Books of the Year: Lisa S. Johnson’s Guitar Art

I’ve been promoting my book project on all the social media sites, and I got a private Facebook message: “I’m Lou Reed’s PR guy in the UK — can you send me the finals of Lou’s guitar?” I sent him the files, and almost immediately he wrote back to say, “Lou posted these pictures on his Facebook page, here’s the link, and he included your website.” One he chose to post was this abstract shot that looks like a woman’s body lying on its side. It was shot with Kodak infrared film, made for NASA to shoot vegetation from outer space, and that was in the post, and people commented: “Lou’s from outer space anyway!” Two or three days later, Lou died. He was always celebrated for his songwriting — not a lot of press was given to his guitar playing — but he was an incredible, very avant-garde player. This is one of my favorite images, and certainly one of my sexiest.© Lisa S. Johnson
At a Hendrix Experience show in Las Vegas, I spoke with photographer Robert Knight — he’s shot all these famous stars — and I told him I was excited because I had permission to photograph Jimmy Page’s guitar in London. He said, “If you get a choice, you need to photograph the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ guitar.” I actually had in mind that I wanted to photograph the Les Paul that Jimmy uses a bow with — I wanted to show the guitar and the bow. I mentioned both guitars in my correspondences with Page’s group. And when I arrived they brought the “Stairway to Heaven” guitar, his custom-make double-neck. I didn’t get to shoot the the Les Paul with the bow … but maybe for Volume Two!© Lisa S. Johnson
This is Willie’s pride and joy, and he watches it closely. His people said there’s never enough time, because he arrives right before the show and he always carries his guitar on and off the stage himself. The guitar doesn’t leave his side. But my boyfriend and I know William Shatner, who has an annual charity horse show every year, and one year Willie was playing, and through Shatner’s people I requested Willie’s guitar and they said yes. So somebody brings it from the bus, puts it on a stand, and there’s a whole bunch of people around, and someone’s girlfriend gets out her green Fuji disposable camera. And I’m trying to photograph this guitar, and she’s crowding me out of the way trying to shoot the guitar [laughter]. And because she was doing that, the guy says, “Okay, I’ve got to take the guitar.” I could’ve strangled that girl with the green plastic camera. But I got a few shots.© Lisa S. Johnson
Keith keeps this guitar backstage to warm up with. You can see it’s in good shape — except for the pickguard. I’m photographing the guitar as art, but I’m also trying to capture the wear-and-tear details that personify the guitarist without them being in the picture. I’m illustrating how the artist handles the guitar. So Keith is pretty gentle. He loves this vintage guitar, and he says, “It’s too good to take on the stage.” He doesn’t want the risk of it getting damaged. And Ronnie Wood warms up with his 1948 Gibson L5 — the oldest guitar in my book. These guys plug into a little amp backstage and warm up with these beautiful guitars, and then they go out on stage and kill it on the Teles and the Strats. The guitar techs gave me a tour backstage, and there’s Keith’s rack of guitars and it’s massive! I said, “Oh my God this is gorgeous, can I photograph it?” They said, “Nope. You’ve already been given your Stones guitars to photograph.”© Lisa S. Johnson
This is Bruce’s most famous guitar — it’s on the cover of Born to Run (with a different pickguard), as well as other albums. Part of a Springsteen exhibit at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia, it was the last guitar I ended up photographing for this book. They were breaking the exhibit down, so it was perfect timing for me to go in there when they took it out of the plexiglass case. The guitar was originally deemed unworthy and cast off by Fender (the dash in the serial number indicates a reject), but it was rebuilt by master luthier Phil Petillo and sold to Springsteen for $180.© Lisa S. Johnson
This red-and-white Airline was the guitar that Jack White got famous with in the White Stripes, in which of course he and Meg always wore red and white. He was not present at the photo session so I was unable to ask whether the guitar inspired their colors. But it’s basically a $100 guitar anyone could buy at Montgomery Ward, built circa 1963 or ’64. After the Stripes broke up, Jack gave up the whole red-and-white theme. Haven't seen him play that guitar since!© Lisa S. Johnson
Not to be confused with Eric Clapton’s “Brownie” (also in the book), this Strat was purchased by Bonnie for $120 in 1969, at 3 a.m., and she’s played it at every gig since. It has a 1965 body, but the neck’s vintage is unknown. For slides, Raitt used to use Corcidin bottles with their labels “soaked off,” but now she plays with special slides made for her by Jim Dunlop. She was the first woman honored by Fender with a Signature Stratocaster; proceeds from Bonnie Raitt Signature Strats provide guitars to Boys and Girls Clubs in America.© Lisa S. Johnson
I always give the artists options: They can bring their guitars to my studio, or we can go to their place, or we can photograph at a sound check before a show. The Doors’ guitarist Robby Kreiger chose to bring his guitars to my house in L.A., not far from his. I didn’t have a doorbell, and I was upstairs working, and when I finally figured out he’d arrived, Robby’s got his face pressed in my window. Anybody home? And he went upstairs with three of his guitars, and he sat in the studio with me, and as I was photographing one guitar, he would play another one. So I got a little private concert with Robby Kreiger. He’s one of the nicest guys.© Lisa S. Johnson
Although he is an accomplished electric player, Richard Thompson’s folk roots from his Fairport Convention days come through on his acoustic-guitar songs such as “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” In 1991, Thompson received the Orville H. Gibson Award for best acoustic guitar player. He told me he purchased this guitar in Northern Ireland and that it is made of Brazilian rosewood.© Lisa S. Johnson
Joe Walsh had his guitars brought over by one of his assistants. This 1958 Les Paul Goldtop is a very expensive guitar that his wife gave him. I usually ask them to name their number-one “working” guitar — but in Joe’s case I didn’t request any particular one and he made the decision. And this is one of the most expensive vintage six-strings you can buy; it was made the year that Gibson replaced gold top finishes with sunbursts, so it’s probably worth $400,000 or $500,000. He chose it to represent his collection. A month later, his assistant e-mails me to say, “Joe has another guitar that you might be want to photograph.” Absolutely! It was a Jay Backland guitar shaped like a flying saucer. An interesting pair of choices.© Lisa S. Johnson
Ace often plays this custom-made Les Paul when Kiss performs “New York Groove.” It was created by the late, great luthier Steve Carr. Frehley plays a different guitar, his 1998 Gibson Les Paul “Smoker,” when he lights a wick inside a special cavity carved in its backside to house smoke bombs.© Lisa S. Johnson
The first time I asked to photograph the guitars of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, his management sent back a one-word response: No. I chanced to meet Rick at a Las Vegas party and told him about the brush-off. “I’m gonna fire that guy!” he replied. So I was feeling pretty confident when I wrote again. The management’s answer: No. I had apparently misspelled “Nielsen” in my e-mails. Finally, someone took pity on me and I got a yes. Rick’s guitars are very wild and distinctive — this one has crystal work done by Leslie Wallace.© Lisa S. Johnson
I photographed Eric’s guitar at a Hendrix Experience show in Las Vegas. A security guard told me some interesting trivia: The reason the wood colors are different is because when the LV Hilton refinished the stage floor, they kept spot untouched where Elvis would stand each night before his show, intro music playing, while he said a prayer and donned his cape. It was fitting to place Eric's guitar there that night just moments before he would perform his part in the Hendrix Experience concert. He got some great Elvis and Hendrix mojo that night!© Lisa S. Johnson
When I went backstage at a Stones concert to photograph Keith and Ronnie’s guitars, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons showed up. He was hanging with the Stones, they’re friends, and he was in Vegas so he came by. Billy’s known to give guitars as gifts to his buddies, and he brought a chrome Tele with pink pickups to give to Keith. I met Gibbons, and I had been trying to get access to his guitars for a very long time. I could never get through, but I met him backstage and asked him and he just grinned. The next time I requested Billy Gibbons’ guitar, I got a yes. This is called his “fur guitar,” for obvious reasons.© Lisa S. Johnson
Peter is best-known for the circa-1954 Les Paul that he played with Humble Pie and on his solo album Frampton Comes Alive! But that cherished instrument had been presumed to be lost in a plane crash in the Caribbean, along with a whole cargo plane full of gear. Peter created this Signature Les Paul with the same split-almond headstock, mahogany back, pearl block inlays and three pickups. Two years ago, he finally got the original guitar back, because somebody on the island found that guitar, had been playing it, and it eventually needed repair. The guy who repaired it was a huge Frampton fan and he suspected it was Peter’s. He contacted Frampton’s people and sure enough, it was his and he got it back. I think he had to pay. I’ll put the original guitar in my next book.© Lisa S. Johnson
Lisa S. Johnson's 108 Rock Star Guitars (Glitterati, $108) includes the axes of many of the world's most renowned guitarists.© Lisa S. Johnson

_For 17 years, Lisa S. Johnson has been pursuing the world's biggest guitar heroes — or rather, their favorite axes. An avid music fan, Johnson has built her "Guitar Art Project" with dogged zeal, accessing and photographing the instruments of living legends such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Bonnie Raitt and Keith Richards, as well as lesser-known "musician's musicians" like Richard Thompson, Steve Morse, Eric Johnson and Nancy Wilson. The result is a lavish new coffee-table book,108 Rock Star Guitars (Glitterati, $108), a leather-bound, 8.5-pound volume that's as remarkable as a big beautiful object as it is a showcase of dazzling images.

A former sales rep for Eastman Kodak, Johnson experimented with new and unusual Kodak films in her early macro shots, often in low-light conditions at sound checks. More recently, she has been managing and teaching in yoga studios in her adopted cities of Malibu, CA, and Las Vegas, NV, and shooting guitar images digitally with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 24–70mm f/2.8 macro lens. “I like to get in really close,” she says. “The instrument might be completely groove-worn — it’s like a map. These guitars have personality marks left behind.”_

Not everyone goes around shooting famous guitars. What led you to do it?
I was living in Memphis, Tennessee, working for Kodak, and I started dating the guitar player at church. My father told me I was never allowed to date musicians — being a musician himself — so I called my dad to confess. But I said, "He owns a vintage guitar store." So my dad said, "That's totally different. Vintage guitar store? Hey, I've always wanted a Gibson mandolin." Two weeks later, my boyfriend gets this 1917 mint-condition Gibson mandolin. I said, "I'd love to buy that for my dad." He said, "You can't afford it, but if you will photograph some guitars that I have to sell, I will trade you for the mandolin." So I shot a bunch of pictures for him and I got the mandolin for my dad.

And you fell in love with photographing guitars.
Yes. And within six months, Kodak transferred me to New York City, where every artist and band comes through, so I may as well try to photograph famous guitars. Then I said I want to do a book on guitars — I had that in my heart.

Les Paul wrote the foreword — wasn't his the first famous guitar you shot?
Right. Les played every Monday at the Iridium. I went by myself, and the stand-up bass player was Paul Nowinski, and he came up to the bar and I started talking to him. "Would Les Paul let me photograph his guitar?" He said, "We'll give it a try." And Les said yes. He just sat on a regular old stool all those years, and he left his guitar on the stool, so I went over there, never touched the guitar and shot it. After I took the prints back to show him, Les said, "Hey there's that girl that does that guitar art!" And I loved that. That's how I view the guitar — it's a work of art; luthiers spend hours and hours to make an instrument that creates a sound that moves the world.

Do you play guitar?
I'm taking lessons. It's something I give my dad a hard time about: "You never taught me to play guitar!" He's an avid player — he's 77, still plays all the time and gets paid for it. I was always around music.

Do you choose subjects according to your own taste as a fan?
Well, most of these guys I grew up listening to. They've been with me during the dark times and the light times in my life. To photograph their guitars is really homage to the music they've made. It's their passion; it's what they have to do. The true musicians, they are in it because they had no other choice. Somehow I was born to do this too. I have to pinch myself: How did I — a girl who grew up in a town of 3,000 people in Canada — end up being the one that got access to all these incredible guitars? I just was persistent. I had this passion.

And you chose the number 108 …
The 108 part came in after I became a yogi. I went to India and I was getting a reading from my yoga teacher's astrologer, and I said I needed a title for my book. He suggested 108. In India, instead of dialing 911 like we do here, 108 is the emergency number. There is a Wikipedia page on the number 108 — it has a lot of meanings. But I've shot more than 108 guitars; I had to edit some out for the book. I have other genres — blues, rock, jazz, country — and more rock guys. And I'll keep trying to get some people. My vision is that there will be more volumes similar to this one.

Who were the big fish who got away?
I requested Angus Young's guitar more than anyone's. AC/DC is my all-time favorite rock band. They were the third concert I ever saw — the first was Kiss, my second was Alice Cooper, and then AC/DC.

Your first concert where the singers were not wearing makeup …
Yes! They just had the schoolboy outfit. But I was really taken — Angus Young is such a powerful guitar player.

And you couldn't get access?
Couldn't get past management. Sometimes you can't.

But you seem to have a knack for doing just that …
I've been able to get access to a lot of them, but sometimes people don't understand your concept. "Why does she want to photograph the guitar?" Or they don't care, they don't need press, they're like, "Nah." But I'm not going to give up! I'll keep trying.

You didn't include Pete Townshend. But maybe none of his guitars are still intact ...
Right [laughter]. I'll photograph a broken one! We did request Pete, and we didn't hear back. I requested Mark Knopfler, the Edge, Eddie Van Halen, Prince, Dylan, McCartney … so far, no.

But now you have this beautiful book as a calling card.
Well, that's partly why, in the design process, we couldn't do anything less. I had a wonderful design team called SMOG, and they understood my vision and input their own skills. Glitterati [the publisher] also loved the concept. I wanted the artists to feel proud that they are in this book, where they could say, "Cool, she did a good job, I'm glad I gave permission for her to put my guitar in there." I didn't want to come out with something half-assed.

Are there others on your wish list?
I photographed Julian Lennon's guitar, but I didn't include that in the book because I want to photograph John Lennon's guitar and put it next to Julian's. I actually haven't requested John's yet, but I'm going to.

You can send the book to Yoko — she might like the numerology part …
Exactly. I felt that I needed to show Yoko something tangible. I feel intuitively that she's going to be protective, so I am happy that now I have this book to send over. I'd like to photograph Sean's guitar, too, and put them together.

What about Chuck Berry?
Chuck Berry I haven't tried yet. I met somebody who knows him, and he said he'd give the book to him as a Christmas present. I can start using that book as a tool — it's been an expensive project to do, but it's the entrée to other things, so it's an investment in my career. I sent limited-edition copies to all the artists in the book. And before it was out I sent them 13x19 prints of their guitar images. Because this project was 17 years in the making — some of these guys have completely forgotten that their guitar was ever photographed. They may think, "Whatever happened to that girl who shot my guitar?" Now they know.

See all our picks for 2013 Books of the Year.

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