September 19, 2020

’72 Guitar Player Interview with Pete Townshend

Pete talks about his guitar and playing styles, and about Rock music.

The Who has been around a long time, beginning in the early Sixties as the Detours with Roger Daltrey on lead guitar and Peter Townshend on rhythm. Their first disc, "Zoot Suit," was released under the name of the High Numbers around 1963, a time when the Yardbirds and the Stones were becoming known. With the addition in 1964 of bassist John Entwistle from the Inland Revenue and the dynamic drummer Keith Moon, Daltrey gave up the axe for vocals and Townshend played and smashed rhythm and lead, making The Who the first rock group to make it as a three-instrument trio (guitar, bass, and drums).


The Who were into an instrument destruction on stage and found it giving recognition and a musical peak to their performance. Chief lick-maker of The Who is Peter Townshend, whose influences have included John Lee Hooker, Steve Cropper, along with Jimi Hendrix and a bit of the Yardbirds. He is acclaimed as the first guitarist to stack amplifiers, putting Marshall lops on one another, and also among the first to use feedback creatively. He is the epitome of stage presence with his long, lean figure jumping seemingly six feet in the air, and his windmilling arm striking his guitar’s strings with the effect of a lightning-clouded sky.


The following interview with Peter took place at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, between midnight and 3:00 A.M. while The Who was on their recent American tour.


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GP: Have any of your instruments been modified, beginning with the Les Paul?


PT: No, I wouldn’t touch the Les Paul, it’s an original, a 1953. It’s got the flat pickups on it and everything, but I only use the front pickup. The back pickup is bad. In fact, though, I recently used it on "Magic Bus" just on a whim and was really pleased with it. I never really got into old guitars until Joe Walsh (James Gang) rang me up one night and said, "I’ve got something for you," because we buy one another presents. He buys me old concert amps and I buy him synthesizers and we have become very good friends. Anyway, he said, "I’ve got something for you," and I said "What?" and he said, "A 1957 Gretsch."


GP: Chet Atkins type?


PT: Right, with real f-holes. I said, "Great, cheers, man," and it turned out to be a real knockout. I was being polite. I opened the case and it was bright orange and I thought, "Ugh! It’s horrible, I hate it." I went home and went into my studio and plugged it in and it totally wrecked me out, it’s the best guitar I’ve got now. It’s the Chet Atkins model, with double pickups, f-holes and single cut-away.


GP: Doesn’t it have a mellow sound, though; it doesn’t "chunck", does it?


PT: Oh, I used that guitar on every track on Who’s Next, it’s the best guitar I’ve ever had. It won’t stay in tune on stage but if it did, I would use it. It’s the finest guitar I’ve ever owned, it’s the loudest guitar I’ve ever owned. It is so loud, man, it whips any pickup that I’ve ever come across. It’s maybe six or seven times louder than anything I’ve come across. If I plugged it in my amp tonight, normally I’d be working on volume 6 or 7, but I would work this guitar on 1.


GP: What about the Gibson SG, has anything been done to that?


PT: Well, the SG story is a bit disappointing. The first time I started to use the Gibson SG model guitar is when I got fed up with Fenders, because they were too clean, but I liked them because they were tough. In guitar smashing days, the Fender would last two or three shows and ten minutes if I wanted to smash it up. And I was into Jimi Hendrix, it was a fuzz box number. It was clean until you hit the fuzz box and then it was dirty. So I went to the manager and said I really need an alternative to this and he said I think you’d like the newest SG and 1 looked at it. I played it and it rang, it sang to me, not humbucking pickups, the plain pickups, and I’ve used SG’s ever since. They look the old SG off the market like about a year ago, so we used up every old SG in the country. I don’t break them deliberately any more, but when I spin them around, when I’ve had a few drinks, I bang them and they crack and they break. They’re made out of really light wood, it’s a light guitar, That thing I do with the neck (bending it back to stretch the strings as the chord rings) you don’t need any strength to make the whole guitar bend, because it’s made out of such a light-weight wood, but the factory stopped making those particular SG’s. So we said. "You’re going to have to make ’em for us, you’re going to have to customize them for us," and they said okay, but it’s going to be about $300.00 a guitar. So anyway, we had four of them made for the beginning of the tour. They brought them up to us but the guitars were totally different. The pickups were in a different position, and on and on, so we said, "Forget it." So I raided every music store in the country practically, looking for old SG’s. One I was using on this tour, the natural wood SG, is not modified except that it had a Tunomatic bridge on it. The SG that I use on "Baby Don’t You Do It" is a 1966 SG standard. My favorite guitar now for the stage is the Les Paul Deluxe with the small epiphone pickups that you can buy on the shelf for $50.00. They’re like Humbucking, but they’re small, like what you have on Epiphones, and they’re really loud. I like those. I think that’s what I’ll probably end up using, either that or I quite like those Dan Armstrong pickups.


GP: You can probably cover up any pickup hum with your amp sound, though. (Sunn P.A., Hi-Watt for guitar. Sunn for bass.) I mean, you really don’t need a Humbucking pickup, right?


PT: I don’t know. If you would have asked me that sort of question a month ago, I would have said it’s only SG’s, I get them off the shelf and play.  I’ve only gotten interested in guitars because Gibson won’t make me the old SG’s like they used to be. And then., I started to find out that these old funky guitars don’t stay in tune as well, and you can only use them for one or two numbers at a go, because they start to give in, but I’ll never drop another guitar on stage and crack the neck or anything that some kid would commit suicide for, I mean I don’t want to do that. But at the same time I don’t want to always be using off-the-shelf guitars, either, you know. I’m kind of unhappy now, because Gibson hasn’t come through, and I mean I must have bought about 2,000 or 3,000 guitars from them, but again, they’ve got production, you know.


GP: In your string setup, I imagine you would select a heavier gauge on the bottom and a lighter on the top because of your combination lead and rhythm playing?


PT: No, that’s the setup you get when you buy a regular gauge Sonomatic set, but I use a .056, .044, .032, .028, another .028 and a .022 for the top. It’s a heavy set and it’s heavier at the top, relatively, than it is at the bottom.


GP: You like the pull more than the slinky feel?


PT: Yeah, if I’m going to hit a note or bend it, I really want to have to struggle for it, because I’m so physically wound up on the stage. If I wanted to, I could pull the string up and break it with my hand. It’s really weird, when I’m in the dressing room playing, I can hardly stretch the strings, and then when I go on stage I get a buzz and the strings feel slinky, they really feel slinky. The first guy that I met, my idol in England, was a guy named Mickey Green, who used to play with Johnny Kitten and the Pirates, and he was the first big note-bender,   particularly on the G. And you’d freak over Jimmy Burton and you’d freak over Mickey Green and you wondered how they got that sound. Went to see a guy about it and he said it was the thin G, he uses like two 2nds instead of a G, right? So I got my guitar and I really got into it, I got to see Mickey play, and I went back stage to see him and I asked him if I could play his guitar and he said, "Sure, man." I picked it up, and he’s got strings like bloody piano strings, they’re huge! And the G isn’t plain, it’s wound, and he used to stretch it practically to the A string and beyond. Big hands, and he would pull it down and tuck it under as well. That’s what really buzzed me out, using the heavy strings, ’cause a lot of younger guitarists tend to get the light strings and they get into quick-bending riffs, and all those Jeff Beck trips. But it’s like the fretboard and the pickup doing it and you’re just piddling about. Freddie King, who it my man at the moment, does a bend and he’s pulling it a good inch to get that sound, he works for it. If you’re going to hit a note, you’ve got to work for it. Leslie West, who is another amazing guitarist, he hits them. He gave me an old Les Paul Junior once, like the kind he uses and it was strung like the way he uses it, and his strings are not particularly very light. They’re a bit lighter than what I use, but not much.


GP: Why the two .028’s for both the G and B strings?


PT: I like them because if I stretch them with those two fingers, if I hit say an A and stretch the G and B up like that, when I get to a certain point they go from a major to the major fifth, in tune. And if the gauges are wrong they stretch differently, and I love to separate the fingers to get them in tune, maybe I have to push the G a bit more than the B or something.


GP: Do you ever get out of the standard tuning?


PT: To write occasionally, I use an open D tuning (D,A,D,F#,D,E from sixth to first), but I’ve learned a lot of shapes from that, you know. Often, open tunings are great because you hit a shape you’re familiar with like an E shape and it’s a weird chord and it blows your mind. I wrote "The Seeker" in that open D tuning. I’m getting to the point where I’m nearly as familiar with that particular tuning as I am with the regular tuning. And it’s really nice if you can do that, because sometimes with a standard tuning, your head gets in a rut and that’s why I suppose a lot of guitarists that write, end up composing a lot on the piano. It turns your head around and even though you know you can’t play the piano as well as you can the guitar, you end up writing on the piano because it’s a new world. You end up having a lot of preconceptions of the instrument you lean on. If you are writing and you’re using open tunings, you can be taken somewhere you’ve never been before, It can make you feel like you’re learning guitar all over again, but your fingers are hard, your hands are set and you don’t need to learn to strum or pick, you’re just dealing with a different harmonic problem. A different set of logic.


GP: How much of your leads are improvisation and how much are based on past albums?


FT: Well, in the loose bits, it’s like off the cuff. Sometimes when an audience is passive, we freak and say, "For Christ’s sake get up off your ass and do something." But although they sometimes aren’t openly freaking, there can be definite strong vibes of "we’re here to hear." And when you walk on stage and meet that, it makes you feel a bit like, well, more of a musician than an acrobat. So a lot of the things will come out that don’t ordinarily come out.


GP: I infer from that that the performance isn’t as important as the music; it’s not even 25-75 in favor of the act. The acrobatics add a lot to it, but are into doing that much of a stage act?


PT: Oh, probably more than the music. It’s really hard to explain, but I can’t separate the music and the act any more. From the very beginning, my favorite quote that I’ve ever said in an interview was like, "We never let the music get in the way of our stage act." I mean in a lot of ways that’s true, because "stage act" means that we are committed to one another and the audience, and "music" means we are committed to the way we play, it means that we are committed to our limitations. You know, if there’s something on the guitar that I want to do and can’t do, I’m going to be frustrated.


GP: Is it too many musical ideas hitting you at once so the path is obscured?


PT: I don’t know. It really is hard to explain, because everything is important and music, per se, never comes into my mind, ever. I mean I like riff concepts and I enjoy, well, there’s like the time when I do that Hendrix thing ("Changes") and I think "Jimi, if you’re out there come in and take over my body." I enjoy that, just totally moving out, and on the other hand, there’s a lot of theatre in that too. All music is theatre, all music is expression. I suppose what I’m getting at is that I don’t like to be on the stage and need to say something musical for its own sake. I prefer the event to say "Right, we need such and such a musical boogaloo, NOW DO IT. We need you now to leap six feet in the air, DO IT." I like to be commanding myself to be doing things on stage that 1 feel are necessary. And that’s how I push myself. You really want to be technically perfect.


GP: But when you are actually playing a lead, is it out of scales, chords, patterns, or what?


PT: Well, I started out as a rhythm player, and a few of my lead licks are things that I have developed in recording sessions, basically, I’ll never be able to play the kind of leads that I want, and I don’t think that if any guitar player was able to do that, whether he would be happy or not. I was happiest listening to Jimi Hendrix, that to me was like heaven, For me, it was probably a good thing that he died, because it’s made me realize that I wasn’t going to be at any more Jimi Hendrix concerts and feel that bit of downfall, that maybe I was going to have to try and do it for myself again. But to me, that’s the way I like to hear it. I wish I could play like it. I can do the stiff stuff, I can really get into the heavy stuff and I can do a bit of the funk, like the back beat rhythms and all that stuff, but I can’t do the Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker, transcend the instrument, transcend the audience and the music becomes god, if you like, the music itself becomes a hymn. The title of that second record was "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere." I dreamed that up listening to a Charlie Parker record, I just thought this is so free, so loose, he’s playing this series of notes, you know, but from him it’s just…"anyhow, anyway, anywhere." And when I first heard Jimi Hendrix I figured there’s like the Charlie Parker of the guitar. I mean I enjoy being white and stiff and boogying in that particular way as well, but there are moments when I would really like to just fly like that. But, I don’t think I even approach being a lead player, I think I’m very much part of a band and a riff-maker. I enjoy backing people up and letting people ride on top. I guess what I’m saying is that I make a good audience. It’s not because somebody else is taking the rap or somebody else is upstaging. I mean, ego-wise, I’m musically happiest when I feel like I’m driving everyone else to do good things, when I’m not being the pin man. That is, to me, quite a bit more important.


GP: With the group you are constantly urging, forking the group forward, except for maybe John Entwistle (bass), who is a little sedate.


PT: Well, John’s biggest problem is he can’t hear me. John and I have been playing together longer than the group, really. Since we were 13 years old. And we really know one another inside-out, subconsciously, but when you get or stage, you can’t hear one another, even though one of my speakers is over there, he still can’t hear it.


GP: That brings to mind another subject, hearing loss. How are your ears?


PT: Not too good. I’m not really too unhappy about it, but I’m kind of angry in a way. You know, the ears are more likely to be damaged by a sudden noise than they are by a constant loud noise. If you were going to have someone shoot off a gun by your ear, that would do it, your ear would bleed. Whereas if you go out and do a jack hammer trip, in twenty years you’ll just get deaf earlier than the average man. Rock stars are going to start going deaf a lot sooner than they think. The ear is only a physical piece of machinery, it’s like a loud speaker, it has to move and vibrate and go through a whole trip and the more sudden and the louder the noises are, the more it has to work. And that applies to everyone out in the audience, too. If they go to a rock concert as often as we play, which is like an average of once a week, there’s a good chance that by the time they get to 40 or 50 years old, they’re going to be just as deaf as their grandparents were at 70, which is very, very, very deaf.


GP: Into music theory, do you play by ear more than anything else?


PT: I had a good solid try before Tommy. When we first started on the idea of Tommy, I figured that it was going to have to have some orchestration, but at the particular time in England, all the orchestrators were like ex-band leaders and forget it. So I went through the whole number, I went through counterpoint, Stravinsky, the whole boogaloo. I wrote some stuff, it looked good on paper, but a guy comes along and says, "You are going to know how this sounds only after you hire an orchestra." Then he tells me that I’ve got to conduct an orchestra, right. I said, "Conduct?" I just didn’t want to do it, but, anyway, I learned all that stuff and forgot it.


GP: Was it like a totally memorized trip?


PT: No, I liked it because I learned about technical things and sound equipment and how to work an oscilloscope and all about tape recorders and all that, because if I made a good tape, I wanted it to be right. I got off into that technically, because I needed it creatively. But as a writer, I couldn’t do because it involved human beings. I could never stand in front of an orchestra and have some fink tell me, "You’ve got a wrong note here," I wouldn’t what to do, I’d probably freak. I wouldn’t have the confidence to say, "That is the right way." It would have me in a frazzle. So, I went into orchestration, and I can understand the theory, I can’t read per se, but I could do sessions. My father was famous for his fast reading, he could play anything off the cuff. He’s a saxophone player, and they used to use him on like difficult electronic music, classical passages, because he could look at it and play it, but that’s about as far as it went. He was able to do that under any circumstances, but I suppose I’m at the other end of the extreme. He used to say to me, "Look, the only tip I can give you is that you learn to read music," and naturally, it’s the only musical tip I never took. If I had ever learned to read music, I don’t know whether I would have gotten as hung-up on tape recording, and if I wasn’t as hung-up on tape recording as I was, I don’t think I would have learned to write. I learned to write, not because I had a big instinctive urge to write rock and roll. I learned to write because I was playing about with tape recorders. You know, I would by down the bass part and then add the rhythm part and then play the lead, and I used to do shows by myself, you know. Ventures stuff. I would play that tape to my girl friend and say, "That’s all me" and she would go, "AAhhhhooo" (laugh).


GP: Yeah, a little sound-on-sound footwork.


PT: Right, It’s one way to like sell a number.


GP: It may be handy that you didn’t learn to read, because some rock guitarists who learn become pretty limited as to the heights they can reach afterwards. It’s like the open tuning thing, if somebody takes up a guitar and spends his whole life in the standard B tuning, he’s in a mold and his progression is predictable. Even though music is extremely mathematical, there are certain fractions you can use to make it interesting.


PT: Absolutely right. One of my favorite things is the mathematical music of Vivaldi and Bach, I went through the whole thing.


GP: Was this an internal drive or a preamble to Tommy?


PT: A preamble to Tommy, and it was only when I heard Bach that all the stuff became important. I lived by it, but I didn’t know what it was all about until I heard Bach and found you could get rising light strings, balanced by something else, and it’s so satisfying and it turns you on and blows your mind, and at the same time, you’re settled. You’re not freaking so much that you forget about the music, and you can hear the same piece of music over and over, and that’s what I think he really discovered, and that’s what made his music last. It’s so internally balanced, so satisfying, so demanding. It demands a lot of attention, and it’s stirring and it’s stimulating and at the same time it sets you down as well.


GP: Is it because every note is so perfectly placed for you?


PT: Not especially, but just from a counterpoint stand. Bach I think was like the expert, because you can go through it with a fine tooth comb and everything balances, if you go sixteen notes up, ten minutes later you go sixteen notes down. It’s not symmetrical or anything, it’s just right. It’s hard, because counterpoint isn’t just a musical thing, it’s an aesthetic thing also, having to do with taking the listener up and down and it is to do with dynamics as well as musical pitch.


GP: After Tommy, that was it, right? That satisfied that particular need, so there wasn’t an ultimate rock opera to be created, right?


PT: Right, Tommy did something very strange. It showed us that it is possible to do something in rock on a grand scale and still allow it to be rock.


GP: Do you have any concrete musical objectives?


PT: Yeah. I think the biggest really is to hit on a solid, celestial music buzz. Heavenly music, music I would imagine you’d hear in heaven. I really want to hear it, I do hear it sometimes.


GP: It’s not a type of music, it’s MUSIC?


PT: Right. It’s a music, like the best music anybody has ever heard. It’s just there all the time. You think about it, it’s back behind the ears and it’s the most amazing sound. It’s there for everybody and you’ve just got to get it up front. I would really like to hear it at 500 watts through studio speakers. "Baba O’Riley" was that trip a bit, to try and create that celestial music thing, because that’s where all music comes from anyway, that’s where your appetite for music comes from.


GP: Buffy St. Marie once expressed that same spirituality over the content of music in our environment.


PT: Oh yeah. You know, I loved that John Cage trip where everybody came in and sat down after paying their $6.00, and John comes on stage and he just sits there. Then people start fidgeting and then in the end everybody gets up and they go away. And somebody asked him about that concert and he said, "It was the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life. It was dynamically the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me." A few people picked up on it, too. Just listening to yourself breathe. But in the context of rock, it really doesn’t mean a lot, because rock people don’t necessarily have that good of ears. That’s not what it’s really all about. Rock and roll is about going to a hall, seeing a group you dig and, for maybe a good half hour, forgetting about life, forgetting about your hangups, forgetting about the fact that you’ve paid to see some superstars, forgetting about the fact that you’re sitting next to this guy or that your chick doesn’t want to know about something or forgetting about the riot going on in San Fernando Valley. Suddenly you even forget that you’re there, just for a certain amount of time, you’re up and merge with everything, and you’re just hearing some music. And that’s what I really dig about rock and roll. That’s what makes it different from what we were talking about before. It’s fine for the musical intellectual, but rock and roll does that in a different way. You know, you feel that buzz, that celestial buzz. That’s a spiritual thing and rock and roll is spiritual in a different way, it makes people like come together and be equal, it makes people become selfless, it makes them forget themselves.


GP: Your tie-in with the celestial really amazes me, as rock appears a more physical means to forget.


PT: Right. Rock and roll is so much more physical, that’s what is so great about it. I think it’s an all-level thing. I don’t like to see rock and roll abused, I don’t like to see it used as some pawn in some political argument or as some freak’s weapon. It does what it does, because it is what it is.


GP: What are the future plans for The Who?


PT: We have plans for avoiding what we feel is going to be a very political year. No schedule, no gigs, there’s a rumor that we might play in Moscow one day. We’re not planning to come back to America until 1973, and that’s about it.


GP: Does it seem to you that rock audiences don’t seem to want to hear anything original, just the hard rock that you gave them before?


PT: Yeah. "Give me hard rock because that’s killing me." Hard rock is people getting killed. I mean, "Let’s kill the pigs, let’s batter their brains out. Let’s use our music, let’s see it done." And rock and roll was never meant for that purpose. I’m not ready for that, I’m not going to be part of that sort of rock and roll scene, but on the other hand, I’m not going to be at a rock and roll concert and see people sit in their seats that they’ve been given by the local newspaper or whatever. There really should be a compromise there somewhere.