Donna Grantis: ‘Diamonds & Dynamite’ and her relentless pursuit of perfection

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Donna Grantis - photo by Karrah Kobus

On her debut solo album, Diamonds & Dynamite, Donna Grantis draws on her rock, funk, and jazz backgrounds to create a unique blend of sounds that are heavy on improv while owing deeply to her roots.

Grantis is most often recognized for her years as a member of Prince’s New Power Generation and as his co-lead guitarist in 3rdEyeGirl, whose 2014 album, Plectrumelectrum, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Rock Chart. On Diamonds & Dynamite she steps forward as guitarist, songwriter, producer, arranger, and bandleader, joined by drummer J.T. Bates, bassist Cody McKinney, keyboardist Bryan Nichols, and tabla player Suphala.

On Diamonds & Dynamite, Grantis draws on her rock, funk, and jazz backgrounds to create a unique blend of sounds that are heavy on improv while owing deeply to her roots.

Growing up in Toronto, Grantis graduated from McGill University in Montreal with a degree in music and an emphasis in jazz performance. After graduation, she formed a jazz-rock trio, built her career onstage and in the studio, and independently released an album, Suites, in 2012. That same year, a YouTube video of one of her live performances led to a call to audition at Paisley Park Studios. She was hired and spent the next four years touring and recording with Prince. The experience took her around the world, including headlining the Montreux Jazz Festival and Essence Festival and performing at the White House.

In 2018, Grantis laid some groundwork for Diamonds & Dynamite with a 7-inch single, “Trashformer/Violetta,” which she cut with Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready and released on vinyl via his HockeyTalkter label. She was nearing the album’s release date when she spoke with Guitar Girl. 

… I really love the sound of an electric guitar.

The gear list on your website focuses on your electric guitars [Note: Grantis is a longtime PRS artist; her main guitar is a CE22 that she has played for 20 years], but in fact, you started out on acoustic when you were 13. Can you talk to us about that just a bit?

I did start on acoustic. My older brother had an acoustic guitar at home, and I had made a deal with my dad that if I learned to play one song perfectly and completely on acoustic, he would buy me an electric guitar. Once I did that, I didn’t go back to playing acoustic for many years. I don’t perform with it now, but I pick it up around the house all the time because it’s easy and available. I use it to practice sometimes, and if there’s a song playing — because there’s music all the time at home — I’ll pick up the acoustic guitar and play along when I feel inspired. If I have a song idea, I might pick it up and work out a riff.

But I really love the sound of an electric guitar. I love sustain. I love the variety of tones that are available. I love the volume and the feeling of playing notes and letting it ring out in sustain and grow into feedback. I love how you don’t always know what you’re going to get with feedback and how those tones and sustain notes will react. I find that to be really exciting. Also, I find that it’s an extremely versatile instrument, so I absolutely take advantage of the different pickup settings, depending on what kind of music I’m playing.

When and how did you refine your needs in terms of gear? Was it trial and error? Was it a process?

I really wanted to have a whammy bar. I’m a huge Hendrix fan, so having a whammy was really important to me when choosing a guitar. Also, there’s something about playing a guitar — picking it up and playing it, even for a few minutes, and just knowing how comfortable it feels. I think a great guitar makes a musician more inspired to play, so it’s that magic of finding an instrument, taking it in, and being inspired to play and create.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced throughout your career, and how did you overcome them?

I think it’s important not necessarily to view things as challenges, but just to have a relentless pursuit of one’s goals. For example, perhaps, a technical challenge. I’ve always felt like the only thing separating … say there was a difficult solo that I wanted to learn. I approached it in the way that I thought, The only thing that stands in the way of me learning this particular piece is time, is putting the work in.

My main goal has always been to accomplish three main things in any musical situation. Number one is to play the material perfectly technically. The second is to deliver that material with tremendous feel. The third is to play the material with the most complementary tones. So any musical situation that I was in — any audition, gig, rehearsal, or recording session — those are the three main things that I would aim to accomplish in advance of the sessions, so that when we would hit the stage, or jam in rehearsal, or hit “record,” I would be ready to deliver those things.

I certainly hope that we get to that point where male and female musicians will be on the same list.

Will we ever reach a point when you and other women who are included on lists are “One of fifty sensational guitarists” without the word “female” inserted or a separate list created?

Oh, I absolutely hope so! The reason why those lists exist now is because there is an imbalance — there are not as many well-known female guitarists compared to male guitarists. And so lists like that, I think, educate and inspire young girls to check out female players and to learn about other women who play music. But I absolutely agree. Imagine a list of “The fifty best male guitar players.” That just seems silly. It’s a matter of people playing to the best of their potential, inspiring people musically, moving people, and making them feel something. I certainly hope that we get to that point where male and female musicians will be on the same list.

Do you have some words of wisdom for young women who aspire to work in the music industry in any capacity?

I would say focus on developing your craft, follow your heart, relentlessly pursue your goals with laser focus, surround yourself with a team of people who support what you do, try to fulfill your potential, go beyond your potential, keep learning and working on your craft every day, be the best that you can be, and follow your bliss.

DIAMONDS & DYNAMITE Tracklist:
MR MAJESTIC
DIAMONDS & DYNAMITE
VIOLETTA (feat. Mike McCready)
TRASHFORMER (feat. Mike McCready)
LIONESS
ELEKTROMAGNETIC
MASTER MANIFESTER
ELSA

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