A brief history of Prince throwing guitars

On his birthday, a look back at Prince's 3-decades-long practice of launching guitars into the air.

Some were caught, some crashed, and one just vanished into thin air.

The guitar toss became a part of Prince's stage show that dates back to at least the '80s.

It will be a moment forever emblazoned in Prince lore. The year is 2004, the setting is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions. Tom Petty, Steve Winwood and Jeff Lynne are paying tribute to George Harrison by playing "While my Guitar Gently Weeps," joined by Harrison's son Dhani. Off to the side is Prince, the greatest guitarist of his generation, biding his time.

Then the moment comes: Prince takes centre stage and rips into one of the most magnetic guitar solos ever caught on camera — almost three full minutes of nonstop acrobatic virtuosity, a performance that had Petty and Harrison grinning ear to ear and even seemed to impress the typically stoic Prince himself. As the final notes from the solo ring out, Prince removes the guitar, throws it in the air, and it doesn't come down. It was as if he threw the guitar into another dimension.

Even Petty's drummer, Steve Ferrone, to this day is baffled by what happened, and he had a front-row seat.

"I just saw it go up, and I was astonished that it didn't come back down again," he said. "Everybody wonders where that guitar went, and I gotta tell you, I was on the stage, and I wonder where it went, too."

What many didn't know, however, was that the guitar toss had already become a deeply entrenched part of Prince's electrifying stage show, a key aspect of his growing myth that dates back to at least the '80s. Like Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire or Pete Townsend overhand-smashing his, Prince would often play a mind-altering solo and then, as if making a no-look pass in basketball, launch his guitar into the air.

Prince's yellow cloud guitar is decorated on the front and sides with black markers in the form of the spade symbol he made famous. (Zulekha Nathoo/CBC)

While some guitarists will slyly change instruments before coming back out for the final song and proceed to destroy it, these other guitarists are, simply put, not Prince. Even his most famous guitar, the only one in the Smithsonian collection, was not spared this vicious act of showmanship. The Purple Rain guitar, also known as the Cloud guitar, took guitar-builder Dave Rusan approximately 50 hours a week for a month straight to build. Originally it was only going to be used for the Purple Rain film, but Prince liked it so much he began to play it live on tour, which meant, eventually, it would have to be sacrificed.

"All the ones you would see in concert, those would be the originals I made that were repainted – pink, yellow, black, blue," Russan said. "He would always throw them to the roadie at the end of 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."

Prince's love-symbol guitars — one in white, one in black — were made of mahogany, so even less durable than the Cloud guitars. As such, the lower horn on the white model had to be glued back on.

But of course a roadie catches the guitars. What else what you would expect from someone with such a polished and calculated stage show as Prince? That hasn't always been the case though.

You can clearly hear his guitar smash following his 2004 Grammy performance with Beyoncé. Right after he says, "don't hate us 'cause we fabulous," he carelessly tosses his guitar to his side and the we can hear the unmistakable rattle of guitar strings hitting the ground. Beyoncé doesn't know what else to do but laugh at this sheer act of rockstar bravado.

In fact, it became such a staple of Prince's show that you have to wonder whether it was even a conscious act anymore. Just as the solos looked absolutely effortless, so, too, did the ease in which he slid the guitar strap off his shoulder and hoisted the instrument into the air with one graceful movement, as if releasing a dove.

Even, in some cases, when it wasn't his guitar, as the Roots's Captain Kirk Douglas, a Prince superfan, would painfully find out. When Prince appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in 2013, Douglas loaned him his 1961 Epiphone Crestwood guitar — the very guitar Douglas planned to play at a Prince tribute show at Carnegie Hall that week. In what many online called a "dick move," Prince ripped through 1979's "Bambi," tossed the guitar in the air and walked offstage as it came crashing back to the stage.

To make matters worse, Prince refused to sign the guitar for Douglas. Ironically, it would only have made the broken guitar even more valuable.

As the saying goes, never meet your heroes. Or at the very least, just don't lend them your guitar.

Jesse Kinos-Goodin, q digital staff

Miss an episode of CBC q? Download our podcast here


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.