Wendy Melvoin shares licks with Rob Bacon during the Revolution’s stop in May 2017 at the Majestic in Detroit. Gibson gave Melvoin her white ES-335 in 1985, and she’s been playing it since. “That guitar was used for the entire Parade Tour and our last tour as a band,” she says. “Actually, Prince called me about 6 months before he passed and goes,
‘God! Do you still have that white 335?’ And indeed I do.”
Photo by Ken Settle
Could you describe the chemistry you had with Prince as his guitar foil?
Well, the thing he liked about me was that I never considered myself a female guitar player—I was simply a guitar player. He really respected that about me, but at the same time, if you look at things like “Computer Blue,” where I was getting on my knees and we did something similar in the onstage theatrics to Ronson and Bowie’s interaction, there was an obvious gender definition happening, but what turned it on its head is that we were very fluid in our gender roles onstage. But I never really considered myself the “chick” guitar player. I know everyone else did, but I didn’t, and so I didn’t define myself that way at all. I relied upon my playing to define myself, and that was something he picked up on.
As a player, I was able to communicate with Prince very well. I knew exactly how he worked as a guitarist—particularly that right hand of his. I knew what he wanted to hear, and I took tremendous pride in being able to sound like a part of him while still sounding like myself. The real magic, to my ears, happened when the mixture of my playing, Prince’s lead guitar, and Lisa Coleman’s keyboards jelled. It was like another language or Shakti, as far as I’m concerned. We wouldn’t have to do much verbal communication at all because the initial seed that came out of us worked so well in that environment. We had a great musical connection. It wasn’t natural, because each one of us had our own singular talents that we brought to the table, and we had to work on it, but it was unreal when it happened. Prince himself could play just about anything, though. However, he never could play like Lisa; that’s the one musician throughout his entire career that he could never play like. She has her own singular thing that even he couldn’t cop, which is a serious distinction.
I, on the other hand, was sort of the great facilitator. I could morph between styles and sounds easily. That’s why I ended up being a sought-after studio musician for such a wide variety of records and musicians. I’ve done everything from Los Lobos to Joni Mitchell to Madonna, etc. But I think my strength is morphing, and that kind of thing worked really well with Prince and I and our musical dialogue. We had the same influences, too, although he was a big Carlos Santana fan and I was not! I was a John McLaughlin fan, though they did do a great record together.
As an insider who undoubtedly saw more of Prince as a guitarist than many, was there anything you found extraordinary about his playing that might not be immediately obvious to an outsider?
If you want to see the real magic in Prince’s playing, it’s not his left hand; his picking hand was everything. You’ve got the blues dudes that use their thumb and finger, or the Albert King dudes that use their fingers to really pluck the hell out of the strings and muscle it, but Prince, when he played rhythm, could go from picking to seamlessly hiding that pick between two fingers and doing this form of almost bass slapping that would bring out these funk parts in a way that sounded like double-speed guitar, and it would always blow my mind. He was really great at that, and rhythm work in general.
He was also just so great at writing a guitar hook. He knew how to craft a guitar hook that would do exactly what was needed.
You’ve always displayed a real gift for weaving together incredibly funky guitar rhythms. Do you have a philosophy to penning those parts?
I don’t really have a philosophy, but it’s just what naturally comes out of me. I can tone it down if need be, but a lot of the time, it’ll be what’s asked of me when I go into a session. I played on a John Legend record last year that Blake Mills was producing—who, by the way, I think is the best up-and-coming guitarist I’ve ever heard—but we sat in a room together and had a musical dialogue, where we played back and forth off of each other on this one track. Because Blake would go more avant-garde with his rhythm playing, I tried to go for the more old-school, straight-ahead Telecaster through the board thing, with a compressed kind of sound, because it made for a great contrast to what Blake was doing. So if there’s an overarching philosophy Ido have, it’s in providing contrast and jelling.
On the other hand, I did a Neil Finn record a few years ago where I played every style imaginable on guitar and bass and it just happened to work really well for his songwriting. The playing I did was focused on putting weird little twists on his songwriting, which happens to be some of the best I’ve ever heard. But my goal on that record was to help his music sway a little more, instead of just being so straightforward. It’s about serving the song and the task at hand.
The main guitar riff on “Computer Blue” is one of my favorites from the whole Prince discography. Could you detail your involvement in the writing of that tune, and also tell us how that doubled-lead lick in the middle that you two play came into being?
Well, the main hook at the beginning, that’s mine. Lisa and I were at rehearsal at a warehouse space and demoing music that would all wind up being Purple Rain stuff, and Prince walked in on that day and it was something that piqued his interest, so “Computer Blue” was based on that hook. We all worked on it together from there.
The triplet guitar solo part is, interestingly enough, my albatross! Every musician has their muscle memory and that lick is just Prince’s on perfect display. It was a part that he played so naturally. My muscle memory just doesn’t have the same freedom as his did, and that was just a part that came to him so easily. So, since I started playing that lick at age 19, to this day when I play it on my own, I’m not doing the part justice. However, I’ve learned to give myself a break on it because it’s just one of those things that my muscle memory won’t allow for. It’s been a real trip trying to study that particular pattern and why it was so effortless for him to play, but for me, I have to be incredibly mindful because my hands just don’t work that form the same way.
Do you recall the signal chain you used to get that giant sound on the main guitar hook on that song?
Sure do! For my guitar, it was a Boss compressor, probably a CS-1, directly into a TC Electronic distortion pedal, into an MXR boost, into a Cry Baby Wah, then my chorus, the brand of which escapes me right now, and then into a volume pedal, all of which fed into a Mesa/Boogie Mark II head on a cab with, I think, a pair of JBL speakers. I was using one of my modified purple Rickenbackers when we recorded it.