By Marco della Cava, USA TODAY
On a vibrant New York night in 1997, Lisa Johnson ducked into the Iridium nightclub just off Times Square.
A longtime fan and student of rock ‘n’ roll, she was there to hear the weekly gig of octogenarian Les Paul, the brilliant guitarist and inventor whose name — with all due respect to the Fender Stratocaster — graces Gibson’s utterly iconic rock ax.
“He was such an approachable and humble man, and pretty soon I went up to him and just asked if I could photograph his guitar,” says Johnson. “That was that.”
Actually, that was this: 108 Rock Star Guitars, published by Glitterati, is a 486-photograph, $108 leatherette-bound monster of a coffee table book out Oct. 8 ($540 gets you the deluxe signed edition set inside a die-cut box, with a bonus scarf and pick). This doorstop of a tribute showcases the adored instruments of some of the world’s most renowned rock musicians, from Jeff Beck (whose Stratocaster is a hodgepodge of different Fender models and parts) to Willie Nelson (who purchased his now-ravaged Martin N-20 acoustic, named Trigger, new in 1969).
The concept is a popular one this fall. Also celebrating stringed tools of the musical trade is Guitar Aficionado: The Collections ($50, out Oct. 15). Leveraging the magazine’s pull with the likes of Eric Johnson and David Crosby, the photo-laden book showcases guitars ranging from Jimmy Page’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard to Rick Nielsen’s 1953 Fender Telecaster.
Meanwhile, for those interested in the very roots of the guitar on American soil, there’s Inventing the American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations of C.F. Martin and His Contemporaries, ($50, out Oct. 15). The book includes detailed photographs of more than 50 seminal old-school instruments, and as the title suggests focuses on the creations and legacy of the Pennsylvania-based Martin Guitar Company, celebrating its 180th anniversary this month.
But Johnson’s 17-year-long project is more labor of love than corporate concept. Her journey from shooting her first guitar, Les Paul’s tiger-striped 1980 Gibson Les Paul, to her last, Bruce Springsteen’s battered 1953/1954 Fender Esquire, included a few memorably quick approvals and many initial rejections.
In the shockingly easy category was a speedy approval to capture Jimmy Page’s fabled 1968 Gibson SG Double Neck of Stairway to Heaven fame. “I shot it at his offices in London, and when the case was opened everyone who worked there crowded around to see it,” she says. Slash, too, proved game right off the bat, offering up his cigarette- and belt-buckle-scarred 1987 Gibson Les Paul Standard. “He said, ‘Wow, most people want to shoot me, but you want to take pictures of my guitar, that’s cool.’ ”
There was one rejection that reversed itself after multiple requests. “I’d wanted to get Rick (Nielsen of Cheap Trick) forever, because I love that band,” says Johnson, whose initial e-mails were answered with one word: “No.”
“Then I met Rick at a party, and he said sure, just contact his people. So I did, but I misspelled his last name (which alienated his camp). Two years later, I finally got him. Persistence, persistence, I guess,” says Johnson, who wound up shooting a range of kooky Nielsen axes for 108 Rock Star Guitars.
Johnson, 49, spent much of her professional life as a technical sales representative for Kodak in Manhattan. In 2000, she was transferred to Las Vegas (“All the photos on the front of slot machines use Kodak product. Big business”). Two years later, she quit and opened two yoga studios in order to delve deeper into the Eastern practice.
“All through that time, I kept at the project, usually trying to get ahold of (rockers) when they came through and played Las Vegas, but sometimes traveling to where they were,” she says. In 2008, she sold the yoga studios and pursued the book project full time.
“I had to get 108,” says Johnson, a numerologist who explains the significance of the number (considered sacred in many Eastern disciplines) in her foreword: “For a yogi such as myself, there is no better number of artists to feature in this collection. The more conventional alternatives do not offer the mystical significance. … In many ways, I did not choose 108, it chose me.”
Leafing through the book is to trip through rock ‘n’ roll history. There’s Keith Richards’ lovely blond and unadorned 1952 Gibson ES-350, and Yes guitarist Steve Howe’s cherished Gibson ES-175, which “he calls Mr. Gibson and buys a seat for on planes when he travels,” Johnson says.
Her two big freakout moments: being in the presence of Springsteen’s Esquire (the banged-up Telecaster-stepchild seen on the cover of Born to Run) and Page’s imposing red double-neck (“Epic,” she says. “Think of how many people that guitar inspired”).
And Johnson is only getting started. She is now 35 guitars into what she hopes will be a second guitar-worshipers’ treat. “I’ve got Julian Lennon,” she says excitedly.
Speaking of The Beatles, any luck there?
“It was just too hard this time around,” she sighs. “But maybe now I can show this book, and have a shot.”
But there’s one guitarist even higher on Johnson’s list than members of the Fab Four.
“Angus Young (of AC/DC) still eludes me, he’s my No. 1, I just love that band,” she says. Suddenly, she remembers a few other big names whose guitars she is eager to capture. “I need The Edge …oh, and (Dire Straits’) Mark Knopfler, too.”
But if there’s one legend of the guitar responsible for lighting Johnson’s fire, it’s the late Les Paul.
“He felt that the book could be a way to inspire kids to personalize their guitars and really fall in love with the instrument,” says Johnson, who notes that a portion of the pricey book’s proceeds go to the Les Paul Foundation, which promotes music education for children. “He said, ‘Lisa, if you affect even one child, it’s worth it.’ “