new townshend interview at

Thu Mar 18 22:46:43 UTC 2010

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  

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  

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.

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 

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.
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