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Guitarists tend to come up with names for all sorts of things, including their beloved instruments. One of the most perplexing nicknames of all is when they call the guitar an axe.
Context is often everything, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d probably be running for the hills. So why, exactly, do guitarists call their guitars axes?
That’s precisely what we’re diving into, although we are getting into murky waters. It’s best if you’re equipped with the proper gear, including a sense of humor.
Table of Contents
Starting With The Obvious
Let’s face it, you could probably ask a 5-year-old child why a guitar is called an axe. Children are not afraid of providing the blunt and honest truth, especially when something is so obvious.
If you did ask a child, they would tell you that it’s because a guitar and an axe look similar. And, unless you didn’t have a creative mind, you probably would agree with their statement.
It’s definitely true, when you look at a guitar from the proper angle, it does share similarities. The most obvious of this is with regard to the actual shape and construction of each item.
For instance, an axe is simply a fairly skinny handle with an axehead at the end. At its most basic, the guitar shares the same design, with a skinny neck connected to the guitar’s body.
If you were to hold your guitar like you would an axe, you would immediately see the resemblance.
With that being said, there’s always more to the story than the obvious. And while nothing is exactly clear about this nickname (apart from the obvious), there are some interesting clues.
Tracing The Etymology Of Axe
Have you ever sat down and seriously taken the time to consider language on a serious level? It’s actually quite a mind-blowing excursion of thought that can produce some interesting insights to ponder.
Take, for instance, the age of languages in consideration of how many years they have been spoken. English, alone, has its origin roots dating back to around 450, evolving gradually as the years progressed.
Can you imagine how many descriptive names for things have come and gone since then? You might be wondering where this is going, however, take this thought into consideration with the word, axe.
The axe itself has been in existence for thousands of years, with its modernized form emerging around 6000 BC. That is a staggering amount of time compared with the guitar, which has origins in the 1500s.
It’s a fair point to consider that the idea of using the axe as a nickname for a guitar isn’t new. One could almost readily assume that this notion has existed for a few centuries.
Sure, it might seem outlandish, but humanity has changed very little in that time. One could argue that it was technology that changed.
One thing that humans seem to have in common is giving affectionate names to things. Pets and items that are dearly beloved by the individual are usually given a name.
It’s the same reason why someone might name their bowling ball, boat, car, and yes, even a guitar. History’s filled with guitarists who have named their guitars, with B.B. King’s Lucille being the most famous instance.
With that in mind, it’s reasonable to assume that this nickname could have been passed down through the ages. Much of modern language, along with its unique phrasings, has experienced this type of evolution.
The Modern Hypothesis
There have been a few ideas floating around over the years about the origin of this nickname. Many people feel that using axe as a nickname is more of a modernized idea.
The more likely reality is that the nickname has come about through a combination of all of these ideas. With each idea, the underlying theme seems to be correlated to items in use during that time in society.
One idea is that the axe nickname came about around the turn of the 20th century. While cities did exist, there were a large number of rural residents, many of whom chopped their own wood.
Traditionally, wood would be chopped in a woodshed, where the wood was stored throughout the year. It also provided a place for parental discipline, as, unfortunately, physical violence was often used as an act of punishment.
Rather than making someone have the child go through the torturous pain, they would go out to the shed. And, if you think that’s nuts, you’re absolutely right.
What does that have to do with the guitar?
Anyone that’s had to listen to a guitarist practice would likely tell you that it’s torturous to have to bear. Nobody wants to hear and endure a 10-second passage from Sultans Of Swing, played on repeat for 2 hours.
Because of this, it’s best for the guitarist to go to their own “woodshed,” where they can practice their chops. They could essentially master the cutting of musical logs by practicing the guitar (with peace for those nearby).
Now, if you didn’t catch it, that hypothesis essentially lays the foundation for 3 different guitar-related terms. Some would probably think that this hypothesis is too good to be true.
The Trench Coat And Fedora Years
The working musician has always been playing in bars and restaurants to provide entertainment and make some money. Today is certainly no different, though the atmosphere does tend to seem more relaxed in comparison.
You might not have known it, but for decades, music was often hosted in shady places. Perhaps it’s the years of Hollywood portrayals, but crime seemed to exist more in the public.
And, by that, it’s the idea that crime organizations typically hung out in their designated establishments. But, again, that could be Hollywood indoctrination based on the glamorization of some small facet of societal life.
Of course, it would certainly account for the instances where criminal organizations played a role in music. And, like the previous hypothesis, this, too, mimics societal life in the phrases that musicians opt to use.
Have you ever seen that 1992 Robert Rodriguez classic independent film, El Mariachi? In it, there’s a scene where a guitar case is used to carry around an unbelievable amount of munitions.
Well, during the era of the Great Depression, the word axe was used synonymously with the gun. And, if you think about the scene from El Mariachi, you begin to draw your own conclusions on this idea.
What We Do Know For Sure
However the nickname actually came to be is anyone’s guess, but we can at least trace its known thread. The term was in use during the 1960s, and there are a couple of songs to prove it.
Around 1965, country guitar phenom, Chet Atkins released a song called, Yackety Axe. This song’s title was an obvious play on the songs, Yakety Yack, and, Yakety Sax.
It’s an obvious intentional usage, particularly since the song features some exquisite guitar work. Chet had a way of titling things, which only added to the charm of his music.
Just a few years later, blues guitar legend, Buddy Guy came out with his song, Just Playing My Axe. If Yackety Axe wasn’t obvious, Buddy Guy’s is too right to be wrong, because, how does one play an axe?
By the 1970s and 80s, a group’s image started to play more into the music they made. Some bands definitely attempted to appear like brutal barbarians on their album’s liner note inserts, which likely perpetuated the nickname.
Even the hair metal bands of the 80s were using the term. The stereotypical guitars of that time period have more axe-sharp edges than any guitar from any other decade.
And while Buddy’s 1968 release provides concrete evidence, you have to consider linguistics again. How long does it take for a saying, phrase, or nickname to catch on and become common nomenclature?
Axe has proved that it has the relevance to stay on the tongues of generations of guitarists. Judging by how widespread its usage was in the 1970s and 80s, it's possible that the nickname existed well beforehand.
Famous Guitarists Who Have Used Their Guitars Like An Axe
Guitarists have been known to have a quick temper and also do brash things in the middle of performances. There is perhaps nothing more rock and roll than a guitarist smashing their guitar at the end of a set.
There is a large number of guitarists over the years that have become known for smashing their guitars. The first person who usually comes to mind is The Who’s, Pete Townshend.
Jimi Hendrix was often seen demoralizing a guitar on the stage during a performance. It’s often a running joke that Townshend and Hendrix had a running competition for gear destruction.
Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain is perhaps the most famous guitarist in recent years. He single-handedly made smashing guitars cool again in an edgy way that only added to the rawness of Nirvana’s music.
And, who knows, maybe some jazz guitarist got mad in the 1930s and smashed his guitar over a piano. Some onlooker probably could have coined the saying right then and there.
Do People Still Call Guitars Axes?
Nicknames and phrases come and go like the passing winds of yesterday. Do you really hear guitars being called axes nowadays?
The answer to this is that it likely depends on the circle of musicians you hang around with. Like any regional dialect, each town’s musicians will have their own coined phrases finding their way into conversations.
It’s even especially likely that there are people in your nearby vicinity who use the phrase. But, because you play different music than they do, you might not hear it as often.
With that being said, calling a guitar an axe certainly isn’t an “uncool” thing to do by any means. The guitar is one of the “coolest” things on the planet, why else would we be so obsessed with it?
If you’re wondering about its use, you likely care about what people might think if you say it. Well, the only real way to find out is to try it, but chances are, nobody will bat an eye.
This nickname has been used for decades (at least), so it isn’t exactly out of the norm. Plus, your usage of the term only ensures that the next generation gets to use it in their own vernacular.
Why Is A Guitar Called An Axe? Final Thoughts
Calling a guitar an axe definitely has some murky origins, and nobody knows for sure how it came about. But, there are at least some obvious answers as to why the slang for the guitar exists.
Next time you need to refer to your guitar in conversation, consider calling it your axe for old-time’s sake. Because, when you need to slay the aural senses of an audience, there’s no better tool than a sonic axe.
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