“Music is music, ultimately. If it makes you feel good, cool.”—Prince.
When bestowing the superfluous accreditation of “greatest guitarist of all time”, there are plenty of noble knights willing to take the crown. The history of rock ‘n’ roll has provided us with some sincere figures worthy of consideration, from Sister Rosetta Thorpe to Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and all the way up to Jack White. Every single one of those acts chose the guitar as their weapon of choice and began a musical crusade that still, somehow, continues to this day. However, there’s one name that is too often overlooked and, considering he’s already royalty, it’s a laughable oversight.
Prince Rogers Nelson may not be the first name you think of when trying to ascertain who should be anointed the greatest, but when you consider all of the hands at play, it’s hard to decide on anyone else.
Famed for his unique songwriting ability and utterly wondrous viewpoint, the late, great Prince carved out a career shrouded in purple and founded within the purest moments of music. While he may have been a pioneering figure of R&B and hip hop today — owing mainly to his outrageous creativity — the really impressive thing is that Prince handled pretty much every single note in his productions. The jury has already convicted Prince of being ‘His Royal Badness’ but now let us make a case for him to be considered guilty of being the best.
Let us first consider the other prime candidates. Of course, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page should rightly be thought of as a true great. Page has delivered lead lines that still reverberate through the musical spectrum to this day, even 40 years after the band broke up. When you add to that his unusually gifted ear for a song, you have yourself a serious contender. But, he can’t really be considered the best when every foray you make into a new genre is widely lambasted — the less I say about his Diddy collaboration for Godzilla, the better.
In my opinion, Jimi Hendrix is perhaps the only name that comes close to matching up with Prince. The truth is, on pure innovation alone, Hendrix created soundscapes that nobody could touch. He revolutionised the instrument and confirmed himself as the poster boy of the counterculture generation with every bending note and burning Fender. Sadly, losing his life at the tender age of 27, we never got to see what Hendrix had to offer the world outside of his usual spec. It means much of his work operates within the usual rock spectrum and, aside from listening purely for Hendrix’s ability, leaves many of his songs without direction.
Once called a “Guitar God”, former Cream man Eric Clapton is also one name routinely shouted from the rooftops as the best. But, aside from some of the more personal moments of reprehensible behaviour, the guitarist operated within a safe space, usually backed by sensational musicians and never venturing out of his comfort zone. There’s no doubt that Clapton helped to found rock ‘n’ roll as we know it, but he also did very little else.
Equally, Clapton has only ever seen one man as a true inspiration, a life-giving doctor of rock ‘n’ roll, and, ultimately, the man who saved the genre’s life with Purple Rain. Speaking to BBC Radio on Desert Island Discs, Clapton once said Prince came along “at a time when I thought rock and roll was dead,” he continued. “This is someone who is a reincarnation of Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown in one. I thought that’s exactly what the world needed.”
It’s these sentiments that ring truest of all. Prince wasn’t just a guitarist; he was everything. He applied himself across musical instruments as easily as he did musical genres. Refusing to be confined to pop, rock or R&B, Prince made music to feed his soul and often, the spoon to his mouth was his iconic Angel Cloud guitar. Few of the names mentioned so far have moved to make themselves icons as effortlessly as Prince did.
Not as distracted by excesses or needless debauchery as the other names mentioned, though he did naturally partake in every eccentricity he could find, Prince operated on a higher plane. Landmark pop songs like ‘Kiss’, ‘Cream’, ‘Raspberry Beret’ and ‘Purple Rain’ dominated the charts. Still, they were founded on Prince’s guitar; it just so happens he was gifted enough not to let his own marvellous talent outshine the song at hand, something which cannot be said of those mentioned — they put themselves centre stage with their guitar and demanded attention and adulation. Prince merely rolled out the purple carpet and began to strut.
If I had one defining moment to help propel my case for Prince being the greatest guitarist of all time, then it is the video below. As part of a tribute to the late Beatle George Harrison, Tom Petty and his son, Dhani, gathered the brightest minds in rock to perform some of the songwriter’s best-loved tracks. The guest-list was extensive, including Petty, Jeff Lynne, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, but they all parted ways to let Prince wail on arguably the greatest Beatles solo of all time, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. With it, he cemented himself in history.
“You see me nodding at him, to say, ‘Go on, go on,’” Petty recalled of the moment. “I remember I leaned out at him at one point and gave him a ‘This is going great!’ kind of look. He just burned it up. You could feel the electricity of ‘something really big’s going down here.’” If you need any further proof, then the look on Dhani Harrison’s face as Prince absolutely shreds the solo tells you everything you need to know.
Of course, it’s not easy to land the title of “greatest guitarist of all time” on one person’s shoulders. After all, as with any art, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. But if you can show us one artist who played as perfectly, one who intricately weaved the instrument into a whole range of songs and genres as effectively, and one who still manages to encapsulate the burning essence of guitar playing as brilliantly as Prince, then we may have a debate on our hands.
For now, the defence rests, Prince is by far the greatest guitarist there ever was.