Pete Townshend: 10 Great Guitar Solos With The Who

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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)
Finally receiving an official release in 2018, 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.

The Who’s recorded legacy is available in the U.S. here and in the U.K. here.

Colin Fleming

19 Comments so far

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  1. RadioDon
    #1 RadioDon 19 December, 2016, 19:22

    I would have added The Seeker– power riffs that influenced ( and they covered) bands like Rush

    Reply this comment
    • Sue
      Sue 20 December, 2016, 13:13

      I agree. And even though it’s overplayed, Baba O’Reily. The definitive display of the power chord, I think!

      Reply this comment
  2. JohnnyCNote
    #2 JohnnyCNote 20 December, 2016, 02:16

    Once, not long after I started learning the guitar, I was listening to the radio when they started playing “I’m Free”. I played the opening chords and thought, “it can’t be that easy. I must be missing something.” But I wasn’t – it really was that easy.

    I finally realized just how overrated Townshend really was. I know he has his loyal fans, but without Moon and Entwhistle I don’t think The Who would ever have made it. On a lot of there songs Townshend’s buried in the mix…

    Reply this comment
    • Johnny V
      Johnny V 19 December, 2017, 07:29

      Overrated? Really, based on ONE FRIGGIN’ TUNE? Try playing the lead part on ‘Eminence Front’.. Try the chops in between the chords on ‘My Generation’. How about playing anything from ‘Quadrophenia’? It’s musically inept people like yourself that think Jimmy Page is great because he plays the same riff over and over again. Trying writing a guitar piece like ‘Sparks’ or write a song like ‘Won’t get Fooled Again’. After you do that, then you can call Who-ever you want “Overrated”….

      Reply this comment
      • milli denney
        milli denney 21 May, 2018, 09:41

        Amen to that.

        Reply this comment
      • Stan
        Stan 22 May, 2021, 10:17

        There’s nothing more meaningless than to describe someone as overrated. People are overrated by the people who overrate them, and underrated by the people who underrate them. It adds NOTHING to any discussion.

        Reply this comment
        • Jhapp
          Jhapp 19 May, 2024, 21:18

          If it’s so simple and easy try writing a song as good as any that Townshend has written and then we’ll talk.

          Reply this comment
    • lee
      lee 3 February, 2018, 05:42

      I played satisfaction and realized Richards was retarded. I played smoke on the water and realized Blackmore was Bore. I played run run run from Floyd and realized there was a void. I played sunshine of your love and realized cream was all sugar. But you played Im Free and didn’t come close to playing it properly. You cant get that lean forward kerchunk

      Reply this comment
    • rick
      rick 20 May, 2019, 17:14

      See them live . Pete is a guitar genius .

      Reply this comment
    • Kilowatt
      Kilowatt 22 May, 2021, 10:28

      I totally agree. The Who always seemed to me to be a group that needed a lead guitar player. Entwistle seemed to be the main musician in the group and Moon was, um, just Moon, exciting as hell.

      Reply this comment
  3. Mike
    #3 Mike 20 December, 2016, 22:00

    Probably even better I Heaven and Hell on the remastered Live at Leeds

    Reply this comment
  4. Mac17
    #4 Mac17 20 December, 2016, 22:43

    Young Man Blues, Live at Leeds
    Dreaming From the Waist and Naked Eye from Live at Swansea

    Reply this comment
  5. THOOM!
    #5 THOOM! 4 January, 2017, 21:54

    Any version of ‘Sparks’ played live will prove out Pete as one of the best rock guitarists ever.

    Reply this comment
  6. Vinny Marino
    #6 Vinny Marino 12 April, 2017, 20:01

    The Who was tight for the “Rock & Roll Circus” because they just came off the road. Bands don’t get tight in the studio.

    Reply this comment
  7. garjen
    #7 garjen 13 April, 2017, 12:45

    On my Top 200 Song by The Who at
    I break it down by top 50 by Townshend, top 50 by Daltrey, top 50 by Entwistle and top 50 by Moon

    Reply this comment
  8. M.K. Ferris
    #8 M.K. Ferris 19 May, 2017, 12:59

    I would have included the Nov. 1983 version of “Naked Eye” from their “Farewell” concert. “The Kids Are Alright” should have been included also.

    Reply this comment
  9. londonjames
    #9 londonjames 21 May, 2018, 09:09

    If you doubt Townshend’s chops, listen to Pete’s solo versions of Who classics on The Secret Policeman’s Ball. It was hearing him on an acoustic that made me listen more carefully. His guitar prowess is often hidden in the mix in the studio albums but there is nowhere to hide it with just vocals and guitar. Respect to the maestro!

    Reply this comment
  10. Mark
    #10 Mark 26 May, 2019, 10:30

    The original studio version of Naked Eye. His solo leading out the end of the song is brilliant! One of my favs.

    Reply this comment
  11. Jmack
    #11 Jmack 26 May, 2024, 10:32

    Glaring omission-the epic guitar lead that finishes” Naked eye”…incredible

    Reply this comment

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