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Why Did We Ever Think Smashing Guitars Was Cool?

It’s as rock ‘n’ roll as anything gets, but isn’t it kind of like keying your own car?

What is more rock ‘n’ roll than smashing the shit out of a guitar? It’s part of the iconography of rock music, a demonstration of excess, showmanship and don’t-give-a-shit-ness. An axeman bringing his instrument crashing down onto the stage, smashing it into pieces, is so worn into the stereotype of the rockstar that it’s easy to not think about how weird it is. 

Here’s a quick greatest hits of some of the biggest moments in six-string splintering:

  • In 1964, The Who’s Pete Townshend breaks his guitar during a show at the Railway Tavern, knocking it against the ceiling while playing on a stage made of beer crates. Remembering a performance art piece he had seen in 1962 in which artist Robin Page kicked a guitar into pieces, he decides to double down by smashing it up. Instrument destruction becomes one of the band’s trademarks, with drummer Keith Moon eventually getting to the point where he loads his kit with explosives.
  • At the 1967 Monterey Rock Festival, Jimi Hendrix — fairly unknown in the U.S. at the time — covers his guitar in lighter fluid and sets it on fire during “Wild Thing,” then smashes the Christ out of it.
  • The cover of The Clash’s 1979 album London Calling shows Paul Simonon smashing his bass into the ground at the side of the stage.
  • In the 1990s, Nine Inch Nails shows regularly feature the destruction of pretty much everything on stage, including the band beating the shit out of each other. 
  • Nirvana frequently smash their instruments, including the Mustang from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video (later repaired but never played live again). Here’s a fun 20 seconds in which Kris Novoselic throws his Gibson Ripper to the ceiling, fucks up catching it and knocks himself half unconscious, and then Kurt Cobain spears an amp with the neck of his guitar. 
  • It becomes enough of a rock star cliche for “Weird Al” Yankovic to do it, smashing the hell out of one at the end of the video for “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” something he recreates in live shows to this day.
  • In 2001, Matt Bellamy from Muse is awarded the Guinness World Record for the most guitars smashed on one tour, with 140.
  • In 2012, at the iHeartRadio Music Festival, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong smashes his guitar after a lengthy tirade when the band have their stage time cut by 25 minutes to allow Usher a longer set.

These are all enormous acts, but smashing instruments up takes place at all levels. The lower the level, the more of a disconnect there seems to be. It’s your guitar, you know? You wouldn’t key your own car. Punk and grunge, for instance, both make virtues of the aesthetics of being broke, which does make destroying an instrument worth at least a few hundred dollars on stage just sit kind of strangely — rejecting the corporate dollar and somehow having the disposable income to completely fuck up your Fender Jaguar don’t seem like they go hand-in-hand. If you’re sleeping in a van with the rest of your band, getting paid in beer and praying you sell enough shirts to pay for gas, snapping your livelihood while showing off seems like a silly move.

It seems fairly safe to assume, too, that if you’re good enough at the guitar to play it for a living, you must quite like the guitar. If you spend thousands of hours mastering an instrument, then three seconds smashing it because you get a bit overexcited, that’s likely to feel pretty crappy. They’re beautiful objects, guitars. They’re ogled and fetishized by enthusiasts, treated with reverence and respect, infinitely adjusted and painstakingly restored. That is, until someone gets a bit giddy and ruins them.

“From the repairs that I do of this nature, more often than not people end up regretting their actions,” says London-based luthier John Procter. “I come across it all the time, where people have been overzealous on stage. They’ve cracked, smashed, dented or bent their instruments and sometimes even hurt themselves.”

Procter is, however, no stranger to smashing instruments himself. “When I was in a metal band we decided to smash a guitar at the end of one show. I didn’t want them to do it. It was a nice guitar. I ended up collecting all the pieces and putting it back together.”

When Armstrong smashed his guitar at 2012’s iHeartRadio Festival, it’s worth noting he wasn’t playing “Blue,” the beloved Fernandes Stratocaster he’s had since he was 10, but a Gibson Les Paul — a really great guitar, but not one he’d spent 30 years playing. (A lot of headlines mocked Armstrong for the incident, but he was openly struggling with substance abuse issues, and checked into rehab shortly afterwards.)

A band of Green Day’s stature could swallow the cost of a guitar (and Mike Dirnt’s bass, smashed immediately in solidarity) even if they needed to, which they probably didn’t — Armstrong has an endorsement deal with Gibson. For smaller bands, though, broken equipment can spell doom. There’s simply less money in rock than there used to be — you can be championed by the music press and still have day jobs. Before COVID-19 disrupted everyone’s schedules, every few weeks you’d see a crowdfunding campaign going around social media when a band had their van robbed on tour. Accordingly, you’re less likely to see a guitar totalled during a gig than you might once have been. 

“These instruments are incredibly cherished things,” says Sam Coare, editor of rock bible Kerrang!. “Not everyone has a ready supply or a sponsorship deal with manufacturers to keep feeding them new guitars, and even if they did, those guitar companies don’t have infinite funds for a new guitar every day to smash up.”

There are multiple reasons to smash a guitar on stage. Anger is frequently involved, as with Nirvana when Kurt Cobain smashed up his Mustang out of frustration at a malfunctioning monitor, Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge violently ending a disastrous awards show performance or Armstrong’s rage at being cut off. But there’s also scripting it in, planning to do it as a big finish — it seems unlikely that Bellamy was overcome with rage 140 nights on the road in a row. 

Does meticulously planning such a gesture, robbing it of any spontaneity or danger, arguably dilute its power enormously? Yes.

Bands planning a guitar smash at a climactic moment might more likely than not perform the occasional switcheroo, bringing in a cheaper, crappier instrument to break, potentially even one rigged to smash spectacularly or easily. Yankovic probably isn’t destroying a priceless Les Paul every night. There might even be balsa wood involved. Because, something else that has to be kept in mind is: Smashing a guitar is quite difficult! Guitar Super System instructor Tyler Larson demonstrates a good technique here, an overhead swing almost like one would do with an actual axe, but hitting the ground flat, more like a shovel (as similarly demonstrated by Trent Reznor):

(Larson points out in the video description that the guitar was already broken. It’s a relatively inexpensive Squier, but as discussed above, it still seems unlikely that someone who takes the instrument as seriously as Larson does would take any pleasure in wilfully destroying one.)

“Those things are basically made like tanks,” says Coare. “They’re really hard to smash. Often someone trying to smash a guitar will find that they don’t get the visual impact they’re going for and just end up with a guitar with a fucked neck. In terms of effort versus reward it isn’t really worth it.”

However, the biggest reason Coare thinks there’s been a decline in guitar-smashing has more to do with the changing attitudes of artists coming through now. “There’s a stereotype of a rockstar, smashing guitars and trashing hotel rooms,” he says. “It’s almost a caricature, this idea of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.”

As Coare explains, the excesses, hedonism and debauchery of the past aren’t seen by the new generation of rock musicians as something to be celebrated or to try to emulate. “For bands and artists coming through now, ‘rockstar’ is almost a dirty word, bringing up as it does all the excess and egotism that have been associated with some pretty negative behaviors. The traditional rockstar idea is dying, if not dead, as a new generation of artists push back against these stereotypes and want to do different things with their platform.”

If a band in 2021 (because this year seems pretty much written off) leaves a gig one guitar down, it’s much more likely to be because they’ve given it away. The modern rock landscape is a progressive, generous, inclusive place, with a generation of politically and socially engaged musicians genuinely striving to improve things. Smashing stuff up looks incredibly cool, and will always look cooler than being earnest and working hard. But after decades of waste and ridiculousness, maybe it’s time to concentrate more on building than breaking stuff.