The response to Prince’s death in April 2016 was a global rainstorm of emotion. He was many things to many people: a whirling funketeer who woke up sexual urges, an iconoclast who inspired individual expression, a symbol of everything pop could be.
Belatedly, though, a consensus is forming behind his primary status as a fearsome guitarist. Prince was so gifted, he overshadowed this trait himself, with tastefully plucked hits like Kiss, Cream and Raspberry Beret. You already know those tunes.
Here, however, is a list of the truly mind-blowing numbers - some of them deep cuts, others from Prince’s essential 1984 masterpiece Purple Rain - that should convince even skeptics.
Note: Only the six-string sizzle of Prince is included (sorry, Revolution sideman Dez Dickerson and your mighty solo for Little Red Corvette).
A revolutionary way with the electric guitar, a black heritage, a penchant for rock songs involving purple weather conditions: Prince withstood comparisons to Jimi Hendrix his whole life. So when he finally decided to pay explicit tribute to the Sixties rock icon, he went all out, aping Hendrix’s wah-dipped Voodoo Child intro, cutting loose with multiple fuzzed-up solos and even doing his best trippy vocal impression of the master. Clearly, lessons had been learned. Amazingly, Prince doesn't embarrass himself in the attempt, which is impressive.
14. The Ride
Crystal Ball (1998)
Scary as it is to comprehend, Prince had stashed away more completed albums in his famous “vault” than most artists release in a lifetime. One of them is his legendary CD The Undertaker, a hard-blues workout recorded at his home studio that was originally intended for inclusion in a 1994 issue of Guitar World.
After his label, Warner Bros., had a panic attack over the idea, some of Prince’s most incendiary shredding was doomed to be deep-sixed. But this track - basically an opportunity for Prince to make his guitar sound like lava spewing from a sex volcano - made it out alive via this box set several years later.
13. The Morning Papers
Love Symbol Album (1992)
Working with his frighteningly tight combo the New Power Generation, Prince expanded his musical palette and recaptured his R&B audience (at the expense of wider popularity, a decision we applaud).
This original track could easily have been a big-production Eric Clapton number, anchored by horns, a full-throated vocal and a bluesy solo captured with impeccable tone. In a mere four minutes, The Morning Papers crams in a generous amount of fretboard exploration, but during its final stretch, it can only be Prince, whose instrumental passion has escalated into a full-on scream. The solo ends on a risky final note that has to be heard to be believed.
12. Joy in Repetition
Graffiti Bridge (1990)
The sultry groove of this lesser-known jam identifies it as high-grade sex music (a huge compliment), but after the three-minute mark, Prince goes full Carlos Santana with one of his most face-melting solos.
It’s hard to know what the engineer was thinking, panning the overdriven freakout all over the mix, but regardless, some kind of tropical achievement is unlocked. Over the years, Prince would talk of his love for Santana’s style.
This track proves it, as he burrows deeply into wah-wah abuse, digital delay and a sweltering intensity. His playing is so uninhibited, it’s a shame it has to finally reach climax and roll over.
11. Electric Chair
Already grappling with his own private sense of schism (he shelved 1987’s The Black Album because it was “evil”), Prince was having a rough end of the decade when director Tim Burton called with an ideal project, one that let the musician act as Caped Crusader and Joker both.
While his chart-topping Batdance felt like a random, weightless bit of studio fluff, Prince found good use for some of his earlier dark ideas - like this supercharged funk-rock pounder (memorably performed on Saturday Night Live).
The massed guitar harmonies are Maiden-worthy, while Prince doesn’t have a problem hijacking a Hollywood blockbuster for his own experiments with atonality and dissonance.
10. U Got the Look
Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Prince’s guitar playing could be a conduit to ecstasy, to spiritual catharsis or simply to good ol’ booty shaking. On this ferocious track, it’s an expression of pure erotic id.
The Jessica Rabbit of 12-bar-blues tunes, U Got the Look is the hip-swiveling high point of Prince’s majestic double album Sign o’ the Times. Never before had he saturated his sound in so much distortion; the treatment becomes a wink to the listener that’s just as explicit as the lyrics (“If love is good, let’s get to rammin’ ”).
Unholy squeals and atonal moans emanate from a disturbed, almost Frippian place. When Prince finally cuts loose with some pentatonic licks, his sexual hunger is a palpable thing.
9. Alexa de Paris
B-side, Mountains single (1986)
Prince’s black-and-white movie musical Under the Cherry Moon repulsed a majority of critics and audiences, but the music - collected on the Parade LP - signaled a high degree of creative growth.
Heard onscreen (but only purchasable as the flip side of a single) is this incredible instrumental, which even a skilled pair of ears could easily confuse for primo Jeff Beck. Lushly supported by the orchestrations of longtime collaborator Clare Fischer, Prince takes a song-long excursion into mysterious modes, abrupt key changes and, ultimately, his most adventurously exposed solo flight.
Discovering this piece of music is like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy uses the beam of light in the Map Room to find the Well of Souls: a totally new way of seeing.
8. She’s Always in My Hair
B-side, “Raspberry Beret” single (1985)
As confusing as Prince’s psychedelic Around the World in a Day album was for the mainstream rock audience he had just won over with Purple Rain, the artist was apparently doing exactly what he wanted.
Take this fierce castaway track that he relegated to the scrap heap (it probably got more spins in guitar-centric households than the A-side). The central riff is hard as nails, and when he explodes into a yowling mid-song solo, the speedy precision of his runs is daunting. The song was deliriously reinvented onstage by Prince’s final band, the all-female precision squad 3RDEYEGIRL.
7. Purple Rain
Purple Rain (1984)
Closing out the record on an emotional high, Prince’s soulful anthem of atonement is loaded with technique.
First, a note about then-19-year-old Wendy Melvoin’s delicately strummed rhythm part, enriched by a chorus pedal working overtime. It’s often misplayed - make sure to stretch your fret hand out to accommodate those extended Fadd9 and Ebadd9 chords. (These shapes might have been inspired by Andy Summers’ decade-defining Every Breath You Take, a massive hit at the time.)
By the time you make it to Prince’s fiery exit statement, which combines speedy runs with hummable repeated themes, you’re completely in his pocket. He would play this classic for the rest of his life. It was the final song at his last concert.
6. When Doves Cry
Purple Rain (1984)
Don’t rush us. This album’s a bona-fide guitar classic, so let’s take our time with it. Until you can fire up your octaver and execute the insane piece of squonk that introduces Prince’s immortal single, you should pay attention.
Drenched in barely controlled feedback and propelled by blurred-pick-hand frenzy, it’s a disturbing way into a strange song: skeletal, bass-free, impossibly arresting.
Later, Prince’s lengthy outro solo calls back to his earliest records, yet bolstered with newfound maturity, it italicizes the ache at the heart of the lyric. (He also plays the smarty-pants synth solo.) If only all pop songs were this sophisticated.
5. Computer Blue
Purple Rain (1984)
Even after woodshedding for what must have been years to conquer lead-guitar playing and strutting funk shuffles, Prince clearly believed in a kind of pop futurism that took inspiration from Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Blade Runner and even fusion. This dazzling piece of music originally extended to a 14-minute suite complete with multiple monologues (you can find bootlegs of it), but the cutdown on Purple Rain is astounding.
After some Adrian Belew-like bird squeals, the main riff is foxy and brainy; then comes a furious transitional interlude of 16th-note flurries leading into the soaring solo of Father’s Song, a motif credited to Prince’s own dad, jazz composer John L. Nelson.
4. Let’s Go Crazy
Purple Rain (1984)
Prince reinvented himself as a prophet, preacher and party animal on the first track of the most exhilarating album of the '80s. The slashed-out riff sweeps you on your feet, leading you directly to his swirling solo - a perfect expression of joy - laden with Boss stompbox flange and attitude.
Then, the only thing that could possibly improve Let’s Go Crazy actually happens: a second solo (on a Billboard No. 1, no less), tearing the universe apart with its roaring private cadenza that extends over an avalanche of pounding electro-drums.
It is, undoubtedly, the craziest piece of guitar work the Purple One ever committed to tape, but as you’ll see, the story hardly ends there.
3. Lady Cab Driver
Lean in for this one. To understand Prince is to understand funk, and this intricately calibrated eight-minute jam is a masterclass in subtlety.
Throughout the track are his twin clean guitars, interlaced in a tightly strummed pattern that could make Chic’s Nile Rodgers green with envy. The explosively distorted soloing of the first two albums is on its way, mainly at the six-minute mark, but if you mastered every syncopated chicka of this song, your swagger would be huge.
Take it from the man himself in a 2004 Guitar Player interview: “A lot of cats don’t work on their rhythm enough, and if you don’t have rhythm, you might as well take up needlepoint or something. I can’t stress it enough.”
A crunchy, near-metal standout on Prince’s eponymous second LP conjures a troubling realization: Bambi is both sleazier and harder than any Kiss song ever recorded.
The riff, adorned with full-neck skids and double-stop screeches, gets more powerful with each repetition. Prince’s soloing, meanwhile - a drooling construction of escalating bends and lusty vibrato come-ons - would make him MVP in any rock outfit.
1. I’m Yours
For You (1978)
Released during a springtime of seismic guitar eruptions (Van Halen had just hit stores), Prince’s debut album featured a 19-year-old Minnesotan who played every instrument, sang in a glorious falsetto and produced as well.
We don’t have to pretend that Prince’s songwriting is as developed as it will be, but the last track is an absolute screamer: five minutes of overdriven shredding, Billy Sheehan-worthy bass riffage, pinched artificial harmonics and cascades of guitar heroics.
Stoked in Funkadelic-style fires, it’s a disturbing display of chops. He doesn’t need to be this good, this soon, yet he is. The outro stretch is shocking.