The Story of Prince's 'Purple Rain' Guitar

posted by Andrew Magnotta - 

Prince was an icon for many reasons. 

Musically, he was a unique talent. Prince was an incredible singer and multi-instrumentalist who was particularly known as an absolute monster of a guitar player. But Prince's abilities weren't limited to songwriting and performing. 

Much like one of his idols, Jimi Hendrix, before him, Prince took his image very seriously. He never appeared in public not dressed like a rock star and he paid close attention to every aspect of his aesthetic. This included his instruments.

Prince played a lot of guitars on stage in his career, all customized for him. He used a number Fender stratocasters and telecasters, semi-hollow body Gibsons, a famous Hohner telecaster-style guitar, the "Prince symbol" guitar, of course, and then the famous 'Cloud' guitar, which was Prince's signature instrument for nearly 20 years.

The first Cloud guitar was made by a Minnesota-based luthier named Dave Rusan, who used to work at a music store frequented by Prince. 

One day Prince -- then still in the early stages of his career -- came into the shop and announced that he was making a movie (the 1984 rock musical, Purple Rain). Prince said the plot of the movie required a very specific-looking guitar. Rusan was informed he was to build it.

"I had done a lot of repairs, but never anything like that," Rusan told Alternative Nation. "I had to take a shot at it. You don’t have too many opportunities like that in life. So I did it.”

Prince gave Rusan a vague idea of what he was looking for based on a strange-looking bass guitar he bought in New York City. The rest was up to the Rusan.

“Usually when you have to customize a guitar build for somebody, it’s a lot like building a house with an architect," he said. "There’s a lot of back and forth, but Prince was somewhat hands off other than his request of the unique body shape, the gold hardware and the color having to be white."

Other than having most of the creative side of the project thrown his way, Rusan says the physical side of the project was the greatest guitar-building challenge he ever encountered. He worked 50 hours a week on the guitar for about a month before it was ready.

“For a solid body, when it comes to shaping wood, that’s about as tough as it gets," he told Premier Guitar. "And painting it was the worst thing ever!”

While the initial model was supposed to be strictly for the film, Prince loved the guitar so much, he took it on tour. That meant Rusan had to build more, making four in total.

Later Rusan was the point person for any repairs Prince needed done to the guitars.

"All the ones you would see in concert, those would be the originals I made that were repainted – pink, yellow, black, blue," he told Alternative Nation. "He would always throw them to the roadie at the end of the show and they weren’t always caught so they’d have to be repaired often. They were hard rock maple, but couldn’t always stand up to that."

Later, Prince had Cloud guitars made by other builders, including the Schecter Guitar Research company. In a statement on their website, Schecter explains to those interested in buying a Cloud guitar, "[We] have never publicly sold guitars that we made for Prince. He has always custom ordered them from us exclusively for his own use...All guitars shown on our website are purely to commemorate the works that we created for him."

"We have always respected his wishes to not recreate the guitars and resell them, and we will continue to do so. We thank you and appreciate your understanding."

Prince's yellow Cloud Guitar is currently on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. Rusan now owns and operates Rusan Guitar Works in Bloomington, MN.

Photos: Getty Images

Gerry Martire

Gerry Martire

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