Exploring the history of the iconic Purple Rain guitar and his last ever custom build.
It’s been more than four years since the world lost Prince and still there are many aspects of this legendary artist that remain timeless.
Not only is the ongoing popularity and relevance of his music a testament to his legacy, but also his innovation, creativity, and the incredible feat of being synonymous with the colour purple.
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As such an accomplished musician it’s no wonder one of the most iconic items we associate with Prince is the Cloud guitar used in his 1984 film Purple Rain.
The Cloud guitar was manufactured specifically for Purple Rain by luthier Dave Rusan, who was based in Minneapolis at the time. Rusan was working at Knut-Koupée Music, a store owned by local guitarist Jeff Hill, when he was asked to create the iconic guitar.
“He [Prince] and Jeff went into the back office and they talked a long time, and then Jeff came down and told me, ‘Prince is going to make a movie. He needs a guitar, and you’re going to make it,’” said Rusan in an interview with Premier Guitar. “And I was like, wow. I didn’t see that coming.”
Prince requested the guitar be designed with inspiration from the bass owned by his childhood friend and former bass player, André Cymone. Cymone can be seen playing the original bass in the clip for ‘Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad’. However, aside from this information, Rusan didn’t receive a great deal of guidance from the famously shy Prince when creating the guitar.
“His main requirements were just that the guitar should be in that shape [of the bass], and it had to be white, and it had to have gold hardware,” said Rusan. “I think he specified he wanted EMG pickups, but compared to all the conversations you would have with somebody about a custom guitar, there wasn’t anything else he wanted to talk about.”
As far as specifications go, the Cloud guitar was made with hard rock maple, a neck-through-body with 22 frets, and EMG pickups (as requested). It also featured “[a] single-coil in the neck, [which] is the SA Stratocaster model, and the one on the bridge [which] is a model 81 humbucker like you’d put in a Les Paul”.
Rusan worked on the guitar for 50–60 hours per week to complete it in time for Purple Rain and Prince was so pleased with the result that he requested two more.
The Cloud guitar, thought to have got its name from the cover art for Prince and the Revolution’s Around the World in a Day, remains an iconic instrument to this day, with the original now on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington DC.
“Some years later he had others made by different people,” said Rusan to Alternative Nation. “All the ones you would see in concert, those would be the originals I made that were repainted – pink, yellow, black, blue. He would always throw them to the roadie at the end of show and they weren’t always caught so they’d have to be repaired often. They were hard rock maple, but couldn’t always stand up to that.”
Prince had several other Cloud guitars commissioned over the years, including from Schecter Guitars, who also produced a limited run to be sold to the public during the artist’s ‘Hit and Run’ tour of 2014-15.
However, Prince’s final guitar never had the chance to reach the same status. Created by Simon Farmer of the UK store Gus Guitars in 2007, the Purple Special is quintessentially Prince; however, the artist didn’t even see the instrument until February of 2016 when Farmer received a message from Prince’s former drummer Kirk Johnson.
“I thought it was a bit of a hoax,” said Farmer in an interview with Vanity Fair. “But then after a few correspondences, I realised this was the real thing, the moment I had been waiting for [for] nearly a decade.”
Clearly pleased with the final product, Prince sent out a tweet inviting fans to a gathering at Paisley Park mere days before his death, during which he showed off the Purple Special to the gathered crowd. A fan captured the moment in a photograph included below.
Prince was a fan of the Purple Special, so much so that he asked Farmer to design him another instrument.
“Prince wanted me to build a black-and-gold bass guitar for him,” said Farmer. “The Gus G3 Prince bass has been designed to be as compact and lightweight as possible, making it very easy and comfortable to play … But to make the bass truly his, I also planned some Prince-like additions, including purple fibre-optic position markers along the fingerboard that would glow at the flick of a switch.”
Sadly, Prince passed away before the bass was finished. Farmer’s Purple Special guitar is reportedly the last guitar Prince owned. Perhaps one day, the Purple Special’s story will become more widespread and the guitar will gain a similar legend status to that of the Cloud. Whatever the case, both instruments are a true testament to Prince and, according to Rusan in an interview with Alternative Nation, an integral part of his talent.
“Certainly, Prince’s talent and drive were the biggest contributors to his success, but the guitar was a huge part as well. The guitar is something that becomes very personal. It’s the thing you are playing to affect people’s emotions. It’s not like just having a nice suit on. It’s creating a sound that affects people. It’s very powerful.”
Revisit our conversation with Prince’s studio engineer during the ’80s, Peggy McCreary, for the release of Originals.