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Photographer Lisa S. Johnson Preserves History in ‘Immortal Axes: Guitars That Rock



Noted Camera Artist Releases Second Book Paying Tribute to Iconic Guitars

Jeff Walker, Entertainment Writer

From renowned rock n’ roll photographer Lisa S. Johnson and Princeton Architectural Press comes a must have hard cover book for musicians and especially guitar players. Just in time for Christmas Johnson releases ‘Immortal Axes: Guitars That Rock’, complete with over 380 pages filled with beautifully detailed photos of guitars owned and or played by members of rock n’ roll royalty.

With a foreword by Peter Frampton and an afterword by Suzi Quatro, ‘Immortal Axes’ pays tribute to the favorite acoustic and electric guitars used by a who’s who of rock, pop, folk, and rhythm & blues. While most of the artists are recognizable to hard core musicians, there are a few that might not be as familiar, but their instruments of choice are phenomenal just the same, and with Johnson’s articulate and provocative shots, every axe comes to life on the glossy pages.

Among the 157 featured guitarists, are axes that have been played by bluesy guitar gods such as Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King (Lucille), Eric Clapton (56 Fender Stratocaster), Albert King, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, and John Mayall.

Rock n’ roll band legends such as Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Keith Richards (Fender Tele-Squire), Ronnie Wood, David Gilmour, Dave Davies, Brian May (his home made ‘Red Special), Jerry Garcia, Pete Townsend (his mid ’70’s Gibson Les Paul Cherry Sunburst), and Joe Perry are highlighted in the photographic guitar journey.

Frampton’s famed ’54 Gibson Les Paul ‘Phenix’ fills pages 11 through 15, including its rising from the ashes back story after a 32-year absence. Believed to be lost in a cargo plane fire, Frampton was re-united with his favorite axe and had it fully restored except for the visible scars.

Early pioneers are well represented in ‘Immortal Axes’ with Elvis’ (four guitars including his ’56 Gibson) and Bo Diddley’s Father, Son & Holy Ghost guitars among the first class of rock n’roll additions. Legendary jazz and rhythm guitarist Les Paul who inspired his own line of Gibson Guitars, has his 1954 Black Beauty and a 2002 custom axe beautifully displayed throughout pages 318-325.

It’s well known that rock n’ roll was born out of blues, gospel, and country & western music, with instruments from country icons from yesteryear and today exposed in ‘Immortal Axes’. Guitars from Chet Atkins, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Brad Paisley on full display. Several of multi-talented singer songwriter and musician Glen Campbell’s axes of choice are unveiled in the book including a 1970 custom Ovation Bluebird 12 string, and a 1958 Martin D-18 Glen regularly played during Wrecking Crew sessions.

While a higher percentage of ‘Immortal Axes’ profiles guitars from legendary male rockers, several instruments from the first ladies of rock are immortalized in Johnson’s book. Showcased are 6 and 12 string axes from Nancy Wilson (Heart fame), Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Jennifer Batten, Lucinda Williams, Vicki Peterson (Bangles), Orianthi, Patti Quatro and her sister Suzi.

From straight ahead rock, to blues, and country, these ladies know how to straddle, strum, and strut their guitars of choice. Three of Wilson’s axes made the cut including her 2007 Signature Acoustic, a 2013 Gibson Custom Nighthawk aptly called ‘The Fanatic’, and her prized 1978 PRS Custom 12 String handcrafted by famed artisan Paul Reed Smith.

‘Immortal Axes: Guitars That Rock’ is a glossy guitar museum in print form, perhaps one of the most comprehensive photographic guitar books ever published, and a perfect companion to Johnson’s 2013 ‘108 Rock Star Guitars’. What famed female photographers Lynn Goldsmith, Linda McCartney, and Annie Leibovitz have done for album covers and or artists, Johnson has done for acoustic and electric guitars. Some artists paint with brushes and bring landscapes to life, Johnson does the same using a guitar and a camera lens.

With 157 artists represented, and even more guitars profiled, it’s near impossible to describe a book that is very much meant to be seen. The guitar images alone are worth the the price of the book, but the added back stories and captivating vignettes are an added bonus. It’s akin to a guitar encore. If you’re a guitar player, a guitar lover, or maybe just a musician who appreciates the artistry of a classic looking instrument alongside the history that goes with them, then this is your next coffee table book.

A few words from the photographic genius herself: My interview with Lisa S. Johnson

What inspired Johnson to take up photography and focus on rock instruments. “My dad is a musician, and he plays guitar. He was never in any famous band but he played in Canada. He was also an amateur photographer, and always had a lot of camera gear lying around that he and I would tinker with. Mom on the other hand was a singer. She introduced me to the likes of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. Music has always been a big part of my life. So if you merge their love for music and my dad’s love for photography, it just sort of happened for me.”

Johnson would eventually go to school for photography, working several years in the corporate world for Eastman Kodak. “I learned a lot, but you burn out quickly in that type of environment.”

She began collecting images for ‘108 Rock Star Guitars’ while at Kodak. “The first book actually took me 17 years. I was still working for Kodak at the time. I started toying with it in Memphis, but Kodak moved me to New York, and that gave me more opportunity. I would eventually take pictures of guitars by Les Paul, and it all kind of took off from there. I’ve always been fascinated with guitars.”

The one famed axe she wishes she could have included in ‘108 Rock Star Guitars’ was Frampton’s ‘Phenix’. “He recovered it just a few months before the book came out. We just couldn’t make it happen, but I had my eye on it right then and there.”

Johnson started working on ‘Immortal Axes’ almost right after her first release. “It took me about eight years to complete. “Certainly, Peter’s guitar was on the top of my list. But still it took quite some time to work the ‘Phenix’ in. We were near the end of production, and I said to Peter and his people, ‘this is the ultimate immortal guitar, and it needs to be in the book’.”

She goes on to say, “So finally it all falls into place. I go to Nashville. Peter is not available, and I end up working with his guitar tech. He brings it out and there is this floral rug in the studio that they use for a drum kit. I knew right away it would be the perfect back drop for the photo. To this day it’s one of my favorite photos. With all it’s gone through, the guitar just emanates history.”

Johnson admits, having Frampton and Quatro add opening and closing statements to ‘Immortal Axes’ only validates the significance of her work. “After the ‘Phenix re-emerged Peter said it just blew his mind. I had that same feeling when he said he’d write the foreword to my book. It just blew my mind. I think he understands the value of what I’m doing.”

Regarding Quatro, Johnson adds it brings both their (Frampton & Quatro) stories full circle. “People don’t realize she’s one of the first ladies of rock n’ roll. Suzi had her own struggles. She never made it big in the states but was successful in Europe.”

Johnson goes on to say, “Long story short I was flying to England to shoot Steve Marriott’s guitar (’67 Fender Stratocaster), and I contacted Suzi, and we knocked her guitar out as well. When I met Suzi I said FYI Peter Frampton is writing the foreword to my new book. Of course, before Peter was big, he was a sought-after musician who did studio work for Suzi. When she heard that, she said she wanted to provide the afterword. I was thrilled, because I wanted a woman’s voice in the book, and no one works harder at her craft than Suzi.”

Did any of the famed guitars from her first book make an encore performance in her current book. “There are some. There are a few guitars out there that make this book quintessential. So, there’s Jimmy Page’s Gibson Double Neck and Clapton’s ‘Brownie’ which I shot in black & white. But none of the repeats are the same shots. I brought in different views.”

While ‘Immortal Axes: Guitars That Rock’ covers pretty much a who’s who of rock music, there are still guitars from artists Johnson would welcome photographing. “There are a few that are rather painful to me. I’d love to shoot guitars from Angus Young. I am a big ACDC fan. I’d also welcome guitars owned by Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits). Just a short wish list.”

Ironically the instrument Johnson has immortalized in print is one she’s never really mastered herself. “I’m an aspiring artist. I am finding time now to learn to play. Perhaps my greatest pet peeve is not taking it up earlier in my life. My dad can speak French and play guitar, and he never taught me either.”

Her first book did sell out and is available through third party retailers and online. ‘Immortal Axes’ is certain to follow in the same success. With guitars pretty much covered, Johnson has considered focusing her attention on another instrument for future books. “I’d welcome doing a new book on drums. Who wouldn’t want to see great shots of drum kits beat by Ringo Starr, John Bonham, Keith Moon, and the great Neil Peart. I know I would.”

For more on Johnson and her new photo book visit


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