Wendy Melvoin formed Wendy & Lisa with Lisa Coleman after the Revolution disbanded in 1986. The duo have been making music together since the early ’80s. Photo by Joshua Pickering
Those purple Rickenbackers are pretty iconic in their own right. What were the modifications?
They looked like a Ric, but they really weren’t after we got done with them. They were loaded with G&L pickups, and had the f-holes sealed up, so there was no air moving in them like a stock guitar. Some motherfucker stole them out of my rehearsal studio about 25 years ago. I’m on eBay every day and I’m looking in pawnshops all over the world for those guitars. It’s a massive bummer that they’re gone.
So one of Prince’s things is he wanted me to play big-bodied guitars. For whatever reason, he liked the idea of me holding a big guitar. He had me playing this huge Gibson SJ-200 acoustic and I just hated the thing. I’d be like, “The fucking thing is too big, man!” and he’d be like, “It’s great! You gotta play it! It looks great!” I hated it. I wanted my little Teles and my little Mustangs—that’s what I wanted and that’s what I play now! The only big-bodied guitars I still have and adore are my old 335s; that’s really what I stick to. But back then, he wanted me to play these big guitars.
So we got these Rics, but I didn’t want to sound like Roger McGuinn, so we modified them. This guy at Knut-Koupée Music in Minneapolis did work on Prince’s beautiful Hohner Telecaster and my own guitars. We talked about getting them painted for the Purple Rain tour and film, and installing those G&L pickups so they’d have more sustain, and just things that made sense for the stage setup we were using. We were playing with these massive side fills, like stadium shit, and I’ve actually lost hearing in one of my ears because of those side fills! The point is, I couldn’t have any feedback because of the proximity to those side fills, so we clogged up the guitars, and that’s what they became.
I’ve seen that white Gibson ES-335 in your hands more than any guitar over the course of your career. What’s the story on that one and what do you love about it so much?
Gibson came to rehearsal back in 1985 and presented me with that guitar before we left for the Parade tour. It’s been my jewel. I have a few other 335s from 1967 that are absolutely phenomenal, too, but the white one was made for me and I now play it consistently. I only play it with flatwounds and it’s just been a dream guitar. That guitar was used for the entire Parade tour and our last tour as a band. Actually, Prince called me about 6 months before he passed and goes, “God! Do you still have that white 335?” And indeed I do.
Were you using flatwound strings back in the day as well?
No, I just started using them in the past 10 years. I keep slinky rounds on certain guitars I use in the studio, but for the most part, I really like flats. They have a sound that’s just really great for me.
Looking back, do you have a proudest moment or contribution as a player and composer from your time with the Revolution?
Oh wow. I don’t have a favorite moment, per se. I’m just lucky I had that experience, and I’m so lucky that guy was in my life, and that we did what we did. That’s what I’m proud of: that we did something powerful that was meaningful to all of us in the Revolution, and that it moved people. And that’s more apparent than ever when looking at the audiences for this tour.
From the clips I’ve watched, it seems to me this tour has been such a joyful celebration of the music and the man. I imagine it’s provided some serious closure for you as a confidant and collaborator.
It’s been a beautiful moment. We’re trying to let this awful loss for most people just land and we wanted to be together and we dug being together and that’s been the beauty of reuniting after all these years—unfortunately due to this awful, awful situation. But it has been beautiful for us to be together again with each other and this music.
Purple Rain in particular remains such a massively important work of art as an album. Do you have a favorite contribution to that record?
We spent months in a warehouse in Minneapolis just honing his ideas. He came in with his recipe and basically said, “I need to cook this, what are we going to do?” And that whole time, we all showed up and gave just our absolute best to those recipes and, to me, everything about it was just perfection. So it’s really hard to choose a single moment.
As someone who’s spent much of her career contributing guitar parts to pop music, and also witnessed the decline of guitar use in pop over the past few decades, do you have any advice to offer players interested in applying their guitar work in unexpected places in contemporary pop music?
If I was asked to play guitar on a Katy Perry record or something these days, I’d have to tell the producer that there’s just no room for it. Unless you want big power chords, I can do that, but otherwise, there’s just no room. The way pop songs are written these days, there’s 12 people with computers sitting in a room trying to mimic the latest chart-topping track, but make it just unique enough to get a pass. It’s ridiculous.
Hip-hop is the biggest commodity there is right now, and hip-hop has a better chance for interesting guitar. Anderson Paak does a really lovely job of it, for example. It’s such a vague time right now, I really don’t know. I don’t listen to pop music for guitar work anymore. Everything comes back around, though, so who knows?
On that note, is there anything that’s really turning you on right now as a producer and player in the gear world?
Well, because our tour is skin and bones, I profiled all of my boutique amps with my Kemper Profiling amp and it’s absolutely spectacular. I’m going straight through the board and all of my boutique amps are profiled perfectly. I absolutely love my little Top Hat amps. They’re just beautiful, and I’ve got great old Silvertones, and vintage Fender White Higher Fidelity amps that I use in the studio a lot, and all of them are profiled and good to go in the Kemper. I’m a small amp girl in the studio, and I just truly believe you get better sounds that way.
Your father was a studio musician and a member of the illustrious Wrecking Crew and played on records by Sinatra and a laundry list of other greats. Was he an influence on your path into studio work?
No, my dad didn’t influence me, actually! It was more my mother. My dad was really a worker. He was one of these session dudes that was out of the house from 9 in the morning until 9 at night doing three sessions a day—what they called “triples” back in the day. My mother was this huge music fan that sat me down in front of some speakers when I was kid and opened up the sheet music to things like The Rite of Spring and said stuff like “follow the cello part,” and I did, and it just blew my mind. She was the one that forced me to start guitar, and the only way she could get me to do it was to do the first two months with me, and then I was hooked in. I was six! So it was really more her that got me involved.
As far as other direct influences go, who was important to Wendy the guitarist?
That list is absolutely endless, and veers far away from just guitarists! Bowie, obviously, and the various people he had on guitar, like Mick Ronson, who might be my all-time favorite player. When I bought Mick Ronson’s first solo record and heard that song “Only After Dark,” that’s when I realized glam is funky, and can be so funky. Listen to the tone on that song and the way he played that rhythm part and tell me that guy wasn’t a genius.
Wendy Melvoin rocks her favorite ES-335 while the Revolution does a rousing rendition of “Computer Blue” live at B.B. King’s Blues Club in NYC in April 2017.