Interview With The Builder Of Prince’s Cloud Guitars
Dave Rusan is the proprietor of Rusan Guitarworks of Bloomington, Minnesota. He built the iconic “Cloud” guitar for Prince, does a brisk business in guitar repairs, and has many stories to tell. He’s also an audiophile. His clients include the Rolling Stones, Sheryl Crow, Brian Setzer, Dire Straits, Genesis, Iron Maiden, and many others. I had some long talks with him – we’re both guitar fanatics – and our conversations begin with Part One of our interview.
Dave Rusan of Rusan Guitarworks: Builder of Prince’s Cloud Guitars, Part One was originally published in Copper Magazine Issue 184
Dave Rusan: I’m gonna turn my humidifier off so we can talk. I’m in Minnesota and I have to run them [in the winter]. It sounds like I’m on an airplane. Trying to make the place decent for the guitars.
Frank Doris: My humidity’s 35 percent now down in my basement.
Well, I have humidifiers in the acoustic guitar cases.
Then you’re fine. As long as you remember to refill the humidifiers. (laughs)
So how did you get started in the music business and wind up building guitars?
I started playing at 14 and had an experience not too long after that made me think I’d better try to fix my guitars. There weren’t a lot of good guitar repair people around, even in Minneapolis, which is not a small city. I had a used Gibson ES-330, and it didn’t have a strap button on the heel. I took it to this guy to put a strap button on, sat down and waited, and I noticed it seemed to be taking a long time. And then he come over and said, “well, we had an accident here, a chunk of wood came out when we were drilling the hole.”
And I remember thinking, maybe I should try doing some of this myself. The same guy did a fret dressing with about 80 grit sandpaper. When I bent the strings they scraped on the rough frets – whoa!
Some people just drive a car and others want to get under the hood and see what the heck’s going on. That’s the kind of guy I was. I had a Mosrite Ventures model guitar and just had to get into it and start messing around with it. It’s just like what I was meant to do all along. It just took a while to figure it out, you know?
So you were adept at woodworking and working with your hands, and you were not a klutz.
When I started there were no books on guitar repair books, or videos of any kind. There was a guy who mentored me when I was a little older and gave me some pointers, but it was mostly observe and see how things were done. I lived in St. Cloud, which is a medium-sized city, about an hour from Minneapolis. There was nobody there who was any good at fixing guitars. So, I kind of had it to myself. And it just kept growing. It was just kind of the desire to make it happen. This was in the early 1970s.
In the mid-Seventies a guy named Don Teeter came out with a book. He was the real deal. John Carruthers also wrote for Guitar Player. And there was Dan Erlewine, who is still at it. I converse with him now and then. But I was mostly self-taught.
How’d you get the tools? Specialty tool suppliers for guitars didn’t exist back then.
I just had ordinary tools, like you’d use for home repair. At some point I got a fret file.
Let’s fast forward to today. Uh, what kind of guitars do you offer?
I make the reproductions of the Prince guitar. Other than that, I’ve been mostly a repair facility. I specialize in re-frets.
So, you have people sending you stuff from all over the country and the world?
I’d never made a guitar before I made the “Cloud” guitar for Prince.
He had somebody else in town who was gonna make the one for the movie [Purple Rain], but they had a falling out just before it was supposed to be made. So it was overdue. Prince had been coming to the store where I worked, and I had a shop in the basement that I had founded after the, uh, Robin Trower incident.
The Robin Trower incident?
In the Seventies he was huge. He filled the biggest stadiums. And he came into the store before I was there, and one of the owners kind of thought he could do guitar repair. His idea of a fret level was that he’d take a bastard file and kind of move it up and down the frets till he thought he was done. He did some kind of repair for Robin that came out so badly that Robin just had a tantrum and ran out of the store mad as hell. (laughs) About a week later, I suggested they let me start a shop in the store. I told them, “you know, I actually have some idea what I’m doing.”
So that’s how it all started. As far as getting started doing the Prince thing – I’d just come back from London and was there for about a year in the early 1980s. And then I got my job back [in the store where I previously worked] and was doing repairs. One day, Prince walked in and talked to one of the owners, and after Prince left, Jeff Hill, the owner, came down, and said, “Prince is gonna make a movie.” I thought, “he’s gonna do what?” Usually, you were waited till you were bigger, like Elvis or Cliff Richard.
He said he needs a guitar made. And he said to me, you’re gonna do it. I had never built a guitar before, only repaired them. I could have refused. I remember thinking, what the hell am I gonna do about this? But it’s amazing what you can do sometimes if you’re put on the spot. If it goes to hell in a hand basket, they can’t kill me. So I said “sure, let’s go.”
Prince already had a bass that had a lot of the features I could adapt for the Cloud guitar. And I thought, I’m just gonna sit down and make a step-by step-program so I don’t get overwhelmed by the whole thing.
Here’s a YouTube video about the making of the Cloud guitars:
Aside from the shape, is there anything else unique about the Cloud?
The neck goes all the way through the body. It’s got a two-piece neck. The ones I make now are quarter sawn maple. I don’t remember if the original one was or not. The guitar is all hard rock maple, not the softer big leaf maple. So it’s not real light.
But it’s not a real big guitar. Any guitar you see on Prince, they all look kind of big. ’Cause he was five foot two, even a [Fender] Telecaster was huge on him. The Cloud guitars are about the weight of a Les Paul.
On the heavier side, but manageable.
Prince had a list [of requirements]. I never talked to him directly but he had a list of demands. They were sketchy, a starting point. Make it white, uh, put spades [playing card symbols] on the fingerboard, use EMG pickups, have gold-plated parts, and that was it. Boy, there were many times I wish I could have talked to him. Normally you would talk about neck size and shape and frets and all that. But he was not available. It wasn’t like he didn’t give a damn, but the movie was in production. They were already starting to film it before I got the word to make the guitar, due to this falling out with the other guy. So I made it and hoped for the best.
I guess it worked out. (laughs)
It was a real guitar, and I made it play nice, but also I thought of it as a kind of a movie prop. It was part of the storyline, you know? And then, the movie became a big deal, probably a bigger deal than anybody would’ve guessed. But then they said they’re gonna have a Purple Rain tour [in support of the movie], and they said they wanted two more [Cloud guitars]. And I remember thinking, jeez, I guess he actually liked it.
I made the three [Cloud guitars} and they were repainted many different colors over the years. He used mine until the Nineties, and then he kinda wore ’em out and had somebody else make some copies of them.
Have you made or worked on guitars for anybody else we might know?
When I was in London, I made Stratocaster-style guitars for Martin Barre of Jethro Tull. He had a green Porsche. He wanted me to get paint to match. We had to go to the Porsche dealer. And I made a Fender-style guitar for Alan Tarney. Do you know who Cliff Richard is?
With the Shadows? Oh yeah, sure! [Richard is huge in the UK and “We Don’t Talk Anymore” was a smash hit in the US.]
Alan wrote many of his hits. I also met Gary Moore, Randy Rhoads, and Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and worked on their instruments.
Occasionally I would make a reproduction of the Cloud, but after Prince died [in 2016], it really went crazy. Since he died I think I’ve made 35 of them. I’m still going and way behind.
I had a trademark dispute with [Prince’s management company]. It was early 2018, and Prince and the estate had never trademarked the shape of that guitar. Neither did the guy who made the bass [the Cloud guitar was based on]. A friend of mine said, “why don’t you get the trademark? Not that you want to stop other people, but then you’ll be protected.” Because Prince and [his management] had a history of, you know, watching over stuff. So I thought, I guess I’ll do that. I got a nice gold frame from Amazon, and I put it out so I could see [the trademark certificate] every day. I thought, everything’s fine now. I’ve got a little security here. And after about six months, I found out that for the first five years, your trademark can be contested, which Prince’s estate did. They asked me to stop making the guitars. And then I spent four years and a great deal of money to contest it. I used five different lawyers.
It went on for four years. People said, Dave, just walk away. And I thought, I don’t think I’m gonna do that. I’m not hurting anybody. I never stopped anybody else from making them. The fans are so happy to get them. I’m honoring Prince’s memory. And if I stop, I have to live with being a loser, and I’d rather suffer. So I did. And oh, boy, I’ll tell you, all the documents you gotta look at and you get kinda angry…I was upset a lot of the time for about four years. It was tough. But I don’t regret it at all. I’m glad I did it.
So you obviously won because you’re still making Cloud guitars.
Oh, yeah. I got an agreement where I was allowed to continue. I can’t go into a lot of detail.
Let’s shift gears. You obviously know what to look for when it comes to a guitar. What makes a guitar talk to you?
I could go into specifics, but generally, and this may sound kind of funny, I can get a pretty good feeling of whoever made the guitar, if they really gave a damn about it, if there’s some love put into it. I remember so vividly, I was in high school and I had a used Gibson ES-335 probably made in about 1964, and then I bought a new one when [the conglomerate] Norlin had bought [Gibson]. And even as a high school kid I remember thinking, boy, this is not the same. To be more specific, playability-wise, I like larger frets. I have small, skinny hands. I need to get under the strings when I bend them.
If I could only have one guitar, it would probably be a [Fender] Stratocaster, except maybe with a different bridge pickup. Because it kind of does everything. You’ve got five sounds [available], you’ve got probably the most comfortable body [shape] there ever was. All the tuners are on the top [for easy access]. You’ve got a whammy bar.
Having said that, different guitars bring out different things they make you want to play differently and stimulate your enthusiasm in different ways. I have some old guitars – a 1958 Strat, a 1955 [Fender] Esquire and a 1953 gold top [Les Paul]. I think P90s [Gibson-style single-coil pickups with a rich sound] are kind of underappreciated.
I have three Bludotone amps and one of them has a clean tone that’s so good. Brian Setzer said it’s the best clean tone he’s ever heard. P90s through that are so lovely.
Speaking of sound, what do you like in audio gear? Do you have a high-end system at home? Are you an audiophile?
Oh, yes, yes I am. Have you ever heard of PS Audio?
(laughing out loud) I think I have! (For real, I had no idea at this point that Dave was into high-end audio and owned PS Audio gear.)