Prince has one guitar in the Smithsonian. Aside from his “Prince symbol” guitar there is one that is perhaps the most famous of his axes. It’s what’s referred to as the Cloud Guitar and was originally requested for the film Purple Rain. It’s well known that Prince was very partial to his roots in the greater Minneapolis area. This included where got his guitars. Various news outlets have been giving a behind the scenes look at the operation tied to the iconic Purple Rain guitar. The person response is Mr. Dave Rusan, who was working as a guitar repair man in Upton during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Rusan explained to me how he got involved in unexpectedly creating one of the most unique guitars of all time. “Prince had been coming into the store where I was working since high school. He’d buy stuff and try out stuff. One day he came in and went right into the office with the owner. They had quite a long talk. After Prince left, the owner came down into the shop where I was working and said Prince was going to make a movie. We all thought – What? He had an album out that had a little success, but we did not see that coming. He said in the meeting, part of the plot will heavily involve a guitar. The shop owner then told me I was going to be making it. I had done a lot of repairs, but never anything like that. I had to take a shot at it. You don’t have too many opportunities like that in life. So I did it.”
Though Prince had the framework in mind for what he wanted this customized guitar to look like, he left the rest of it up to Rusan. “Prince had a bass guitar that he bought in New York City. It was a one-off. He said he wanted this guitar we were making for him to be in that shape and he wanted it to be white. I thought of it as being a prop for the movie. Prince then really liked it and started it using during shows. He wanted to have more made. Spares, because in concert, you know, things can happen.
After that initial visit to the shop, there was very limited input from Prince. “I didn’t have a lot of interaction with him though. He was really quiet and hard to get a hold of at that time,” said Rusan. “Usually when you have to customize a guitar build for somebody, it’s a lot like building a house with an architect. 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. I figured I would just do it how I like it and hope for the best. I got lucky there,” he explained.
The craft-work turned out to be a labor of love for Rusan, not wanting to let Prince down. “That guitar had a lot of carving. You can make probably ten telecasters by the time you would get done with that. It’s amazing what you can do when you want to or when you have to. I just systematically went at it. I had exact plans and drew up some kind of order of doing things. I worked on it all the time – 50 hours a week for about a month straight,” Rusan said.
The initial model was intended to be strictly for the film. Prince enjoyed the guitar so much, he started playing it at shows and taking it on tour. “As soon as Prince started using the guitar in concert, outside the movie, they commissioned two more. Actually a forth one was made that Warner Brothers was going to give away through a contest. So I actually made four total,” said Rusan.
Reminiscing with a tint of sorrow in his voice, mourning Prince, Rusan sounds very proud of his contribution to Prince’s legacy. “Some years later he had others made by different people. All the ones you would see in concert, those would be the originals I made that were repainted – pink, yellow, black, blue. 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,” he said.
Prince’s yellow Cloud Guitar is currently on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington DC. For Rusan, he would go on to build guitars for some of the most acclaimed musicians including The Who, The Rolling Stones and Sheryl Crow. He now owns and operates his own shop called Rusan Guitar Works, in Bloomington, MN. He explains he didn’t get to know Prince all that well. He was more of a behind the scenes secret weapon, coincidentally crafting one of the fiercest musical weapons to this day. Still, Rusan clearly recognizes what Prince brought to the world and how important the guitar was to him.
“Prince knew how to create a persona for himself using every available means. First of all he was a real talent, being able to play every instrument. And he could write. He was also so visual, he took on the color purple almost like he bought it. The guitar just became another piece of that puzzle. It was almost impossible in its zest. He used that guitar for a long time. Certainly, Prince’s talent and drive were the biggest contributors to his success, but the guitar was a huge part as well. The guitar is something that becomes very personal. It’s the thing you are playing to affect people’s emotions. It not like just having a nice suit on. It’s creating a sound that affects people. It’s very powerful.”