By now the image of the rock star ruthlessly smashing their guitar at the end of a gig, or even right in the middle of a brutal solo, is enshrined in the public imagination. But where did this strange ritual come from, and how did it become so popular?
Whether for artistic purposes, or just bad tempers, people have been wrecking their guitars ever since guitars became a big thing. But when we’re talking about the first ‘real’ rock-star guitar smash, the destruction of a guitar for no reason other than to provide a big bang during a performance, Pete Townshend gets the credit for being first.
The first time he did it was an accident. The incident is famous. The Who were playing in a small London bar, and Pete’s guitar hit the ceiling, snapping the neck. When no-one reacted, he decided to make a big thing about it, further smashing the guitar to pieces, then picking up a new one and carrying on as though it was no big thing. Of course, after that, it became Townshend’s big thing, and The Who became known as the band that smashes guitars.
In hindsight, Pete Townshend smashing his guitar almost seems an inevitability. In a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone he claims never to have been a good guitarist, and that he made up for it by being a very physical guitarist, always looking the part regardless of how he sounded. Townshend’s guitar took a lot of rough treatment thanks to his disregard for it, and the spectacle became a much bigger part of his playing than the actual playing itself. In the end, smashing the guitar was just an extension of this behaviour, providing the audience with a huge spectacle that felt good, even if it wasn’t the way a guitar is supposed to be treated.
Taking inspiration from the style of spectacle over skill, later rock guitarists emulated Pete Townshend in many ways, and guitar smashing was a natural part of that. Jumping around on stage, flinging instruments around and playing with an unnecessary exuberance were all a big part of the showiness of rock music, and smashing a guitar just followed on naturally from that.
From there, it grows. Just like every aspect of rock music, the people who want to be seen as a legitimate part of the movement follow in the footsteps of its giants. The more people who smashed their guitars in exuberance, the more people wanted to be like them, and do it for themselves. Of course, for big bands with lots of money, smashing a guitar just isn’t a big deal, which makes it easier for them to show off, and as these people set the standard for what it meant to be a rock star, others followed.
So now we are in a position where it’s only natural for a rock star to smash their guitar. Not everyone does, of course. Jeff Beck is famous for smashing a guitar only very reluctantly, and only because his director wanted to emulate The Who. On the other hand, some people take it to new levels. Hendrix set fire to his guitars to outdo The Who, Kurt Cobain smashed guitars at most of his gigs, and Muse’s Matthew Bellamy currently holds a record for smashing 140 guitars during a single tour. In any case, the reckless abandon with which people treat their instruments is a sure sign of being a rock star, with all the disregard for social norms you can muster.
If you want a guitar you can smash, we’ve written a blog post to help you find guitars that won’t break the bank. We recommend you treat all your instruments with care though, and whatever you’re looking for, we’ll help you find the one that you could never bear to smash up, no matter how rock and roll you are.
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