If there’s one guitarist you want to be compared to, it would probably be Jimi Hendrix (1942-70). Fifty years after his death at 27, Hendrix still stands in the eyes of most guitarists as the greatest to ever play the instrument. But not everyone in the music business was gunning for Hendrix.
Take Prince (1958-2016), the brilliant singer-songwriter who didn’t shy away from guitar pyrotechnics. Over the course of his career, Prince wrote music and fronted his own band with a flair and talent rarely matched in the business.
Naturally, that led music critics to compare Prince to Hendrix. But Prince didn’t think his guitar playing warranted comparisons to that of Hendrix. In a 1985 Rolling Stone interview, Prince pointed to a guitar player who preceded Hendrix at Woodstock as a bigger influence.
Prince once said Jimi Hendrix comparisons came ‘only because he’s black’
In 1985, a few months after the release of Around the World in a Day, Prince spoke to Rolling Stone for a rare interview. And he swatted aside a few comparisons to artists of the ’60s. “They say The Beatles are the influence [for Around the World in a Day]. The influence wasn’t The Beatles.”
When asked about Hendrix’s influence on his music, Prince didn’t agree with that, either. “It’s only because he’s black. That’s really the only thing we have in common,” he said. Had music critics cited the work of Carlos Santana, he might have gone along with it.
“If they really listened to my stuff, they’d hear more of a Santana influence than Jimi Hendrix,” Prince said. “Hendrix played more blues; Santana played prettier.” Prince blamed part of the problem on critics who didn’t play guitar (and thus couldn’t know).
He also acknowledged the limitations of the instrument itself. “There are only so many sounds a guitar can make,” he said. “Lord knows I’ve tried to make a guitar sound like something new to myself.” But if you don’t focus so much on the actual licks and phrasing, you can see valid comparisons between Prince and Hendrix.
Prince and Hendrix shared a show-stopping quality, among other things
Obviously, performers bring a lot more to the table than chord patterns and guitar solos. From a fashion standpoint, few recording artists on the level of Prince and Hendrix ever brought more to their stage shows. So you can easily make that comparison.
You also can’t ignore the otherworldly charisma both artists brought to their live performances. Fifty-three years after the Monterey Pop Festival, people are still talking about Hendrix’s performance there. When you play like he did and set your guitar on fire, it’s hard to forget.
Prince had his share of show-stopping performances over the years. His 2007 Super Bowl Halftime Show ranks high on that list. But his guitar work at the 2004 George Harrison tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame might be even more memorable.
Sharing the stage with Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, and Harrison’s son Dhani for a rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Prince (at 3:27) stepped in to unleash the most stunning solo from any of those those Hall induction ceremonies. It lasts three minutes and doesn’t sound like Hendrix at all.
At one point, Prince leans all the way back and plays in the arms of someone holding him up at front of the stage. At the end, he takes off the guitar and tosses it into the air. (It doesn’t seem to land.) Fourteen years later, people are still talking about it. In that respect, the Hendrix comparisons are valid.