I imagine most rock ‘n’ roll guitar players and enthusiasts have heard the electric guitar referred to as an “ax.”
An actual ax is commonly defined as a hand tool consisting of a long handle with one side, or both sides, of its head forged and sharpened to a cutting edge used for felling trees, splitting timber and cutting stove wood.
It sometimes is the weapon of choice for a psychopath on a killing rampage in a blood-and-guts, B-grade, science fiction horror flick.
Regardless, all can agree that the term “ax” — or the actual presence thereof — immediately gets attention because it symbolizes power, ability and control if placed in the right or wrong hands.
Thus, it’s easy to understand why a popular rock ‘n’ roll lead guitarist might refer to his electric guitar as his ax.
I will say that I never have heard an acoustic guitar player refer to his acoustic as an ax. From my perspective, the terms “ax” and “acoustic” don’t seem to fit together as well as ax and amped-up electric five-string.
The following is a story a musician friend ran by me that offers a unique take on the relationship between the ax and the electric guitar, one that to a degree has a solid historical foundation to support it.
By 1964, having penned such timeless hits as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Bob Dylan was recognized as the top songwriter for the American folk music revival. However, in July 1965, Dylan wrote, recorded and released “Like a Rolling Stone,” which, compared to earlier material, had more of a groovin’ rock sound.
July 24, 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival held in Newport, R.I., Dylan performed three acoustic numbers. However, the next day, Sunday, July 25, Dylan took to the stage with a fully-amplified band, featuring Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar, Al Kooper on organ, Jerome Arnold on bass and Sam Lay on drums — with Dylan himself also playing electric guitar.
Dylan and his stellar electric band kicked off the July 25 amplified set at the Newport Folk Festival with “Maggie’s Farm, followed it with “Like a Rolling Stone,” and continued with some other Dylan-written tunes.
Live footage shows that Dylan and band’s amplified performance at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965 was met with both boos and clapping from the audience. One reason given for the booing is that hardcore folk fans felt Dylan had betrayed the true craft and soul of folk music by playing an electric guitar.
Organist Al Kooper has countered that the reason for the booing was poor sound quality and the short duration of Dylan’s amplified set.
Musician Pete Seeger was backstage when Dylan gave his short, electric performance at Newporton July 25. I remember hearing, years ago that Seeger was so upset with Dylan and band’s poor sound quality that he cut the cables connecting the guitars to the amplifiers.
I conducted a bit of research and found a more believable explanation regarding Pete Seeger’s behavior toward Bob Dylan’s amplified performance at the 1965 Newport Folks Festival. The sound was so poor that Seeger reportedly said, “"Get that distortion out of his voice ... It’s terrible. If I had an axe, I’d chop the microphone cable right now!”
I find Pete Seeger threatening to use an ax more far more believable than Pete Seeger actually using an ax.
One has to wonder if the Pete Seeger-Bob Dylan scene at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival played a role in rock ’n rollers referring to an electric guitar as an “ax”? I highly doubt it. However, it does make for interesting rock folklore.
(NOTE: After the amplified set on July 25, Bob Dylan did return to the stage and performed two acoustic numbers.)