Ocean island volcanoes frequently develop local rift zones associated with flank movement and flank collapses. The ocean island El Hierro grew by coalescence and collapse of three volcanic edifices, which are an elongated topographic ridge (the Southern Ridge) and two semi-circular volcanic cones (Tiñor volcano, El Golfo volcano). During edifice growth and volcano coalescence, eruption fissures nucleated into rift zones that developed a complex triangle pattern. In scaled analogue experiments we could successfully reproduce the geometry of rift zones and unstable flanks as observed on El Hierro. The experimental results suggest that the rift configuration on El Hierro is the result of gravitational volcano spreading over deformable basal substrata, rather than of deep-seated magma updoming as thought previously. This paper elucidates the importance of the basal substratum and gravitational spreading, and the relationship to rifting and flank instability on El Hierro Island, and may help in understanding similar volcano architectures elsewhere.