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The evolution of guitar destruction

Written by Simone | 21st May 2019

Is there anything more rock ‘n’ roll than violently smashing a guitar to bits and pieces to end a gig with a literal bang? It’s been a tradition and often creates iconic moments that live on forever, especially when captured on film. But how did this trend catch on? Guitar expert Alex Becker investigates.

“The story of guitar damage starts, of course, with Pete Townshend, The Who’s world-smashing guitarist”, Alex tells us. “The first time he broke a guitar on stage, somewhere in the 60s, it was an accident. Working on a stage with a low ceiling, he cracked the headstock on his Rickenbacker, then decided to follow through with the destruction. The crowd’s response to his guitar-smashing capabilities led him to eventually start cracking six-strings at almost every show.” His happy accident inspired many musicians in the following years to do the same.

Townshend might be the one most well-known for smashing guitars, but Jerry Lee Lewis is widely thought to be the first rock musician to ever demolish an instrument during a live performance. Lewis reportedly set fire to numerous pianos, although there is some debate over whether this actually happened. Lewis himself has both denied and confirmed the story throughout his career.

In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1979, Lewis said he did it just once, and he “was forced to do it.” He was made to go before Chuck Berry, even though he himself was supposed to be the star of the show. So he took a bottle full of gasoline with him and set the piano ablaze, appropriately, right in the middle of Great Balls of Fire. Walking away from the burning piano, Lewis nodded to Berry and said: “follow that.”

Lewis was not the last to start a fire. One of the most notable guitar-smashing moments is undoubtedly by Jimi Hendrix, which we know for a fact really happened, as it was all recorded on film. At the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, he poured lighter fluid on his instrument, then smashed the burning instrument into the stage floor.

“Some, like Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, elevated guitar destruction almost to an art form. Cobain was a notable user of cheap guitars of all sorts, and he behind left a trail of destroyed instruments that went on for miles.”

So why do so many guitars have to meet this tragic demise? Alex has the answer: “Sometimes there was some kind of political or philosophical statement behind it, but more often than not it was part of the performance: something shocking and memorable to close off with. Others, meanwhile, destroy a guitar they love in a moment of anger.”

One example is Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, who was in the midst of a substance abuse relapse during a performance at the iHeartRadio Festival in 2012. Annoyed by the festival’s time constraints, he ended Green Day’s famous 1994 song Basket Case early and shattered his guitar in protest.

A similar thing happened with the guitar currently up for auction on Catawiki. “In a moment of rage and anger during the Marilyn Manson tour in 2008, a Gibson Les Paul met its fatal destination in the hands of Rob Holliday; Marilyn Manson's guitarist. “We are very happy to be able to offer this gem of modern rock music in our exclusive guitar auction this week. Rockstar-smashed guitars are very sought after.”

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