Rock Cellar Magazine: Discuss your background and what led to the 108 Rock Star Guitars project. It definitely seems like something was quite a process to put together.
Lisa S. Johnson: Well, I started 17 years ago. It took me 15 years of shooting, because I always had a job – I worked for Eastman Kodak for ten years and owned two yoga studios – so I was always doing this project on the side. What led to it was…I was working for Eastman Kodak and I had a territory in Memphis, Tennessee. I started dating the guitar player at church, and my dad, a musician, told me I was never allowed to date musicians.
So I called him and said “Dad, I’m dating a musician – however, he IS the guitar player at church, and he owns a vintage guitar shop!”
So my dad goes “Oh, well that’s different. He’s not a touring musician…let’s get back to the ‘vintage guitar shop’ part…I’ve always wanted a Gibson mandolin. If he ever gets one in, let me know!”
So literally two weeks later he gets in a 1917, mint condition Gibson mandolin which is now worth about $3,500. I said “I want to buy it for my dad, how much?” and he said “you can’t afford it, so why don’t you photograph some guitars for me instead?”
Shortly after, Kodak transferred me to New York. I thought ” you know, I really want to keep photographing guitars!” – since it was really the first time that I’d fallen in love with my imagery.
So I bee-lined it for the Iridium Jazz Club, where Les Paul played every Monday night. I figured if I’m going to photograph guitars, I might as well photograph famous ones.
Les Paul was such a sweetheart, he let me shoot his guitar, and twelve years later he ended up writing the forward for my book because I sat with him after a show one night and said “Les, do you remember when I photographed your guitar twelve years ago?” and he said “yep!”, so I said “Well here’s Slash’s guitar, here’s Robby Krieger’s guitar, here’s Zakk Wylde’s guitar. I need somebody to write the forward for my book. You’re their hero and you’ve been with me on this project since Day 1. Would you consider it?”
And he said “yeah, I see what you’re saying…let’s do it!” So he did, and I’ll treasure that forever and ever.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Being that close with someone like Les Paul must have been a thrill, especially with how involved he became with your project.
Lisa S. Johnson: It was really cool because back when I photographed Les’ guitars and those guitars back in Memphis I was shooting in black and white. And then I’d take the prints and hand color them, hand-tint them. So when I photographed Les’ guitars I brought him prints and he used to say “oh, here comes that girl that does that guitar art!” before he really got to know who I was.
I knew his standup bass player, Paul Lewinsky, and Lou Pallo, his rhythm player for 45 years, Thomas Doyle, his guitar tech, they all knew me so when I’d go to the shows they’d make sure I got back to the green room, so I’d always go back there and say hi to Les.
It was so special. I never spent time with him outside the Iridium Room, since he lived in New Jersey, but the time I did spend with him was a treasure. He was like my grandfather. As a result of his support of my work, 10% of the proceeds from sales go to the Les Paul Foundation, which helps get grants for children for music education and the hearing impaired.