Another installment in our new weekly series entitled, The Language of the Blues, where author and rocker Debra Devi focuses on the meaning and significance of a unique word used in blues song. Come back every Wednesday for the latest!
Axe is slang for a guitar. According to New Orleans-born R&B artist and street slang aficionado Dr. John, musicians lifted “axe” from the illegal lottery business to give themselves a little anti-hero flair.
“A lot of the terminology of the blues came from the lottery business,” Dr. John explains in his foreword for The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu. “An axe was a gun or a piece, they [gangsters] used to traditionally carry it in a bag. Musicians picked that shit up–like ‘coming out of a bag’ and calling a guitar an ‘axe.'”
The Thomson Submachine Gun, or “Tommy gun,” was long, lean, and a favorite of gambling’s lethal gangsters. In its bag, the Tommy gun had a similar shape to the solid-body electric guitar developed by Slingerland in 1939. It’s easy to see why musicians who were looking to heist a little street-cred and attitude from some dashing crooks starting nicknaming their guitars ‘axes’.
The intense Chicago blues guitarist Frank “Son” Seals was nicknamed “Bad Axe” for his undeniable prowess on the guitar and his fierce demeanor on stage. Born in Osceola, Arkansas, Seals grew up around his father’s juke joint, the Dipsy Doodle, soaking up sets by Albert King and Earl Hooker.
Seals hit the road with King and Hooker when he was eighteen, and soon moved to Chicago, where he developed into one of the great powerhouses of the electric blues, frequently accompanying singer Koko Taylor.
Seals released eleven powerful blues albums, included 1984’s Bad Axe on Alligator Records before succumbing to complications from diabetes on Dec. 20, 2004 at sixty-two.
“Bad Axe” — Frank “Son” Seals
“Bless My Axe” — Kenny “Blue” Ray
“Just Playing My Axe” — George “Buddy” Guy
Read Dr. John’s foreword for The Language of the Blues here