Royal Tones: The Gear of Prince
Thanks for reading the Guitar Sun, Sunfield Music Store’s weekly take on gear, music history, tone tips, and more.
At Sunfield, we take pride in producing instruments that keep the spirit of the electric guitar alive. For us, that means making high-quality instruments with versatile features. Our core customers want gig-quality electric guitars. You could call them “cheap electric guitars,” but Sunfields aren’t just beginner’s guitars. They’re simply priced differently—for parts and labor—in a bloated instrument market that caters to prestige and huge marketing budgets (all ultimately paid for with musicians’ dollars).
We love players who aren’t afraid to rock guitars with distinctive visual styles. Last week, we took a look at the guitars and pedals used by Stevie Ray Vaughan, the inspiration for one of our most popular tribute model guitars. The week before, we took a look at the amps that provided the foundation for his rig’s legendary tones.
Today we took a look another musician from the same era. While he took a very different approach to S.R.V., Prince has one thing in common with the Texas Blues Monster: a willingness to cut through the haze of derivative rock to deliver a powerful, unique musical identity.
A versatile talent who started playing at the age of seven and had his first record deal by age 17, Prince doesn’t center on a single iconic setup and sound like Mr. Vaughan. Versatility is his calling card. Of course, in addition to being able to shred, Prince was an accomplished producer. So we don’t recommend trying to emulate any given Prince song just by getting the right piece of gear. This guy knew—and used—every trick in the book when in the studio, always looking to get the “sound in his head” onto the record. He did so with an incredibly diverse sound that draws on, at the very least, soul, funk, rock, disco, synth-pop, and R&B.
Oh, and Prince played drums, bass, keyboard, and the synth in addition to guitar, and did so on many of his studio recordings. So suffice it to say we won’t even begin to cover the full breadth of Prince’s gear selections, just some highlights. In addition to a famously protective attitude toward his recordings, he was also extremely private about his gear choices, so the gear-head community is often left to infer from images what he actually used.
The Hohner Madcat
This flamboyant leopard-print guitar seems to be a perfect fit for Prince’s legendary onstage persona. In the true tradition of the working man’s guitar, this was no custom shop model. It was introduced in the early 1970’s as a Japanese Telecaster copy by the H.S. Anderson company. The design was then purchased by Hohner, a German harmonica company looking to get into the electric guitar game.
With a flamed maple top, this baby had gorgeous looks for what was ultimately a budget guitar. It seems Prince paid for looks and tone, not brand, and acquired two of these. He liked the design so much that he later had other guitar-makers create copies. And while he swapped out the pickups for Fender Noiseless late in his career, he kept the original Hohner brand pickups for years. You can hear them in classic recordings like Purple Rain. Even those who aren’t massive Prince fans have good reason to remember this guitar: it appears in this legendary jam of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” performed in tribute to the late George Harrison.
While truly an iconic Prince axe, he didn’t pull this design out of thin air. While his Cloud was a unique design, custom made by a luthier friend, it was directly inspired by Prince’s affinity for a bass made by Orr, a small custom builder at the time:
This guitar isn’t just famous for on-stage use. Prince was dedicated to multimedia expression and launched a successful feature film, Purple Rain, in 1984. Prince plays a pseudo-realistic version of himself in the film, and his younger character lusts after the guitar, eventually attaining his Cloud as an integral part of the film’s romantic storyline.
The film version was white, but he would also employ Black, Peach, Blue and Yellow versions of the cloud throughout his career.
Prince changed his name to this symbol as part of a record dispute with Warner Brothers (in addition to writing “Slave” on his face, he argued that WB “owned his old name.”) Prince changed his name to following symbol (this version from a 1992 album cover), which he said meant “Love:”
He soon had Jerry Auerswald, a custom builder he had used for some time, create a guitar model based on the new symbol. Here’s Prince with an earlier model Auerswald:
He had many copies of the guitar created, each with every single part painted the same solid color. You can check out one of the earliest ever public appearances of the love guitar on a 1994 episode of the Late Show below:
Amps and Pedals
Prince favored amplifier brands traditionally associated with metal or higher gain: Soldano, Mesa Boogie, and Orange. Curiously, however, he chose these amps even though he apparently preferred to set his amps clean and use pedals for lead tones.
Many now venerable Boss pedals were brand new during the nascence of Prince’s career, and he milked the line heavily, including the OD-2, Metal Zone, Blues Driver, and DS-2. He also employed classics like the Digitech Whammy and the Dunlop Crybaby Wah.
Once again, Prince was more than happy to forge legendary tones from working man’s gear that worked for him.