108 Rock Star Guitars – Lisa Johnson (book review)

108 Rock Star Guitars – Lisa S. Johnson (Glitterati Inc) book review

A guitar book like you’ve never seen before

There have been plenty of books featuring pictures of guitars over the years.  But, 108 Rock Star Guitars is something completely different – photos so rich and vibrant, you actually feel closer to these prized instruments.

You can tell that photographer Lisa Johnson gets it. These aren’t merely six-stringed instruments. Rather, they’re works of rare beauty, and she shoots them that way, with a tremendous amount of love and admiration.

Part of the book’s real uniqueness comes from Johnson’s signature style – she calls it macrophotography.  The idea is, instead of shooting the entire guitar, she may zoom in on just the headstock, or shoot only a portion of the body.  She also makes a point to zero in on well-worn scratches and “war wounds.”  But, it’s these flaws that add the real character to these cherished pieces.  And because she captures minute details so vividly, you feel like you can almost touch them.

The fact is, very few people have ever been allowed to get this close to these guitars – possessions held in such high regard, many are never actually played live, instead sequestered away in their owner’s private collections.

One of the finest pieces in the entire book is Jimmy Page’s 1968 Gibson SG Double Neck.  The upclose photo, focusing on the guitar’s body, shows off a rich warmness in the wood contrasted with the crisp strings which traverse it – it is a stunning image of beauty.  Honestly, it looks more like a refined weapon than a musical instrument.

Contrast this with Keith Richards’ 1952 Gibson ES 350 Hollow Body, whose pick guard is tattered from years of love/abuse.  Johnson only grabs half of the guitar’s body, and arranges it so it looks like a plane crashing to the ground.

Each guitar has it’s own feel – Peter Frampton’s Signature Les Paul, all black, with a shimmering outline, looks like something from outer space, while Zakk Wylde’s 1981 Gibson Les Paul, known as “The Grail,”  resembles a giant, battle-scarred bumble bee. Then, there’s the silvery sheen of Ace Frehley’s modified Gibson “Light Guitar” with, you guess it, lights all around its body.

Not everything is an immediate attention-grabber.  Some guitars have a muted appeal, like the plain white exquisiteness of Alex Lifeson’s 1976 Gibson ES 355, or Jeff Beck’s modified Stratocaster with his signature, all-white body.  Still, these are axes anyone would kill to have in their collection.

Some guitars in the book you may have seen before, like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons’ Gibson Explorer, known as “The Fur,” made famous in their “Legs” video on MTV (where the guitars flipped upside down).

Just about every major guitar hero is represented here: Clapton, Page, Beck, Santana, Satriani, Bonamassa, Walsh, Slash, Vai, & Nugent,  along with some surprises, like Sugizo, guitarist for Japanese rockers Luna Sea,  country legend Willie Nelson, and melodic punker Chrissie Hynde. And, Johnson literally traveled the globe to obtain these shots, revealing some of the stories behind her quests alongside the photos (she even got to venture below the giant “Wall” during Roger Waters’ latest tour to shoot one of his guitars).

The book features a touching foreword by the late Les Paul, who wrote the short piece right before he passed away in 2009.  In it, he talks about “the girl who does that guitar art,” and how impressed he was with Lisa’s knowledge and passion for the subject.  Since it was Paul who helped start her on this journey by letting her shoot one of his guitars 17 years ago, Johnson decided to honor him by donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to the Les Paul Foundation for Music Education.

And, one might ask “why 108”?  Well, in addition to being a fine photographer, Johnson’s other passion is yoga, and the number comes up frequently in the discipline, as well as in many other aspects of spirituality.  Plus, it just sounds more intriguing than the usual, round 100.  She explains all this in a bonus section called “The Inspiration Behind 108 Rock Star Guitars.”

The 396-page book comes in a red leatherette binding that is just begging to sit on any guitar lover’s coffee table.  Any true fan of rock guitar will be awestruck by this book.  –Tony Peters