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

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

The Premier Guitar Pete Townshend interview: Why he''s playing Eric Clapton Strats; his favorite instruments for home and studio; leaving Marshalls behind; hearing loss; and the future.

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.

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)!

Are there any young guitarists coming up these days you find appealing or influential?

There are so many. Literally hundreds. The guitar is now available to everyone. If you have the aptitude, the chances are you start developing it really young. I know and counsel guitar players in their teens who can shred so fast they lose consciousness.

This brings us to the subject of hearing loss. You and I are both longtime working musicians who suffer from this problem. Mine is pretty severe, not only as a result of gigging for over 40 years, but as a result of genetic factors. What is the state of your hearing right now? Do you wear hearing aids, and assuming you use in-ears onstage, how are you protecting your hearing?

I don’t use in-ears on stage. Not yet. I have just been introduced to a new microprocessor- controlled system with three transducers in each ear. They sound amazing. But the Chinese might hack into my gig…

I have started wearing hearing aids in the past months. The new ones are incredible. Tiny. The only way to protect my hearing would be to stop playing music. I get the most problems from long periods of studio work, which is how I compose. So I am nervous about the future right now.

You’ve been heavily involved in the recording process for decades. Has the art of recording changed for the better or worse in that time, and how are you using today’s technology?

I mix old and new. I have pro analogue tape machines running alongside a computer running Digital Performer or Ableton Live. Things have got better. The emergence of digital was tricky. The sound was poor at first. I was lucky because I used Synclavier as my digital medium. That was sampling at 100KHz in mono and 50KHz in stereo back in 1984, with fabulous integrity. Now a laptop can deliver that if you wish.

You’ve always been a proponent of the internet, and have used it to your benefit for many years. When you conceptualized Psychoderelict, were you at all aware that you might have been predicting the rise of the internet with the album’s theme of a “grid?”

I predicted the internet back in 1971 with Lifehouse. I can’t take all the credit—I was taught at art school in 1961 that computers would change the way artists worked and communicated, and the way society functioned.

I have read you are writing material for a new Who album tentatively titled Floss. Can you give us some information about it? Will it be a return to a guitar-based sound again? What is the theme and when will it be released?

Floss is not a new Who album. It is a musical play. Some of the music might work for Roger and me; I am still working on it. I reckon I have another year to go writing.

What was it like to tour right after John Entwistle’s death? That must have been extremely hard on you and Roger.

It was hard, but we had no option.

Do you plan on touring with The Who again at any time in the future, and if so, when?

There are no plans to tour at the moment.

After almost 47 years with The Who, are there any regrets? Would you change anything if you could? Do you still get a rush, a thrill, performing live with the band?

I’ve never gotten a rush or thrill from performing. I’m good at it, and I find it easy and natural. No regrets. I fell into this business, the family business, out of art school. It’s given me the chance to combine popular music (which is so natural for me) with ambitious creativity, so I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had great support, too, from The Who band and managers over the years. Lots of crazy ideas.

Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, think The Who would last as long as it has, and are you satisfied with your musical legacy and the body of work you have created?

The gap from 1982 to 2006 in recording is a great shame. I made some good solo records, but the break was necessary, I think. I’m satisfied so far. I hope there is more to come.

What words of wisdom or advice would you like to pass on to PG readers as a guitarist?

The guitar is such a great friend, easy to carry from room to room, from house to house. If you play guitar, you are already blessed.

[The author would like to thank Pete’s personal assistant, Nicola Joss, for her help and diligence in arranging and coordinating this interview.]

Pete's Gearbox
Alan Rogan has been Pete’s tech since the early ‘70s. As he puts it, his job in The Who camp is, “just turn up and see what happens today, because it will be different tomorrow! I know this after 35 years! I’ve been really lucky to work with lots of great guitar players, but Pete has been, and still is, the most interesting. He never stops… definitely a guy who’s thinking about now, not what he’s done in the past.”

Guitars: Fender Eric Clapton Stratocaster modified by Gordon Wells of Knight Guitars with a Fishman Acoustic bridge pickup and an EMG preamp (half the signal goes to a Demeter DI box, and Pete can then blend electric and acoustic sounds at will). Gibson J-200 acoustic equipped with Fishman Ellipse pickups.

Amps: Four Fender Vibro-Kings with a 2x12 extension cabinet for each. Pete normally uses one Vibro- King and cabinet for most songs, with the volume set on 3–3.5, but he can add the second at will. The third and fourth are there strictly as spares. Because of his hearing issues, his signal is fed through the monitor system, and the amps are faced away from him onstage. At the Super Bowl, Rogan mic’d a third Vibro-king setup and faced it backward.

Effects: Pedalboard designed and built by Pete Cornish, and includes a Demeter compressor, an older model Boss OD-1 and a T-Rex delay.

Mics and Monitors: Shure KSM313 ribbon mic for amps. Shure Beta 58A for vocals. Shure PSM 900 in-ear monitors.

Strings: Ernie Ball (.011–.052) on electrics. D’Addario EXP 19s (.012– .056) on acoustics.

Straps: Ernie Ball guitar straps

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