In 2012 Prince started appearing with a new main guitar – the Vox HDC-77. This was momentous, and somewhat bewildering for fans. Why was Prince not playing his Hohner Madcat, or a Stratocaster, or even a new Cloud?
Vox are most famous for their amps. Their AC30 amplifiers typified the “British invasion” sound of the 60s, and were used by The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks amongst many others. But Vox have also been making iconic guitars since the 60s, the most recognisable being the Phantom with its irregular pentagonal shape, and the Teardrop.
According to André Cymone, he owned a Phantom V as a youngster, and Prince borrowed it – André believes that the Phantom was the first electric guitar Prince played. You can hear more in the Touré Show podcast from June 2018
In 1992 Vox was purchased by Korg, and they have continued to produce guitars intermittently, usually focussing on innovating design and (sometimes crazy) electronics.
There were two different variants that Prince played in concert. The HDC-77 Blackburst appears to be an unmodified stock model. There was also an Ivory/White version with a custom tie-dye design on the curved top – more about that another time.
For Prince guitar nerds like me, today was a good day…the question about how Prince came to own the Vox was answered by Ida Nielsen, NPG and 3RDEYEGIRL bass player. Responding to one of my posts on Twitter, Ida says that it was her that first introduced Prince to the Vox. “I bought one for me and then he liked it so much that I got one for him too”.
Photos from Paisley Park taken on the 21st April 2016 illustrate that Prince kept his Vox close to him – there was one in his office. Although he had said that he couldn’t play guitar while he was focussing on his Piano & A Microphone tour, it still appears to have been his guitar of choice. The last evidence I can find of Prince playing the black Vox are the photos of his performance for Barack Obama at the White House in June 2015, and he performed with the ivory Vox on the 1st January 2016 at a private New Year’s Eve party. If you know differently please do let me know.
To date there has been no sign of the Black Vox guitar on display at Paisley Park or on the My Name Is Prince tour. I can only presume that it remains archived in the Paisley Park instrument room. The more recognisable tie-dyed ivory model has been on display in the atrium at Paisley Park and in the exhibitions in London and Amsterdam.
For those looking to own an HDC-77, they now tend to command a higher price than when they were first made. Blackburst models are especially hard to find, I’ve seen three for sale since 2016, all of them were sold almost immediately. Be prepared to pay upwards of £1000. Good luck finding one!
When I think of Prince at the mic stand with a guitar strapped across his body, I rarely think of Prince with a Stratocaster. But his love affair with Strats extended from 2003 to 2011, starting with the custom blue Strat, and ending with him regularly playing a collection of them – in Red, Orange, Purple, and the most recognisable of all – this custom Gold Stratocaster.
The luthier that created the Gold Stratocaster is Belarussian Fender master builder Yuriy Shishkov. He has recounted the story both in press interviews and via his Instagram account. According to Yuriy he had a dream of creating a guitar completely covered in gold leaf, but who would ever want such a gaudy guitar? Later, and completely co-incidentally he was approached by one of the Fender’s sales reps, who asked him if he could create such an instrument for Prince.
Yuryi has shared some very high quality photos of the guitar in his workshop they are worth checking out.
The guitar appeared on the cover of the tour programme for his 21 night residency at the LA Forum in April and May 2011, and on advertisements for various tour dates in the US and Europe. Prince was apparently very happy with his extraordinarily unique instrument.
But given the craftwork that went into the guitar (and presumably the $$$$ too), its life was short-lived. In April 2011 the guitar was auctioned for charity, raising $100,000 for the charity Harlem Children’s Zone. The buyer was Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton, although sadly I can’t find any photos of Lewis with his guitar.
On 13th April 2011 Prince was asked about the upcoming auction during an interview segment on Lopez Tonight, during which he pulls out the guitar and says how much he will miss it. But there’s a problem…the guitar now appears to have been fitted with a Floyd Rose tremolo, just like his Blue Strat. I guess there are a couple of possibilities here. Either it’s a prop and not the same guitar… or the real Gold Strat had a Floyd Rose fitted before it was auctioned. I can’t find any other evidence of Prince with a Gold Strat fitted with a FR tremolo. It could be possible that Prince put his beloved instrument up for auction because, now fitted with the trem, it was no longer meeting his needs.
Unless we see a photo of the guitar that Lewis Hamilton actually bought, we may never know if this was a prop or not. I haven’t seen a second Gold Strat at Paisley Park or displayed on the My Name Is Prince tour. If you have an answer please do let me know.
[UPDATE May 2019: I have just returned from attending Celebration at Paisley Park, where they did display a Gold Strat in Studio A – in a small display called Suits and Strats. This Gold Strat was not fitted with a tremolo, so I suspect that it is the same guitar that Prince used, and that the guitar sold to Lewis Hamilton had the Floyd Rose fitted. Until we see a photo of the guitar that was sold at auction, we will never know for sure]
Hard Rock Cafes and Hotels have a dazzling array of Prince memorabilia on display in their venues around the world. In most of them, guitars take centre stage.
Because of its iconic status the Cloud guitar is on display most, and amazingly – no Madcats, Symbol guitars or Fenders as far as I can work out. It’s not clear if any of these Clouds were ever actually used by Prince. The plaques that accompany these instruments are usually pretty vague.
I’m using this post as a “work in progress” list of where guitars are on show, and I’ll add to it as I find more. You are welcome to provide more details on any of these (or any I haven’t listed) via comments.
Atantic City Hotel and Casino – Dark Blue Cloud
Chicago Hotel, White Cloud and shirt (hotel now closed)
Hollywood – Yellow Cloud
Las Vegas Hotel and Casio – Blue Cloud
Hotel due to close and reopen as a Virgin hotel in 2019
May have been built by a dutch builder – to be verified
The Cloud guitar is a cultural and style icon that will forever be associated with Prince. It first came to prominence as a plot device in Purple Rain and subsequently has been celebrated in books, magazines, and even in the Smithsonian Museum.
Luthier David Rusan has provided some insight into how the Cloud guitar came to be. Prince approached the Knut-Koupée Music store in Minneapolis and asked them to build a guitar based on a bass that Prince had in his possession. David Rusan, who worked in the store at the time, built the White Cloud primarly as a prop for Prince to use in Purple Rain. Premier Guitar magazine published the full story in June 2016.
The bass he used as a template is now known informally amongst fans as the Cloud Bass.
The origin of the Cloud Bass has been somewhat mysterious, with conflicting stories about how Prince acquired it.
The Cloud Bass appears in the Paisley Park Guitar and Bass book
The first and most widely quoted account comes from Andre Cymone, Princes’ friend and bass player during the beginning of his solo career. Andre has told his story to magazine and radio journalists, and it appears beside photographs of the Cloud Bass in the Paisley Park Guitar and Bass book.
According to Andre (and Paisley Park) – the year was 1979 and Prince was recording his first album “For You” in California (presumably at Record Plant in Sausalito), and Andre Cymone had accompanied him. The pair took a day off from recording, so took a drive. Andre spotted a guitar shop in San Rafael. They stopped to look in, and Andre saw this bass and took a liking to it. He asked Prince to buy it because Andre himself didn’t have the means to purchase it. Owen Husney (Princes’ first manager) also recounted this story to Andrea Swensson at The Current.
The timeline of this first story is mixed up. “For You” was released in 1978. Given that his next album was recorded at Burbank, it seems likely that Andre and Paisley Park just got the dates mixed up.
The second account is from David Rusan. He had been told that Prince had acquired the Cloud Bass from a shop in New York City in the early 1980s.
The Cloud Bass is now part of the large collection of instruments managed by Paisley Park. Fans viewed it up close at the My Name Is Prince exhibition in London and Amsterdam in 2017/18. The photos in the Cloud and Bass book provide a clue to the origin of the Bass – there is a distinctive, if little-known, logo on the headstock.
The Sardonyx D 800 II – made famous by John Lennon in 1980
According to Guitar Player magazine the Sardonyx 800 D II was built by a luthier called Jeffrey Levin who worked at a “Matt Umanov Guitars” in New York City. Guitar Player doesn’t mention any other instruments created under the same brand, so I made contact with Matt Umanov, who is now retired, and he shared the following:
Sardonyx was a brand of guitars made by one person, who worked for me in the 1970s, made them on his own, and some sold through my store. He made the Sardonyx guitars like the one that John Lennon bought, and also one bass of a totally different design, that was bought at my store by Prince in the 1970s. Prince later had someone copy that design.
Matt Umanov’s story appears to confirm David Rusan’s description of events – that Prince bought the bass in New York.
Fortunately I was able to speak with Jeffrey Levin, now confirmed as the builder of the Cloud Bass. In the ’70s Jeffrey was repairing high end acoustic instruments at “Matt Umanov Guitars”. He spent around a decade perfoming these repairs to a high standard of workmanship – techniques he gained through experience and training received at Brooklyn Technical High School. Like the best artists and craftsmen, Jeffrey felt it was important to concentrate on doing the very best job he could – often taking much longer on a repair than others would. This earned Matt’s store with an enviable reputation for quality workmanship.
There came a point when Jeffrey wanted to turn his hand to more, so he started to build guitars using the skills he had developed while performing repairs. He started with acoustic models, which made sense given his experience.
Gibson “F” Style Mandolin – the curves and lines look very familiar
The Cloud Bass was built for Jeffery to play. He was playing bass in a band and needed a new instrument, so naturally he built one. For the first bass he made, Jeffery took inspiration from the Gibson “F” style mandolin. This was an instrument Jeffrey had had the opportunity to work on and described it to me as the best mandolin ever made.
Once he had created that first bass, he discovered it had a problem. It didn’t balance. This was a common issue with bass guitars. They were heavy (modern materials have helped to address this problem) and didn’t balance well. Bass guitars tended to slip down when the player was on his/her feet. The bassist needed to give them more support by holding the neck up.
With this in mind he approached his second build trying to establish an equilibrium point, by extending the upper body curl out towards the neck. This created the “horn” that is now synonymous with Prince.
When he had completed his Sardonyx “F” Style bass it looked somewhat different to the bass that is now stored at Paisley Park. It had a brass coloured thumb rest installed, and an extra knob was present. These details are present in the photographs Jeffrey kindly shared with me. Naturally Prince or Andre replaced the pickups with his preferred brand EMG. At some point the thumb rest and a knob were removed. Paisley Park’s photos show where the holes have been filled after these changes were made.
Eventually Jeffrey put his bass up for sale in Matt Umanov’s store. It hung there on the rack for sometime, until Jeffrey recieved a call from a friend who was working on the till in the store. Prince had been into the store and purchased the Sardonyx bass. Jeffrey is unsure exactly when this was, but believes it was in the very late 70’s. At the time he had no knowledge of the up-and-coming artist called Prince.
When a friend showed Jeffrey a picture of Prince on the cover of a record years later he saw something that he recognised – the shape of his bass guitar, in the hands of Prince. Jeffrey has been a lifelong a fan of blues and rock and roll artists, so Prince was not someone that he had paid much attention to, imagine how surprised he must have been!
When I asked him how he felt about his work being plagerised by Prince, Jeffrey was philisophical. He said that all guitars are somewhat copies of what has gone before (bearing in mind the Cloud bass was based on a Gibson mandolin) and so he doesn’t mind that copies have been made of his design. But he is surprised that there hasn’t been any interest in crediting the original designer of the shape, particularly by the Smithsonian who have a responsiblity for getting their facts straight.
Today you can see the Cloud Bass in action in the video for Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad, and it famously re-emerged (upside down) in the 90’s in the video accompanying My Name Is Prince (at 4m 53s). The Cloud Bass went on tour in 2017 and 2018 as part of the My Name Is Prince exhibition, and then returned to Paisley Park, but wasn’t on display there during my visit August 2018. The best way to see it currently is on the pages of the Paisley Park Guitar and Bass book.
Many thanks to Matt Umanov and Jeffrey Levin for your time and helping to set the record straight.
There is a lot of misinformation regarding the various attempts at recreating the iconic H.S. Anderson/Hohner MadCat. But with the plethora of versions, it’s easy to get the details wrong. Here’s what I consider to be the definitive list of re-issues, in chronological order:
Late 1980s: The Prinz (Hohner)
1990s: The Prinz/TE Prinz (Hohner)
2008: The Artist (Hohner)
2008: The Artist Elite (Hohner)
2009: Moridaira 45 year anniversary Mad Cat (H.S. Anderson)
During the 2007 Superbowl half-time show Prince played three guitars. He started with his trusty Madcat, and ended with his purple symbol guitar. In between, he performed All Along The Watch Tower and the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You” with this light blue Stratocaster. It wasn’t the first time Prince was seen with this guitar – he also used it in the summer of 2006, most notably at Bryant Park, New York – which was part of the Good Morning America concert series. There are dozens of photos of that event here.
Prince was also seen playing this guitar on Saturday Night Live in February 2006 – it was his guitar of choice for a short period in the run up to Superbowl where it became water damaged. That damage didn’t render it unplayable, it made another appearance in June 2007 when Prince performed with Sheila E. at the ALMA awards.
2007 will long be remembered for Prince’s 21 night residency in London. He rocked the O2 arena playing the same combination of guitars as at the Superbowl, which included this Strat. The latest video footage I can find of Prince with this guitar is on the Jay Leno show on the 26th March 2009.