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State of the Axe: Guitar Masters in Photographs and Words

Kurt Gottschalk By

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State of the Axe: Guitar Masters in Photographs and Words
Ralph Gibson
Paperback; 184 pages
ISBN: 0300142110
Yale University Press
2008

Saxists have their mouthpieces and drummers their cymbals, but there's no fetish object quite like the guitar. It's played most often by peacocks, strutting and ruffling plumage in one way or another and it takes an endless variety of forms.

Photographer and guitarist Ralph Gibson takes a rather modest approach in his collection of portraits of guitarists. While there are a few scene stealers (Dave Tronzo's Silvertone, John Scofield's archtop Ibanez, David Byrne's oil can guitar and, of course, Les Paul's Les Paul), the elegant black-and-white prints focus on the players, in action or posed, tools in hand, but fetishism subsumed.

The images, for the most part, are quite striking, but the text is equally interesting. Gibson's subjects write about their passion and the varying ways they approach the assignment show as much as the photos. Brandon Ross reveals setting Robert Frost poems to music at age 10. Marc Ribot ruminates about the tensions of taut strings. Arto Lindsay expounds on the nonpossession of technique. Tisziji Muñoz and Bruce Arnold respond in verse. And Marc Ducret posits a Cartesian dualism between the guitar's body and the amplifier head and the nature of trying to bring together an instrument essentially in two pieces.

But the strength of the book lies in the ways the pictures and words come together. The camera sits at James "Blood" Ulmer's feet as he preaches the harmolodic blues, but Mary Halvorson's stare is met straight on as she explains that "everyone plays the guitar." Henry Kaiser gazes into the near distance, his out-of-focus instrument looking a bit like a UFO as he considers the overlaps of fun and experimentation.

Gibson frames his photos more like verbs than nouns. This is not a book about instruments, but about playing and the distinction quickly becomes clear flipping through the pages. There's plenty out there for the hardcore fetishists; this is instrumental erotica.

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