorite song, I love all of the 'classic' songs that have had so much radio play over the years – “Purple Rain,” “Let's Go Crazy,” “Little Red Corvette,” “1999” – but i especially like “Starfish and Coffee” and “Alphabet Street.”
The concert was an inspiration; but ultimately the bid to get the guitar into Prince’s hands failed. Farmer completed it during the run, but an old friend who used to work for the artist was unable to make the final connection, and Prince left the U.K. without knowing the Purple Special even existed. “I could just imagine him using the guitar at this point and it seemed such a shame that I wasn't able to show it to him then,” Farmer reflected. “It was built for Prince and that was all I'd ever imagined it doing: being used by him.”
That seemed like the end of the story; the guitar and its custom case sat under a bench in his workshop, its future uncertain, for nine years. However, during those years his G1 Special line began to generate interest among guitar aficionados, and some media coverage, spread over social media, meant that the world heard about the Purple Special. Not only the world – one particular inhabitant too. “I received an email through my website out of the blue, with a short message asking me if I'd get in contact,” Farmer recalled. “I couldn't believe that after all those years I might finally be in a position to get the guitar to Prince.”
With some hurried negotiations, he sent the guitar on its way to Paisley Park; and on that night in 2016 it came as close as it ever would to being seen in Prince’s hands. Sadly, Farmer never found out what he thought of the instrument. “The biggest frustration of the whole thing for me is that Prince wanted to talk to me and I was too ill to speak. I had a very bad case of flu after he received the guitar and had totally lost my voice and so had to defer, thinking that I'd be able to speak to him in a few weeks time – which of course never happened. I'm sure that he wanted to talk about the guitar, but I can only imagine what he might have said.”
He only knows of second-hand references, with bassist Larry Graham having said he’d been invited over to see it and that Prince was “quite proud of this guitar that this guy had just made.” Prince also “wrote extensively about a new guitar” to his girlfriend Judith Hill, although Farmer doesn’t know what was said. “The only images I've seen are from the After Dark Party. I've seen two images from the front and back that show him holding the guitar. I've also spoken first hand to someone who was at the event, very close to the stage. It was amazing – visual proof that he was happy with the guitar or at least liked it enough to show it to people.”
Another piece of circumstantial evidence is that Prince asked Farmer to build a bass guitar in a similar style, which of course hadn’t been completed by the time of his death. “For a good while I was unsure what to do, whether to even finish the bass. I eventually decided that I would though, and that I should make the best tribute to him that I could – go all out again to try and make a bass that he would have loved too. I'm pleased that I did and am happy with the way it turned out. I had hoped that it might join the guitar at Paisley Park, but that wasn't to be, though it has since found a very suitable home elsewhere.”
It’s possible that Prince wasn’t well enough to perform that final night; he’d told the crowd: “I can’t play the guitar at all these days so I can keep my mind on [the piano] and get better.” Yet he didn’t play piano either, and there had been no mic stand set up for him to sing while he did so, and seemed determined just to prove he was still alive. “Wait a few days before you waste any prayers,” he said; and, tragically, it was to be only a few days.
“Those few months from February to April in 2016 were a bit of a roller coaster ride, from the initial disbelief and then excitement, imagining what might happen once he received the guitar, the thrill of receiving the order to make a bass for him, through to the tragic news of his passing,” Farmer recalled. “It took a long time to come to terms with what happened, but ultimately I feel extremely grateful that he eventually received the guitar and obviously liked it enough to order a bass. The Purple Special could still be stuck under my workshop bench with him having never known that it existed, so realizing that gives me some comfort.
“The exposure and 'validation' for my business have also been fantastic, as the guitars have had the 'thumbs up' from a musical genius and one of the greatest exponents of the instrument to have ever lived. It doesn't really get any better than that! It would have been incredible to see him using the guitar and bass; but in the end I'm pleased to have built something that hopefully gave him a little bit of pleasure.”