From Jimi Hendrix to Carlos Santana: Prince’s 9 favourite guitarists of all time
“I haven’t had a lot of time to develop a favourite artist. I try not to listen to too many people. It’s distracting.” — Prince
As the above may suggest, during his all-too-short lifetime, Prince wasn’t particularly forthcoming with his answers to some of the music world’s most tedious but desperately wanted questions, namely, the topic of favourite guitarists. The famed singer and all-round musical impresario is far more than just a dedicated axeman but, nevertheless, he is still regarded as one of the finest players of the instrument the world has ever seen. It means his opinion on who he deemed to be the best is of serious value, no matter how hard it is to track down.
Nine guitar players whom Prince would have called his favourites is a lot harder than you think to compile. Prince remained largely tight-lipped about his influences throughout his career. Despite offering very little in the way of an indication to his favourite musicians, the singer did, on the odd occasion, break from the pattern and share a little bit about his tastes.
For years Prince ignored the questions asking for his influences until he finally cracked when speaking with Mojo: “When I’m working, I’m working. I don’t have time to… You know what? It’s such a drag to have musicians claim they never listen to the competition,” he said. “They’re liars, man. I mean, I know bands who in the press badmouth artists they revere in rehearsal. I don’t wanna be like that.”
Prince continued: “I crave great musicianship, and I don’t care who provides it. I’ve got no problems saying I dig D’Angelo. Or some of the things that Bjork does…the Cocteau Twins…Musicians, we’re family. I hope young musicians learn from me — my mistakes too — the way I learned.” While this didn’t necessarily lead to an outpouring of his admiration for other artists, Prince famously asked his band to refrain from listening to music when they were recording, it did signal that Prince Rogers Nelson, despite his previous proclamations, was a music fan after all. The variation of his likes and dislikes hints at the mercurial talent he truly was.
So often compared to Jimi Hendrix during his time on the stage, it’s hard not to see Prince inspired by the enigmatic guitarist. Though he admitted that he missed the Hendrix explosion because “they were too old by then”, it’s hard to see a world in which Hendrix wasn’t revered by the Purple One as one of his favourite guitarists of all time. “Hendrix is very good. Fact,” Prince told MTV, “There will never be another one like him, and it would be a pity to try. I strive for originality in my work, and hopefully, it’ll be perceived that way.”
However, the comparisons between himself and Hendrix were, in his mind, irrelevant and only connected to his race. Instead, Prince always believed: “He plays different guitar than I do. If they really listened to my stuff, they’d hear more of a Santana influence than Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix played more blues; Santana played prettier. You can’t compare people, you really can’t, unless someone is blatantly trying to rip somebody off. And you can’t really tell that unless you play the songs.”
There are similar inclusions in our list based on Prince’s prior interviews including Mark Farner from the classic Grand Funk Railroad, Amos Garrett the Canadian blues-rock guitarist and, of course, Tom Scholz from Boston whose influence can be heard on all manner of Prince songs. It’s a collection of seventies rock that one would imagine was a mainstay of Minnesotan radio during Prince’s formative years.
While those comparisons will offer some intrigue and encouragement to rock guitarists around the globe, Prince’s real love came from pop and funk with a deep affection for the work of Tony Maiden from Rufus, a band made famous by their lead singer Chaka Khan, as well as appreciation fro the acclaimed Freddie Stone from Sly and the Family Stone. There’s also a nod to Chicago’s Terry Kath, a man whose solo on ’25 or Six to Four’ was the acid test for all guitarists at Prince’s high school.
However, without a doubt, the greatest influence on Prince as a guitarist and, therefore, likely his favourite of all time, was Sonny Thompson, Prince’s longtime friend. When asked the question of his favourite guitarist in 1994, Prince picked his bandmate and bassist, Sonny T by saying: “I listened to everybody. My favourite of all time is Sonny T.” While bassists aren’t strictly included in this list, Sonny’s influence and ability on guitar is still the overriding factor.
“I thought Sonny was God,” says Prince in the 1994 conversation. “Sonny was my hero. A lot of what I do on guitar, I learned from him. I’d go over to his house and we’d play records and he’d show me things on guitar.” We’re glad he did as, almost completely under the radar, Prince is rightly revered as one of the greatest guitarists of his generation, if not all time.
Below, enjoy a selection of Prince’s favourite guitar players of all time and an introductory playlist to help you get to know them.