Maybe Lisa S. Johnson was always meant to be a photographer, just as Keith Richards was destined to be a guitarist.
Richards’ guitars—and the instruments of over a hundred other notable string-pickers—are the subject of a snazzy new coffee table book from those eye-tickling art aficionados at Glitterati Publications. 108 Rock Star Guitars collects hundreds of photos taken by Johnson with her Nikons and Canons over the course of seventeen exciting years.
Her father was a television cameraman whose job frequently required relocation. No stretch, then, that Johnson—a Kodak sales rep—would eventually find her passion (and earn a living) beholding the world through a viewfinder. Indeed, the California native changed careers just in time to make use of some of Kodak’s final batches of specialty film (Ektachrome Infrared, Supra 400, Portra 400UC) before transitioning to digital like everyone else. Johnson studied photography at Brevard Community College in Florida and started learning about printing, processing, and Photoshop during a stint with and underground photo lab that handled hush-hush high tech projects for the NASA, GE, and Grumman Aerospace.
Johnson’s love affair with guitars began in the mid-1990s while living and working in New York. For nearly a decade she frequented The Iridium Room to watch the master himself—Les Paul—perform on the instruments bearing his name. The shutterbug and showman struck up a conversation that led to long-term friendship—and to Paul penning the forward to Johnson’s encyclopedia of rock’s most famous axes.
“Somehow, she has gained access to instruments belonging to many of the most revered guitarists of all time,” he writes. “I am proud to say that she even included my own.”
Drink it in: 108 Rock Star Guitars is the closest most of us will ever get to these iconic instruments, much less their owners (many of whom are ensconced in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum). We’ve seen enough of Keith Richards’ craggy face over the last couple years, bless him, but it’s not everyday we’re afforded an up-close inspection of his prized 1952 Gibson ES-350—or personal peeks at Wayne Kramer’s bicentennial Strat, Jimmy Page’s monstrous 1968 Gibson EDS 1275 SG double-neck, Robbie Krieger’s 1960 Gibson Les Paul, or Willie Nelson’s battered acoustic, “Trigger.”
These are the machines responsible for some of the greatest rock riffs, eloquent arpeggios, and memorable melodies of our time, and Johnson approaches them reverently, absorbing the details of their design and manufacture through her camera eye. You and I can’t play guitar like Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson, or Bruce Springsteen. Accordingly, Johnson emphasizes the flaws, customizations, and battle scars that distinguish the hatchets of the gods from similar makes and models owned by your Average Joe. Through her macro lens, the cigarette burns on Slash’s 1987 Les somehow become as artistically noteworthy as the main riff to “Sweet Child ‘O Mine,” and the vandalism on Ted Nugent’s axe as visually significant as “Catch Scratch Fever” and “Stranglehold” are sonically transcendent.
We get mouse eye views of Joe Walsh’s ’58 Les Paul Gold Top and Peter Frampton’s ’58 Les Paul “Black Beauty.” We reconnoiter the tiny spotlights routed into Ace Frehley’s modified “UFO” guitar and survey the F-holes in hollow bodies wielded by Eric Clapton and George Benson from insect perspectives. You can practically feel the bristles (and on the fur-festooned guitar and bass owned by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill, and stifle a sympathetic sneeze from staring too long at their hirsute machine pegs.
Johnson smash-zooms on potentiometers (volume and treble knobs), sweeps over the pick guards, over the strings, and up the necks. She lingers on headstocks, then ventures down to bridges and tailpieces, where our eyes can just make out epithets like “Baddass Bass” (on a four-string submitted by Rush’s Geddy Lee). That we can’t touch or smell the mahogany or spruce doesn’t reduce the book’s haptic experience. 108 Rock Star Guitars is a very much a sensual journey, with Johnson our attractive and knowledgeable tour guide.
This is exquisite guitar porn—an exquisite album of eye-popping images for gear-obsessed practitioners and audophiles. But the 11 ¼ x 13” leather-bound also makes a handsome addition to the coffee table collections of casual classic rock fans. Meticulously crafted, lovingly captioned, and assembled with aesthetics in mind, it practically dares handlers to set it down after previewing a single page or two.
Why 108 guitars? Why not an even hundred? Why eight “extras?”
A meditation enthusiast who sold her yoga business to pursue photography full-time, Johnson believes the number holds spiritual significance: Her mala prayer string has 108 beads. The product of 9 and 12 (two other spiritual numbers) is 108. The Sanskrit alphabet has 54 letters. Double that and you get 108—or add 5 and 4, and you’re back at 9. Times that by twelve again, and…you get the idea.
On display are guitars belonging to Adrien Belew, Lou Reed, Roger Waters, Steve Howe, Steve Vai, Tom Morello, John Mellencamp, Brian May, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Don Felder, Phil Collen, Steve Morse, Warren Haynes, and dozens of other greats. The author managed to shoot instruments owned by Bonnie Raitt, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders—but ladies are barely present otherwise (Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Susan Tedeschi). Johnson met up with Judas Priest, Styx, Motorhead, and Poison, but misses out on Iron Maiden and Pantera. She scored shots with Dave Mustaine (Megadeth), but apparently couldn’t access the other “Big Four” bands (Metallica, Anthrax, and Slayer). We can only assume she tried. Other glaring omissions: Ritchie Blackmore, Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Frusciante, Lindsey Buckingham, and Toni Iommi.
The subjects skew older, representing a crosscut of pantheon rock artists from the ‘70s and ‘80s—which is perfectly fine by us. Newer acts like Coldplay and Kings of Leon may sell lots of records, but they lack the chops needed to take guitar to the next level the way their forefathers (and mothers) did (and still do).
Glitterati also stocks a limited edition (540 copies) deluxe version of the book. Signed, numbered, and housed in a die-cut collector’s box, these editions include purple hand-woven scarves bearing the book cover design. Both the standard and deluxe incarnations include a 16-page booklet documenting Johnson’s inspiration for the project with extra images and anecdotes.
A portion of the proceeds from Johnson’s book are earmarked for the Les Paul Foundation, a charity founded on behalf of the guitar-maker / player that supports music education, engineering, and research. The foundation awards grants and scholarships to music and sound programs serving youth and provides funding for medical studies on hearing impairment.