Playing a famous rock star’s guitar is the stuff of dreams. And if that doesn’t happen for you – and it rarely does – the next best thing is seeing the guitars up-close and photographing them. Guitarists who love axe eye-candy are in for a treat with the exquisite new book by photographer/author Lisa S. Johnson.
108 Rock Star Guitars has taken Johnson 17 years to complete. In 108 Rock Star Guitars’ 396-pages you’ll see, up-close, some fabled guitars of Jimmy Page, Slash, KISS, ZZ Top, Joe Walsh, Les Paul, Keith Richards, Peter Frampton. Alex Lifeson and the axes of many more Gibson legends.
Johnson started photographing guitars as a bench-test of new camera films, when she worked for Kodak back in the ‘90s. She’d always loved guitars, so decided to make instruments her “still life” tests for photography.
Les Paul Beginnings
“I started off with Les Paul in New York,” Lisa recalls. “Les was always very accessible. He played every Monday night at the Iridium, the small Broadway jazz club, and would always sign autographs and talk to the last person standing. He was just that way with his fans, really incredible.
“I got to know him, and simply asked: can I photograph your guitar? He said, sure! I shot it in black and white then hand-colored it. And whenever I’d see Les again, he’d say: there’s that girl who does the guitar art!”
Pretty soon, Johnson had an idea for a book. “I used my day-job of testing film as a way to get access to other musicians’ guitars. And once I’d photographed Les Paul’s, it carried a lot of weight.”
You’d imagine that if you had access to famous guitarists, you’d want to photograph the stars themselves. But Johnson insists, “I wasn’t really interested in that. Everyone’s already done portraits of the guitarists.
“My focus was simply to do something that no-one else had done before. I did take portraits of a few of the artists, but that wasn’t why I was there. And that’s a big reason I was so successful gaining access to the guitars. I always said: the artist does not have to be there. I just need the guitar.
“A good example is Slash. I met Slash and he said, ‘Oh, this is so cool. You just want to photograph my guitar, when everyone else wants to photograph me.’ Slash thought the idea was great.
“It’s not a big deal for an hour or so of photography on a show day at 3 to 4pm, if the artist doesn’t have to be there. The guitars are there at the show. And the guitar techs know everything about the instruments.”
Here are just some of the stunning photos you will see in 108 Rock Star Guitars.
Jimmy Page – 1968 Gibson ES-1275 Doubleneck
LJ: “Opening up the case and breathing in the history was itself amazing. The energy I felt, it made me tremble. To be able to hold it, see it up close was fantastic. What I love about this shot is, down the centre of the pickguard is a big long scratch. I’ve seen photos of the guitar many times, of course, but I’d never seen that captured.”
Slash - 1987 Gibson Les Paul
LJ: “I first met Slash when he playing the national anthem on a baseball field in Toronto – the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox. Slash played both national anthems. I got to meet Slash and photograph the guitar. But Slash’s tech later called me and said: that was a Les Paul that was flown in. Did I want to photograph the one? Well, of course!
“So I soon went to Vegas and photographed six or seven of Slash’s guitars. This is his 1987 Gibson Les Paul. It’s so cool. His tech, Adam Day, was telling me about how Slash was playing with Alice Cooper one night, and Slash’s cigarette fell off and landed on the lacquer… which held the cigarette on. Slash kept playing, but the cigarette burned a big hole. And that’s what you see on his guitar.”
Ace Frehley - Gibson Les Paul “Light Guitar”
LJ: “It was one of the early shoots I did. I was taken into a backstage room where Ace’s tech had four of his Gibson Les Pauls ready. But I chose the “Light” Les Paul as it is so unique. It’s a great showpiece. It sparkles, it lights up during the show. KISS’s guitars are out of control, they’re fun. They’re all good instruments, yet gimmicky and extra special. That was photographed with color infrared film.”
Billy F. Gibbons – 1950s “Fur” Gibson Explorer
LJ: “Can you believe, this Gibson Explorer is actually serial number ##008? Number eight off the line, and Billy puts fun-fur on it! Only ZZ Top can get away with doing that. Billy’s guitar tech brought out Pearly Gates [BFG’s famed Les Paul ’59 sunburst], but everyone has photographed Pearly Gates. So there was the whole touring rack in front me, and we decided to pull out the fur Explorer.
“It’s obviously unique and it reflects the band’s funny personality. And the difference between Billy’s and Dusty Hill’s is interesting. Dusty sweats a lot, so his fur is all matted! And Billy’s is in such good condition, it’s like he’s combed it out.”
Lisa Johnson has now photographed so many guitars, she’s working on blues and jazz-guitar themed follow-ups. Get more info from 108 Rock Star Guitars.