If you’ve been part of the guitars scene for a while, you’ve probably heard the term “Axe” being referred to the guitar instrument.

At first, I thought it’s a nickname given to a specific type of guitars, but the curiosity made me dig into this etymology deeper, as it is indeed an interesting one, and search for the true origins of its existence.

So why guitar is called axe by quite a large number of guitar players? Read on and see what I have discovered …

The True Origins of this Etymology

After researching the subject for almost a couple of hours, I was able to reach to a conclusion that I believe is most logical and correct.

The Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com) says that the etymology “Axe” when referring to guitars, goes way back to 1955, originally being a jazz slang for the saxophone.

This could be for two reasons:

     1. Sax/Axe rhyme together, as in the following example: “Hey James, don’t forget to bring your sax (instead of saxophone) with you tonight to the party”. And over time the sax got replaced with simply axe.

     2. Another reason is the swinging of the saxophone player in full stride in sympathy with the music or the solos he’s playing.

Later on, the word axe was also applied to the trumpet instrument because of its resemblance to an actual “Axe”.

And after the saxophone and the trumpet, everybody started calling his musical instrument an axe, as it soon became a slang commonly used by many instrument players back in the days BEFORE it was presented to guitars.

Its Relation to Guitars

So we have learned so far that the etymology “Axe” was not originally applied to guitars. But today, every time this etymology appears, it is almost always referred to guitars. Why is that?

There are many reasons that “Axe” today used almost exclusively to describe the guitar, among them:

     1) Many of the electric guitars resemble the shape of an actual axe with strings attached, especially those made for the heavy rock and metal music, such as the Gibson SG guitars which looks pretty similar to an executioner’s axe.

     2) Gene Simmons, the bass player of the legendary and historic heavy rock band KISS, wielded a bass guitar shaped like a large double-headed battle axe with strings attached. The influence of the figure of Gene Simmons on the rock and metal scene is so huge, that could have been one of the major players in shaping the axe etymology to guitars in our modern day. The slang term “axe” surely predates Gene’s axe-shaped bass, and it is likely what has inspired him to design this instrument.

gene-simmons-axe-1

  

     3) The term has recently become a slang term for guitarists, in a sense such as when a guitarist “murders” a song, meaning he performed it very well. Other terms guitarists might use are: “slayed” that song, that guitar or that solo is a “killer”, the guitarist has “slayed” that solo with that “axe”. Very frequently used in the metal scene for performing shredding or fast and furious guitar solos.

     4)    Sometimes guitarists refer to practice time as “woodshedding”. Hence, the “axe” for “guitar”. In case you are wondering, the “woodshed” is a place for cutting wood (shedding) using your actual axe.

     5)    Many famous metal guitarists and rockers started a tradition of smashing their guitars at the end of the show in the same way they would use an axe to chop some wood.

     6)    A lot of the metal and rock communities picture themselves as Viking warriors and barbarians of the old medieval times, who favored the “axe” as their ultimate fighting weapon. Hence, so often guitarists and members of these communities refer to their guitars as “axes” as well.

Summary

The slang term “axe” was primarily applied in the jazz scene on the saxophone, and later on was applied on almost every other musical instrument starting from the trumpet, up to the guitars today.

It started with the saxophone mainly because of the Sax/Axe rhyme, but another reason is the motion of the sax player that resembled the swinging of an axe in full stride.

However, today it is most popularly used and even almost exclusively for the guitar, because of all the reasons we mentioned above, most noticeable are the Gene Simmons axe-shaped bass and all the electric guitars on the heavy metal scene that are designed to look very much like an axe with strings attached.

I'm pretty sure there are more “reasons” for the application of the etymology “Axe” specifically on the guitar today. If you've got any more ideas, we'd love to hear them, please share them with us in the comments section below.

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