That is, until this weekend, when I was a half-hour and three Budweiser Selects into Saturday Night Live. Consider me converted to Neon Bible, or at least well on the path to salvation. Once I was lost, but now I’m found.
I was just about so mesmerized while watching that I almost didn’t notice, but around three-quarters of the way through their first song, which according to my iTunes is called Track 04, I noticed lead singer Win Butler’s guitar had popped a string. In big-shot appearances on television and major state fairs, this can only mean one thing: The guitar will be smashed at the end of the song. And in a move that has sparked intense debate between cell phones across the globe, that’s exactly how it went down.
Based on what I’ve seen, I contend today’s guitar destructions are mainly born of musician frustration, not of artistic statement, and often the initial irking is set off by the most mundane of musical technical difficultiessuch as a snapped string. Butler plays enough guitar and enough shows to know these things just happen, and should consider himself lucky. For many guitarists, the strings don’t get changed until they break; the longer the period between changings, the greater likelihood the guitarist will need a tetanus shot after the show.
» Listen to Arcade Fire on Saturday Night Live at Brooklyn Vegan
I had a friend who’d been playing guitar for some time, and who decided to teach himself to play classical guitar. This necessitated a trip to the pawn shop, where he bought a cheap but serviceable nylon-string guitar. He practiced for weeks, and got pretty good, until he needed to replace the strings. Just as he hadn’t gone top-dollar with the guitar, he decided to try and replace the strings on his classical guitar with extra steel strings from his acoustic. In order to withstand the tension created by steel strings, many acoustic guitars are reinforced with an internal metal bar that runs the length of the neck. Most, if not all, classical guitars, however, don’t have this bar, so when he secured the strings in the guitar, as he tried to tune them up, the neck snapped off from the body.
After a second trip to the pawn shop, he had a new classical guitar (and an extra set of nylon strings), which he learned to play, and eventually was able to make it through some sheet music. One evening, a little wasted on wine, he tried to serenade his girlfriend with a classical guitar piece. But he couldn’t quite remember how to make it through the piece. He tried and tried, and once his frustration hit its breaking point, he stood up, guitar overhead, and crushed it into the floor. That signaled the end of the date.
» Listen to Rodrigo’s Adagio by Carlos Bonnel
Unabated guitar smashing will wind you up in the poorhouse, with nary an instrument with which to sing your way toward even a plate of cat food. (Long story.)
Better, then, to break a string (it’s unavoidable), and move on. Once, while playing guitar in a dimly lit park with friends, I broke a string and its free end sunk into the meat between the thumb and forefinger on my strumming hand. I couldn’t see what had happened, and tried to yank the string free from the guitar. Afterwards, did I smash the guitar? No, instead I cried.
About eight years ago I saw Godspeed You Black Emperor play a show in Austin. Of the thousand or so band members on stage, one of the guitarists (I believe he was standing next to the electric harmonium player) snapped a string. But the music was so cacophonic, so many people were playing, that it didn’t take anything away from the song. Calmly, he unplugged and set down his guitar, went to his case, retrieved a new string, went back to his guitar, and proceeded to restring and tune at the front of the stage for the next 25 minutesor about one and a half GYBE songs. When he started playing again, the different was inaudible. It didn’t matter, he knew it didn’t matter, and now I wonder if his amp was even on in the first place.
» Listen to Godspeed You Black Emperor at Dead Flowers