Donna Grantis

Riffing Heavy with Prince & 3RDEYEGIRL

Donna Grantis

Through 2012, Toronto-based guitarist Donna Grantis was already enjoying a successful career working with a diverse range of Canadian artists such as Amanda Marshall, Kardinal Offishall, Shakura S’Aida, Divine Brown, Kellylee Evans, and many others. In addition, she was fronting the Donna Grantis Electric Band, a psychedelic fusion trio that had recently released their debut album, Suites. Then, a surprise call came.

When the legendary Prince was starting up his new band, 3RDEYEGIRL, he’d delegated the search for a new guitarist to drummer Hannah “Ford” Welton and her husband. The duo found Donna on the web, loved her look and playing, and she was soon invited to join the band. Along the way, she also got dragged into the mammoth big band that is the New Power Generation. Today, she performs regularly with Prince in two of the sexiest, funkiest, and most exciting bands in the world.

We recently caught up with Donna for Edition 40 of the BOSS Tone Radio Podcast, where she talked about her musical background, experiences playing with Prince, favorite BOSS pedals, and much more.

The following is an excerpt from the podcast. To listen to the full interview, visit

How’s it going?

It’s going great. I’m in Minnesota right now. I’ve been playing, rehearsing, and recording a lot with 3RDEYEGIRL. That’s the new band with Hannah “Ford” Welton on drums, Ida Nielson on bass, and Prince on guitar and vocals.

When Prince was first starting this band, he asked Hannah to find a guitar player. I understand she found you through Youtube. Is that correct?

Yep. Hannah and her husband Joshua were looking around online, and they found my videos and checked out my website and forwarded my info to Prince. Then he invited me out to Paisley Park to jam, and ever since then it’s just been full steam ahead. I got a short list of songs to learn and then my flight was booked out to Minnesota. I went out and ended up staying here for about a week on the first trip. That whole week we were just playing all day, all night. [Laughs.]

Is Prince usually there when you rehearse?

Yeah. Sometimes he leaves us to work on some new arrangements, or to listen to some new tunes. But we do a lot of jamming all together, and he’s really hands-on when it comes to working out arrangements. It’s really cool to see him in his element, arranging a song on the spot. He’s an absolutely brilliant musician—he’s a phenomenal guitar player, and he’s phenomenal on every instrument. You know, keys, drums, bass, as a producer, and as a bandleader too.

Does he ever suggest guitar parts for you?

Sometimes he has different ideas of what he wants to hear, and he’ll show me some parts to play. Sometimes he’ll give me the freedom to do my own thing, or sometimes it’s a combination of both. He’ll tell me about an idea, like playing some unison bends in this section, or using my Ebow on a part. I just take that idea and run with it.

You gravitated as a kid to Hendrix, Clapton, Zeppelin, and Jeff Beck. Were your friends listening to pop and dance music?

I think my friends had a really eclectic mix of influences. Some of my friends at the time were really into classic rock, some were into ‘90s grunge, and some were more into indie pop bands. But growing up with two older brothers and just hearing what they were listening to, checking out the CDs that they had in their collection, that’s what I used to do. When it comes to really amazing guitar playing too, you know, getting into that classic rock stuff I think is where it’s at.

You went to McGill College in Montreal and got a bachelor’s degree in jazz performance. Tell us about that experience.

The thing that I really love and still love about music is improvising. When I checked out what I could study in university, that’s when I really started learning about jazz. Prior to that I played a lot of rock [and] I played a lot of blues too. It was awesome because while I was there I studied theory and musicianship. I took private lessons, and we had ensemble classes where we would play jazz standards in different combos. The main focus of studying was to be able to learn how to improvise over all these different chords and string it all together in a really musical way.

My jazz studies really helped out immensely in playing with Prince in 3RDEYEGIRL, because we do a ton of improvising in this group. Because it’s so small, we can open up the arrangements at any time and jam out. Prince really loves to do that—when we’re on stage, he randomly calls out for any of us to solo any time over any part of the tune. So we really have to be prepared for anything.

You were a veteran already by your early twenties. You’d played with Kardinal Offishall, and you toured with Divine Brown and Amanda Marshall. Then you toured in Europe with your own group, the Donna Grantis Electric Band. How did that come about?

From touring in Europe with some other artists, I met Martin Philippus from Amsterdam Music Promoters, and we worked together to set up a tour for my Electric Band. Being my first tour in Europe [as a solo artist], I decided to go with a rhythm section from Holland instead of bringing over my band from Toronto. It worked out really, really well. We played all through the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

There were many times where I was the musical director of a project or the bandleader, so doing that on my own and going over to Europe just felt like a really natural thing and a really fun thing, too. For me, it was really so cool to have the opportunity to play music that was really open and drew from a bunch of different influences, from jazz, rock, blues, and fusion.

You play Paul Reed Smith guitars; your main guitar is a CE 22, and you also have a Starla model. Are those guitars stock?

The Starla is stock. I’ve had a little bit of work done to the CE, so I’ve got the 5708 pickups in there which are really awesome, and then I had a couple of upgrades like locking tuners. It’s really easy and fast to change strings. You just put the string straight up through the tuner, and with a couple of turns it locks in.

Do you have a full-time guitar tech now?

Yes I do. My tech’s name is Todd Baker. He’s awesome. The tech who built my boards is Craig Patterson. He’s from Toronto. I have three pedalboards of 20 pedals.

It looks like there’s no switching system on your pedalboards, so you have direct access to each pedal.

Yes, exactly. This was something I was talking about with Craig quite a lot before we designed those three boards that I have now. I really wanted to have the flexibility and control to instantly access any of the pedals on the boards and any combination of them. So I decided not to go for that switching system at this point, and it’s working out great.

You also play a Traynor amp.

Yeah I do, I play a combination of vintage Traynors. I’ve been working with a guy who’s kind of like my Roger Mayer; his name is Pat Furlin.

Roger Mayer was Jimi Hendrix’s electronics guru.

Exactly. With Pat, we got a few vintage Traynor Bass Masters from the ’70s, and we worked together where he would mod the amp in a way he thought I would like, and I’d play it for a bit then give him some feedback. We went back and forth several times until we found the amp that was the one.

That’s my main amp. I play a combination of the vintage heads, along with the 50th anniversary reissues that are supercool, and I just love the tone. The reissues were actually influenced by the vintage Traynors that were modded.

Do you have switchable channels on your Traynor amp?

No, I don’t, because of my pedalboards. I really like to control, and have access to, different flavors of overdrive. What I wanted was to have an amazing amp [with a clean tone] that I love—[something with] a lot of articulation, like if I hit it hard it will have a sort of drive, compared to if I play soft.

So you like a really dynamic response?

Yes, with a lot of sustain too. I like clarity, but I also prefer a bit of a darker, fatter, vintage kind of tone. So that’s what I think these amps really have. On the reissues, it’s really cool because there are two different channels. It’s not like one’s clean and one’s overdriven; one is bright, and one’s a bit darker. You can play each channel individually, or you can plug into [both and] combine the level. That’s the setting I really like. I usually dial in a darker tone, and then I bring out the volume of the brighter sound just a bit.

You have tons of pedals. What BOSS pedals do you use?

I use the BOSS Blues Driver, the BD-2. I actually got the Blues Driver after I started playing with Prince in 3RDEYEGIRL. With some of the songs we’re playing, I needed a drive pedal, like a distortion that was really saturated and really heavy. That’s why I chose the BD-2.

I usually have the tone at 12 o’clock and the gain cranked almost to the max. I use it for some songs that need to have a huge sound. Almost like a wall of guitars kind of sound, like really heavy rhythms. The cool thing is I have my amps set up in stereo, and that comes in handy. I’m usually playing through four to eight heads and cabs when we perform. It’s pretty monstrous. When I play [the BD-2], it’s huge from across the stage.

You also have BOSS BF-3 Flanger.

That’s supercool too. I use that one more as an effect than as a straight-up flanger tone. I use that one with the momentary setting.

So you just hold the pedal down to get the effect, and then you lift up to turn it off?

Exactly. It just adds so much. In the middle of solos, [and for] really cool big endings. It creates this sort of swirly effect.

It’s almost like a jet plane sound.

Yeah. I heard that sound on records and I was kind of stumped for a while trying to figure out, what is that? Like a jet or almost like a motorcycle, you know? I was sort of on a hunt checking out some different pedals until I realized that it was this particular setting.

Do you use BOSS tuners as well?

The tuner, it’s the TU-3. I’ve been using BOSS tuners for years, and I like them because I find they’re just always super-consistent.

Did you have the TU-2 before the TU-3?

Yeah I did. When I updated my latest pedalboard setup I got the TU-3.

You also have an RC-30 Loop Station. How do you use that?

You know, I experiment a lot. I wanted to have that on my board just to be able to play something, record, add a layer on top, and almost build a song on my own. Whether that’s in performance or in practice, it’s really cool to be able to record a chord progression and then practice using that Loop Station to jam over top.

I’m also a big fan of John Scofield and Bill Frisell, and I know that they incorporate a lot of loops in their solos when they’re improvising. So, I think that’s pretty cool too, just being able to play a little idea that would work against a whole chord progression and have that loop while you continue to solo and play new ideas.