Pete Townshend


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Watch Pete Towhshend in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Famous for: Rock operas, power chords, windmilling his arm around, leaping in the air. Though he doesn't possess much lead guitar prowess, Pete Townshend was truly the first Dinosaur Rock Guitarist. The first guy with that I wanna tear your head off with my guitar Dino attitude. Townshend is the guy who really put the heavy in rock. He was the first guy to really understand what power and volume could achieve. The first to embrace amplifier distortion and feedback. Before Pete, those things were unwanted amplifier characteristics. Pete is also responsible for inventing — or at least inspiring the Marshall stack. That alone deserves some recognition here at the home of heavy guitar.

Infamous for: Pete was the first guy to smash up his guitars and amps on stage, and despite all the challengers to that throne, he still probably ranks #1 in destroyed gear. And if you were foolish enough to venture on stage uninvited, Pete would whack you with his guitar — as Abby Hoffman found out at Woodstock. Townshend's also the poster boy for tinitus and hearing loss. His years with the loudest band on earth have cost him much of his hearing. And the loud volumes he used to find so intoxicating now cause him acute physical pain.

Influences

Obvious: I think Pete's a very original guitarist. Like a lot of English players of his era, Pete grew up loving American R&B. Guys like John Lee Hooker, Mose Allison, Ray Charles, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy Reed, Hank Marvin, Buddy Guy, Steve Cropper, and James Burke. The names Jim Burton and Keith Richards also come up. But aside from specifically covering some old Mose Allison and John Lee Hooker tracks, I don't really hear any of this stuff as obvious in Pete Townshend. It's just more obvious than what's below.

Not-so-obvious: 17th century English composer Henry Purcell. (Yes, really!) Am I the only one who hears some Chuck Berry in Pete's lead style? I've never seen it mentioned among his influences.

Strengths

Songwriting.This is Pete's bread and butter. His gift. A totally unique songwriting sensibility that grew as he grew. Pete went from writing three minute pop songs like Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, I Can't Explain and My Generation, to the nine minute "mini opera," A Quick One to full blown rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia — the latter three examples actually redifined what was acceptable in a rock format. He basically invented the concept album. Without Townshend, there's no Dark Side of the Moon, Bytor and the Snowdog, 2112, Hemispheres, Operation Mindcrime, Scenes from a Memory, Music from the Elder, etc. Without Townshend, there's probably no punk rock movement. The punk bands borrowed tons from the Who.

But despite Townshend's great influence on rock music, consider this: who but the Who sound like the Who? Really — who? I can't think of anyone. Plenty of bands sound like Zeppelin, and Sabbath, but not the Who.

Rhythm guitar. Discussed in detail below, Pete is known for his distinctive rhythmic style. In the April 1980 issue of Sound International, he stated: "What's really strange is I don't think there's many people who have actually heard me play rhythm in the function of a rhythm guitar. That's where I really get off very well. I wouldn't object at all to have a guitar player in The Who so that I could just concentrate on rhythm. Because I love it. It's a physical thing, it's like a dancing thing. There's a strong syncopation element in it. There's no guitar player that I've ever worked with that hasn't said it — Jimi Hendrix, Stephen Stills, Eric (Clapton). They've all said it was great to play with you."

Performance. In his prime, Pete was a joy to watch. He was a highly energetic and entertaining performer on stage; running around, emphasizing his chords by windmilling his arm and leaping high in the air. When I was young, the movie The Kids Are Alright had a similar effect on me as Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same. Both films inspired me to become a musician because both showed how much fun playing rock music could be. While Page always looked cool and mysterious, Townshend was fun. He always looked like he was just having a blast. The power and volume of his guitar sound was so huge that you actually see effecting him like a drug — it was apparent on his face. And whenever Pete stepped up to the mic to speak, his sense of humor came across too. For example, after the opening number at the Isle of Wight, Townshend chided the audience for their luke warm response with: "Smile ya buggers. Pretend it's Christmas!"

Acoustic guitar work. In the September 1989 issue of Guitar Player, Pete said: "I've been trying to reassure people that there is genuine, explosive excitement in acoustic rhythm guitar. I mean, you only have to think back to the great players like Ritchie Havens, who've founded careers on it. And I can make acoustic guitar fly. You know, there's no question about it. And I feel much more comfortable on the acoustic than on the electric. But there are things it can't do. It's very difficult to make the transition, for example, from single-string work to heavy flourished work on acoustic guitar. These are things that I've always known, that I'm re confronting now. But when I get to a comfortable thing like the Pinball Wizard bit, it just sounds so obviously right to me, and I just know that's going to send shivers up people because (the acoustic is) the sound that's on the record."

Lyrics. Pete was writing about teen angst, teenage wasteland (and worse) long before all the grunge guys were born. Hope I die before I get old. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. We're not gonna take it. His lyrics have explored a wide variety themes from youthful sexual confusion (I'm a Boy) and masturbation (Pictures of Lily), to the silly double entendres of Squeeze Box. Tommy alone was as lyrically bizarre as it was absurd. Seriously — how do you come up with a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizard for a protagonist? Who's mom and her lover kill the boy's father, triggering Tommy's autism. And if that weren't enough for a lifetime of therapy, the boy then has to endure sadism from Cousin Kevin, and pedophilia from wicked Uncle Ernie. Taken lyrically, Tommy is one fucked-up tale! Then there's Quadrophenia; the story of a schizophrenic mod with four distinct personalities that just happen to represent the four personalities in the Who. Whether you like Townshend's lyrics or not — they're never boring.

Weaknesses

Lead guitar. You know, a lot of people — the guitar mags in particular — give Pete a free pass on his lead work. But can we get real here? I personally give Pete his due for his areas of greatness, but lead guitar is just not one of them. No one is into the Who for the lead guitar aspect. If you dig the Who, you're in it for the songs. And that's perfectly legitimate. However, I often find myself cringing whenever Pete takes a solo because often, it's terrible. But Townshend never really made lead guitar his priority, and he doesn't really play much lead compared to the people we typically profile. His stature as a Dinosaur Rock Guitarist is as ground breaker and an earthshaker.

A comparative lack of balls on the studio recordings. The late John Entwistle always groused that the Who never captured their true sound on their studio recordings — and he's absolutely right! There's a huge difference from the comparatively tame, clean recorded tone Pete used on albums such Tommy and Who's Next, and the massive, distorted, live tone he achieved with his walls of amps run flat out. There's also a perfectly logical explanation for this situation — but the reasoning behind it eludes my primitive Dino brain.

Pete typically didn't record with his live rig of Gibsons and Hiwatts. Instead, he layered acoustic and electric parts to create dynamic contrast and dramatic tension. The album versions of Who classics such as Tommy (the album), Baba O'Riley, and Won't Get Fooled Again on Who's Next, often featured a 1968 Gibson J-200 acoustic and a 1959 Gretsch 6120 ‘Chet Atkins' Hollow Body through a 59 Fender 3x10 Bandmaster amplifier. These albums are classics based on their compositional strength, but any live versions you hear of these songs will appeal more to the Dino sensibility because amped-up, they are far more more powerful and ballsy than their studio version counterparts.

Tone

Pete has used a wide variety of guitars and amps over the years. As suggested above, Townshend's tone is a real Jekyll and Hyde affair between his studio and live sounds. As such, it's Pete's very Dino-like live tone that we'll focus on for this discussion.

For amps, Pete used Fender Bassman and Vox amps in the very early years (62-65) before his quest for more power and volume led Pete to Marshalls by about 1965. The story has changed and evolved over the years, but the way I remember it is that Townshend requested 100 watt amps and cabs containing eight 12" speakers. Jim Marshall told Pete that such cabs would be too heavy to move, but Pete insisted. However Jim Marshall was correct. Not only did Townshend's roadies balk at moving the huge cabinets, Pete even found them too hard to "destroy" at the end of a Who performance. Thus the 8x12s were sawn in half and the Marshall Stack was born. The new cabs proved easier to move, and easier for Pete to knock over.

And while Townshend was instrumental in the creation of the Marshall stack, stories vary on why he stopped using them. In several interviews Townshend states that he never liked the sound of them, and while that could easily be true, Jim Marshall claims there was falling-out with Townshend over money. Either way, Pete began an association with an amp builder named Dave Reeves who was then working at Sound City Amps. Reeves soon went on to found Hiwatt amps and Pete Townshend put the company on the map. But oddly enough, from mid 1967 to late 1968, Pete used Sound City L100 100watt amplifiers posing as Hiwatts. These amps were customized for Pete by Dave Reeves. Early versions had various block script Sound City nameplate badges, but beginning in late 1968, the badges were removed so that some were unlabeled and some featured Hiwatt nameplate badges.

Townshend has been synonymous with the Hiwatt sound for over 30 years. When I think of Pete, I always think of him standing in front of at least three Hiwatt Custom 100 (DR103, EL34) amp stacks. These amps are insanely loud but have much less gain that we commonly hear these days. Compared to Marshalls of the same period, the Hiwatts are louder and significantly cleaner. But if you run them full out — as Townshend did — they deliver a smooth warm distortion, plenty of crunch, explosive attack without mush, and a bit more ring than an old Marshall. Many people point to the Live at Leeds album as representative of the classic Hiwatt sound.

Around the time of Who Are You, Pete got into Mesa Boogie amps for recording (early wicker grilled MkIs), and by 89 was using Mesa preamps in his live rig.

Pete Townshend has been associated with several kinds of guitars over his career. In his early 60s, he favored playing and destroying Rickenbacker guitars (models 1997, 1998, 1993, and the 360/12 strings). He flirted with Teles and Strats for a while in the mid 60s, but by 68 he settled on Gibson SG Specials and he used them until 1971.

In the mid 70s, Pete was using heavily modified Les Paul Deluxes with his famous numbering system to differentiate between guitars for different capo settings. These Les Pauls featured a DiMarzio Dual Sound humbucker pickup in middle position in addition to the standard dual Gibson mini-humbuckers. Two additional Gibson pickup style switches provided a two-way coil-tap for the Dual Sound, the other a three-way pickup selector (Dual Sound on/off or all three pickups on). These three-piece mahogany/maple bodied Deluxes are decidedly not renowned for their tone among Les Paul aficionados. But Pete's Les Pauls had enlarged control cavities to house the extra pickup and switches. And as we know from the tone chamber concept, removing mass from these guitars probably helped them a great deal tonally — and using 12-56 gage strings probably covered a world of tonal ills too! Ultimately Townshend still found them too heavy and stopped using them in 79.

In the early 80s, Pete use Schecter Telecaster bodied guitars. His hearing problems forced him to play only acoustics for a while, but more recently, Pete has favored Fender Eric Clapton model Strats. "You know, the acoustic guitar is very much a symbol. And I don't play acoustic on everything now. I've found that I can get away with playing what I've found to be a very good guitar, the Eric Clapton Model (Strat), which is a wonderful all-around guitar for me. It's one of those guitars where the actual rhythm sound on it, the undistorted sound, the pickup, and the string balance are very good. I don't know how they've achieved it, but it's very, very good — it's almost as good as an acoustic. Also, if you wind it back, it's got an active distortion pad in it, where it gets distorted without the volume increase, and that enables me to get just the right amount of dirt, but keep the level low." Guitar Player, September 89.

Despite playing a Clapton Strat, Townshend has been the inspiration for several signature model items. In 1984 Schecter put out a Townshend signature Saturn (Telecaster with humbuckers). In 1987, Rickenbacker put out a very small run of 250 Pete Townshend signature model guitars. In 2000, Gibson put out a Townshend signature SG with P-90s based on the SG Specials Pete played in the late 60s Woodstock/Isle of Wight era. Hiwatt also put out a Townshend signature amp head.

In the September 89 issue of Guitar Player, Townshend said this of his gear philosophy: "I'm also very keen on clean, enhanced treble of the Gibson variety, but with no sustain. This more closely approximates the vibration cycle of the acoustic, and suits my rhythm style far better than charged-up, overwound pick-ups that whine on for hours. However, when I play solos, I like sustain, so a well-matched guitar and amplifier is the key, one in which the treble doesn't change up or down when you change the level of the guitar into the amplifier. All that should change is the amount of sustain, in my opinion. I got a perfect combination for stage work with my Les Paul Deluxes or Schecter teles run into a master-volume Hiwatt."

Ultimately, there really isn't just one Pete Townshend tone. My personal favorite has always been the tone Pete got with his Les Paul Deluxes and Hiwatts on the live versions of Baba O'Riley and Won't Get Fooled Again in the movie, The Kids Are Alright (see pitcure at top). To me, those two clips in that movie represent the Who in all their glory, and at the peak of their game on every level — including world class Dino tone!

For his classic Les Paul Deluxe - Hiwatt setup (through 1978), Pete used a Univox Super-Fuzz pedal, and (from 1979-1985) an MXR Dyna Comp pedal.

Guitar Style

Townshend's unique rhythmic style was born out of poverty and necessity. In the April 1980 issue of Sound International, Townshend explained: "My grandmother bought me a guitar when I was 12 and it was just a really, really cheap guitar. I broke a lot of strings on it and it was finally when I got to just the D, the G and the B strings left, it was then that I broke through and learned a few chords. And essentially most of the shapes are centered around those three strings, so I played for about six months on just those three strings and learned a lot of chords and then finally when I managed to get enough pocket money to buy the rest of the strings I could suddenly play."

This partially explains Pete's fascination with moving triad shapes (like the D chord) up the neck and use the lower strings as drones. The opening chords of Pinball Wizard are an example of drone type chords. Pete said: "I used to do a lot of that but I've stopped. Around that period and before that period from Substitute onwards I became very interested in the drone." * Pete is also known for pedal points.

The most characteristic Townshend trademark is his use of suspended (sus) chords, where the 3rd of a chord is replaced with another scale degree. In Townshend, this came from listening to Henry Purcell's Baroque suspensions. In the same Sound International interview, Townshend provides some insights on his rhythm style: "I always leave out the 3rd in a chord. If I'm playing an A major chord, for example, I will only play the A and the E and I would not let the C# in. It wouldn't actually be in the chord, you would never hear it. And when you go over to electric what happens is that when you play a chord like that, the C# comes up as a harmonic because of the distortion, but its clean distortion. If you actually play the C# it clashes and you get into modulation distortion, which throws up other notes you don't actually want. I think that particular approach to electric guitar work transferred to acoustic guitar makes it quite interesting to write. Because if you're playing what are two-note chords in octaves it leaves you freer melodically and it takes you back to more ancient music principles. It's almost like using a chord as a drone." *

"There's only one chord I couldn't live without and that's the basic A chord you hear in the beginning of Wont Get Fooled Again. I play all six strings but with no C#. So its (from low to high string) an E, A, E, A, E, A. That chord is in a sense the backbone of everything I do. Followed closely by G, followed closely by D, and back to the A." *

As stated above, Townshend has never been much of a lead player. He seemed most interested in playing lead in the late 60s, coinciding with the time he started playing SGs. He said: "I suppose it just must have been the influence of Hendrix. Because up to that point I just wasn't interested in single-note work. It seemed mad for me to even try to compete with the likes of Beck, Clapton, and Jimmy Page. I first saw Jimmy Page when I was 14 or 15 and he was already in a professional band. He was one year older than me and he was in a professional band at 16 and he was earning 30 pounds a week when I was just still in school. He was playing really fast stuff and Ritchie Blackmore was in a heavy pop band like a Ventures-type outfit. You would just listen to records like that open-mouthed at the time." Then: "I was very frustrated because I couldn't do all that flash stuff. So I just started getting into feedback and expressed myself physically." *

"But at one particular time after Hendrix I decided it was worth trying to express myself through single note work. (But) ultimately, the joy I would get from expressing myself through a solo would never be as great and would never be as fulfilling as the joy I get from expressing myself through a song." *

And when asked if he worked from certain patterns, Pete said: "No, not really. I'm still a very crude player and on a recording session, one of the nice things is I can drink half a bottle of brandy and spend a couple of hours experimenting. Often the best things I do are accidents, complete accidents. I just go for it and see what happens. If I play a safe guitar solo, if I set out to do something safe, I can't pull it off. Because I haven't actually got any formal approach to it." and later, "I didn't start to actually understand the fundamentals of music until I started playing the piano and I didn't start playing the piano until I was 22." *

Vibrato:

Pete's vibrato is not highly developed or controlled. Focusing primarily on rhythm guitar and using super heavy strings are not conducive to creating a great vibrato.

Pete Towhshend in Action

Recommended listening

The Who

Many details in this profile, were courtesy of the defunct WhoTabs website and the April 1980 issue of Sound International.*

Profile by Dinosaur David B. Copyright ©2003 All rights reserved.

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