Some guitars have an instant association with an artist, band, style, or song. Few, however, have as strong of an image association as Prince’s “Cloud Guitar,” famously featured in the film Purple Rain. Nobody else could have played that guitar or conceived of its design. It’s simply iconic and idyllic. But what is it?
The story of Prince’s cloud guitar goes back to the mid-1980s. It started with a chat at Knut-Koupée Music in Minneapolis, a shop Prince frequented since his high school days. At the time, Dave Rusan was the guitar tech in residence.
In 1983, however, Prince stopped in and requested more than a tune up. He wanted a custom guitar, but he also needed a prop. In an interview with Premier Guitar, Rusan recalls being told, “‘Prince is going to make a movie. He needs a guitar, and you’re going to make it.’ And I was like, wow. I didn’t see that coming. He’d already had some success, and had a few albums out, but not too many people made movies until they were much bigger—like Elvis, you know?””
As Rusan and Prince talked body shape, Prince indicated he wanted a design inspired by a bass guitar he’d picked up recently. (The build, design, and manufacturer of that bass remain a mystery). Beyond this cloudy-shape, Prince had relatively few demands for specs. Mostly, the conversations pertained to color (it had to be pure white), hardware (the gear needed to be gold), and pickups (nothing but EMG).
The build of the guitar stayed true to these essentials with a few added features. The pickup configuration held the active EMG bottom line, but featured a single-coil SA Stratocaster pickup in the neck position paired with a 1981 humbucker. The neck ran 22 frets long, which converged with a neck-through-body design built of rock maple. The result of this mix of components was clear, crisp, bright, you might even say, cloud-like.
The guitar turned out not only to be the perfect fit for Purple Rain, but an essential piece of kit for Prince. Following the success of the flick, Prince had Rusan build two more of the guitars for use. A fourth was eventually built for a guitar giveaway contest run by Warner Bros. in 1985. Apparently, that guitar is still out there. If you see it at a flea market, please give me a call.
If you want to check out one of these guitars today, you’ll need to make a trip to the museum. To the Smithsonian in DC, to be exact. There you’ll find one of Rusan’s cloudy builds for Prince, this time, in tip-to-toe sunshine yellow.
As always, have a great #RiffCitySunday. Is there a gear item, topic, or era you’d like to hear more about in these weekend issues? Let us know in the comments section and we’ll do our best to do some digging for you!