Pete Townshend is a perfect example of the adage “rock ‘n’ roll keeps you young.” Although the mastermind behind the Who and some of the greatest rock songs of the 20th century turns 68 this Sunday, May 19, he’s in the midst of yet another world tour with his classic band, wind milling through the rock opera Quadrophenia in packed arenas before sold-out multi-generational audiences.
Townshend’s electric guitar from the Who’s first album, 1965’s My Generation, through 1978’s Who Are You had an indelible sonic thumbprint — a savage howl of angst, dissatisfaction, anger and ebullient joy discharged through stacks of Marshall, Vox and Hiwatt amplifiers. Of course, his acoustic six-string playing was and is still indelible, too, but it’s his formative and most influential electric days that created an entire school of rock rhythm and lead guitar playing.
Several of the things that made Townshend unique were within his physical approach to the guitar. His rhythm playing favors down strokes, with upstrokes often reserved for emotional punctuation. And his hybrid pick-and-fingers approach to striking the strings stems from his early experience playing banjo. That instrument gave Townshend a fundamental grasp of finger-picking and plucking, so he could palm or float a flat-pick on his fingers while tearing out, for example, the stuttering chords of “Who Are You.” His skiffle music beginnings also developed the wrist work that defined his signature acoustic guitar strumming on the Gibson SJ-200.
Another part of Townshend’s magic is his chord voicings. He used thumb fretted seventh chords and sustained fourths unsparingly, and even added an extra D note — on the second string — for his G campfire chord.
For the Who’s first few years Townshend had been forced by poverty to play and plug into whatever he could afford. Initially, with his pre-Who group the Detours, it was a Harmony Stratotone he’d spray painted red, and then his first quality electric instrument, an Epiphone Wilshire he bought from Detours singer Roger Daltrey.
When Townshend heard Cream and Jimi Hendrix, he knew that a new sonic order was being established in rock ‘n’ roll and that he had to find his place within it. Marshalls did little for him, although he used them for a while and was a driving force in getting Jim Marshall to increase the wattage of his amps and the size of his cabinets.
“I didn’t like the sound,” Townshend told Guitar Player magazine in 1989. So he turned to Sound City L100 amps beginning in May 1967. Sound City was a British company that competed with Vox and Sunn, the amps Townshend often used while touring the States. Townshend had his Sound City heads, which were similar to Marshall’s tops including four jack inputs, modified by Dave Reeves of Hylight Electronics, the company that made Hiwatt amps. They had the same circuit specifications as the Hiwatt CP103 and were given chicken-head knobs, like Hiwatts. Reeves created at least three of these for Townshend until Pete switched to actual Hiwatt amplifiers in 1970. At that point he still used his Sound City’s, but some were given Hiwatt faceplates and the Sound City’s were often relegated to back-up status.
The other component of Townshend’s classic sound — Gibson guitars — began to fall into place in late 1967 when he acquired an ES-345 which suffered a smashing on-stage death at London’s Marquee Club in 1968 . In the middle of that year, he switched to the model that would become an indelible part of his history, the Gibson SG Special. His first was in cherry with a black pick guard, white binding, a bound dot inlay neck, rosewood fingerboard, Schaller tuners and two P-90 pickups modified with a stop tail piece verses the original Maestro Vibrola whammy. The guitar debuted with Townshend on stage and then accompanied him into the studio for Tommy.
The SG Special model and the Hiwatts were the rocket fuel for the grinding power chords in the overture for Tommy and tracks like “Pinball Wizard,” which also featured Townshend’s ferocious pre-bicycle accident strumming. Townsend contends that after he broke his wrist his strumming has never been quite as peppery. His primary guitars through Who’s Next and Quadrophenia remained SG specials, joined by a 1955 Gibson Les Paul Junior he was given by Leslie West during the Who’s Next sessions. In 1971 he added a Gibson Les Paul Custom Black Beauty for the stage, and in 1972 added a flotilla of Gibson Les Paul Customs and Gibson Les Paul Deluxes to his live and studio arsenal.
Starting in early 1970, Townshend’s Hiwatts always had his back on stage and got plenty of studio use as well. His typical live rig included two or three 100-watt powered Hiwatt stacks, which employed 4x12 configured cabinets of 50-watt Fane speakers. These became known as “Super Who 100s,” and there were slight differences between their two generations. The first units created in 1969 were essentially Hiwatt DR103 heads, which shared their design with the CP103 model. The second generation customized the circuitry in the CP103 and had a faceplate that read “The Who” over the treble and master volume controls. Townshend used these amps until the early 1980s, when they were sold.
His settings from 1969 to 1972 typically found the gain on 10, the volume for channels two through four switched off, the bass at five or six, treble at nine or 10, and the master volume set to a hearty five to seven.
Townshend continued to make history with the Who after those albums, and to vary his sound by switching to other amps and guitars, but that period from 1969 to 1973 remains the group’s golden era.