PHOTO: Chris Morphet / Contributor / Getty Images
Check out this primer in unlocking the Townshend's legendary tone.
By Mike Randle and Mike Duffy
As a charter member of U.K. rock royalty, Pete Townshend has inspired countless players around the world with his wild solos, impeccable rhythm technique and penchant for windmilling antics and guitar-smashing theatrics.
And throughout his musical career spanning 11 Who albums, several solo releases and a relentless touring schedule, Townshend has used a variety of guitars – including Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster models – and amplifiers. One thing that’s never changed, however? Townshend’s amazing tone.
Those who may want to emulate the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's sound might find it a bit of a challenge. After all, Townshend has demonstrated over and over that he is a singular talent. But you can get close to that trademark anthemic tone if you follow the advice below.
Townshend’s classic sound is partially due to his right-hand technique. He works at an aggressive pace balanced by a tender coaxing of chordal structures that allows for a push/pull style that defines his style. There's a pronounced clarity and sustain to his power chords based on firm chording and lots of wrist action.
How and where he strums results in a brittle tone balanced with meaty dynamics and theatrics. Overtones created by playing semi-hollow body guitars (like the Rickenbacker 330) into loud tube amplifiers have also been key to Townshend’s aggressive sound.
You'll most likely see Townshend playing a Fender Stratocaster, namely an Eric Clapton model outfitted with Lace Sensor pickups for better sustain, a Fishman piezo-loaded bridge (with a volume control behind the treble side of the bridge) and an EMG preamp. More on htat piezo signal later.
As the Who’s only guitarist, Townshend additionally had to compete with Keith Moon, a loud and busy drummer who never met a cymbal he didn’t like. Townshend needed a sound that was not only big but ominous and, ultimately, visual.
According to legend, Townshend asked Jim Marshall to build him a “stack of amps,” and the Marshall Stack was born. The stack initially consisted of two 4x12 speaker cabinets paired with a Fender Bassman 50-watt head (famously, Townshend also comissioned a massive 8x12 speaker configuration to be built all in one cabinet to pair with a 100-watt head).
Although he would later move on to other amps, each variation was based on that first Marshall Stack. Townshend’s roadies hated these amps because of their weight, but the eight speakers needed to be heavy to handle the nightly abusive crunch.
Still, Townshend wasn’t crazy about the Marshall heads for long. Nowadays, Townshend prefers Fender Vibro-King amps with a 2x12 extension cab underneath. Interestingly enough for a player that commands such powerful noise, he also keeps the volume around 3.
Whereas most guitar players use standard E tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E), Pete wrote in the keys of F, B and Ab, without a capo. This was for many reasons, including the best keys for Roger Daltry’s voice and which key most supported a song’s story.
For example, in “Baba O’Reilly", Pete ferociously plays the F, C and Bb barre chords on top of an iconic Lowrey TBO-1 organ pattern. At home, consider a capo on the third fret and play D, A and G to avoid a thumb cramp.
MORE: Learn to Play "Baba O'Riley" with Fender Play.
These days, Pete experiments with ways to keep his live sound fresh while still delivering fan favorites.
He now modifies his guitars so they run in stereo: one signal goes to his amps for glorious gain, while the other signal (via a piezo pickup) goes through an acoustic guitar processor.
What sounds like two different guitar players is, in fact, all Pete.
Here are more keys to zeroing in on Townshend's tone:
Pete uses .10-.46 gauge light strings, but for a beefier sound, he swaps the .46 for .52.
Use the bridge pickup. And learn the difference between the Strat and Tele bridge pickups.
Go for a lower watt tube amp. If it doesn’t have a Master Volume, all the better.
Run an EQ pedal after the overdrive pedal and move the EQ sliders to form what looks like the end of a bullet. The idea is to boost the mids.
Explore the Mustang GT series of amps and check out the Loud as Leeds preset inspired by Townshend's tone at the legendary 1970 Live at Leeds concert. This simple, but punchy tone begins with a classic British amp and adds a bed of Big Fuzz to the chain before the amp and a touch of Mono Tape Delay after the amp.
Start there and then use these tips to continue exploring the classic sounds of Townshend. Now plug in, bust out the Townshend windmill and please try not to get evicted.
If you'd like to learn more about tone, not to mention how to play several Who songs on the guitar and bass, check out Fender Play. And if you're not a member yet, click here for a free trial.