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 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.
Some armchair dectective work revealed the logo is that of a company called Sardonyx. Sardonyx is most well known for creating a guitar that John Lennon played on his 1980 album Double Fantasy – the Sardonyx 800 D II.
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.
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.