Smashing your guitar was along seen as a rite of passage in rock, sending that beloved Fender to the grave in a shower of strings and frets – but some bands take it even further, wreaking havoc not only their guitars, but the stage, the record label bathrooms, or each other.
With so many broken guitars to choose from over the years, here are just 10 examples of many of famous rockers who got a little too enthusiastic along the way, making music history in the process and leaving a path of destruction in their wake.
The Who’s Pete Townshend smashes his axe, Keith Moon responds
In 1964 a new generation of instrument destruction was born. Out of frustration and possibly embarrassment, Pete Townshend began guitar smashing his Rickenbacker to bits, only for the neck to snap on the ceiling of the Railway Tavern in Harrow
“So I smashed this guitar and jumped all over the bits and then picked up the 12-string and carried on as though nothing had happened,” he said in the April 1980 Issue of Sound International, “and the next day the place was packed.”
The antics only accelerated from there, including their performance of ‘My Generation’ on The Smothers Brothers, on the 15th September 1967. Keith Moon filled his drum kit with explosions, which when exploded at the end of the show caused Bette Davis to faint and caused the onset of Pete Townshend’s tinnitus.
The Yardbirds’ Jeff Beck gives in to guitar smashing temptation
Word of Townshend’s antics spread quickly, and soon afterwards they had inspired a scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up. While the role in question had been inspired by Townshend, Eric Burden had been asked to play it, but when he declined, the role went to now-legendary guitarist Jeff Beck.
Though he was apparently a little apprehensive about smashing a guitar at first, he eventually smashes the shit of a Gibson 175 before throwing it into the crowd. The film won the Grand Prix prize at Cannes in 1967, and was described as a “mod masterpiece” by Playboy Magazine – worth smashing a few guitars for, then.
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Jimi Hendrix burns The Who
While he had played around the US for years, it was in the UK where James Marshall Hendrix began to find fame, and also where he picked up some of his guitar-smashing antics. It was back in this US, though, where those antics would rocket him up the charts.
The Who and The Jimi Hendrix Experience were both slotted to play the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, both were relatively unknown in the US at the time, and both knew that this festival performance was a great chance to crack the US. Neither act wanted to follow the other, but eventually it was Hendrix who took the stage after The Who on the final Sunday of the festival. With The Who having already blown audiences away with their guitar smashing, Hendrix knew he needed something special – something beyond just smashing another poor guitar – and it was here that his infamous guitar-burning incident took place.
Nirvana find peace in guitar smashing
Right from the beginning of Nirvana’s career, Kurt and Krist were partial to belting the crap out of the band’s gear. After years of living tough, Nirvana finally started to make it when they signed with DGC in 1990, and in 1992 they were the toast of the music world at the MTV Awards – but that didn’t change their penchant for mayhem.
Unfortunately for Krist, even when you’re a rockstar you’re not immune to gravity, as Krist found out at the awards night when he got a little too enthusiastic and took quite a fall. Similar destruction ensued in the ‘You Know You’re Right’ clip, which gives an indication of why DGC were starting to get worried about how much money they were spending on equipment.
Sex Pistols assert their dominance
You can’t really write a list like this without including the most anarchic of them all (at the time, anyway), the Sex Pistols. “Actually we’re not into music. We’re into chaos,” proclaimed guitarist Steve Jones in their first ever interview, which appeared in NME in early 1976 following a support slot for Eddie & The Hot Rods at the London’s Marquee Club, during which they smashed up the headliners’ gear.
Guitar smashing was less a priority for the Sex Pistols, however, than smashing in general, and their antics included smashing the toilet at the A&M offices (part of the debauchery that famously got them dropped from the label seven days after they’d signed), and even smashing a beer mug in the face of Patti Smith’s brother Todd. Nowadays John Lydon flogs butter and says nice things about Her Majesty The Queen. Go figure.
The Clash’s Paul Simonon makes rock history
Apparently Paul Simonon only ever smashed his bass once, but that one time was enough for Pennie Smith to take one of the most iconic photo’s in rock ‘n roll, a shot that featured on the front of The Clash’s Elvis-inspired cover for London Calling, and has even been inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.
Playing at the New York Palladium on the 21st of September 1979, Simonon became so frustrated with the lack of interaction with the crowd (due to the venue’s fixed seats) that he exploded and smashed the ever-loving shit of his Precision Bass.
“We used to get cheap Fenders from CBS,” he said after the incident. “They were newer models, quite light and insubstantial. But the one I smashed that night was a great bass, a Fender Precision, (it cost about) about £160 (272 Euros), one of the older heavy, solid models, so I did regret breaking it.
Jerry Lee Lewis burns his piano – in the ’50s
Jerry Lee Lewis is credited with being the man that changed the perception that the piano was not a rock ‘n’ roll instrument. Jerry was predicted to be bigger than the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley, and in late 1957 when he found out that he would be supporting Chuck Berry, he decided to set fire to his piano at the end of his set – leaving Chuck to follow an act that couldn’t be topped.
While he live a wild and often controversial life, at 81 years old Lewis is the sole-surviving member of Sam Phillips’ million dollar quartet which also featured Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
The Vines get free… and very, very loose
We’re not sure if anybody has been the face of guitar smashing over the last couple of decades than Craig Nicholls of Sydney’s very own The Vines. As one of the ‘The’ bands of the time (The White Stripes, The Hives, The Strokes), they were hailed as the saviours of rock at the beginning of the century, resulting in their faces on the cover of Rolling Stone in 2002 – the first Australian band to do so since Men At Work in 1983.
The Vines had always been a little bit partial to Nirvana (and started out as a Nirvana cover band), so it was only a matter of time before Craig began to torment stages with his guitar. Even the legendary David Letterman wasn’t safe, as the band took the opportunity to completely melt down live on U.S. television, to the point that their massive hit ‘Get Free’ became almost unrecognisable. Maybe not the best way to sell records, but definitely memorable.
Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore continues the carnage
Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore picked up the guitar-torturing torch during the ’70s, smashing and burning his way across the US and Europe with far too many incidents to name – his career became one big warpath. At this point, there didn’t really seem to be any particular reason for Ritchie to be smashing his guitar any chance he got, apart from sheer enjoyment. And why not, hey?
Even The Arcade Fire get in on the act
Rounding out some of the acts that have been the face of instrument destruction over the years is The Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, proving that you don’t have to be in a rock, punk or grunge act to take your frustrations out on your beloved instrument – you can also play in a joyous orchestral indie band!
Here’s a short snippet of Win Butler on Saturday Night Live smashing his acoustic and, in keeping with the more demure tone of their records, the slow, purposeful destruction is perfectly in time with the closing beats of the song – almost graceful, really.