Pete Townshend’s 10 Best Guitar Moments With The Whoby Colin Fleming
Were there a Great Meeting Hall behind Mt. Olympus for the guitar masters of the 1960s and 1970s, The Who’s Pete Townshend would be tucked away in the rotunda while the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page held court around the banquet table.
When it comes to chops and technique on the instrument, Townshend is rarely thought of as a virtuoso, but he may just be the best guitarist in rock’s history. Townshend soloed infrequently during the Who’s glory run—especially if we’re talking about studio albums—but no player used the guitar to build up so much of a band’s sonic architecture.
A genius for overdubbing, with a sense of scale and shape that bordered on the Bachian, and an underrated acoustic player, Townshend used the guitar as a tool to abet his singular compositions, and as de facto director within the band’s dynamics and interplay. While there are also stellar moments within Townshend’s solo career as well, here are 10 cuts from the Who’s heyday that work as a primer for his guitar brilliance.
10. “Pictures of Lily” (1967)
One of the best written singles of its decade—it’s essentially a short story in song form about masturbation, a post-Mod bildungsroman—“Lily” is typical of Who songs of this vintage for not having a guitar solo. But listen to the intense, driving chording of the song. Townshend has the firmest of grips on his guitar, his central riff acting as a path for Keith Moon and John Entwistle to follow. There’s bounce in that riff, too, a playfulness that provides congruity with the oh-so-cheeky lyric that turns out to have the warmest of hearts at its core.
9. “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” (1968)
The album version is pretty great, too, ditto the Leeds and Hull live renditions from 1970, but this performance from The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus stands as the best live Who cut of all. The band was tighter than a seaman’s knot thanks to working on Tommy in the studio. Townshend’s volume-swelling chords lend scope right from the opening section, which makes Moon’s fills feel all the more epic. Come the coda, as the power chords rain down and the intense hammer-ons come in clusters, it’s evident that here’s an artist who uses every last crayon in the tin.
8. “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” (1965)
A strangely under-discussed early single, this is the Who growing up—fast—in large part thanks to Townshend’s guitar. Displeased with the feel of the preceding “I Can’t Explain”—they thought it wasn’t tough enough—the band boosted the energy quotient and Townshend decided to turn his guitar into a percussive element. Put simply, he bashes holy hell out of the thing on the instrumental blast-out-of-the-galaxy bit. What makes a guitarist think that way? See a rule, detonate a rule. This was a melding of avant-garde bona fides with a populist kick. Thrilling.
7. “My Way” (1968)
Crying out for an official release, the Who’s April 1968 Fillmore East gig includes this Eddie Cochran cover, with Townshend’s tone blending rockabilly twang and proto-metal swagger. And lordy, that first guitar solo—distortion, a broad-assed tone, coppery sheen, a curl or two of vibrato. Then the second comes along and redoubles everything before some slashing power chords top us off.
6. “Pinball Wizard” (1969)
It’s a cool notion that one of the most indelible of all guitar tracks should feature both acoustic and electric guitars, and nary a solo in sight: how many other songs can you say that about? The opening riff is both easy to play and something that no one else would have thought of. Orson Welles would talk about the dozen or so ideas that might just come to a genius, like a gift from the gods, without laboring over them, and one has the sense that the song-starting guitar figure fit that bill for Townshend. It’s as central to rock riffology as the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” the Stones’ “Satisfaction” or the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” And that’s not even the guitar high point of the song. For that we have to turn to the over-loud—but pleasingly so—crunch that follows the “sure plays a mean pinball” line, especially on the second pass. You can just about feel Townshend’s entire body leaning into his instrument.
5. “5:15” (1973)
There may be no better guitar album in rock than Quadrophenia, the Who’s second double-album rock opera. The guitar textures are tapestries that could hang on a museum’s walls, were it possible to mount sound. This brassy strut of a song, with its angry-young-man lyrics about various boasts that, of course, will never be brought off, bubbles with aggression and ego, which is also to say, the insecurity of the hero of the piece, Jimmy the Mod. Townshend’s solo channels the energy of a Motown horn section, and Roger Daltrey can’t stop himself from vocalizing through it. It just feels good—like Jimmy does as he rides those rails.
4. “My Generation” (1970)
This fourteen-and-a-half-minute rendition of the Who’s unofficial anthem from Live at Leeds is practically an album unto itself. Townshend’s guitar has a lot of responsibility: it triggers the next spate of improvisations from the band, brings them to a stop so as to start something else, solos with gusto, and unleashes enough riffs to stock another guitarist’s career. A Townshend riff is never just a riff: it can double as the basis of a song that will be further fleshed out. Near the end of this performance, he starts playing against his own echo from the back of the hall. No guitarist was better at waiting than Townshend, allowing a sound or an idea to develop. He plays a figure, the echo repeats it, with the effect that it’s in a slightly different, more compressed key, and another cue for invention is taken from that.
3. “Overture” (1969)
The opening number from Tommy has a lot of instrumental high points—Moon’s drumming, for instance—but listen to the acoustic playing in the song’s segue sequence near the end. Arpeggios ripple outwards, delicate figures possessing almost flower-like forms dance, flamenco movements intercede and Townshend gives his guitar a couple of open-palmed whacks that produce echoes to further vibrate the strings.
2. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (1971)
An anthem in which a synthesizer and a power-chording guitar essentially duet, and drums pop from all directions, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is like two kinds of concertos in one. Again, no guitar solo, and so much of the guitar you do hear comes in impeccably placed staccato bursts. The tone is crucial to the overall sound design; and where else can you hear a tone that sounds like a tendril of frozen fire being dragged across a radiator grill?
1. “Quadrophenia” (1973)
There are moments in the title track from the Who’s second rock opera album that Townshend’s guitar so seamlessly assumes the characteristics of its surroundings that it doesn’t sound like a guitar at all. The lines are regularly pinched, tamped down, which lends them a greater reverby quality, and a greater sing-song one, too. No player had a more vocal guitar than Townshend, in terms of making the instrument sing. He varies his pacing throughout, so that when the synth goes faster it feels natural that the guitar should immediately start to dance alongside it. And when the cut slows down and the heavens feel as though they’re opening up, it’s the guitar that comes descending down from them.
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