Six stunt guitars that changed the way we thought about live performance
There’s nothing boring about an electric guitar, but some artists require their instruments to do a little bit more for the sake of the live show. These artists take theatre and excess to the next level, and require guitars that don’t just perform their standard functions, but also function as effective stage props that elevate the spectacle to to truly theatrical levels.
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Here, we will explore the stories and designs behind some of the more famous stunt guitars in history. Of course, you can’t talk about stage theatrics or stunt guitars without talking about KISS.
Ace Frehley’s White-Hot Pickup
KISS. Image: Icon and Image / Getty Images
So many kids picked up a guitar to emulate KISS, but it wasn’t necessarily the technical prowess they were drawn it – it was the larger-than-life personas they exemplified on stage. Ace Frehley started incorporating guitars into the band’s theatrics around 1975 with a Tobaccoburst Les Paul Deluxe – the only guitar Ace was using on stage at the time. A smoke bomb was placed in the neck pickup spot [he never used the neck pickup] – the wick would be hanging out the pickup cover. When lit, the smoke bomb would create the effect that he had played his guitar so feverishly, that the pickup had caught fire. This created some obvious technical issues with the wiring, pickups and pots.
The smoking pickup effect evolved through the years to start including a white light inside the neck pickup cavity and started to be controlled by the unused knobs for the neck pickup. Eventually the smoking pickup garnered another nickname, the “White Hot Pickup” and it migrated to a different guitar than the one that would later be used as the “Rocket Launcher Guitar”.
KISS’s Rocket Launcher Guitar
Yup, him again. Ace’s first Les Paul not only served as the first Smoking Pickup guitar, but also featured bottle rockets taped to the headstock that Ace would light himself with a lighter. It was a crude launching point for the idea of a guitar that shot sparky projectiles, but it eventually became more refined and evolved into its own stunt and has always had a special place in the history of KISS theatrics.
The gag was, at the end of Ace’s solo, the pickup would glow white hot and start to smoke, then the guitar would be hoisted into the lighting rig by a cable attached to the back of the headstock. Later in the show, Ace would use the Rocket Launcher Guitar to shoot the lighting rig, an explosion in the lighting rig would be triggered at the same time, and the White Hot Pickup guitar would come floating back down. The gag was always a crowd favorite and helped cultivate the Spaceman persona.
According to Ace, The Rocket Guitar was originally going to be a Laser Guitar that would shoot a laser beam that would be aimed at various points on the stage and would trigger explosions. “I had a fiber optic running through the neck of my Les Paul [built by Steve Carr] that connected to a high-powered laser to blow things up, right around that time, Blue Oyster Cult had blinded someone with one of their lasers so new legislation came out that limited the amount of wattage you could use in a laser on stage. That was the advent of using rockets in the guitar neck. It was supposed to be a laser beam and then I just went to fireworks.” According to Steve Carr, the band’s longtime guitar tech, the original laser guitar became the first designated Rocket Guitar.
This guitar remains part of the band’s show to this very day, at the hands of Tommy Thayer, although it has evolved a bit. Safety buttons have been put in place, making firing the “rockets” somewhat difficult to do while looking cool. The wiring for the charge ignitions still runs through a cavity in the neck.
Ace’s Light Guitar
Did anyone do more for stunt guitars that KISS? Absolutely not. Ace Frehley’s original Light Guitar was a late 50s Les Paul TV with a routed face holding nearly 1,000 incandescent lights, powered by a Ni-Cad battery pack. The light guitar was designed by John Elder Robison, who used to design toys for Milton Bradley. Ace started using it around 1978 and still uses a version of it when playing “New York Groove” – these days the lights are LED and they are inlayed into the carved top of a Les Paul Custom. The LEDs don’t heat up like the original incandescent lights. John 5 also has a Telecaster version of the Light Guitar that he uses with Rob Zombie and his solo band that is powered by an RC battery that lasts about two songs or so.
Rammstein’s FlameThrower Guitars
Till Lindemann of Rammstein. Image: Annamaria DiSanta / WireImage
Rammstein’s pyro guru, Nicolai Sabottka, is always developing new and exciting ways to bring the boom to the stage. On one tour, Paul, Richard and Oliver used specially designed flamethrowers that were strapped to their respective guitars, which shot out a high-pressure burning concoction of air and petroleum mist. The flamethrowers were attached to the band’s regular guitars, rather than guitars specifically designed to be flamethrowers themselves. Rammstein continues to push the boundaries of safety and visual excellence with the fearless Sabottka at the helm.
The flamethrower guitar concept has also crossed from being just theatrical to the movie theatre, as anyone who has watched the movie Mad Max: Fury Road will remember the Doof Warrior’s insane flame-shooting double-necked instrument. Designed in part by an artist named Michael Ulman who is known for creating art from found items, the body of the guitar incorporates a bed pan and a French Horn, a bass neck and a guitar neck were grafted on. We took a deep dive into the guitar itself in our Guitar On Film series – check it out and be amazed at the work that went into this truly unique instrument.
John 5 Lava Guitar
John 5. Image: Stephen J Cohen / Getty Images
In a rig rundown, John 5 said that this unique guitar had antifreeze in it, but that’s not quite the case. It’s a Hughes Wave Motion Machines Formula and the color is called “Anti-Freeze Green”. They won’t give out their formula, but one can assume it is a close variant of Drakeol Mineral Oil, which is what was used in Lava Lamps. The oil also means it won’t freeze [easily], which is handy. The body of the guitar, which also serves as an acrylic casing for the fluid, was made by Ken Meyer Guitars.
This is an idea that has been done before John 5, of course. In fact, it has been done by Rob Zombie guitarists before John 5 before. Mike Riggs had a Fernandes guitar that was filled with fake blood. As he said in an interview,
“Originally I wanted to have maggots and old meat in the guitar. Then I was talking with my little cousins at home, and they went ‘it would be cool if you put blood in it!’”
Kirk Hammett also had an ESP WaveCaster that was filled with Blue Liquid from the same company that John 5 got his from. Allegedly the casing broke and soaked the electronics, but it has since been repaired and resides in Metallica’s warehouse.
Prince. Image: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images
Among the many iconic guitars used by Prince during his career was a Hohner Mad Cat Telecaster. In 1984, luthier Roger Sadowsky was tasked with making several replicas for Prince to tour with. Two of them were a little different – they were custom made to replicate a scene in Purple Rain where Prince climbed up onto a stack of speakers and rubbed the neck of his guitar until white liquid sprayed out of the headstock. Guitars have always had a phallic essence to them, and Prince had these guitars made to drive the point home just a little harder.
“In the Purple Rain movie, there is a scene where he climbs to the top of a huge mountain of speakers, grabs a guitar and masturbates the neck until the guitar ejaculates onto the audience,” Roger told us. “The guitar was a prop and connected to a tank of Ivory Liquid off stage. Prince wanted a fully playable guitar that could also ejaculate. I ran copper tubing along the side of the truss rod, and it terminated at the tip of the headstock. On the body side, it terminated in a compartment we routed in the back so they could install their solenoid valve that connected to the tank of Ivory Liquid. I called these two guitars the Ejacucasters!”
The guitars sounded good too, they had DiMarzio pickups and looked exactly like the others. In fact, Roger himself couldn’t tell the difference between the Ejacucasters and the Hohner replicas when he went to see Prince on tour.
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