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Associated Press photos
Willie Nelson’s guitar, named Trigger, is featured in Lisa S. Johnson’s book “108 Rock Star Guitars.”

Guitar book has pluck

Pages packed with stories of rock stars’ iconic instruments

Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen holds his trademark guitar, “Uncle Dick,” which is among the instruments featured in the book.
Associated Press
Billy Gibbons’ guitar is covered with fake fur. The ZZ Top musician’s instrument is in Lisa S. Johnson’s book.

– Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand songs.

The supersized book “108 Rock Star Guitars” (Glitterati Inc.) demonstrates that six-stringed instruments owned by celebrities and virtuoso sidemen can look as good as they rock.

The 17-year undertaking by photographer Lisa S. Johnson partly benefits the Les Paul Foundation. Paul, the Rock Hall musician-inventor, wrote the foreword before he died.

Not a guitar geek? Don’t fret.

Whether you define “pickup” as a truck, a dating technique or a guitar part, you can revel in the glitz-and-grit world where these prized possessions reside.

The instruments (one’s named Baby) evoke tender talk from macho musicians. But some of these battle-ax beauties have seen more action than a roller derby queen: They bear the gashes and sweat stains to prove it.

The author, who grew up in a musical family, underscores musicians’ emotional attachment to their instruments.

“I don’t believe any serious musician feels that his instrument is an inanimate object,” Tom Scholz of the group Boston tells Johnson.

Steve Vai, who went solo after playing with Frank Zappa’s band, once described his guitar as “the voice of my heart” in moments of depression, euphoria and “divine love. ... I have cried, screamed, prayed and bled through that instrument.”

The book lauds the instrument-makers, called luthiers, and the techs, along with the guitars.

Pawnshop wallflowers blossom into unbridled stardom. There are kaleidoscopic, patriotic and wildcat patterns; gorgeous maple and mahogany; delicate carvings of leaves and acorns; a stuck-on Chinese cookie fortune; python skin; fake fur; little-girl superheroes.

Some seem to revel in musical masochism:

•Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne Band) – blowtorch burns, hammered-on bottle caps.

•Slash (Velvet Revolver, Guns N’ Roses) – cigarette carelessness. As the story goes, the guitarist was “one with the music” while accidentally inflicting a “charred reminder of rock ’n’ roll nirvana.”

•John Rzeznik (Goo Goo Dolls) resurrected a broken Stratocaster into a 4-string. The word “OUCH!” is splayed over its torso; it’s now named Halfcaster.

“I was amazed when I threw the guitar in the air and the top portion split right off,” Rzeznik recalled via email. “I had my guitar tech take it to a luthier in L.A. who sanded off the rough edges and fixed the electronics.

“I used it on a song called ‘Big Machine’ for a couple years after that. Surprisingly, the tone didn’t really change; it was a cheap guitar that didn’t sound that great to begin with. Haha!”

The appreciation of instruments as visual art is an age-old concept.

They “may evoke status, identity, or indicate events – sacred or profane,” comments J. Kenneth Moore, the Frederick P. Rose curator in charge of the Department of Musical Instruments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “They become sounding, tangible works of art – telling many stories of the life and times of those who used them,” he said.

A guitar owned by James J.Y. Young of Styx bears an elaborate carving of Cerberus, ancient mythology’s three-headed Underworld guard dog.

A double-neck owned by Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen has a quirky folk art feel. Its two-pronged top forms the legs of Nielsen’s upside-down caricature. The figure, named Uncle Dick, displays a thumbs-up, but his expression looks maniacal.

When Mom made young Nils Lofgren a Nehru jacket and bell-bottom pants out of drapes, he proudly stuck leftover fabric on his guitar so it matched his new suit.

The book also features a famous, battered Fender Esquire owned by Lofgren’s boss, Bruce Springsteen.

Before a Rage Against the Machine performance, Tom Morello scrawled “Arm the Homeless” on his guitar.

The jarring jargon co-exists with Morello’s drawings of happy hippos. Like most art, it invites interpretation. In Johnson’s view, he’s contrasting the have-nots and the haves (rotund creatures “gobbling their food”).

Willie Nelson’s Trigger, named for movie-cowboy Roy Rogers’ horse, bears dozens of autographs, including Leon Russell, Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson, Gene Autry, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. Trigger’s top is worn clear through; Nelson chooses to leave it that way.

“The two of them,” notes the book, “continue to mature together.”

Life partners in perfect harmony.

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