Opinion: A 1000-Word Breakdown Of Prince’s Greatest Guitar Solo
There are things that have happened across the course of the music culture that are justifiably spoken in hushed whispers or, better yet, never spoken about at all because they allude description. I could talk about a number of Prince songs and stories – falling into the bombastic filthiness of “Housequake”, being hypnotically mesmerized by the snarled smut of “Darling Nikki”, any time you’ve passionately closed your eyes and recited the opening to “Let’s Go Crazy”. But the Prince moment I find hard to comprehend would have been the stuff of mysterious rock ‘n roll lore had it not been captured on camera, and even then it has a mystery that’s undefinable. I speak of Prince’s guitar solo on his cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 2004 Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame inductions.
It demands background and even then the solo itself doesn’t begin to make sense. Honoring the late, great George Harrison, Prince joined with Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne, Dhani Harrison, and several others to cover the immortal classic and pay homage to one of the greatest singer songwriters of the 20th century. These kind of jam sessions are regularly curated by the Hall of Fame and are met with varying degrees of success. There’s really very little reason to expect this lineup to be better than any other ensemble ever assembled.
We can admit to ourselves that’s a stacked lineup, filled with guitar players that are in no way unfamiliar with guitar solos on any level. And while Prince has always been an incredible guitar player, the force and power behind his instrument that night is absolutely staggering. Unassuming in his red bowler hat, even watching the video on repeat you kind of get the sense that, in spite of rehearsals, the other guys on stage don’t know what’s coming.
Steve Winwood is up first, and his guitar solo takes on a lot of the natural cues that Lynne, Harrison and Petty’s rhythm acoustic guitar lines are laying down. It’s the kind of dad rock inspired soloing that your uncle would try to mimic air-guitar style after three or four beers, from his recliner, during Thanksgiving. It was solid. But Winwood’s passion, while genuine, never ups the game.
Prince, also being inducted that night, is waiting in the wings during Winwood’s solo. Literally. Other than some wide shots, you would be hard pressed to really even notice Prince throughout the first two minutes of the video, where he is out of the spotlight waiting for his moment to melt faces. In his red bowler cap and understated suit with just right amount of chest hair poking out, he knows how much he’s about to make everyone pay.
You can almost tell its about to happen; 3:24 into the song, Dhani has a sheepish grin and a look in Prince’s direction that ALMOST gives it all away. And the guitars get louder. And everyone kind of just shy’s away and prepares for what’s about to happen.
And then it hits you.
I mean fuck.
The solo, unlike Winwood’s, is colorful, chancy, loud, and has passion falling out it. Petty can’t seem to believe it (at about 5:07 you can see him shaking his head as if to say “who the fuck IS this guy”), Dhani at times seems like he’s never heard his own dad’s song before, and even Winwood can be seen peeking over knowing he’s just been bested.
The brilliance of Prince’s solo comes from two places. The first is the disgusting elegance of the whole thing. It’s like he’s not even trying. We think of Prince as many things before we think of him as a guitar god – sex icon, pop star, “the artist formerly known as…”. And don’t get me wrong, we think about him as a guitar god too. But he made his number one priority that night to be seen as one of the greatest guitar players of all time, something he was rare to put first on his list of projected images. At 4:57, you can see him grin just slightly over in Winwood’s direction. In playful fashion, he knows he’s about to humiliate him with the effortless of the solo he’s about to lay into. It’s pure art, like watching Stephen Curry hit 3-pointers or experience a gallery of Monet paintings – its seeing greatness and recognizing it as something more than just skill or opportunity, but recognizing it as destiny. Prince was born to play this solo.
But Prince’s brilliance also comes from the opportunity. Somehow he takes one of Harrison’s best Beatles songs, and turns it into equal parts homage and reinvention. This isn’t George Harrison’s song, and it’s no longer The Beatles song, it’s Prince’s song. But there’s no disrespect. There’s simply a love for the source material, and a desire to elevate it with such gifted perfection that it transcends.
No one’s had a guitar solo like that in the history of man. Like I said, if it hadn’t been captured on camera, it would be the kind of thing that someone in the audience would tell their grandkids about. “One time I saw Prince perform with 3 other rock and roll legends and he made them look small. That’s the power Prince had.”
At the very end, Prince puts the finishing touches on his solo and ends it. The song ends. And in the most rock star move you’ve ever seen to this day, he takes off his guitar and throws it, and you never see it come back down. And then the video ends. There are a lot of theories about where the guitar went. Realists will say he threw it forward and a roadie caught it off camera. Dreamers will say Santana caught it and later thanked Prince for instilling in him the ability to truly play guitar. Me? I’m pretty God snatched that guitar in mid-air and thought to himself, “Fuck, I’m taking this and putting it on display in heaven now.” If there’s one thing I like about my theory, it’s that at least he’s been reunited with it so he can shred for everyone looking down on us now. RIP Prince.