By Christopher Scapelliti
Musicians are a temperamental lot. When the music is flowing and the vibes are good, we couldn’t be happier. But if our guitars won’t tune, the audience is a drag or the P.A. sounds like crap, all bets are off. Oddly, the objects of our wrath are sometimes the very things we care about most—our instruments.
The history of modern music is full of artists who have vented their rage on their gear. Country musician Ira Louvin was known to smash mandolins that refused to hold their tuning. It’s said that jazz bassist Charles Mingus once demolished his $20,000 bass during a performance at New York City’s Five Spot when a group of hecklers got the better of him.
But perhaps no instrument has been targeted for destruction more often than the guitar. Not every act of ax demolition has occurred out of rage. Some have been for show, some for fun, and some a compulsive fit born in the heat of performance.
“Basically it’s a gesture which happens on the spur of the moment,” Pete Townshend, rock’s most famous guitar smasher, told Rolling Stone in 1968 by way of explanation. “I think, with guitar smashing, just like performance itself, it’s a performance, it’s an act, it’s an instant and it really is meaningless.”
And, might we add, frequently painful to watch, especially when a particularly nice guitar is the sacrificial victim.
Join us as we count down the 10 deadliest ax wielders in music—plus one bonus buster who holds his own unique place in the history of guitar smashing.
10. Jeff Beck
While not a smasher per se, Beck is credited with one of music’s most memorable guitar-bashing scenes thanks to the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film, Blowup. The movie includes a scene in which the Yardbirds—at the time featuring both Beck and Jimmy Page—are performing “Stroll On” in a nightclub. When Beck’s Vox amp begins to cut out, he bangs his guitar against it in frustration before finally beating the instrument to death. He delivers the coup de grâce with a boot heel in the poor instrument’s body. As guitar destruction goes, this one is purely for show, but it’s fun to see the normally cool-headed Beck pretend to lose his shit.
09. Garth Brooks
The country superstar got into the ax-mangling act in 1991 when he destroyed a fine Takamine guitar at a show in Dallas. (No stage guitar for Garth. The 1990 Takamine he killed reportedly retailed for about $1,300 at the time.) Brooks and his band were being taped for his second TV special, This Is Garth Brooks, Too, at the Reunion Arena. In an event staged for the show, Brooks and guitarist Ty England smashed their guitars together in a shower of splintered wood and flying strings. Brooks’ guitar was later reassembled and donated to the Smithsonian in 2007.
08. Paul Simonon
Clash bassist Paul Simonon was forever marked as a guitar smasher when photographer Pennie Smith shot him destroying his Fender Precision Bass onstage at the New York City Palladium on September 21, 1979. The image was chosen for the cover of the band’s third studio album, London Calling, which was released the following December. As Simonon recounts in this video, near the 3:05 mark, he was unhappy that the club’s bouncers wouldn’t let the fans out of their seats, and took his rage out on his bass. Simonon was typically hard on his instruments, often swinging them wildly as he played, but the Palladium show is the only time he destroyed one.
07. Billie Joe Armstrong
Unlike many of the guitarists mentioned here, who destroyed their gear in an almost masterful show of bravado, Green Day guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong annihilated an ax in an uncomfortably histrionic meltdown captured on video. The band was performing at the iHeartRadio Festival on September 21, 2012, when Armstrong misinterpreted the meaning of a screen at the back of the auditorium, which displayed he message, “1 Minutes Left.” Thinking Green Day’s set was being cut short to make more time for R&B artist Usher, Armstrong stopped their performance of “Basket Case” and proceeded to vent. After screaming that he was not Justin Bieber, Armstrong smashed his guitar—a particularly lovely TV-yellow Gibson Les Paul Junior—and left the stage. Shortly afterward, he revealed that he’d been abusing alcohol and prescription drugs for anxiety and insomnia, and checked himself into rehab. We’re happy to report he’s doing better. Not so sure about the LP Junior.
06. Paul Stanley
Wild stage antics have been part of Kiss’s live performances pretty much from the group’s start, in 1973. Bassist Gene Simmons breathed fire and spat blood, Ace Frehley made his humbucker smoke, and Paul Stanley handled the guitar-smashing end of the business. His guitar of choice in the mid Seventies was the budget-line Gibson Marauder, as seen in the clip here. (The quality is rough, but it looks like he uses the guitar purely to destroy it.) Fortunately for many vintage Marauders, these days they’re more likely to find a spot in a collection than wind up in pieces on the stage floor.
05. Ritchie Blackmore
Perhaps no one was as brutal to a guitar as Ritchie Blackmore. Not content to merely smash his Fender Strats, the Deep Purple guitarist would virtually flay them, rendering them almost unrecognizable by the time he was finished. One tortured ax finally got revenge on the guitarist at a 1987 gig. While savaging the instrument, Blackmore threw it into the air, only to have it land awkwardly on one of his fingers, breaking it and postponing Deep Purple’s tour. Karma is a bitch.
04. Kurt Cobain
The late Nirvana frontman had a penchant for smashing guitars and other pieces of gear during the group’s live performances. There are plenty of videos online of Kurt destroying guitars during shows, and you can see the best moments in the montage video shown here. Cobain’s gear destruction ran the length of Nirvana’s brief history, from its early gigs to its later shows. Many a Univox Hi-Flier did not live to play another gig once Kurt got his hands on it.
03. Wendy O. Williams
Probably no one made a greater show out of guitar demolition than New York City punk goddess Wendy O. Williams. Not content to merely smash them up, the fearless Plasmatics frontwoman would chainsaw guitars in half during exhibitions that were more performance art than rock concert. Williams’ destructo tendencies extended to emblems of mass consumerism, including TVs, as well as cars, which she drove into pools and even blew up, as seen in this video from the group’s infamous 1980 show on New York City’s Pier 62. At that gig, Williams sped a Cadillac loaded with explosives toward the band’s stage, bailing out seconds before it destroyed the platform and all the equipment on it. Tragically, Wendy O. took her own life in 1998, but she left a legacy of rock theatricality that may never be topped. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.
02. Jimi Hendrix
Hendrix took guitar performance to an entirely new level. So it’s not surprising that he made the act of guitar demolition high art when he set his Stratocaster on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 18, 1967, before smashing it to smithereens.
As the story goes, the Who were scheduled to perform on the same day as Hendrix, and Pete Townshend was concerned about having to follow him. Townshend considered the gig a “critical concert” for the Who, and he knew Hendrix would be a tough act to follow. For that matter, both Townshend and Hendrix were known for smashing up their gear in an exhilarating display of demolition that left audiences breathless.
Townshend tried to negotiate with Hendrix, but Hendrix assumed Townshend was afraid of being upstaged, and he refused. The matter was finally settled with a coin toss—and the Who went first. But it’s Jimi’s performance that we remember today.
01. Pete Townshend
When it comes to guitar vandalism, Pete Townshend is without a doubt the godfather of them all. After he accidentally broke the headstock off his guitar while playing at a low-ceilinged club during the summer of 1964, Townshend began to integrate guitar smashing into the Who’s act, ably supported by drummer Keith Moon, who gleefully trashed his drum set right alongside him.
One of the finest demonstrations of the duo’s demolition skills was presented on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the controversial late-Sixties TV variety program hosted by the music-and-comedy duo of Dick and Tommy Smothers. The Who made their U.S. network TV debut on the show on September 17, 1967, three months after playing Monterey Pop. As seen in this video, at the conclusion of “My Generation” Townshend and Moon began destroying their gear. Unfortunately, for Townshend, Moon had stuffed his kick drum with so much explosive powder that it detonated in a vast cloud of white smoke and shrapnel. Townshend’s hair was singed, and it’s believed that the resulting damage to his ear drums marked the start of the tinnitus he suffered from in the Eighties, exacerbated by years of loud performances.
BONUS BUSTER: John Belushi
The late actor gave one of the most memorable guitar-smashing performances in the 1978 college romp Animal House. In this scene, set at a frat-house party, singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop—billed as “Charming Guy with Guitar”—delivers a grating performance of the folk song “I Gave My Love a Cherry.” (Bishop is actually a very good singer—which goes to show you how much he had to act for the scene.) Bluto, Belushi’s character, takes in the performance for a moment before abruptly losing his cool and smashing the instrument to pieces. “Sorry,” he tells Bishop, handing him back the guitar’s remains.