Simon Farmer, the man who made Prince’s last guitar
On April 16, 2016, Prince held another one of his infamous Paisley Park After Dark dance parties. Sadly, this would be the last time the public would ever see Prince again. During the party, Prince introduced fans to his newest guitar, the Purple Special, created by luthier and founder of Gus Guitars, Simon Farmer. As prolific of a guitarist that Prince was, he heavily relied on a select few of six-string axes throughout his career. The Purple One’s most notable guitars included the Cloud and Symbol Guitars made by Schecter, customized Fender Stratocasters, the Vox HDC-77 (used during the final six years of his life), and his iconic Hohner MadCat Telecaster. These guitars gave Prince a tone that was splendid, unique, and personal. It was surprising to see that his newest guitar was made in a small, one-man workshop, with a brand name that is not known by many. Funk★U recently caught up with the man who made this guitar to discuss his journey creating his business and his experience working with Prince.
Funk★U: Tell us a little about yourself, how you became a luthier and started Gus Guitars.
Simon Farmer : I made my first guitar when I was a fourteen year old school kid. I was completely fascinated with creating something that actually worked! I went on to study Art and Design and managed to steer most of my projects towards guitar making. I eventually completed a Master’s Degree in Industrial Design, where I spent two further years working on alternative guitar ideas and investigating different materials. By this point I’d created a number of instruments using tubular metal and composites and I had a prototype version of a guitar that would become the Gus G1. I knew at this point that I wanted to try to forge a career in guitar making and fortunately managed to win a Crafts Council Award which helped me to fund the setting up of a workshop. I spent the next few years developing my ideas and launched Gus Guitars and the G1 guitar in 1994.
How did you come up with the creative designs for your guitars ?
My art and design education included a three year degree course at Wolverhampton Polytechnic where I was surrounded by artists and designers from a wide range of disciplines all housed in a fantastic seven story building, so I was exposed to all sorts of influences and inspiration from fine art to graphics, furniture making, ceramics, print making and photography. I was particularly interested in the way furniture makers were using bent steel tube to create chairs and thought I could use the same technique to form guitars. I made a number of experimental instruments from rolled steel tube that I called Guitubes, and these started me on the path that would lead to the Gus G1 and G3.
How were you contacted by Prince ? Do you know how he heard about Gus Guitars ?
I was contacted by Prince’s friend and Paisley Park manager Kirk Johnson, who’d seen my guitars on my website. I believe my guitars may have been brought to his attention through social media.
Tell us about the guitar you made for Prince. How long did it take to make? Did he give you a deadline? Did he ask for any particular specifications ?
I created the Purple Special because people had been telling me the G1 was the sort of guitar that Prince would play for so long, that I just decided to make one that I thought really would suit him! It took me hundreds of hours spread over about 6 months with the last three months spent almost exclusively on it. I was trying to get it finished in time to show it to him at his 2007 Earth Tour, where he played twenty one nights at London’s O2 Arena. He didn’t know I was building it and in the end it wasn’t possible to get it to him, so the guitar spent the following nine years sitting in my workshop while I moved on to other projects… until it came to his attention in early 2016.
Do you know when Prince received the guitar (how long he had it before his passing) ? Did he ever attempt to contact you again?
He received the guitar in early March 2016, so he only really had the guitar for a matter of weeks before he so sadly died. He got in touch with me through Kirk when he received the guitar and wanted to set up a time to talk on the phone, though to my everlasting regret, I had a bad case of the flu and literally couldn’t speak, so I had to postpone, thinking I would speak to him later… but of course this never happened. Through Kirk, he asked me if I could build him a bass like the guitar, and this is what I was working on when I heard that he’d died.
Who are some of your favorite guitarists? Were you a fan of Prince and his music prior to engaging with him? If not, have you found yourself listening to his music more often now since he is gone? Do you have a favorite Prince song or album?
Although I played saxophone as a teenager I was always very influenced by guitar players and particularly loved blues players like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, Freddie King etc. I appreciate all sorts of players though from Les Paul and Donald Fagen to Bill Nelson and Angus Young. I’d liked Prince’s music from the early eighties on… his music always sounded new and exciting and so Funky. Not very original I know, but I love the Purple Rain album, though I also really like the music he recorded more recently with 3rd Eye Girl, with Ida Nielsen on bass.
What would you like to see happen to the Purple Special guitar you made for Prince now that he is gone ?
I’m very happy with how things have turned out with the Purple Special Paisley Park currently has it on display in a prominent position in a glass case in their museum alongside some of his other guitars. It was on display for the Celebration they had there in April to mark a year after Prince’s passing. The guitar is also featured in a book that Paisley Park has released, Prince: Guitar & Bass, which is available from their online store.
Are there any additional comments you’d like to make or would want people to know about yourself, your company, and/or your involvement with Prince ?
I think the thing I would like people to understand most about my business is that I am just a one man operation and that I create everything for my guitars by hand one at a time in my workshop… it’s a truly bespoke operation with very few bought in components. I’m extremely proud to have been able to create a guitar for Prince that he seemed to like enough to order a bass from me and I will always be grateful that he received it and had time to enjoy, though I would have so loved to see him use it live !
Interview : Adam Kita