Why do musicians break their guitars on stage?
When you think of rock’n’roll, especially if you’re not very familiar with the subject (but that’s another problem), you often imagine a person smashing their guitar mercilessly into the stage. The Who, of course, come to mind, along with Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and many other brave and rich souls who could afford to destroy thousand-dollar instruments just to make a point. What you may not know, however, is that guitars were introduced to the world of instrument-annihilating madmen at a relatively late point in modern music history, at least when it comes to popular music. Here’s how it actually went:
Guitars normally get all the credit but the truth is pianos were most likely first. Jerry Lee Lewis is widely thought to be the first rock musician to ever “officially” destroy an instrument during a live performance. Although people usually think of Jimi Hendrix when it comes to burning stuff on stage, in the 1950s it was Mr. Lewis who reportedly set fire to numerous pianos, scaring the living hell out of audiences around the US of A.
Rock musicians were not the only ones to turn their poor instruments useless by smashing them onstage. At the famous New York Five Spot Café, jazz legend Charles Mingus was so frustrated with some very annoying members of the audience that he slammed his $20,000 bass guitar into the stage – demonstrating both his hot temper and his net worth.
Classical music got there pretty early as well – in the ‘60s, of course. The ‘60s were just weird. Also awesome, but very weird. Anyway. In 1962 violin virtuoso Nam June Paik performed what was called the “One for Violin Solo”. What he did was basically create huge suspense in his audience by very slowly lifting a violin over his head (it took him, like, five minutes or so) and finally smashing it into a table, producing just this one sound of devastation. The lights went up in the auditorium and that was it. Oh, man, the ’60s…
But WHY? Why do people do that? First, there’s a canyon of difference between “do” and “did”. When musicians first did it, it wasn’t just a stage trick to get more attention. It was an outrageous demonstration of the social intolerance versus the political and cultural dogma of the time, at least for the most part. When people do it nowadays, even if they are sometimes sincere, it’s usually out of a desire to be “cool”. The problem is that repeating a shocking gesture is not that shocking at all. Credits definitely go to the pioneers.
Sometimes things go even deeper. Have you heard of Gustav Metzger? Well, you have now. The dude was not a musician. He was an artist and a political activist. His role in the whole instrument-bashing thing was developing the concept of Auto-Destructive Art. It turned into a whole movement in art and logically, spread to music as well. There’s another interesting thing about Metzger which concerns our topic, besides pouring hydrochloric acid on industrial materials and writing about it – he was Pete Townshend’s teacher. Pete Townshend, as in “the lead guitarist of The Who”. As in “the first rock guitarist to smash his instrument”. See a connection?
In the ‘60s, the city of London (and New York, two years later) hosted the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) where musicians from all over the world came together to perform and violently destroy their instruments in front of big crowds. As random and pretentious as it may seem, it was actually a form of protest against the destruction of human life and landscapes, caused by the Vietnam war.
Of course, there are a lot more trivial reasons to destroy a musical instrument. We already mentioned anger and the desire to be awesome which we completely understand and sporadically even enjoy. Such examples include the amazing, headstock-stabbing Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Rainbow, rebel Kurt Cobain and other members of Nirvana, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, who was pissed over a particularly short stage time at a festival and many more.
As you can guess, there are and always have been people who don’t find the idea of ruining a perfectly good musical instrument very appealing. People like John Hiatt have a profound appreciation of their instruments and advocate the use of other forms of artistic expression. The title of Hiatt’s song Perfectly Good Guitar was meant to criticize the practice.
There are many ways to destroy a guitar. Keith Moon, The Who’s drummer and one of the craziest musicians who ever lived, destroyed his drums. The band was famous for ending their gigs with smoke and guitar breaking but during one particularly savage national TV performance of “My Generation”, Keith decided to step it up. Without telling anyone, he used 10 times the standard amount of gunpowder, hidden in his drum kit. The glorious explosion caused a momentary transmission breakdown across the country, Pete Townshend claimed he was left permanently deaf in one ear and Keith himself was wounded by flying shrapnel. Fun times.
Townshend, whom we already mentioned, had the habit of bashing his guitar into the stage or of simply throwing it in the into the raging crowd. The Who became pretty famous for it and in show business fame means money. This is why Jimi Hendrix had to find a way to outshine the legendary band so he added flames to the act. The first time he ritually poured lighter fluid on his guitar and set it on fire was at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and it became one of the most popular moments in the history of rock.
Another example of violent creativity was Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain who liked to demolish everything around him – amps, speaker cabinets etc. He would just raise his guitar and smash it directly into the monitors. Of course, you could always choose to destroy an instrument like Stevie Ray Vaughan did – by gracefully playing the hell out of it.
By the way, can you picture the cover of The Clash’s London Calling? It’s an actual photograph from a live concert when Paul Simonon ferociously destroyed his bass on stage for the first and only time in his otherwise wild career. Other musicians, like parody genius “Weird Al” Yankovic, have turned instrument destruction into a frequent practice. While on tour, Yankovic often performs the acoustic ballad “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” which usually ends with his guitar taking serious damage after hard impact with the stage.
Speaking of tours, the Guinness world record at breaking the most guitars in one tour is currently held by Matthew Bellamy of Muse who managed to trash a mind-blowing 140 instruments – a feat of pure devastation which is both electrifying and painful to imagine.
Perhaps the oldest record we have of someone deliberately destroying their musical instrument in front of a live audience is from 1956. A zoot-suited singer billed as “Rockin’ Rocky Rockwell” did a mocking impression of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” on the Lawrence Welk Show. At the end of the performance, he smashed his acoustic guitar over his knee. We can only imagine what look people had on their faces.
The bad news is that hundreds of innocent guitars go to Heaven every day because of cheap imitation, fake causes and pointless violence. The good news is that The Times They Are A-Changin’, as Bob Dylan used to sing, and sooner or later we’ll witness the birth of something new that’s shocking even to our modern minds but culturally meaningful enough to become the new guitar smashing.
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