In the world of music, there are a lot of slang terms used and words that only those “in the know” would understand.
For many years, the guitar has been referred to as an axe and some people might not really understand why this is.
When you’re about to storm the stage, you’re preparing for a fight. A battle. A massive conflict between you, the music and the crowd – and you’re going to need your trusty weapon… the guitar!
Now, although this connection might seem plausible, there’s far more to the colloquial term than we might have thought.
Luckily, this guide is going to show you 5 reasons why the guitar might be called an axe. So, put on your favorite record and let’s rock out as we dive right into it!
The Axe, The Guitar – An Overview
Like a lot of slang words and connections, there’s very little concrete evidence as to why the guitar is known as the axe, but there are plenty of possible reasons.
Sometimes, the etymology and rationale behind words and their usage is simply lost to the ages.
Some theorize the most plausible reason being a shortening of other words. During the 1950s, jazz and blues was very popular and the saxophone and guitar were often used.
Some believe that the term “axe” was simply a shortening from the saxophone. S-ax-ophone, which denoted every other instrument used, apart from that.
In short, jazz musicians would see the sax and the axe.
However, there’s much more to it than that, as it can’t be that simple. Nobody really knows when we started calling the guitar an axe, but there are certainly some connections we can make.
The Guitar Looks Like An Axe
Maybe one of the more obvious reasons for the connection to the two words is how they both look. If we examine an axe and a guitar, we can see the following similarities:
- A long neck of a guitar is similar to the long handle of the axe
- An axe is used primarily for chopping wood or battle – they’re tools for their craft. The same applies to the guitar.
- The battle connection between walking onto a battlefield and walking onto the stage
- Throughout the years, guitarists became famous for swinging their guitar around and smashing it up. The movement of the guitar was similar to that of moving an axe.
- Battleaxes turned upside down look very similar in shape to a classic guitar shape
- Shredding music and shredding your opponent or wood connection
Now, of course we could say that these sound somewhat plausible. People are very used to making connections to the obvious and this helps them understand things in an easier way.
The problem with this theory though is that they seem extremely loose and not as concrete as some other factors you’d expect. It’s best that we take a look at the history of the guitar for a better view.
The History Of A Word And Its Usage
One connection to the axe and the guitar is through the word “woodshed”. Interestingly, the woodshed adapted its original noun usage and transformed into a verb too in the early 20th century (1901).
It became a synonym for punishing a misbehaving child.
Effectively, if a child was playing up or not doing as they were told, the parent or guardian would take the child out to the woodshed and spank them or shout at them, so that they did not disturb the rest of their house or the neighbors.
We saw a slight change to this, which was confirmed in a 1936 interview with the great Louis Armstrong.
As the years went on, musicians (especially in the very early years) would practice their playing in the woodshed.
This, as many people will know, makes perfect sense because beginner musicians will play their instruments and make them sound absolutely terrible!
The woodshed allowed for the musician to practice in peace, away from distractions (and people begging them to stop) but also allowed for peace in the household.
You may at this point be wondering, so how does this relate to an axe?
Well, the woodshed (when simply a noun!) was just an area for wood to be placed after chopping, along with the lumberjack’s trusty axe!
See the connection? Well, this might be true to some extent, but this is further bolstered by the next potential reason – which we think has much more relevance to modern America.
The Mafia And Gangsters
If you’ve ever watched a movie starring Joe Pesci, Marlon Brando, Robert De Nero or Al Pacino, you’ve likely watched an artistic portrayal of an Italian-American mob family.
During a boom period of mafia activity in America during the 1930’s, the mob would take part in many illegal activities that appeared legal on the face of it, but this was simply a cover.
Coming from the lifting of prohibition where the mob and other organized crime did extremely well, the organizations needed to continue their money flow.
They decided to move into areas like the illegal lottery trade.
It was common to see, in jazz bars especially, mob members sitting together with guitar cases. These cases usually contained weapons like machine guns, rather than guitars!
The mob would refer to their guns as an axe and this is likely where the term “give them the chop” came from, when discussing the execution of someone that had crossed the mafia.
This seems very plausible, especially when we think of the influence of Italian-American English slang in modern America, and this is further supported by language and slang expert Dr John.
However, there is still no concrete and solid evidence that this is the case, so we need to continue to look further. The jazz music connection however continues into our next possibility.
Music Evolution: Jazz Bringing Slang
It comes as little surprise to some music enthusiasts and historians, that jazz music and jive music brought with it some new and exciting slang terms.
Music and slang have long been a duality.
Even today, we see words used in rap and British grime music that were slang terms originally only within a small group that evolved with their usage around their fans and eventually many others.
Jazz was perhaps one of the earliest examples of this.
Remember we said that one of the reasons might have been referring to any other instrument that was not a saxophone? Well, that’s one reason – but it might be even more simple than that.
It’s been suggested that jazz musicians and then, more largely, jazz fans, would call any useful tool an “axe” and they did not change this for any particular reason.
Anything from a typewriter to a hammer would be called an axe.
Modern Slang 1960s And Beyond
Those who lived in the 1960s will be all too familiar with the fact that plenty more slang was being used to describe things, and this would be much easier with the way that the 1960s went.
The 1960s saw so many changes. We saw the hippie movement, peace and love, the Vietnam War, Woodstock, we landed on the moon and huge political alterations.
During this period, music stormed and rose like a phoenix. Woodstock was enjoyed by 400,000 people in attendance and many others.
Seeing acts like Jimi Hendrix would have brought about some slang terms like axe because of how they conducted themselves before going on stage.
Many musicians would carry their guitars over their shoulders, which looked like a lumberjack moving around with their axe from tree to tree.
The 1970s and 1980s saw some brand new rock bands that used to hold their guitar in similar fashion and even hold them up over their heads, similarly to how the Vikings would celebrate a victory with their battleaxes.
As we mentioned earlier, battleaxes as a connection were much more prominent when musicians had their guitars and bass guitars designed into the shapes of battle-axes, if they were turned upside down.
The 1990s saw a period of anger and frustration in society. It was perhaps this societal emotion that bred bands like Nirvana and the grunge movement.
Nirvana were famous for smashing their guitars up at the end of gigs, swinging their guitars around and generally, just using these instruments like weapons.
Throughout these decades too, society would use other terminology which would reference axes, when talking about guitarists and other things like this.
Let’s take a look at some common words and phrases that might be used which we could connect to the two.
- Slayed or slayer
As we can see here, these are common words that are used when talking about a music gig.
For example, someone might say that was a “killer riff”, you “slayed the audience”, you’re a “beast of the guitar” or you’ve “blown the audience away”.
All of these can have some, even if it is loose, connection to battle and guitars.
Do Guitars Have Other Names?
As with many other things in the world, the guitar has lots of other words that you can refer to it as. Aside from being an axe, you can also refer to the guitar as:
- Six-string (thank Bryan Adams for that one, originating from Summer Of ’69)
- Keihas (this is a Finnish term for spear, very similar to axe!)
- The jazz box (likely comes from early guitarists referring to the hollow body)
- The flat top (referring to acoustic guitars that have non-arching tops)
- The gitfiddle (A British and Appalachian word used for the guitar, likely a reference to a prior instrument)
- The git-box (Probably a portmanteau of jazz box and gitfiddle)
You’re probably at this point wondering if there are other instruments that are referred to by axe. Well, technically that’s a yes and no.
If originally, axe was used by jazz musicians to denote “any other instrument”, then technically the answer would be yes – but of course, throughout the decades, we have simply accepted the guitar as an axe and that’s stuck.
What Is The Most Plausible Theory?
If we’re being honest, we’d say that it is an amalgamation of all of these reasons.
In the early years, people likely referred to guitars by their shape, looking like axes – but for many other countries and the size of the United States, this can’t be the only reason.
Therefore, if we account for jazz slang – which was incredibly popular among American citizens and even crept into, at the time, modern technology of radio and television.
This of course would have spread across a much larger audience.
Then account for the mob that influenced a lot of nations and culture, and then the way that hugely popular artists would treat their instruments – the slang to come from it simply makes sense!
What Else Does Axe Mean?
Axe or axing can mean things like:
- Being fired
- An error of the word ask
- Dismissing someone (like from the band!)
- “An axe to grind” refers to needing to vent about someone or something
Axe Or Ax?
Both are correct and both are acceptable. It comes down to personal preference really. The axe is the oldest spelling and would arguably be the “most” correct, but it doesn’t really matter so much.
The Final Note
There are a lot of reasons why a guitar might be referred to as an axe, but we’d say that as there is no solid evidence for any of them, the likely answer is that they’re all correct and every one of these reasons mix and match into one.
We hope this guide has been helpful for you. Rock on!