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Wednesday, 07 February 2007 12:42
Image By Larry Dobrow
Like my pal/personal guitar Yoda Nick Friese, I couldn’t pull myself away from the couch during Prince’s Super Bowl halftime show. Unlike Nick, however, my attentiveness had nothing to do with Prince’s Telecaster pyrotechnics. Rather, I’d consumed so much bean dip during the pregame show and first half that I found myself chemically fused to the cushions. As I waited for the paramedics to arrive with their gauze and blowtorches, I got to thinking about Prince as a guitar player. His playing, it seems, has always taken a back seat to just about everything else about him: his arrival as a multi-instrument/songwriting/performing prodigy, the flash and fanfare of his Purple Rain superstardom, the general weirdness (hello, Mr. Glyph), the battles with his record companies and the self-indulgent musical meanderings that followed, etc.

Guitar_ad_now Yet even when you confine the discussion strictly to his guitar work, Prince remains one of the most difficult players to wrap your head around. I’d argue that, over the course of his 30-odd years in the public eye, Prince has alternately been one of music’s most overrated *and* underrated guitar players. Consider:

Prince was underrated… when he first arrived on the scene with the most joyous four-minute chunks of R&B since Motown’s heyday. The questions being asked back then were ones along the lines of, “Who is this brash kid with his every-nine-months killer albums and do-it-himself flair? And those sub-nostril wisps of hair don’t truly qualify as a mustache, do they?” What the pundits ignored were the fluid solos that lent a harder edge to the songs and neatly counterbalanced the falsetto vocals. Check out the outro run on “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?,” in which a riff that bubbles under the surface for much of the song comes exploding into the forefront. As far as his rhythm playing goes, just listen to the chunky, funky chords that serve as a cornerstone for the extended version of “1999,” especially during the “mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?” finale.

Prince was overrated… when mainstream listeners discovered him around the time of Purple Rain.200pxprince_purplerainmovie This isn’t to say that the Hendrix blast at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy” or the feral squeal that opens “When Doves Cry” don’t rank among the seminal guitar moments of the 1980s. What distinguishes them, however, is the musical creativity – their placement within the context of the songs, rather than the guitar work itself. For fans of his earlier playing, the Purple Rain-era Prince should be remembered less for those two flashes than for the soaring, melodic “Computer Blue” interlude.

Prince was underrated… when he stopped making music for the masses. After 1991’s Diamond and Pearls (a.k.a. “the one in which Prince reminds us that he can write mammothly catchy songs whenever he darn well feels like it”) and the unpronounceable-glyph-titled album that followed, the Artist Then Known As Who-The-Hell-Knows-What basically screwed around for the rest of the decade and the first few years of the one after it. A few hits compilations, the mail-it-in funk of Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, a sporadically metallic foray into Chaos and Disorder… Be honest: you stopped paying attention, too. That said, while Prince might have stopped caring about the songwriting process, he didn’t skimp on the guitar. His “after-show” performances from that era – documented much more faithfully on bootlegs than on the official One Night Alone… Live! release – featured some staggeringly inventive guitar, especially on the shoulda-been-an-arena-rock-staple “Peach.”

Prince1 Prince was overrated… the second his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance hit the Internet. Again, there was nothing wrong per se with his slash-and-burn solo at the end of the “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” tribute to George Harrison. It’s that he didn’t show anything that devoted fans hadn’t seen before, usually in a more music-friendly setting (you know, like one not accessorized with 632 VH-1 cameras) and with a more stalwart backup band. On the tour that followed, the verdict was similarly split: every jaw-dropping guitar moment (especially his savage “Whole Lotta Love” cover) was diminished by the overpracticed, Vegas feel of partial runs through his hits (a few seconds of “1999” here, a verse of “Baby I’m a Star” there).

So in the wake of his Super Bowl triumph, where does Prince stand today as a player? Frankly, I have no clue. Given his past unpredictability, his next record is as likely to be a straightforward collection of pop-funk, a la Musicology, as a compilation of electronica whale songs. Whatever it is, here’s hoping that the ol’ Telecaster gets a workout at one point or another.

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