Thanks to Jim Irsay, I can pretend that this is a column about sports. But it’s really about one of the greatest athletes and performers ever produced by Minneapolis — Prince — and the master luthier who built the guitar that Prince made famous enough for an NFL owner to want.
Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, collects famous guitars. Last week, he paid $137,500 in an auction to buy a guitar that at least looks a lot like the yellow version of Prince’s “Cloud” guitar.
Dave Rusan runs Rusan Guitarworks out of his home in Bloomington, not far from the Vikings’ facility in Eden Prairie. An accomplished player, he once tried out for Prince’s band. A few years after that, in 1983, Rusan was working at Knut Koupee Music.
Prince frequented the shop. One day, he came in and told the owners that he was going to star in a movie and wanted a special guitar.
The movie would be “Purple Rain,” much of which was filmed at First Avenue. Rusan would build what became known as the “Cloud” guitar, a sleek, white instrument with gold hardware and a distinctive upper arm ending in a scroll.
“I think he might have specified the pickups and that was about it,” Rusan said on Thursday at his shop. “And he was not somebody you could talk to easily. You couldn’t get to him. Usually, it would have to be through the roadies.
“So I never directly ever really talked to him. Normally when you make a custom guitar, it’s like someone with an architect for your house — how do you want the rooms? In this case it was — how big should the neck be, what sized frets? You usually have many meetings.
“I made three guitars for him. The first one was a real playing guitar in every way but we thought of it mostly as a music prop. Then we found out he was really going to play it.”
Prince tended to throw his guitars toward his roadies at the end of shows, so Rusan saw a few broken necks and headstocks.
Rusan has worked with the Rolling Stones, the Who, Sheryl Crow, the Replacements and the Time. He speaks regularly with Minnesota-based guitarist and bandleader Brian Setzer.
Rusan is well-known among musicians (full disclosure, he has worked on my guitars), but his national profile is due to his work with Prince.
He is building a few more “Cloud” guitars to sell. “Several years before I built the first ‘Cloud,’ Prince had tryouts for a band,” Rusan said. “I had been doing repairs, but I also took myself seriously as a player. I knew some people that managed him and I got a chance to audition. Prince was rehearsing in this beat-up warehouse at Seven Corners near the U of M. It was called Del’s Tire Mart. Lamont Cranston had part of it, too.
“I walk in there and it was a beat-up place. There was a big Jimi Hendrix poster on the wall. … [Prince] played synthesizer as he ate a sandwich. … He played bass and drums, and I thought, ‘Wow, what a great drummer …
“He worked so hard that I suppose maybe your social skills maybe aren’t so refined. To get that good at that many instruments? Someone told me that they were at a rehearsal with Prince and he went home and practiced drums for another four hours after rehearsing all day. Obviously he had a lot of natural talent, but you have to work hard, too. He was a good enough piano player to do concerts just sitting at a piano toward the end.
“As a guitarist, he was a fantastic lead player, his funky rhythm was as good as it got. Drumming, songwriting, bass. It’s almost amazing someone could live long enough to do all that.”
The worlds of sports and music often intersect. Athletes and musicians admire the skills and performing styles of one another.
Rusan isn’t much of a sports fan, but he built a guitar for a local musician in the early ’80s that an NFL owner bought for six figures in 2016.
“When I heard that, I thought about what an important part of Prince’s whole persona that guitar was,” Rusan said. “On the BET Awards the other night, Sheila E held it up like it was Lancelot’s sword, and people were crying.”
All because, when called upon, Rusan created an enduring work of art that helped Prince create enduring works of art.