Immortal Axes: Guitars That Rock is Lisa Johnson’s stunning photo collection of assorted guitars owned by some of the instrument’s best players. Many of these guitars are prominently featured in some of popular music’s most famous recordings and live performances over the last half century and change. It’s a stylish and well-assembled book certain to command a large price tag in physical form but many will agree it’s probably the ideal way for experiencing this text.
Johnson doesn’t adopt a documentarian’s approach to her subject. There are other works out there, past and present, capable of supplying readers with near-clinical studies of these instruments. Immortal Axes, instead, attempts to capture the instrument’s intangible qualities through multiple methods. The first is color.
Johnson has a keen eye for arresting compositions. Each of the book’s color photographs are full of rich shades and textures complementary to the guitar. Johnson has an affinity for thoughtful presentation; there’s nothing in the backgrounds distracting readers from the instrument. She, likewise, positions her pictures in eye-catching angles. These are far from the typical straight-ahead shots, they are never stagy, and the lack of any human presence makes them notable as well.
Pairing them with brief narratives about each instrument is a great touch. It gives the text a far more personal tone than it might otherwise possess as many of the musicians experience unguarded moments. It is easy to get a sense, in some cases quite vivid, of the intimate connection many of them share with these guitars. The legendary music they have played and recorded with these instruments often means just as much to them as it does us – if not moreso.
It is the perfect Christmas gift for someone who plays or even a hardcore fan of guitar rock. Johnson doesn’t limit herself to rock players alone in this book, iconic country pickers such as Albert Lee are included among others, but few guitar fanatics are fans of a single genre alone. It is a perfect birthday present as well and for the same reasons. Johnson keeps the book’s length manageable too.
There is no rhyme or reason to the musicians she selected for the book, but few will complain. Her choices for Immortal Axes represent an intelligent cross-section of guitar masters and many are instantly recognizable. It’s easy to get a sense of the immense effort Johnson put into making this book possible and it’s a thoroughly satisfying experience from beginning to end.
There’s an opportunity here as well. It isn’t beyond the bounds of reason to hope Johnson may produce a sequel to Immortal Axes: Guitars That Rock or even a similar work examining other instruments such as drums or bass. Some basses are included, paired with the guitarist who played with the bassist in question, but there’s definitely room for more. They don’t occupy the same primacy in our public imagination but cannot be dismissed. This book, however, is a long-term addition to any library and an excellent conversation piece as well. It’s a stunning combination of photography and words that Lisa Johnson can remain proud of for the rest of her life.
This book won’t date, that’s for sure. Johnson has, instead, authored a book that will gain luster over time. She places each of these instruments in timeless settings and, as reputations rise and fall, the book may reach new and unexpected readers. It is artistic, historical, personal, and universal. Few significant parts of our everyday life for the last sixty plus years are untouched by the guitar’s influence and a book such as this is a near “who’s who” of the instrument over that time. It’s well worth a read and then some.
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