Ocean islands, seamounts and volcanic ridges are thought to form above mantle plumes. Yet, this mechanism cannot explain many volcanic features on the Pacific Ocean floor and some might instead be caused by cracks in the oceanic crust linked to the reorganization of plate motions. A distinctive bend in the Hawaiian–Emperor volcanic chain has been linked to changes in the direction of motion of the Pacific Plate, movement of the Hawaiian plume, or a combination of both. However, these links are uncertain because there is no independent record that precisely dates tectonic events that affected the Pacific Plate. Here we analyse the geochemical characteristics of lava samples collected from the Musicians Ridges, lines of volcanic seamounts formed close to the Hawaiian–Emperor bend. We find that the geochemical signature of these lavas is unlike typical ocean island basalts and instead resembles mid-ocean ridge basalts. We infer that the seamounts are unrelated to mantle plume activity and instead formed in an extensional setting, due to deformation of the Pacific Plate. 40Ar/39Ar dating reveals that the Musicians Ridges formed during two time windows that bracket the time of formation of the Hawaiian–Emperor bend, 53–52 and 48–47 million years ago. We conclude that the Hawaiian–Emperor bend was formed by plate–mantle reorganization, potentially triggered by a series of subduction events at the Pacific Plate margins.