Immortal Axes Showcases Guitars to Die For

Like many guitarists, Joan Jett has personalized her instrument, an Epiphone Olympic Special, with some well-chosen decals.
Photo by Lisa S. Johnson
Like many guitarists, Joan Jett has personalized her instrument, an Epiphone Olympic Special, with some well-chosen decals.
In his forward to photographer Lisa S. Johnson’s Immortal Axes – Guitars That Rock (338 pp. $60, Princeton Architectural Press), Peter Frampton writes, “Guitars are special instruments,” adding, “they need to be treasured.”

Johnson certainly agrees with that sentiment, her love of the instrument resulting in a collection of sumptuous photographs of over 150 guitars and basses played by everyone from Chet Atkins to Kurt Cobain. “The guitar is sexy,” Johnson says. “It’s got the hourglass shape, which is the shape of a woman’s body. A lot of guys name their guitars. I think that guys feel like they’re holding a woman in their hands. They’re sexy because of the sounds they make.”

Book cover
Speaking via Zoom, Johnson explains what distinguishes her book from a host of similar volumes, tomes which have created a genre that some have affectionately termed “guitar porn.”

“My approach is different, in that I photograph the wear and tear details of the guitar up close and personal with a macro lens, so you can really see the nicks and scratches,” Johnson says. “I try to take the approach where you’re not looking at a mug shot of a guitar on a white background, and you see the whole thing top to bottom.  I want the photos to speak for itself. Not only in the craftsmanship of the luthiers, but also in how the artist handles the guitar.”

How do the artists featured in Immortal Axes handle their guitars? Not very carefully, it would seem. Johnson’s focus on detail is illuminating, supporting the notion that many guitarists view their instruments as tools, resulting in dings, scrapes, gouges, and worse. It’s enough to give a guitar lover the vapors. Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood’s 1955 Fender Stratocaster looks like it has been used as, well, an axe.

Johnson made her mark in the ‘90s photographing guitars on the Warped tour, an annual summer extravaganza featuring the likes of Avenged Sevenfold, Blink-182, Limp Bizkit, My Chemical Romance, and Fall Out Boy. She subsequently did a stint in the corporate world, working for the Eastman-Kodak Company, before publishing her first book, 108 Rock Star Guitars, in 2014.

Johnson cites an AC/DC concert attended during her formative years as a transformative influence. “AC/DC totally wrecked me, feeling the vibrations because they had it so loud. The vibrations and the frequencies, which I didn’t even understand at that time, they just coursed through my whole body. I never forgot it. When you are filled with that vibration - and the whole stadium is vibrating - there’s nothing closer to an orgasm.”

Though the subtitle of the volume is Guitars That Rock, Johnson presents instruments played by artists who have worked in  a variety of styles.  Guitars owned by Charlie Christian and George Benson (jazz), Brad Paisley and Buck Owens (country), and John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy (blues) are scattered throughout, amidst axes belonging to rockers Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, and the like.
click to enlarge Metallica's James Hetfield makes a one-finger statement on the back of his Flying V. - PHOTO BY LISA S. JOHNSON
Metallica's James Hetfield makes a one-finger statement on the back of his Flying V.
Photo by Lisa S. Johnson
The book features a number of photos of the backs of guitars. This approach might seem counterintuitive, but the photos are enlightening, in that a surprising number of guitarists have added custom elements to the side of the instrument that the audience probably never sees. Metallica’s James Hetfield has drawn an upraised middle finger on his Flying V. Joe Perry (Aerosmith) has an airbrushed portrait of his wife Billie on the back of his Gibson 335. And Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains) goes Perry one better, adorning his G&L with a back-of-the-axe painting based on a pinup from the ‘70s “men’s magazine” Oui (definitely NSFW).

Immortal Axes is notable for its inclusion of a substantial number of guitars played by female musicians. While the notion of a woman playing rock and roll guitar should certainly not seem novel at this point, the league of guitarists is largely, as James Brown said, “a man’s, man's, man's world.”

Bassist Suzie Quatro (who portrayed Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days, but don’t hold that against her) wrote the book’s afterword and is cited by Johnson as a pioneering artist in the universe of female rockers. Guitarists including Nancy Wilson (Heart), Nita Strauss (Alice Cooper, Femme Fatale), Jennifer Batten (Jeff Beck, Michael Jackson), Joan Jett (The Runaways, her own bad self), and Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles) are among many women who make appearances, along with Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), who discusses the ergonomic design of her signature guitar. Clark says that her goal was to configure the instrument “so that there is room for a breast or two.”
click to enlarge Guitarist St. Vincent kept female ergonomics in mind when designing her signature model. - PHOTO BY LISA S. JOHNSON
Guitarist St. Vincent kept female ergonomics in mind when designing her signature model.
Photo by Lisa S. Johnson
Johnson’s perseverance in pursuit of photographic opportunities is admirable. In several of the book’s entries, she describes lengthy battles to obtain access to certain guitars. After getting permission to photograph an instrument, she must take the opportunity as it comes, often improvising on the fly.

“Sometimes I’m backstage, and there’s just no area to photograph (the guitars) that would make sense. So I have my black velvet background as a backup, and they always look beautiful on a black background. They're floating in space, they’re ethereal,” Johnson says. “When I’m with the artist in their home, then it’s extra special, because then I get to use their lifestyle to add an additional personification to the image.” 

Noteworthy among the anecdotes contained in Immortal Axes is one describing a visit that Johnson made to Merle Haggard’s tour bus. After the photography was done, Johnson asked Haggard for a guitar pick to add to her collection.

“It was such an honor to meet and visit with Merle, his wife, and their little chihuahua in their trailer after the show,” Johnson says. “I asked him if I could have one of his picks. He said, ‘Yeah, there’s jar of them around here somewhere.’ He and his wife started searching around for the jar, opening up all the cupboards with no luck. I finally said, ‘Well, come on, Merle, you must have a pick in your pocket.’ He smiled and said, ‘Oh, yeah,’ and dug out a handful of picks he had just used for the show and let me choose one. I said, ‘Thank you. Now I can say that I picked Merle Haggard’s pocket!'”