While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact date that the guitar made its celluloid debut, it’s likely that the instrument was first captured in a motion picture sometime in the mid-1890s, when Edison Laboratories began filming music hall performances with its newly invented Kinetograph.
It’s equally likely that, even in its earliest movie appearances, the guitar was used as a comedic prop. There’s always been something about the guitar that, in the right hands—or even better, the wrong ones—can add extreme levity to any situation.
Even in the absence of sound, a guitar can represent absurdity, pomposity, pathos, silliness and a host of other emotions, attitudes and attributes that play well with comic scenarios. And, of course, a guitar makes a brilliant slapstick device, especially when smashed with theatrical flourish against the nearest wall, floor or cranium.
The guitar-as-comedic-device is a grand tradition that continues on to this day in both film and television, with the guitar’s four-string bass cousin occasionally getting into the act as well. Over the years, the guitar has appeared with such comedic giants as Groucho Marx, John Belushi, and Cheech & Chong, and been a vehicle of rock and roll fantasy for everyone from Herman Munster to Tenacious D.
Picking the funniest guitar-related scenes from more than a century of clips was no mean feat, but we’ve managed to come up with a list that should tickle your funny bone even as it inspires you to pick up the nearest guitar. But just remember: if you decide to smash it on something (or someone) for a laugh, we cannot be held responsible for any damages.
Film: Wayne’s World (1992)
Scene: No Stairway
Mike Myers utilizes a most shredular “May I help you?” riff to attract a sales clerk’s attention at his local guitar shop, but he’s shut down when he tries to play the intro to Led Zeppelin’s most popular song. “No Stairway,” he laments. “Denied!”
Film: Back to the Future (1985)
Scene: The Enchantment Under the Sea Dance
Nineteen-Eighties teen Marty McFly fills in on guitar at the high school dance and blows the minds of the Fifties-era kids and musicians in attendance by incorporating power chords, feedback, and two-handed tapping into “Johnny B. Goode.” “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet,” he tells the bewildered crowd. “But your kids are gonna love it.”
Film: High Fidelity (2000)
Scene: Conversation with the Boss
John Cusack wishes he could reconnect with his top five ex-girlfriends and clear the air, “like a Bruce Springsteen song.” Cue a surprise appearance from the Boss himself, who offers up some sage advice on the subject while picking out sweet blues licks on an old Telecaster.
Film: Better Off Dead (1985)
Scene: “Everybody Wants Some!!”
While working the grill at a burger joint, high school loser John Cusack daydreams about being a mad scientist who creates a hamburger that sings Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” while doing whammy-bar dive bombs on a miniature EVH-style Ibanez Destroyer. (Yes, we know Destroyers didn’t have whammy bars, but how else is a burger supposed to do dive bombs?)
Film: Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie (1980)
Scene: Guitar Solo
After smoking a crushed insect, Chong unleashes a Telecaster solo so egregiously loud and atonal that it bums out the entire neighborhood. “Goddamn, man,” marvels Cheech, after fighting his way through the waves of sound to pull the plug on Chong’s amp. “I hope I can still have babies!”
Film: Boogie Nights (1997)
Scene: “Feel My Heat”
Looking like rejects from a Loverboy tribute band, Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly—playing coked-out Seventies porn stars attempting to diversify in the MTV Eighties—pen a ridiculously awful song together at a recording studio. “That’s definitely cool,” nods an oblivious Reilly, chunking out chords on a Flying V. “Let’s lay it down.”
Film: The Wedding Singer (1998)
Scene: “Somebody Kill Me”
There’s no shortage of sidesplitting Adam Sandler guitar moments, but we’ll go with this one, in which he straps on an ES-335 and serenades Drew Barrymore with a hilariously overwrought mantra of self-loathing. “When I wrote this song, I was listening to the Cure a lot,” he says. Sounds like it.
Film: Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979)
Scene: “I Want You Around”
P.J. Soles drifts off into a stoned reverie and imagines that the Ramones are performing in her bedroom. She leads Joey into the bathroom, only to pull back the shower curtain and discover that—surprise!—Dee Dee is already in there, his clothes and bass completely drenched by running water.
Film: Animal House (1978)
Scene: “I Gave My Love a Cherry”
During the big Delta House toga party, John Belushi discovers sensitive folkie Stephen Bishop serenading some swooning co-eds on the stairs. Two lines into the song, Belushi grabs Bishop’s acoustic and smashes it repeatedly against the wall. “Sorry,” he says, handing back the shattered remains.
Film: This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Scene: Nigel’s Guitar Collection
Of all the quotable scenes in this brilliant mock-rockumentary, it’s hard to beat the tour of Nigel Tufnel’s guitar collection. “Don’t touch it,” he warns Marty DiBergi, as the director points to his precious, never-played Fender Bass VI. “Don’t point!” “Can I look at it?” “No. You’ve seen enough of that one.”
Film: Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958)
Scene: "Rock My Baby, Rock"
Here's a scene from a 1958 comedy called Rock-A-Bye Baby, which stars Jerry Lewis as Clayton Poole, a small-town TV repairman whose former sweetheart, Carla Naples (played by Marilyn Maxwell), becomes a movie star. We have no idea how that setup brings Lewis onto a stage, wearing a Gibson ES-175 (with P90s) and singing "Rock My Baby, Rock," but it happens, and it's awesome.
Since Rock-A-Bye Baby was filmed in 1958, Lewis, his fake band and the song are clearly parodying Bill Haley & His Comets, who released an album called Rockin' Around the World that year and Rockin' the Oldies the year before. You can't help but fall for Lewis' hilarious dance moves and ridiculously awful guitar solos, which take place at :15 and :28. —Damian Fanelli