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more... ArtistsGuitaristsRockApril 2010Pete Townshend

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

In the summer of 1965, this writer was an aspiring teenage drummer with more than a passing interest in the guitar. Tuning into the ABC television rock show Shindig! one evening, I witnessed The Who’s American debut. They lip-synched their first UK hit, “I Can’t Explain,” as I sat transfixed by drummer Keith Moon, singer Roger Daltrey, bassist John Entwistle and particularly the tall, skinny guitarist with the prominent nose and the windmilling arm. His name, I later learned, was Pete. I have been hooked on The Who ever since.

I had belatedly developed a liking for The Beatles’ music, as well as that of The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Them, and The Kinks, but The Who was different. Their music, their attitude and their take-no-prisoners stance was totally aggressive, and just a bit out of control, and it spoke to my teenage angst and struck a chord that rings true to this day. I even managed to get my hands on a big piece of the mid-’60s Tele (see cover) Townshend demolished at Convention Hall in Asbury Park, NJ, on August 12, 1967. Jim McGlynn, who played guitar in a local band and wrote for the Newark Evening News, interviewed Townshend after the show. I guess Townshend was feeling pretty magnanimous that night because he gave it to him. A few months later, I bought it from Jim for $10! It’s still hanging on my wall today. Forty-five years later, I’m still saying, “I told you so,” to my oldest friend (to whom I proclaimed The Who would become a rock music institution). He and I have seen them in concert many times over the years. Through all the triumphs and failures, the public squabbles, the aggression and violent equipment destruction, the rock-star excess, the untimely passing of Moon and Entwistle, and the unspeakable tragedy of 11 fans trampled to death in Cincinnati, it has always been the music of Pete Townshend and The Who that spoke truest to me.

Townshend has always been The Who’s chief spokesman. His interviews are the stuff of legend: intelligent, thoughtful, interesting, eloquent, insightful, sometimes brutally honest—occasionally playful, self-mocking and petulant—but always fascinating. Pete prefers doing interviews by email these days, which ruled out any spontaneous questions or conversation that might have occurred, but I trust the reader will understand. During the course of this exchange, Pete communicated at length about his preference for the Stratocaster and Fender amps, his obvious affection for acoustic and vintage instruments from his collection, hearing loss, and more. You may find some of his remarks concerning The Who, guitar smashing, and Marshall amps a bit surprising. Here then, is the Pete Townshend Premier Guitar interview. It was a long time in the making. I hope you agree the results were worth the wait.

For years now, your choice of electric guitar onstage has been the Eric Clapton Stratocaster. Why that guitar in particular after years using Gibson SGs and Les Pauls, as well as other models?

A bit of history: The Who worked fairly solidly from 1963 through to 1982, when I felt I had had enough. Over the entirety of those years, I had regarded my stage guitars as tools rather than instruments. I never tried to play eloquently, I didn’t practice much and I didn’t work very hard on my sound. The Who was a band devoted to a single function, which was to reflect our audience, and for a lot of the time we had no idea how we did that. I felt it had more to do with my songs and the image of the band than our musicianship. I would never have been a Who fan.

I started in late 1962 with a simple, single-pickup Harmony electric; I think it was called a Stratotone. When Roger quit his job as lead guitarist and became the singer, he passed me his Epiphone with P-90s. To be honest, although I realize now it was a fine little guitar, I wasn’t happy until I got my first Rickenbacker in 1964. I soon got myself a top model 12-string Rick, too. It’s interesting to think that the Marshall sound I helped Jim and his guys develop was built around the very low output and thin, surfy sound of the Rick. The sound I wanted was Steve Cropper, but very loud. The early Marshall with a Rick gave me that. The semi-acoustic body and a speaker stack feeding right into the guitar was what allowed me to refine tuneful feedback.

Before the band was making money—we are still in early 1964 in this story—I broke my 6-string Rick on stage engaging in art-school-inspired performance art. Roger said he could have fixed that first broken Rick, but the word spread so fast about how crazy I was that it wasn’t long before the 12-string and about four other Ricks followed before I started to look for something stronger. During that time the Who were touring Britain and Europe, and guitars were expensive. My Rick 12, for example, cost £385, that’s equivalent to £5,925 today. With the dollar at 2.4 back at that time, my Rick 12 cost me $14,220. It makes me a little angry when people question my artistic integrity in what I decided to do on stage. I paid the price.

I tried everything that I could pick up at less than the price of a house. There are pictures of me with a Gibson 335, Strats, Teles, Jazzmasters and Danelectros. What I was looking for was not a good-sounding guitar but one that was strong. And so I used quite a lot of Fenders. The necks never broke when I was doing my destruction routine, and gluing the bodies back together and rewiring helped me one step closer to becoming a luthier.

When Jimi was in London, it just so happened I was using a Strat, and he modeled his entire amplifier rig, apart from a couple of special fuzz boxes, according to my advice. So for a while our sound was similar. But no one could approach what he did with that rig, and I decided to concentrate much more on chordal work, trying to give a beat backbone to Moon’s flailing and undisciplined drumming. Pretty soon, by accident, I discovered the Gibson SG with P-90s, and because I was using a mix of Sound City (later Hiwatt) and Marshall amplifier stacks, I landed the Live at Leeds sound that stayed with me almost all the way on from there—at least onstage. Because SGs are fairly light, I broke quite a few of them over my hipbone, as well as in our finale, so occasionally I used Strats for their sheer strength.

My present guitar tech, Alan Rogan, came to me sometime in the very early ‘70s I think, and after a while I developed the Les Paul Special with a middle humbucker set for feedback. Those guitars were heavy. But by that time my stage work involved less jumping and a little more punk posing. I was still using that guitar on The Who’s last tour in 1982. Gibson did a signature Pete Townshend model Les Paul, which works well, though it’s still a heavy guitar. The middle pickup is meant to be set close to the strings to allow instant feedback. It is on a separate on-off switch to allow machine-gun staccato effects. The other two small humbuckers are wired in the conventional Gibson manner but with a phase switch. In the studio I could get almost any sound I wanted with that guitar.


Ruffled Ruffian: Townshend winds up with a Gibson doubleneck circa 1966. Photo: Trinifold Management.
In 1989 when I briefly gathered the band to do a 25th anniversary tour, I played mainly acoustic onstage. But here and there I picked up a Strat to rock out. By that time I had spent nearly seven years off the road. I had practiced a lot, maybe more piano than guitar, but I had a terrific studio and really tried to learn to play better. The Gibson SG still has a place in my arsenal of sounds, but when I found the Eric Clapton Strat I got the best of two worlds: a clean Fender sound when I wanted it, and with the builtin power booster, the ability to make the sound dirty for slab-drive chord work. I have often tried SGs again, and I still love them and use them for recording, but I love the Strat-style whammy bar.

I built my first home studio in 1963, and again, somehow this relegated the guitar as a musical instrument to a different role. I just wanted something that suited the song I might be working on. I kept a basic collection of guitars for my home studio right through until Who’s Next, when I made my first spending spree at Manny’s in 1971. On that visit, I bought my first Martin D-45, a Gibson mandolin, a couple of Martin ukes and a tiple, a pedal steel, a Guild Merle Travis, and a beautiful Guild 12-string. I have some of these instruments still. Prior to that, for my home demos, I had a Harmony 12-string (very basic, but it sounded great, you can hear it on the Tommy recording), a Danelectro bass, an old-school cello I sometimes used as string bass and whatever electric guitar I was carrying to and from gigs at the time.

From 1971, everything changed. Alan Rogan helped me track down a lot of cool guitars. Joe Walsh gave me a Gretsch and a Fender Bassman combo with an Edwards pedal (to get the Neil Young sound). He also gave me a Flying V (that I am sad to say I sold to help buy my first big boat—he’s never quite forgiven me). I bought two or three D’Angelicos, and started to really appreciate what a fine guitar really was. The acoustic solo in the middle of “Who Are You” is played on my D’Angelico New Yorker (also sold to help buy a boat!) and you can hear that I am playing eloquently at last…

I met Pat Martino in 1993 while I was in New York working on the musical Tommy. He was still fighting his way back from his brain damage, and I don’t think he was too impressed with me as a guitar player. He was courteous, but it was quite clear which of us was the fan. I’m nuts about his work, early and late, pre and post brain operations. But he brought me his Paul Reed Smith (which I felt was far too lightweight, by the way) and it had a built-in piezo pickup. This was the first [electric with a built-in piezo] I’d seen, and when I got home Alan tracked down a couple and we started to experiment.

What is useful to me onstage is that I get a sizzling string sound from the piezo, to give color and detail to the sustain sound I use these days for solos. There are some added benefits. One of my techniques is banging the bridge and back pickup with the palm and wrist, and I do this quickly to create a kind of thunderous explosive sound—like a heavy machine gun. The piezo plays a big part in this sound, because it relays the sound of the body of the guitar being thumped. Fishman has gone a long way to make these piezo systems extremely silky sounding.