Interview with Lisa Johnson, the Girl with the Guitar Art

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Lisa S. Johnson, author and photographer of her new coffee table book titled 108 Rock Star Guitars (Glitterati, Inc.), spent 17 years traveling the globe in pursuit of photographing the guitars of some of our favorite rock legends. Indeed, it’s as if she has captured the very soul of our beloved guitar legends featuring the instruments of Les Paul, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Rick Nielsen, Ace Frehley, Carlos Santa, Lou Reed, as well as many other icons through these iconic axes. She has also photographed the guitars of some of our favorite female guitartists including Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Chrissie Hynde, and Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart.

108 Rock Star Guitars by Lisa S. Johnson

Employing an artistic style known as macro photography, Lisa has captured some of the most intimate details of these guitars bringing them up close and personal for fans. We had a chance to chat with Lisa about her background in photography, her love of music, her fascination with guitars, and what fans can expect to see in her new book.

GGM:  What is your background in photography?

LSJ:  I studied photography in Florida at Brevard Community College and not long after I got out of school, I started working for a photo lab technology company in Melbourne, Florida that specialized in the aerospace industry. I had to get special clearance to work for that company because all of the work they did for Northrop Grumman and a lot of other aerospace companies. We were just 30 minutes north of Cape Canaveral. I eventually got an opportunity to work for Kodak and I worked with them for 10 years. During that time, I started doing projects on the side for fun, as a hobby, but always with the intention of eventually creating a book. That’s why it took me 17 years to do it!  I worked full-time with Kodak until 2002, and then left to become a yoga teacher and ended up with two yoga studios. So photography was always a side project, but, now here I am!  Finally publishing my first book.

Guitars. What is behind the name of the book and what is the significance of the number 108?

LSJ:  I’ve been practicing yoga for 13 years and through studying yoga philosophy, I found that the number 108 is a significant number. Prayer beads have 108 beads on them in some sort of a combination of 9 – four sets of 27 beads or 2 sets of 54 beads, but it’s always a certain set of numbers that totals 9. Nine in numerology symbolizes endings and beginnings – transformation. And within the number 9, there are three 3’s. Three symbolizes the 3 trinities: the body, mind and soul; the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit; and the Hindu trinity of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer, and Shiva the destroyer and transformer. Astrologically there are 9 planets and 12 houses and 9 x 12 = 108. There’s also the circumference of 108 suns from the sun to the earth and 108 circumferences of the moon from the moon to the earth. In Chinese medicine, there are 108 pressure points in the body for acupuncture. Stonehenge is 108 feet in diameter. It’s a very prevalent number in Ancient philosophy. In India when you call emergency, it’s 108 where here we dial 911. So, it’s a positive number and as a yogi, I wanted to be able to have the opportunity through my book to explain the number to open people’s consciousness to the number. Also, every book is called 100 or the 101 greatest, so why not use something different that will actually attract attention? That’s the number one question I get, why 108?

GGM:  What can people expect to see in this book?

LSJ:  Oh, they’re going to see the intimate wear and tear details of their favorite rock stars’ guitars that personifies the artist, without them being in the photograph, because of what they leave behind on the guitar. Whether it be stickers, or just road wear and tear – the sweat that eventually wears the patina off the guitar, or the belt buckle that they always wear that scratches the back of the guitar. In Keith Richard’s case, he wears this big skull ring and he has scratched the pick guard a lot which leaves a lot of character behind. Rick Neilsen hits the pickups with his picks and it’s left behind a whole rainbow of colors on the pickup on his guitar. So fans can expect to see the very intimate portrait of the guitars that they can’t get that close to. They can also see the hardware of the guitar very close up, too, and how the guitar is actually set up. It’s quite interesting. I tried to illustrate the soul of the guitar because there’s so much soul that goes into the playing of the guitar that moves our soul. It’s the sound of the music that we hear in a lot of these favorite songs that we have and for some reason or another, some song might move me or another song might move someone else more than another. But the music is what pulls and brings people together, and it’s important to us. We love these musicians that play the guitar and to just be able to get a glimpse of the instrument they played in their ‘solo’ or that ‘song,’ to be able to see it up close, it’s pretty special. Not many people get to see their guitars up close.

GGM:  The first guitar you photographed was Les Paul? How did you get that opportunity?

LSJ:  That’s right, the first famous one that I photographed, yes. I had been studying the photography of vintage guitars in Memphis, Tennessee where I actually started photographing guitars. When I moved to New York, I loved photographing guitars so much that I decided I may as well try to photograph famous ones. Well, Les Paul played every Monday night at The Iridium Room, so I decided to see if I could go see him and photograph his guitar. I started going down there every Monday night and I would sit there for the whole set – he would do two sets every Monday night. It didn’t take too long before I got to know Paul Nowinski who was Les’ stand-up bass player at the time in the Les Paul trio. I said, ‘Hey, Paul, do you think Les would let me photograph his guitar?’ He said, ‘Sure, come and do it right now.’ So I did. I photographed Les’ guitar and all the trio’s instruments and then the next time I went down there I brought them prints. At the time, I was shooting black and white and hand coloring the prints. When I worked for Kodak, I had to understand all of my films and processors and papers, and Kodak had just released a film called T-MAX P3200 which was designed for photo journalists. The ‘P’ stood for push so you could really push the limits of this film and shoot at a high speed which was what I needed. I was shooting in low light situations – stage lighting or backstage. This black and white film was really beautiful to use, and then Kodak came out with a new paper that was designed specifically for hand painting black and white prints. I was experimenting with this process at that time and that’s what I did with Les’ guitar photos, and he loved it! When I went in to The Iridium the next time, Les said, ‘Hey, here comes that girl that does that guitar art.’ That’s how he knew me at first. Then every time I went down there I always got an opportunity to sit with him and I got to know him more and more over the years. I was very pleased and honored when he agreed to write the foreward for my book.

GGM:  That was a huge honor! How did that come about?

LSJ: I was at the 12 year point at that time, and I sat with him one night after a show. I had brought a stack of prints that I wanted to show him and I said, ‘Look, here’s Zakk Wylde’s Les Paul, here’s Slash’s Les Paul, and here’s Keith Richards’ Les Paul. Would you consider writing the foreward for my book because you’re their hero? I think they would like to hear something from you.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I know, I hear what you’re saying. Why don’t you call my manager and see what you can set up?’ So I called the next day and we made it happen.

GGM:  How difficult was it to make the connections in the beginning?

LSJ:  For the first eight years or so, it was hard but I learned, especially through yoga, to never ever give up. I just remained hopeful that the people that said no would eventually say yes when I showed them my material. It did help tremendously to have photographs of Les’ guitars in the very beginning. After Les, I photographed the guitars of Ben Harper, John Scofield and Bucky Pizzarelli – those guys would all hang out down at the Iridium Room. I was able to photograph Lou Reed’s guitar through a contact that I had that knew him very well. And then Virginia Lohle of StarFile Photo Agency was a friend and client at the time. She has since passed away, but she was my client then and she helped me gain access to photograph 105 of Eric Clapton’s guitars – the first set of guitars he sold at auction in 1999 for his drug rehab center called Crossroads. So that was very helpful to be able to now say I have photographed the guitars of all these famous guitarists. That helped tremendously.  I then photographed Peter Frampton’s guitar, Ace Frehley, and Ted Nugent. They were the first musicians that said yes. A very good friend of mine helped me get Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and ZZ Top. I started to develop a really impressive list of names. Then I kind of reached the turning point where I have such a roster of names that it’s gotten easier, but there’re still hold outs. There’s still plenty more to get!

GGM:  What made you decide that this was what you wanted to do – photograph guitars?

LSJ:  I grew up in a very musical family. My father played guitar among other instruments and my mother sings so I’ve just always had a tremendous love for music. Specifically, I’ve always loved the guitar. I always knew who the lead guitar players were, not necessarily the lead singers. All the girls would always be after the lead singer, I always wanted the guitar guy. I guess it’s because my Dad was a guitarist and the guitar resonated with me. I really wanted to be a photographer so that’s what I studied in school, and then working with Eastman Kodak, which was a fantastic great corporation to work for, I really learned a lot more about photography. I started dating this guy that owned a vintage guitar store in Memphis, TN. My father told me I was never allowed to date musicians, being a musician himself, I guess he knew better! So when I told my Dad I was dating a musician that owned a vintage guitar store, he said, ‘Oh, well, that’s different. He owns a business and oh, vintage guitars! If he ever gets in a vintage Gibson mandolin, I’ve always wanted one, so let me know.’ Two weeks later, my boyfriend gets in a mint condition 1917 Gibson mandolin. I said, ‘Hey how much for that because I want to buy it for my Dad as a present?’ His response was, ‘You can’t afford it but if you photograph some guitars for me that I have to sell, I’ll trade you.’ Or course, done deal! So I started photographing the guitars for him and fell in love with the shape, the sexiness, the beauty of the guitar and I just knew in my heart that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to photograph guitars. Then when Kodak transferred me to New York, I thought I may as well photograph famous ones. So I started with Les Paul.


GGM:  You’re taking guitar lessons. What kind of guitar do you have?

LSJ: I’m learning on a Gibson B25 and I have a Gibson G160E, but it’s too big for me, so I’m learning on the smaller model first. When I get good and can wrap my hands around the fretboard a little better, I really want to play the Gibson 160E because that was my Dad’s guitar that my Mom got for him for $400 when I was 4 years old. It’s the one that John Lennon played that he made famous. The story behind that guitar is that my Dad came to visit me once when I was dating Hank, the guy that owned the vintage guitar store, and they became best friends because they’re guitar heads. Well, Hank had all these amazing vintage guitars and my Dad traded that guitar for a Martin that he always wanted. Unfortunately, I wasn’t with him when this transaction occurred, but he called me to confess and said, ‘Honey, I just left Hank’s and I’m calling to confess that I just traded the Gibson for the Martin that I’ve always wanted!’ I said, ‘Well, Dad, I’m really happy for you that you got the guitar you always wanted, but you can’t trade that guitar! That’s a family guitar. Mom bought that for you!’ So I called up Hank and bought the guitar back – for 1200 bucks!

GGM:  What’s your one favorite guitar you’ve ever photographed?

LSJ:  Oh, boy, you’re going to make me say ‘one’ favorite? [laughs] That’s a tough question. I can’t say that there’s one favorite because there are some pretty amazing guitars in the book. I absolutely loved photographing Roger Waters’ bass immediately after he sound checked with it on his tour The Wall and then I stayed for the show afterwards. He’s been playing for years and years and it’s so road worn. That’s his axe – it’s his main jewel. Pink Floyd is one of my all time favorite bands, so I really loved photographing that guitar and being that close to his bass. David Gilmour’s guitar I still don’t have yet, but I can show him we have Roger’s bass. Another favorite is Jimmy Page’s double neck “Stairway to Heaven,” that’s one of my all time favorite guitar solos and songs. That guitar is just a phenomenal instrument, too, being that close to. I have to say I’ve really enjoyed photographing Phil Collen’s guitars from Def Leppard. I grew up listening to Def Leppard and I got to photograph several of his guitars, and one of them is a guitar that he named ‘Crackle’ because of the finish on it and his name is embedded in the fretboard. That is the guitar that he wrote and recorded ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me.’ He also has a gorgeous quilted maple top Jackson guitar that is beautiful and he calls that one ‘Soul’ because it’s his soul. He names all of his guitars and they’re very sentimental to him. And, of course, being able to photograph Les Paul’s guitar was very special. There’s so many – Robby Krieger, his guitars are particularly special. When an artist takes the time out to bring his guitars to your house so they can be photographed, that’s special! Robby played each guitar for me as I was photographing one of the others. Just incredible moments that I’ve been able to spend with some of these musicians.

GGM: Is there any one guitar that you haven’t photographed yet that you would love to?

LSJ:  Oh, yes! My number one is Angus Young’s SG I want very badly. Also, I really want very badly Mark Knopfler’s guitars. I’d like to photograph the guitar he wrote and recorded “Sultans of Swing” on. I’d like to get The Edge. There are many, many still, Kurt Cobain’s guitars, Hendricks’ guitars, Duane Allman, and Randy Rhoads. These are musicians that have passed. There’s another whole volume here and I actually have another list already.

GGM:  That leads to my next question. Any new projects?

LSJ: Besides another volume of famous guitars, I’m a huge electronic music fan and I actually want to do a book on electronic music.

GGM:  What do you think of today’s electronic music?

LSJ: Like I said, I’m a huge fan of electronic music. I’ve photographed most of the instruments for Thievery Corporation. Eric Hilton and Rob Garza – they are two DJ’s that have a lounge in Washington, DC. They’ve added live instruments into their DJ act because they wanted more interaction from their fans. They added percussion instruments, several singers, a bass player, a sitar player, and a guitar player while they’re DJing which is just phenomenal. I’m an early listener of their material. I ended up getting access to photographing all of their instruments. I listen to a lot of health and trance music and a tremendous amount of electronica. I love Trentemoller from Copenhagen…he’s amazing. Another very good friend and recording artist, Don Wilson, I love and I’ve photographed a lot of his stuff. So I want to do a book on electronic art that would illustrate the digital aspect – the corporate musical instrument aspect.

One of the guitarists in my book, Sugizo, is from Japan and he’s worked with several bands – Luna Sea, X Japan, S.K.I.N. and Juno Reactor. Juno is an electronic group that has been around for about 10 or 15 years and they use a lot of real guitars. So I’m finding it very interesting that electronic music while originally all electronic, there are a lot of these bands now that are incorporating real live instruments into their music. Another band I like is called Dead Can Dance. Gonjasufi is another artist that is on the cutting edge of everything that is happening right now in the new music scene so much so that JayZ remixed one of his songs “Nickels and Dimes” on his last album Magna Carta Holy Grail. To me, an instrument is like a living thing because of the strings and the wood –it’s a living element in music. I really think that that living vibration of the music is an element that was missing in electronic, so to see these two come together – electronic music and live instruments – is just amazing.

GGM:  Just a few fun questions. What was the first concert you ever attended?

LSJ:  Alice Cooper was the first one, and the second one was Kiss the same year. I was 12 years old.

GGM:  Top 3 songs on your playlist?

LSJ:  I’ve got a lot on my playlist right now because I’m putting together my own 108 Rock Star sound track that I can post on my website. Putting together this sound track has been so fun listening to all these bands that I used to listen. Let’s see… Judas Priest – “Victim of Changes.” I love that song and I play it over and over. I really love Slash’s new material. He’s done so many fun collaborations with people and I just love ”Doctor Alibi” that he did with Lemmy Kilmister. And, I am a huge Tom Morello fan. He’s one of my favorite guitarists right now and just anything he does I love. So, Rage Against the Machine “Killing in the Name.”

GGM:  Besides your love of photography, any other hobbies and interests?

LSJ:  I’m a yoga practitioner and teacher, so I do that. Music is a huge hobby. And traveling – I travel a lot. It’s not just because I’m doing this project, it’s just that’s my life. I went on my first venture when I was 20 years old – I traveled all across Europe by myself. I went down to South Africa and that was a seven month trip, and then a few years later I went again. I took a trip around the world when I was 30 years old. I’ve actually done two around-the-world trips.

GGM: You have more trips planned?

LSJ:  I just recently went to Hawaii. For the book launch, my plan is to do a book tour across Canada, because I grew up in Canada, and Canadians love to rock – they love their classic rock. So I hope to hit Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and end in Vancouver. Then I want to do European cities like London, Stockholm and Paris for sure! I want to hit Germany and then I definitely want to go to Japan and do something with Sugizo and Don Wilson. So, next year is going to be busy.

For more information on Ms. Johnson and 108 Rock Star Guitars, visit her site HERE.

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