This paper aims to aid understanding of the complicated interplay between construction and destruction of volcanoes, with an emphasis on the role of substrate tectonic heritage in controlling magma conduit geometry, lateral collapse, landslides, and preferential erosion pathways. The influence of basement structure on the development of six composite volcanoes located in different geodynamic/geological environments is described: Stromboli (Italy), in an island arc extensional tectonic setting, Ollagüe (Bolivia–Chile) in a cordilleran extensional setting, Kizimen (Russia) in a transtensional setting, Pinatubo (Philippines) in a transcurrent setting, Planchon (Chile) in a compressional cordilleran setting, and Mt. Etna (Italy) in a complex tectonic boundary setting. Analogue and numerical modelling results are used to enhance understanding of processes exemplified by these volcanic centres. We provide a comprehensive overview of this topic by considering a great deal of relevant, recently published studies and combine these with the presentation of new results, in order to contribute to the discussion on substrate tectonics and its control on volcano evolution. The results show that magma conduits in volcanic rift zones can be geometrically controlled by the regional tectonic stress field. Rift zones produce a lateral magma push that controls the direction of lateral collapse and can also trigger collapse. Once lateral collapse occurs, the resulting debuttressing produces a reorganization of the shallow-level magma migration pathways towards the collapse depression. Subsequent landslides and erosion tend to localize along rift zones. If a zone of weakness underlies a volcano, long-term creep can occur, deforming a large sector of the cone. This deformation can trigger landslides that propagate along the destabilized flank axis. In the absence of a rift zone, normal and transcurrent faults propagating from the substrate through the volcano can induce flank instability in directions respectively perpendicular and oblique to fault strike. This destabilization can evolve to lateral collapse with triggering mechanisms such as seismic activity or magmatic intrusion.