In the mid-seventies, rock photographer Jay Blakesberg started shooting concerts with his father’s camera as a way to produce his own personal memorabilia. In the years that would follow, his photos would go from being his bedroom wall décor to being published in magazines, books and on websites, social media pages, album covers and album sleeves. Like his hero Jim Marshall before him, Blakesberg’s extensive body of work includes portraits and live performance shots of many of the most iconic music figures of his time, such as; The Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, the Who, Carlos Santana, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, John Lee Hooker, the Allman Brothers Band, Phish, B.B. King, the Black Crowes, Tom Petty, U2, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, Radiohead, the Talking Heads and many more. In more recent years, his career has grown to include titles such as filmmaker and publisher.
On May 19th, Blakesberg released Guitars That Jam, a new coffee table book that includes nearly 200 pages of photos of legendary, big-name and on-the-rise guitarists with their beloved axes. Accompanying the photos are personal tales written by the guitarists about their instruments featured in each shot. Together, Blakesberg’s vibrant photos and the featured guitarists’ passionate and informative words result in a multimedia celebration of the most defining instrument in rock music.
Shortly after the book’s release, we caught up with Blakesberg to talk a little bit about Guitars that Jam and what else he has in store for 2015.
First question, so who is this book for?
This book is for music fans. I think that there’s a lot of mystery about guitars that non-musicians would like to learn about. There’s also a lot of information that guitar players would want to hear from the musicians in this book. There are gazillions of people out there who are closet guitar players… Who have bought guitars and tried to learn to play guitars… I think that those people would enjoy these stories.
Some of the stories in the book are very technical and some of the stories are very emotional and personal. So it’s a good mixture of how people relate to their instruments, or at least how the musicians in this book relate to their instruments.
What was it that inspired this project?
In my previous book, Jam, there was a whole bunch of close-ups of guitars on the inside cover and those photos really resonated with a lot of people, which gave me a really cool idea. I just kind of took off on the original concept of Jam, which was to have the artists talk about playing onstage, to improvise and you know, the connection that made to the music. I took that same theme and same idea and applied it to the musicians talking about their instruments. I had a bunch of shots like those on the inside cover of Jam, some of those made it into the book and some of those didn’t. Once we came up with this idea, I went out and shot a whole bunch of new artists and new guitars and new shots of the same artists that I already had shots of previously in Jam. A publisher then approached me and said they wanted to do the book. That was a publisher that passed on Jam, and I think that after they passed on Jam they were like “Hmmm, maybe we shouldn’t have passed on Jam.” They liked the idea of this book and we partnered up and the editor of the publishing company that I was assigned to did all of the interviews and we got some great stories out of the artists about their instruments and I think that’s how it all sort of came about.
The foreword by Warren Haynes reflects on his early fascination with the guitar’s sonic capabilities and visual beauty. How about yourself? Can you recall any childhood memories where the guitar first captured your imagination?
Well, I think that the sounds of the guitar captured my imagination but I never was really interested in becoming a musician. I was never interested in playing the guitar. But the music captivated me and I’ve been involved in shooting live music for, ohhhh, forty years now? I saw my first concert in 1975, so I guess that was forty years ago. I’ve obviously had been bitten by that live music bug and it continued and when I picked up a camera, I think you always at first automatically gravitate towards shooting the guitar players, just because… You do… That’s just the way it is! People always have their eyes on the fingers, eyes on the movements and the sounds that are coming out of those guitars. It’s funny, when we shot film, we never shot close-ups of guitars the way that every single photographer does now. I don’t know if it’s because we thought the film was too precious and you didn’t think they were interested in the guitar that way, or because we didn’t have these media cards that we have now, that permit an unlimited amount of shots. Digital cameras and their memory cards may now have us looking for anything to take pictures of and the close-up of the guitar is the next best thing. At a certain point, I guess I realized that these instruments were really a thing of beauty.
If you read the artists’ stories in the book, they also reaffirm that they are a thing of beauty… That they are a piece of art. No two guitars sound alike. You could pull two new brand new Telecasters off a wall in a music shop, both built the same year, in the same factory, by the same people, but they won’t feel the same and they won’t sound the same. I may not be able to tell the difference but a musician would be able to tell. They become these very personal things that are an extension of a musician’s creativity and are able to create these unique sounds. Everybody’s different in terms of the music they are making. People are influenced by other people but if you give three people a Gibson Les Paul and have them stand next to each other with the same amp and the same guitar and the same pedals, you’re going to get three very different things, because it’s what’s in your heart and in your soul.
So these people are creating art with these instruments that are a work of art and then I’m photographing these musicians and creating a different piece of art or a different type of art. It’s a visual type of art and it’s just one big cycle that’s very intriguing to me and I think that is to a lot of different people.
So both you and Warren Haynes were inspired by the sights and sounds of the guitar. Warren has made a life for himself exploring the latter influence night after night. You went in the other direction and shoot the guitar’s visual beauty night after night. What was it that had you choose a career in rock photography over performing?
I think that I realized early on that it’s takes a lot of work to play guitar. It takes a lot of work to be a successful photographer too, but to me that was something that… you know… I’m a very visual person and that’s what appeals to me. I like listening to music and I connected the two of those things – music and visual documentation… filmmaking… photography and whatnot… I don’t think I was really interested in ever becoming a musician. There are a lot of people that saw people playing guitar on stage and said, “That’s what I want to do.” For me it was the opposite. I saw people taking photographs at concerts or events for magazines and when I saw the pictures in the magazines… you know, pictures that maybe Jim Marshall took or other earlier photographers… that’s what had me say, “That’s what I want to do.” That’s what turned me on. I’d look at Richard Avedon pictures or Irving Penn pictures or Jim Marshall pictures or Albert Watson or David Bailey or any number of people that were early influences for me and I said, “I want to take pictures.” It’s just the flow and direction I went in.
With your last book JAM, your personal criteria aimed for high-energy shots of improvisational musicians in midst of live performance, as well as a few shots of jamband heavyweights associated with different projects sitting in with each other. How did you choose the shots for this book?
Kind of the same. I didn’t want to have, just, bland straightforward photos. So I was looking for a similar energy and if you look through this book, there’s, people like Keller Williams who is very animated, or Luther Dickinson, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Dan Lebowitz from ALO, or J. Bowman from Spearhead who you know are wild on stage. Jackie Greene, I love the shot of him in this book where he’s playing that red Gibson ES-345, which is also the guitar on the cover of the book. You know he’s leaning back into the shot and he’s in that moment. Grace Potter, Trey Anastasio and Warren Haynes, are also very animated on stage. I’m always looking for that moment…amazing body language with the right light, at the right moment. And if you wait long enough for the moment on stage, you can always capture something sublime from every one of these musicians.
So this wonderfully bound coffee table book is titled “Guitars that Jam” and on the cover is a subtitle that reads “Portraits of the World’s Most Storied Rock Guitars.” Now this book certainly delivers on that promise, however, rather than simply being a collection of photos, I really felt that there is an added value that isn’t advertised on this cover. I’m not sure if this was your intent when you put this project together, but the stories shared by the guitar heroes on the pages opposite of the photos really provide a ton of information for an aspiring, amateur and even accomplished guitar players. Stories about how the artist obtained the instrument, why they chose it and where they’ve gone with it… I thought these stories really served as guidance to those looking for tips on how to find their sound and choose the right instrument. Was this what you had hoped to convey with this book?
Yeah I think that for me, I got more than I asked for. Like you say, the subtitle says “Portraits of the World’s Most Storied Rock Guitars.” So I read that headline and I think about Gibson, Fender, Alembic. Some people might look at that and think “Ooooo the Rolling Stones, The Who, Bruce Springsteen!” or other big name rock stars… but it’s not about the big name artists, it’s about the big name guitar, or not even the big name guitar, it’s about the importance of the guitar in rock and roll history. So it’s really a story about the guitar and they are written by the musicians.
There are some really young players in here, like Mihali Savoulidis from Twiddle. Not sure if you know who Twiddle is, but they’re making big waves on the east coast. And then you have people like Deren Ney from Nicki Bluhm’s band, and you know, they’re slowly building their audience and whatnot, but I wanted to have some young artists. Graham Lesh, Phil’s son, who is an incredible musician, is in here, and I wanted to hear his story and why he picked his guitar and why he plays that hollow body guitar. Ross James from the Terrapin Family Band is in here. I wanted to hear his story about his Telecaster as much as I wanted to hear about Warren Haynes’ 1950s Les Paul. So in my mind, the stars of this book are the guitars as well as the players! I’m doing the visual storytelling with my photographs and the artists are telling their stories about their instruments and what those instruments mean to them with their words.
So you took all these photos of these artists and their guitars and they supplied you with the stories behind the guitars. Is there any tales that particularly stand out to you? Whether it is funny, inspirational or educational? Any particular tales that resonated with you personally?
Well I learned a lot just by reading it, because I don’t really know about guitars. I mean yeah sure, I knew there were hollow bodies and I knew there were solid bodies and that there were all sorts of other things to differentiate. I didn’t know so much about the more intricate stuff…
The technical stuff is cool because I learned a lot, but for me, I really liked hearing the more emotional stories. Steve Kimock talking about playing that 1960s Strat with Jerry Garcia… or Anders Osborne’s story. It’s short and sweet, talking about how he lost that guitar and then found it again and how that experience sobered him up. I also really loved Jim James’ story, again, very much from the heart.
And funny too
Yeah! “I had a dream as a small child that along with world peace I would someday own a brown, wooden Flying V with a mirror pickguard. I made that dream a reality.” (LAUGHS) It’s just great, I love it!
And you know, all the guitar players that have seen the book so far just… You know, Jackie Greene just texted me earlier today and was like “Dude! The book, I’m just so excited to read all these stories by all these other guitar players!” So you know, guitar players digging what other guitar players are doing, which I think is just great.
So let’s go back to Warren Haynes’ foreword for a second. He says that over the years he’s less concerned with the guitar’s appearance and more interested in how it sounds and responds to his personal approach to playing. Perhaps no other musician’s choice of guitar reflects that opinion, at least to me, better than Willie Nelson, with his affinity for Trigger, the beat-up 1969 N-20 Classical. It may not be the prettiest guitar but it has been integral to his distinctive sound over the past 45 years. To quote the book, “Nelson has played countless shows, including the Austin City Limits pilot in 1974 and recorded many groundbreaking albums with Trigger including “Willie Nelson & the Family,” “Phases & Stages,” “Shotgun Willie,” “Red Headed Stranger,” “Stardust,” “Spirit” and many more.”
Trigger… It is what it is. I have pictures of Willie playing Trigger back when I was in high school. Pictures that I took in 1979. It’s obviously taken on mythological proportions at this point. I mean that hole in the guitar alone is enough to be an entire book and conversation starter. But you know, it’s the guitar that Willie loves the sound of and he’s not filling in that hole because it’s part of the personality of that guitar. I think it’s such a beautiful instrument. I love the close-up of that particular guitar. The detail of it, the autographs… When you get up close to it, a lot of the autographs were written in ballpoint pen… on that soft wood gives it that bumpy look. The guitar is gorgeous as it is, a beat up and dilapidated instrument and someday it’ll probably be in a museum, behind glass and never played again.
As far as I know, Tiger, Jerry Garcia’s guitar, is behind glass in the office of the guy who bought it. Wolf, Jerry’s other guitar, lives in a guitar case and comes out to play every once in a while (although at the moment it is in a museum exhibit about Bill Graham). Some people have different perspectives on what they want to do with their art/guitars which they invested a lot of money into.
While sound and response appeal to the guitarist when choosing their instrument, you are a photographer so I imagine you’ve got to be drawn to visual eye candy. Which guitars stand out to you as sheer beauties that as a pleasure to photograph?
There are a lot of them. Phil’s new Alembic bass is stunning. It’s just a beautiful piece of art, filled with love. I like Mihali from Twiddle’s Becker guitar, because it’s just so weird. I love Pete Sears’ D. Irwin custom “Dragon” bass, the one that got lost in a riot in Germany and then came back to him. Steve Kimock’s Charles Lobue Explorer, which I always thought was a Gibson or Fender. Carlos Santana’s Paul Reed Smith. I love the double neck that Al from moe. is playing. It’s just such a badass looking, visual guitar. Of course I love Trigger, of course I love Neil Young’s black 1953 Gibson Les Paul. Oh and Michael Franti’s guitar… What a beautiful, unique piece of artwork that is! I love that Grace Potter plays a Flying V. Those were always the sexiest guitars and now she’s the sexiest woman playing that guitar. I love Nel Cline’s Fender Jazzmaster, which is completely beat up. I love that Derek Trucks is playing a 1936 Gibson L00. I mean who played that thing?! Some old blues guy?! I love Mike Gordon’s bass and how he designed it. I love Trey Anastasio’s guitar. Really, every instrument in here is very cool and amazing in it’s own way.
I love how you have shots of Neil Young’s preferred acoustic guitar and preferred electric guitar, with some words about those guitars. To me, that was kind of like you are coming away with the inside scoop on both sides of Neil’s sound; one side being the folky country side and the raw, distortion heavy side. Are there any other stories that were as revelatory to you as the Neil stories were for me?
I think that every story is so unique to the player. Every guitar is unique to the player’s personality. Some people are more reserved and quieter and use fewer words. Then you have somebody like Neal Casal who tells a really great long story about his particular guitar. You get John from the Disco Biscuits who also tells a really long story. Artists like Neal, John, Steve Kimock and Grace Potter are really eloquent writers so their stories rolled over to an additional spread in the book. As I said earlier, some of the stories are really technical and others are very personal and emotional. That’s what I think is the beauty of the book.
So with Jerry Garcia, you have two of his most iconic guitars in this book; Wolf and Tiger. When you have seen or shot Garcia live, was there anything that you could see, hear or feel in those guitars that brought out different sides of him, in terms of playing?
You know it’s interesting, because when Garcia was alive and we were shooting him, I don’t really remember paying that close attention to the transition from Tiger to Rosebud, because they all looked so similar, those D. Irwin guitars. Maybe in the end was when I started to notice, but really, thirty five years ago or so, I wasn’t saying “Hey! Jerry’s playing a new guitar Tiger! He switched from Wolf in 1979 to this new guitar Tiger!” I didn’t even know it was called Tiger. I certainly was not that focused on it. It was just a red guitar and he was just Jerry. And it was just Jerry’s sound. It was just Jerry holding a guitar and it sounded like Jerry and we just couldn’t be happier to be listening to him.
Final question. What do you have lined up for the rest of 2015?
So festival season fired up in mid May at the Doheny Blues festival. Then Fare Thee Well and Gathering of the Vibes. A little bit of time off in August, then come back with Lockn and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass… So I’ve got all those things on tap. I am also working on my next book that’ll be released in early October and that book is called Hippie Chic: A Tale of Love, Devotion and Surrender. The foreword was written by Grace Slick of the Jeffferson Airplane and the afterword was written by Grace Potter. So I’ve got the two Graces involved and we are full steam ahead on that. That book is about 90% done. We also interviewed 80+ women that go to a lot of shows and festivals to get their stories about what live music means to them and why they would go back and see a band over and over and over again. We are going to use quotes from those interviews throughout the book. So it’s all women at music festivals and concerts over the last 35 years.
All photos used with permission from Jay Blakesberg