Prince was a different kind of rock star, and one of the things that made him such an enigmatic figure was his unique flair and style, something that was embodied in his unique taste for instruments. From Hohner Mad Cats to his more flamboyant designs like the “Symbol” and “C-model” guitars, he rarely chose the obvious or standard option.
However, there is one custom guitar that stands out from all the others he has used in his career – a custom instrument that Prince was first seen playing in the film. Purple rain, and would become perhaps his most iconic and beloved instrument as the film and accompanying album grew into a global mega-bit – The Cloud.
The guitar was built for Prince by a Minneapolis luthier named Dave Rusan. Dave honed his skills working from home and also had a boutique at the Knut-Koupee music store in Minneapolis, which Prince had frequented as a teenager and aspiring musician.
“One day I remember I was upstairs watching him play,” Rusan recalls. “He was doing hammer-hitting stuff with one hand and playing a line on the keyboard with his right hand that harmonized with it. So we knew it was good!
The Minneapolis music scene was quite small and tight-knit at the time, so it wasn’t the first or last time Rusan and Prince crossed paths in these early days.
“I tried for his band a few years ago, because I played guitar and was pretty good,” Rusan recalls. “There was a rehearsal venue in town in a big old run down building that was once a tire warehouse, and I was lined up by Bobby Z. Prince’s debut album was out and it wasn’t a huge success. , but it’s not. it takes a lot of imagination to think that someone so talented could be destined for big things, so everyone in town wanted to try for their band.
“I got there and Bobby was the and Andre Simone and that was it. Prince had put a big Hendrix poster on the wall and then he walked in and he was eating a sandwich and he walked in and started playing his synth and we just did jams at a chord and at one point, he asked me what kind of guitar I had because I had an Epiphone, but I had made a custom pickguard, but we were jamming in different keys and stuff. He didn’t say hello or goodbye, but he did play some drums and some bass. Andre Simone was the nicest – he had a boombox that he recorded everything on for them to listen to again, and then Prince left. Bobby Z said it went well, but Prince was really looking for a black guitarist and at that point I was neither!
Rusan then left the store to work in London for a little while, and while in Britain he worked on guitars for Keith Richards, Gary Moore, Randy Rhoads, Mitch Mitchell, Def Leppard and many more. ‘others. Upon his return from the UK, Dave returned to Knut-Koupee, and soon after, Prince walked in and spoke with the owner of a custom build for a movie he was working on.
This guitar would become The Cloud, and due to his experience, Rusan was the natural choice to build this unique instrument – but there was very little left for him to work on in terms of orientation, beyond a bass guitar designed and built by Jeff Levin that Prince bought in New York in 1976.
“He said take the bass as a starting point,” Rusan recalls. “He must be white, he must have gold coins, he already knew he liked EMG pickups, so he had to have them, he said he had to have spikes on the fingerboard. A lot of people think of them as points, but they are actually little spades. He wanted one on the cover of the truss rod.
“There were a few times where I thought I would really like to talk to him about something, and I would contact his roadies and his techs and they would try to reach him, but they never answered me. So I just thought I would so I would love him, and if he doesn’t, I can’t help myself.
Over the next month and a half, Rusan crafted the design by hand, using the limited tools at his disposal to sculpt the spiral shape around the cylinder and the intricately carved top horn. The finished guitar features a hard maple body with a set neck, medium jumbo frets on a painted fingerboard. The guitar was painted in white nitrocellulose by Tommy Stinson, formerly of Schecter, who was a budding boutique company at the time. It has a Gibson scale [24.75 inch] with a 13 degree angle on the headstock, a 12 inch fingerboard radius, a brass nut, a Schaller 457 bridge and, as Prince specified, those very important EMG pickups – an SA model in the neck and a humbucker 81 in the bridge.
The guitar was delivered to Prince and used in the Purple rain movie – but of course this guitar had to be much more than a nice looking movie prop. The film was only part of Prince’s multimedia plan for Purple rain, and he would continue to use The Cloud on the original soundtrack album of the same name, Platinum Disc.
With the film a smash hit and the album set to spend 24 weeks to top the Billboard charts, Prince began planning the next Purple Rain tour – but for this 98 date juggernaut he would need more Cloud guitars. , so he commissioned Rusan to make two more instruments. Dave built the new guitars from scratch, although he didn’t have the original as a reference, and the differences between the three final instruments were almost imperceptible.
“One day Prince walked into the store after the movie’s success,” Dave recalls. “I had already made the following two guitars that he requested, and Jeff Hill asked him if he liked guitars and if he wanted changes. Prince just said he wished one of them had a slightly narrower neck.
“He was so calm and shy that even John Hill had a hard time getting him to say he wanted a smaller neck on that one. When you achieve a lot like he did you must be able to communicate and motivate others and somehow his talent and work ethic must have overcome that shyness because normally this would be a problem.
The three guitars Rusan built for Prince would often come in for repair as he tossed them at the end of songs – and they weren’t always caught. They have been repainted several times over the years. Of the three guitars Rusan built for Prince, one was repainted in yellow and is now in the Smithsonian and another auctioned off in 2020 for $ 563,500 – this one, according to Rusan, had a badly damaged neck and is currently not playable. The third, the narrow-necked one Prince had specially requested, has disappeared.
“Prince was a guy who had to have guitars that would work well for him, but that was all part of his big plan – his image was a big deal,” Dave says of Prince’s relationship with these unique and special instruments. “This isn’t some guy who sits down and polishes his guitars or even thinks about them a lot – they were tools. He had so many sides – he was more than just a guitar hero. “
In the late 1980s, Prince fans started asking for replicas of the iconic guitar. Prince had since gotten replicas of the original built by Andy Beech and a few other luthiers, but some fans wanted a Cloud guitar that was built by the person who created the original. So began Rusan Originals – to date Dave has built around 40 guitar replicas, each taking around 100 hours to build entirely by hand, completely authentic and true to the original, down to the smallest detail and use. new old stocks the parts.
Since Prince’s tragic death in 2016, however, The Cloud’s legacy has become mired in legal complications. Demand for $ 8,000 instruments built by Rusan increased after Prince’s death, leading him to mark body shape in 2018. Then, in 2019, Prince’s estate started selling replicas. of The Cloud manufactured by Schecter and sent Rusan a letter asking him to relinquish the mark. These legal issues are still ongoing, but Rusan hopes the situation will soon be resolved in a way that allows him to continue building replicas of the guitar he first made three decades ago.
Around this time, Rusan’s life and work became irrevocably linked with this shy musician whom he first saw to shreds in Knut-Koupee Music all those years ago. Before we finish our conversation, Dave would like to remind us that Prince was not always so shy. After building the second and third Cloud Guitars for the Purple Rain Tour, Rusan delivered them to Prince, where he was fortunate enough to attend some of the rehearsals and witness a very different side of the artist. .
“It was quite revealing in some ways because Prince, who was normally so shy you could barely talk, yet he was sitting at the soundboard and conducting the rehearsals,” says Dave. “He sounded like a director – I remember he said,” Wendy [Melvoin], now I know you can do this part, don’t get frustrated, I know you can do it. ‘ When I saw him do that, I wondered who this guy was. I was like someone else was taking possession of his body. He could do whatever it took to make things happen.
Read more about Dave Rusan’s guitars on facebook.com/RusanGuitarworks.