Let me AXE you a question. Ever wondered why a guitar is called an AXE?
Well…AXE, and you shall receive… (sorry, not sorry). I was curious myself, so I carried out a little digging to see what I could find out.
Unfortunately, through my research, I found that there is no real concrete answer to the origins of this slang term. However, I have tried my best to include as many different theories as I could uncover. Hopefully at least one of them will satisfy your thirst for knowledge!
Whether you cringe at this common slang term or not, let’s try and discover where it came from…
Why Is A Guitar Called An Axe?
1. It Started With The Sax
A guitar is called an axe thanks to the jazz musicians of the ’50s who first coined the term. The use of the word ‘axe’ as a slang term for a musical instrument actually began with the saxophone in 1955, and then, later on, the trumpet. At some point around 1967 guitarists also started to refer to their guitars as axes.
According to the April 2007 edition of The Word Detective, the term was first associated with the saxophone due to ‘sax’ sounding like ‘axe’. It is also theorized that the axe reference eludes to the ‘swing’ of a jazz saxophonist in full stride.
Popular consensus is that the word has become so synonymous with the guitar due to the instrument’s slight resemblance to the shape of an axe.
However, we can’t say for certain that this is the definitive origin of this slang term. So just in case, here are a few more potential explanations!
A further possible reason for referring to a guitar as an axe could be thanks to the term ‘woodshedding‘. In the context of a musician, woodshedding is known as a prolonged practice or rehearsal session. In jazz circles, the term is commonly shortened to ‘shedding’, or even just ‘shed’.
In the past, musicians might go out to the woodshed to practice in peace, as it would generally be located away from the hustle and bustle inside the home.
What do you keep in the woodshed? Wood. And what do you use to chop wood? An axe!
Of course, these days your ‘woodshed’ is more likely to be your bedroom or practice space, as opposed to an actual shed!
In the context of music, the term was used as far back as 1936 when it was recorded during an interview with jazz musician Louis Armstrong. This makes the theory one of the earliest in this article!
3. Showing Off Your ‘Chops’
What do you do with an axe? You chop wood. In terms of guitar playing, your chops are the palette of skills that you possess – your musician’s toolbox if you will.
So, as guitarists, we use our ‘axes’ to show off our chops.
Chops is another term that originated from the jazz players of the 1940s onwards. They were responsible for a lot of the ‘jive langauge’ that we musicians still use to this day.
So far we’ve got ‘axe’, ‘woodshedding’, and ‘chops’. You’re certainly getting a lot of different slang guitar terms for your money in this article, huh?
4. Gangsters & Illegal Activities
In the book ‘The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu‘, R&B artist and street slang aficionado Dr. John claims that the word was actually coined from the illegal lottery business.
The gangsters who ran these lotteries carried their guns in a bag or case and referred to them as axes. Since musicians also carried their guitars in cases and bags they commandeered the word as well, and started using it to describe their guitars.
In particular, the famous ‘Thomson Submachine Gun (or Tommy Gun) was a long weapon that was concealed inside a guitar-shaped case. So it’s pretty easy to see why a guitarist might like to grab a little of the street-cred associated with the mobsters who wielded those ‘axes’.
5. On Stage Vandalism
Some players argue that a guitar is called an axe thanks to the act of smashing up instruments on stage. The guitar would usually be broken on the floor by swinging it down from above, similar to how you would swing an axe.
Pete Townshend of The Who is believed to have been the first guitarist to smash a guitar live on stage. This happened in September 1964, and therefore ties in fairly accurately with the 1967 date when it is claimed that the term first began to be widely used. Jimi Hendrix also famously smashed and burned one of his guitars on stage in 1967.
6. A Guitar Vaguely Resembles An Axe
If you think of the guitar’s neck as the equivalent of an axe’s handle, and the body as the head, you can understand why some players loosely see a resemblance.
Specific instruments such as a Gibson SG are especially axe-like in appearance. I used an SG-style guitar for the image at the beginning on this article – don’t you think it looks like a bit of a battleaxe?
7. Battle Connotations
When you hit the stage, many musicians view this as akin to going into battle.
You wield your guitar like a mighty battleaxe. You’re ready to ‘slay‘ the audience with your brutal chops and melt some faces. After your fierce on-stage domination your friends let you know that ‘you killed it tonight!’.
So, it’s easy to see how guitarists can view their axes almost as legendary weapons which they use to conquer the audience. Although I’d guess this viewpoint will be mostly limited to metal players as opposed to jazz or country musicians!
Is A Guitar An Ax or An Axe?
Both words are correct! Same meaning, same pronunciation, different spellings. Feel free to use either, although it is commonly accepted (axepted?) that ‘axe‘ is the most frequently used variation of the two.
Although there seems to be a lot of debate on the subject, ‘ax’ is known as the standard spelling in American English. ‘Axe’ is the standard spelling in British English.
I’ve personally never seen anyone refer to a guitar as an ‘ax’, however. Ibanez does have their AX series of guitars which are fairly axe-like in appearance!
What Other Instruments Are Called Axes?
In many cases, it is actually perfectly fine to call almost any instrument an axe. As we already touched on above, it is thought that the term ‘axe’ was originally used to describe the saxophone, and subsequently other horn instruments. So it’s unsurprising to find out that more gear can also be referred to as axes.
It is especially common amongst jazz musicians for instruments to be called axes. It seems like we owe a lot of our musical slang terms to those awesome jazz guitarists who cut their teeth in the 40s and 50s!
Although I doubt you’ll ever see anyone refer to a drum kit as their axe!
What Other Words Are Slang For Guitar?
I realize that you came here to find out about axes, but I think you’ll find this little list interesting as well. Some handy alternative slang terms for guitar if you cringe at the thought of calling your guitar an axe.
I’ve tried to culture the list up a bit and add in some slang terms from non-English speaking countries as well.
- Ax/Axe – But you knew that, right?
- Gat – This is a New Zealand term for guitar
- Gitfiddle – Coined in southern USA
- Keppi – Finnish slang for guitar (translates as ‘stick’). Also ‘keihäs’ (spear)
- Six-String – Popularised in Bryan Adams’ hit song ‘Summer of 69’
- Veslo – A Russian term for guitar (translates as ‘paddle’)
- Guit-box – Slang for an acoustic guitar
How To Make An Axe Guitar?
Of course, some people have to take the meaning too far! I mean, remember Gene Simmons’ axe-styled bass? Just for fun, here is an ultra-satisfying video of a talented luthier building a functional axe guitar from real axes.
So once you’ve finished your gig you can just smash the stage up with your guitar, rather than smashing your guitar into the stage!
So there you have it! Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer to the question at hand, but I feel like I’ve pretty much exhausted all of the different theories for the origin of the term.
Which was your favorite explanation?
If you feel like I’ve missed some information out, please shoot me an email and I’ll be glad to add a revision. You’ll find a link to my contact form in the footer below.