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August Issue
more... ArtistsGuitaristsRockApril 2010Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend: On Guitar-Smashing Regrets, Stylistic Evolution, and Becoming a Gear Aficionado


Roger Daltrey, Zak Starkey and Townshend playing a medley of classics at the Super Bowl XLIV halftime show. Photo: Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images.

You played a lot of acoustic guitar on the 1989 reunion tour. Are you playing any acoustic live, and if so, what do you favor these days?
I use a very special Gibson J-200 with a Fishman system, the one that combines a piezo with a little microphone inside the guitar. It won’t go loud—it feeds back—but it gives me the closest sound to real acoustic that I’ve ever had onstage. We just played the Super Bowl halftime and I started with “Pinball Wizard” on one of those J-200s.

Away from the concert stage, can you tell me what instruments you prefer these days for recording or playing at home?

I have about 40 guitars in my studio, but I still tend to use a small number at any given time. My latest rave is an old J-200 with a Tune-omatic bridge. It doesn’t sound as good acoustically as the models with the wooden bridge, but it is very easy to record. This is the model I used on Tommy, Who’s Next, Rough Mix, and Empty Glass. It’s also the model Keith Richards used on the Stones’ acoustic tracks like “Wild Horses.” Glyn Johns knew how to make it sound perfect with a Neumann mic at least two feet away from the soundhole.

For electric, I use one of my stage Strats, or an old Tele or SG. Around the house, I have quite a few Collings models. They are all absolutely wonderful. I’m a big fan. I’ve got some nice old things as well, and some old amplifiers. Alan Rogan will often lead me to really nice instruments. I play a lot of mandolin around the house. I still have my ’71 Gibson, and a recent Collings. They are both exquisite. I like composing on the mandolin, because it’s tuned like the fiddle so it helps me understand classical and country fiddle fingerings.

Although you’re not really known as a guitar collector, what are some of your favorite pieces in the collection?

A Dobro lap steel I bought at my local music shop. It must be about 1928. It looks like a frying pan. I’ve got a perfect Bacon and Day tenor banjo with a built-in mute I bought in New York a few years ago. There’s a 1956 Epiphone Emperor that sounds like John Lee Hooker has traded souls with Carl Perkins and come back from the dead. I’ve got an Esquire string bender by Parsons-White, the real deal. I’ve still got the orange Chet Atkins Joe Walsh gave me back in the early ‘70s. My favorite guitar of all happens to be English. It’s one of the first small-body Ariels by Fylde. I have three now, all superb, set up in different tunings.

Was there ever a time over the years when you said to yourself, “I wish I hadn’t smashed that (fill in the brand name and model) guitar?

Once. Just once. It was probably around 1968. We were around Detroit about to play at the Grande Ballroom. I had no guitar. I went to the local pawnshops and bought two Strats. One was recent, the other was much older, probably from the first year of manufacture. They were not expensive. The dealer had no idea what he had. On stage, I started with the older of the two guitars. It was almost certainly a guitar that belonged to Buddy Holly. I sounded like Buddy Holly. I felt like Buddy Holly. The sound was superb, off the map, bell-like, silky, just sublime. When the time came to smash the guitar, I switched it for the newer one, and a boy at the front of the stage protested. “No,” he shouted. “Smash the good one, not some fake.” So I switched back, and to my shame smashed the guitar over his hands. I still wait for him to sue me. He would have a perfect right, but I was pretty angry with him. However, this entire guitar-smashing thing is my fault, my thing, my idea, my artistic statement, my absurdity. I have no doubt that guitar is sitting in someone’s home now, and probably plays okay. I hope the same can be said for that poor guy’s hands. So my regret and shame on this occasion is doubled.

Your amp of choice lately has been the Fender Vibro-King, after years using Marshalls, Hiwatts and others. With so many choices out there today, why Fender?

Listen, let him sue me, but I know that the first Marshall amp was almost a dead copy of the Fender Bassman head, with some minor changes to boost the level—minor changes that I insisted be major. The Vibro- King sounds more like an early Marshall amp than a new Marshall amp. They are great amps, but they require quite a bit of maintenance, tube biasing, etc. I mix 10" and 12" speakers in two cabs. Fender is very good to me: they are great with charity requests and give me good deals on my equipment.


Townshend at the Super Bowl with his modified Fender Eric Clapton Strat and a wall of Fender Vibro-Kings. Photo: Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images.
Also, before I set eyes on a Rickenbacker— still a beautiful sight, I think—I had wanted a Fender Strat. I still believe it to be the most beautifully designed guitar of the modern era. The same can be said for the ‘60s amplifiers. They look so beautiful. Marshalls look like something from The Munsters. That’s why I put the Union Jack Flag on the speakers. Before I had a Marshall, I had a Bassman and a Fender Pro split-wired. That is the sound I loved. Using two amps was my first trick. Getting Jim Marshall to make them louder was my second.

What effects are you using onstage now, and how are they integrated into your rig?

I have a T-Rex delay I use for color, a Boss OD-1 for sustain and distortion and a Demeter compressor. They are in a box [pedalboard] built by Pete Cornish.

After years as a rocker with strong blues and R&B influences, I have read that you are becoming proficient as a jazz guitarist. Is that true, and how do those influences inform your playing and writing these days?

I will never be proficient as a jazz guitarist. But I was listening to Wes Montgomery before I heard Steve Cropper. I find that jazz often involves chords with too many notes for the kind of music I write. However, the great innovators often use very few notes in their solos: Miles, Wes and Coltrane. I’m still learning all the time. That’s the joy of the guitar. There are so many great players and so many wonderfully innovative (and fast!) younger guys coming up.

Exactly who were the guitarists who influenced you as a youth?

Wes, Kenny Burrell (in his work with Jimmy Smith), Jim Hall (with Jimmy Giuffre), Buddy Guy, Leadbelly, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Snooks Eaglin, Big Bill Broonzy, Hubert Sumlin (with Howlin’ Wolf), Albert King, Steve Cropper, Don Everly, Bruce Welch (with The Shadows), Eddie Cochran, James Burton (with Ricky Nelson). Among my contemporaries, it was Dave Davies, Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young. At art school I met Bert Jansch, and realized folk guys used tricks (tunings)!