Earlier this month, Super Bowl LVII took place, and once again, those who tuned in to the game were also treated to an A-list musical performance at the halfway mark, courtesy of Rihanna and her backing band, which featured her longtime electric guitar player, Nuno Bettencourt.
Even those unfamiliar with the NFL are aware of the prestigious Super Bowl halftime show and its rich music history, with the likes of Prince, The Rolling Stones, U2, The Who and other guitar-heavy acts all gracing the field over the years.
But guitar-driven artists have taken a backseat as headline acts in the 2010s, which has largely been dominated by pop, rap, hip-hop and R&B stars, such as Beyoncé, Katy Perry, The Weeknd and Dr. Dre, who shared the stage with Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar and 50 Cent last year.
That’s not to say the guitar hasn’t played a large part in proceedings, though. Bettencourt, for example, cropped up in Rihanna’s set; Shakira wielded a crystal-encrusted Gibson Firebird in 2020 – which will soon be exhibited at the Grammy Museum – and session ace Rob Gueringer was spotted playing a chrome PRS Silver Sky when he took the stage last year.
Another halftime show to feature an especially standout guitar cameo took place in 2011, when Black Eyed Peas – at the time comprising Will.i.am, Taboo, Apl.de.ap and Fergie – called upon the six-string services of Slash.
After singing excerpts of their songs I Gotta Feeling and Boom Boom Pow, Willi.i.am introduced the Guns N’ Roses rocker, who rose to the stage with his Gibson Les Paul for a quick-fire rendition of Sweet Child O’ Mine.
It wasn’t just any performance of the 1987 GNR hit, though. Instead, it turned out to be the most divisive Sweet Child O’ Mine rendition ever.
Slash’s own role in the wider performance was less than two minutes, but it was enough to leave a sour taste in audiences’ mouths. Flanked by Fergie, who assumed Axl Rose’s vocal duties, Slash served up the main riff for a verse, before wrapping up his cameo with a wah-drenched trip round the pentatonic scale.
Unfortunately for the top hat-toting titan, Slash’s Super Bowl debut just so happened to be during a wider show that was unanimously panned by critics, with the 2011 halftime performance earning itself some especially unfavorable accolades and responses.
At the time, Bleacher Report’s Vince Cestone noted that “nearly every major publication agreed that the Black Eyed Peas barfed up a subpar performance”, and issued the damning indictment that “The Black Eyed Peas were pathetic – or mediocre at best”. Perhaps even worse, he called it an “embarrassing” day for music.
Similar sentiments could be found elsewhere. SB Nation, for example, commented, “It wasn't entertaining, it wasn't fun, the songs were brutally bad and didn't translate to a live setting whatsoever.”
History hasn’t been kind to the 2011 Super Bowl halftime show, either. The performance has been included in numerous listicles that condemn the Slash-featuring show to some fairly unkind history books, with USA Today ranking it as the fifth “most disastrous” Super Bowl halftime show in 2019, Rolling Stone dubbing it the worst-ever show in 2020, and Deadspin putting it in the top spot of its own “the worst Super Bowl halftime shows” round-up.
And, to really hammer home the point, Kerrang! recently revisited the performance by saying, “The world witnessed the worst performance of Sweet Child O’ Mine”.
Despite the negative reception, Slash’s playing was more or less spared any specific criticism, and even received some sympathy. Instead, commenters took issue at the fact the show itself seemed wholly underwhelming for the Super Bowl stage, and that Sweet Child O’ Mine had been inexplicably shoehorned into a set that comprised mainly R&B rap tracks.
Indeed, the theatrics – no doubt souped-up by Slash heroically emerging from a rising platform from underneath the stage, Les Paul in tow – were praised by some quarters, with Cestone conceding the show’s aesthetics were “impressive”.
After halftime shows from Madonna and Beyoncé in the following years, the guitar would return to the Super Bowl stage in a similarly starring capacity three years later during Bruno Mars’ own show in 2014, with Mars calling upon special guests the Red Hot Chili Peppers – then featuring Josh Klinghoffer – to perform Give It Away.
That wasn’t without its own fair share of controversy, either: Klinghoffer and Flea were spotted donning unplugged guitars, and after some speculation, came out to confirm they were indeed miming their parts.
Despite a rocky few years for the guitar on the Super Bowl stage, it seems as though the show just can't live without the six-string, and 2023's event was a prime example of the fact. Yes, Rihanna was the headliner, but it also featured one of music's standout rock virtuosos as well. Who knows what the 2024 Super Bowl halftime show will hold for guitar fans.