A Brief History of Guitar Smashing, From Pete Townshend to Phoebe Bridgers
One Tuesday night in September 1964, The Who—then performing as “The High Numbers”—arrived at London’s Railway Hotel and found that the usual platform of upside-down beer crates had been replaced with a slightly sturdier, slightly taller stage. Those few inches seemed negligible until partway through the concert, when Pete Townshend inadvertently punched a hole in the low ceiling with his guitar headstock. A hush fell over the room as the audience waited to see how he’d react.
And then they witnessed what’s widely considered to be the birth of the rock ‘n’ roll guitar smash.
Townshend was surprised and upset that the ceiling mishap had damaged his instrument, and the crowd’s failure to grasp the tragedy frustrated him. He wanted a bigger reaction, so he made a bigger scene.
“I proceeded to make a big thing of breaking the guitar,” Townshend recalled in a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone. “I pounced all over the stage with it and I threw the bits on the stage and I picked up my spare guitar and carried on as though I really meant to do it.”
The second time Townshend mangled an instrument was actually for publicity’s sake. Someone from the Daily Mail had told the band that another guitar smash would help land them on the paper’s front page, so Townshend checked with his manager to make sure they could spare the expense of ruining yet another precious piece of machinery. Though he got the go-ahead and carried out the mission with flair, the Daily Mail failed to hold up their end of the unofficial bargain.
A little less newspaper coverage didn’t matter at all. With two wrecked guitars and an upended drum kit (courtesy of drummer Keith Moon, during another Railway Hotel appearance) now on their résumé, word soon spread that the group was a smash-happy bunch of boys. “After that I was into it up to my neck and have been doing it since,” Townshend told Rolling Stone.
The Who—which stopped going by The High Numbers in November 1964—didn’t exactly invent on-stage destruction. Earlier musicians like Charles Mingus and Jerry Lee Lewis have both been credited with ruining instruments during concerts, and even Beethoven was known to play his pianos well past their breaking points. But the band did turn guitar-smashing (and destruction in general) into flashy, ritualistic performance art, and other rock ‘n’ rollers were quick to take up the torch.
For Jimi Hendrix, that torch wasn’t totally metaphorical.
Light My Fire
The future rock legend had already tried his hand at garden-variety guitar smashing in the mid-1960s, but the gimmick was in danger of seeming derivative. While backstage at London’s Finsbury Park Astoria in late March 1967, Hendrix’s manager Chas Chandler posed a question to NME journalist Keith Altham: “How are we going to steal the headlines this week?”
“You can’t keep smashing the guitar because people will just say you’re copying The Who and The Move,” Altham answered. “Why don’t you set fire to the guitar?” After a contemplative pause, Chandler told the production assistant to go buy lighter fuel. “That is how ‘guitar flame’ was born,” Altham remembered. “Jimi set fire to it on stage. After a few aborted efforts he whirled it around his head like an Olympic torch.”
The stunt did steal headlines, mainly because Hendrix had sustained burns and had to leave the stage immediately. But it didn’t extinguish his enthusiasm for that particular spectacle. After a spirited rendition of “Wild Thing” at California’s Monterey International Pop Festival that June, the guitarist set his Fender Stratocaster aflame, smashed it to bits, and tossed the neck into the crowd. Though the performance predated the smartphone era by several decades, it was immortalized in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1968 concert documentary Monterey Pop.
And so, much like Townshend’s inaugural guitar smashes, Hendrix’s pyrotechnical pageantry was a fusion of artistry and publicity bait.
Pour Some Gorilla Glue on Me
That’s not to say the destructive histrionics were always just a scheme to make the news. Townshend came to consider his habit both a form of performance art and a political statement, and Hendrix’s guitar smashes often seemed like they were more between him and his instrument than between him and the audience, the cameras, or anything else. Furthermore, up-and-coming musicians inspired by the drama had their own interpretations, unencumbered by backstories or intent.
“I grew up lucky enough to have seen The Who in ’68. I saw Jimi Hendrix twice,” Kiss frontman (and avid guitar-smasher) Paul Stanley told AllMusic in 2016. “The idea of almost ritualistically smashing a guitar is something so cool and touches a nerve in so many people that it seemed like a great way to put a period or to dot the i or cross the t at the end of a show—that this is finite, that this is over, it’s the climax.”
The heavier, more cacophonous rock music of the late 1970s and 1980s was perfectly suited to that type of calculated catastrophe. Wendy O. Williams of Plasmatics was another noted practitioner, though she didn’t limit herself to just smashing her guitars; sometimes, she demolished her instrument with a literal chainsaw. But in some situations, a wrecked instrument was really just the result of anger or some other I-could-punch-a-wall emotion. Such was the case when The Clash’s Paul Simonon smashed his Fender Precision bass into oblivion at New York City’s Palladium on September 21, 1979. The iconic image, which became the cover art for their London Calling album, captured Simonon’s irritation with uptight bouncers who were killing the vibe.
“I was sort of annoyed that the bouncers wouldn’t let the audience stand up out of their chairs, so that frustrated me to the point that I destroyed this bass guitar. Unfortunately you always sort of tend to destroy things that you love in temper,” Simonon told Fender in 2011. “[Joe] Strummer took one of [the pieces] and was about to walk off with it. I just had to grab it back and said ‘I think that belongs to me.’”
Musicians like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain kept the spirit of guitar smashing alive through the grunge rock of the 1990s, another era that lent itself to vague anti-establishment displays of rage and destruction. Cobain, for the record, was mostly smashing up cheap guitars and amps he bought in junk shops.
While it’s likely that more guitars remain intact these days than they did in the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, guitar smashing has never disappeared. Muse’s Matthew Bellamy smashed a total of 140 guitars during a 2004 tour, actually setting a Guinness World Record (though it’s no longer an actively monitored record category, so it’s technically possible that someone has one-upped him by now). Bellamy is less destructive than he seems though; his guitars are manufactured in two parts, so he can easily replace the neck when it gets detached from the body. “It looks like I’ve trashed like hundreds of guitars, but it’s probably only really about four,” he said in 2018.
Plenty of musicians who aren’t serial smashers have also been known to bust up a six-string in recent decades. Arcade Fire’s Win Butler did the deed on Saturday Night Live in 2007 after he broke a string and realized the guitar was sort of on its last leg anyway. And Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill wrecked his beloved 1972 Gibson ES-325 at a Scottish music festival in 2009, later citing burnout for the outburst. “I would never, ever dream of doing anything to that guitar,” Followill told the Daily Record. “It’s moments like that where you realize you need a break.”
But the artistic side of guitar smashing is still alive and well, too, as evidenced by Phoebe Bridgers on SNL earlier this year. The singer punctuated the primal scream at the end of her song “I Know the End” by bringing her Danelectro guitar down on top of an unsuspecting monitor. Many a viewer took to social media to cry for the two inanimate objects lost to creative expression, evidently forgetting about all the (mostly male) musicians who had demolished countless instruments before her. Bridgers, for what it's worth, got Danelectro’s blessing for the plan beforehand, and the monitor was a fake one made just so she could bash it. Maybe next time, she’ll bring a little lighter fluid.