The History of Prince’s Cloud Guitar

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    The History of Prince’s Cloud Guitar
    Published: November 29, 2021

    Prince live in 1985, playing Cloud. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

    As one of the most glamorous rock stars to ever walk the earth, it was only natural for Prince to play a guitar as elegant as the Cloud. While he did play other guitars as well, the Cloud is his most iconic as its the one he used in the 1984 film Purple Rain, which of course kickstarted his career alongside the platinum-selling soundtrack of the same name.

    Purple Rain has become one of the most famous and beloved albums of all time – it spent 24 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts upon its release, and is still in heavy rotation among music lovers today, with the title track “Purple Rain” leading the charge.

    At the heart of all this is Prince wielding his sensual white Cloud guitar, built by the talented Minneapolis luthier Dave Rusan. Dave was working at the Knut-Koupee Music Store in the early eighties when His Royal Badness came in looking to have a custom guitar made for a film that he was working on. Prince had yet to achieve national fame, but Rusan knew him from the music scene and was aware of his extreme talent, and had even tried out for his band at one point.

    Prince had a loose idea of what he wanted the guitar to look like, offering the Jeff Levin-built Cloud bass that he had purchased in New York City in 1976 as a reference point. He also specified that the guitar had to be white, with gold hardware and spades on the fingerboard. He was fond of the EMG pickups, so he requested those be put in it as well.

    Prince live in 1985, playing Cloud. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

    After that, Rusan did not hear from Prince until he was finished with the guitar, though he did reach out to discuss the project a few times. And so Dave Rusan was left with his own creative direction and got to work on the guitar. He spent a month and a half carving the body of the instrument by hand out of solid maple, carefully using hand tools to craft the delicate horn that gives the Cloud its unique look.

    The neck is set into the body, with medium jumbo fretboards and a 12 inch fretboard radius, plus a Gibson scale that measures 24.75 inches, and a 13 degree offset on the headstock. The bridge is a Schaller 457 and of course, two EMG pickups – an SA model in the neck and an 81 humbucker in the bridge, just as Prince requested. It was painted painted white nitrocellulose laquer, including the fretboard, by Tommy Stinson (no, not the bass player from The Replacements).

    Rusan finished the guitar and delivered it to Prince prior to the filming of Purple Rain, which began in November of 1983. While the Cloud guitar was designed to pop on the big screen, in the hands of Prince making his acting debut, it also had to hold its own both in the studio and on the road. After the release of Purple Rain, the Cloud became Prince’s main guitar on the road from 1983 to 1999, and again in 1999-2000.

    Dave Rusan with Cloud.

    Cloud’s worthiness in the studio was proven by the quality of music on Purple Rain, an album that was a smash hit upon its release and has thus far stood the test of time. Prince played the guitar on the entire album, and after it topped the charts the time came to book a tour worthy of a chart-topping album.

    Prior to leaving for the astronomical 98-date Purple Rain tour, Prince returned to Dave Rusan looking to have a few copies of the original Cloud made to take with him on the road. He did not request any modifications other than for one of them to have a skinnier neck. Rusan made the Cloud duplicates in the same hand-crafted manner as the original and Prince took all three of them on tour and would send them back to Rusan’s shop for repairs quite often as he had a habit of tossing them to the roadies and they would sometimes fall and get damaged.

    All three of the guitars that Rusan made for Prince were painted white, but one was later painted yellow (likely the very first one) and is currently on display in the Smithsonian. Another one (the “Blue Angel”) was sold at auction in 2020 for $526,000, and the one with the skinny neck is missing, according to Rusan.

    Prince live in Sydney, Australia in 2005. Playing a yellow Cloud. Photo by Getty Images

    In the late 80s, Prince needed even more duplicates of the Cloud made, and instead of Rusan he commissioned the luthier Andy Beech to make a few of them. This was the start of a very long working relationship between Prince and Beech (though the two apparently never met), with Beech crafting over 30 guitars for Prince, including several Clouds and also the iconic Symbol guitar that Prince played at the Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2007.

    Prince’s guitar tech Zeke Clarke is also credited with building up to 24 of the Cloud guitars for Prince, though some were never even played by Prince himself (some of those can be found hanging on the walls at various franchises Hard Rock Cafe).

    In addition to the Cloud guitars made for Prince himself, there was also a mounting demand following the release of Purple Rain from fans and guitarists who wanted their very own version of the Cloud to play. These fans were purists and went to the original luthier Dave Rusan for their copies, which he happily obliged to in exchange for monetary benefits.

    Prince playing the “Blue Angel” Cloud guitar in 1989. Photo by Larry Busacca/WireImage/Getty Images

    The demand for Cloud guitar replicas was steady during the years that Prince played the instrument, but it truly skyrocketed after Prince died in 2016. This prompted Rusan to trademark the body shape in 2018, which became a problem in 2019 when the Prince estate began selling their own Schecter-built Cloud replicas to the public.

    This sparked a trademark dispute between Dave Rusan and Paisley Park Estate that has been ongoing since 2019. As of my writing this Rusan does still manufacture the Cloud guitars and Schecter no longer offers them for sale, with their website stating that they respect Prince’s wishes not to sell replicas of the instrument.

    No matter the results of these legal battles, Prince and his enigmatic Cloud guitar will always be remembered fondly for both the music they made and the charismatic personalities that they possessed. Long live Prince, The High Priest of Pop!

    Watch Prince & The Revolution play a 16-minute “Purple Rain” live in 1985 below (Prince picks up the Cloud about 5 minutes into the song).

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