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Understanding Pete’s guitar style

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Insight about Pete’s unique guitar-playing style and how it made The Who’s music special. Includes “The Basics: Ten elements of Pete Townshend’s style”; plus some common topics about Pete’s playing and approach.


One of the goals I have in creating these transcriptions is to (hopefully) give people a better understanding and appreciation of the music of The Who and the writing, composing and arranging of Pete Townshend. Yes, you can just sit and play through these songs along with the record; however, The Who’s music and, in particular, Pete’s writing and playing style, is very unique among his rock contemporaries. By analyzing his writing style, you can appreciate his use of key modulations, bridges, tonality, polychords, synthesizers, harmonies, aggression, angst, running themes and concepts, introspection, theatre, volume, demos, etc. — all elements that set him and The Who apart. The information included here — based on the many questions I’ve received over the years — is intended to give you some insight about Pete’s unique guitar-playing style and how it made The Who’s music special.

Keep in mind, these are my opinions, culled from endless hours of Who listening and playing. But I’m no expert, so there’s bound to be inaccuracies here. As with anything I’ve ever done, use at your own risk!

August 1999

The Basics: Ten elements of Pete’s style

I’d love to learn some “trademark” PT licks...the kind that when someone hears it would say...Man!, that sounds like The Who. I’m in the beginning stages and am working through a couple books with basic licks. Its really expanding my technique and I’m learning how many “sounds” are made but no matter which lick I learn, it sounds nothing like a PT lick. I hope that once I start learning some Who songs, I’ll start picking up some licks. I think that once I get into the style of Pete’s playing, it will start to all come together and I could almost anticipate how some lick of his is played once I hear it. Do you agree with this?

First, understand that it’s the high-volume interplay between a ‘lead’ bass, ‘lead’ drums and how the guitar (which is traditionally the lead instrument) fits into that, which makes PT’s style unique; more of a percussion instrument than a typical rhythm guitar style.

Then, the easy fodder for a “trademark lick” is something like Pinball Wizard or playing a song like Substitute on a Rickenbacker 12-string. However, to truly understand why something sounds like “trademark Pete,” you have to get to the elements that make up his style.

Here are the basics, as I interpret them (in no particular order):

  • The power chord

    (i.e., 1st and 5th of the chord, e.g., x02xxx,as well as the first, fifth and octave, e.g., x022xx); but more so, it’s the “hermaphrodite” chord that contains no 3rd; that is, no major or minor tonality —e.g., for A: x02255, E: 022400, G: 3(t)x0033 (t=thumb). The bass and vocals are then free to determine the major/minor tonality of the passage. (To eliminate errant notes, Pete often uses his thumb to wrap around to either play a the bass note of a chord, such as G, or to block the E or A string from ringing, such as A: x022xx; see Power chords and windmills, below, and Chord fingering – Pete style.)

    Pete’s theory about this is that true tube amp distortion adds harmonic colorization to the notes in a chord. According to Pete, the distortion actually adds a second- and third-harmonic overtones, so, the first note you hear is the third, the second note is the fourth and the last note is the fifth. When the third is actually played, you end up with a note a fourth higher than the third, which, according to Pete, gives a C13.

    I couldn’t tell you if Pete’s math is right, as I don’t really know theory too well, but I do know it ends up sounding like dissonant mush. Regardless, the theory won’t apply to a transistor (solid state) amp, because they don’t create harmonic distortion, or to an acoustic. However, Pete has defined his unique acoustic style using this chording method, even though it doesn’t exhibit the same harmonic overtone effect as when using an amp.

    In addition, the practice transferred into his writing style, where, in essence, he rarely wrote a song in a true minor key.

    For more information on chord fingering, see Chord fingering – Pete style.

  • Acoustic underlayment of everything

    … in a percussive style. [also: it’s usually miked so that the microphone is aimed at about the 12th fret, not the soundhole, so you get much more of the string sound, which lends itself to the percussive feel of the acoustic.] With the acoustic used as either the up-front or the rhythm instrument beginning with Sell Out and becoming fully realized in post-Tommy albums, because of the nature of the interplay between the bass, drums and electric guitar, the acoustic provides the foundation and propels the track, allowing everything else to fly in cacophony around it. The best way to describe it is fluidity. On tracks where there’s both an electric and acoustic, the electric is usually playing block chords on the beat, and the acoustic then is driving the track with fills and flourishes of 16th- and 32nd-note runs. The bridge (“when my fist clenches...”) of Behind Blue Eyes, where the electric is on the beat and the acoustic is in front of it playing fills, is a perfect example. Another is the instrumental Quadrophenia, with its multiple electric and acoustic guitars complementing and contrasting each other.

    For a showcase of the acoustic, check out a song like Bargain, where the acoustic propels the song, driving the beat yet playing around it, too. The rhythmic fills, which incorporate the next point (Leading in front of the first beat), make it interesting and ensure there’s no monotony.

    Furthermore, this acoustic style transferred to his general rhythm style — where the emphasis is on the driving the song through the guitar — quite effectively. To hear an example, turn the balance to the right on Sea and Sand from Quadrophenia, and listen to the outro. Yes, it’s the same three-chord pattern (as mentioned below in The V, IV, I chord progression), but the slight shifts every few measures provide a unique and interesting rhythm pattern, not the same monotony for two minutes. (The electric Love Ain’t For Keeping from the remastered Odds and Sods and Baby Don’t You Do It from the remastered Who’s Next are other good examples; during the solos, turn the balance to the right (or left for Baby Don’t You Do It), away from Leslie West’s lead, and listen to Pete’s playing to get a feel for his rhythm style.)

    From the October 1989 issue of Guitar Player

    When you do your flamenco-style strumming, how rigid do you keep your picking hand?

    It’s quite slack. I’m using quite a heavy pick — a Manny’s heavy — but I’m not actually holding it. It’s floating, just literally being held in space [laughs]. It’s a trad banjo technique [sings twangy strums], a ukulele/banjo technique that lends itself to the guitar quite well, although I think it’s one of the things that has inhibited me being able to play faster, because I’m using such a heavy pick and I’m holding it in such a strange way.

  • Leading in front of the first beat

    32nd notes functioning as rhythm fills, e.g., the opening of Athena — the best way to describe it is: duh-duh Duh, with the last Duh being on the beat, the duh-duh leading up to it after the 4th of the measure.

    [Example, with 4/4 timing; the e & uh represent 8th and 16th notes in between:]

    time: 1 e & uh 2 e & uh 3 e & uh 4 e & uh 1 e & uh 2 e & uh 3 e & uh 4 e & uh

    You’ll find examples of this throughout both Pete’s and John’s playing — and it’s not limited to the intro of songs. Rather, flourishes before the beat can be found on most any Who track, especially those with an acoustic underlayment. Drowned performed live on solo acoustic comes to mind as a perfect example.

    Another take on this component is leading the beat completely, in that the chord is played in front of the beat, not as a means for leading up to the beat. A basic example from 5:15, where the guitar and bass precede the beat on the “4&,” whereas the drum accents the “1” Though difficult to represent in tablature, listening to the record will give you a good idea of this element:

      & 1    2     3    4    1                          
       |F          C        |G                     |
  • The suspended fourth

    Dsus4 is one of Pete’s most common chords. You’ll find examples of the suspended fourth throughout many, if not most, of Pete’s compositions. A song like Pinball Wizard relies completely on the interplay of suspended chords.

    Another example, prevalent in Tommy and elsewhere, is the “passing” chord. This is used as a means for embellishing the root chord by adding on the fourth (and technically, the sixth). Examples include the G to G/C shift: 3x0003 to 3x2013; A to D/A: x02220 to x04230; and less so, E to A/E: 022100 to 042200. Other passing chords include the second/ninth (such as Dsus2: xx0230; and Asus2: x02200).

  • Feedback as a musical element

    This started on stage with Pete’s setup (Dave Davies and Jeff Beck were also doing this at the same time) of a semi-hollow Rickenbacker (stuffed with paper) and a waist-high speaker cabinet connected to a 100-watt amp. Early records used close- and room-miking techniques — paired with a Fender Pro and Fender Bassman — to try to capture this sound on tape. Anyway Anyhow Anywhere and My Generation are the earliest and best-known examples.

    He perfected the sound on record for Who’s Next with his setup of the ’59 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Hollow Body into Whirlwind cable into Edwards Pedal Steel volume pedal into ’59 Fender 3x10 Bandmaster amplifier, all a gift from Joe Walsh.

  • The pedal note

    Either high or low: Substitute and Sparks with their pedaled eighth-note open D; Dr Jimmy and Punk and the Godfather from Quadrophenia with pedaled open A (The Dirty Jobs is the same chord progression as Dr. Jimmy, just with the capo on 3, meaning the pedal is C); You Better You Bet with the high G under C, Fadd9 and G.

    [Example from Substitute:]

    |D   D A/D      |G/D   D D      |D   D  A/D     |G/D   D D      |
  • Arpeggiated chords

    Examples include: Behind Blue Eyes; Naked Eye; Tattoo; I’m a Boy; Sparks and Underture

    The above are certainly strict examples, but arpeggios can also be found sprinkled throughout songs like the intro to the Overture. Arpeggios involve fingering the chord but playing each note individually while allowing all notes to ring throughout. Somewhere in between a full chord and an individual picking of the note. The first three examples demonstrate the broader arpeggiation, where each note is succinctly seated as a measured note (e.g., 8th or 16th note), whereas I’m A Boy, Sparks and the Overture intro (acoustic part) provide far tighter arpeggios, essentially lengthening the chord across the beat.

    [Example from Tattoo:]

    |Bb+b5       |Fmaj7       |Cadd9       |Bbadd9+b5   |Bbadd9+b5   |

    [Example from I’m A Boy, with timing indicators]

    |A                    |Esus4       E           |
    |1     2    3    4    |1      2    3      4    |
  • The I, VII, IV chord progression

    Examples include Real Me: C Bb F; Sister Disco, Sea and Sand or Won’t Get Fooled Again: A G D; 5:15: G F C; and countless others.

    Conversely, the I, IV, V chord progression (very common in rock music) pretty much gets you the rest of the catalog: e.g., Baba O’Riley: F C Bb; Squeeze Box: G C D; You Better You Bet: C Fadd9 G;

  • The capo

    To allow open chording in any key. Usually on 1, 3 or 5, though some have it on 2 or 7. Often, there will be two or three guitars on a track, all of them with different capo settings or tunings. A good example is Love Reign O’er Me, in which the acoustic is capoed at the first fret, and the electric is tuned down a half step to Eb.

    Examples with 1:
    Baba O’Riley,
    Love Reign O’er Me (acoustic),
    Join Together.
    Examples with 2:
    However Much I Booze,
    Imagine A Man,
    Sheraton Gibson,
    Glow Girl
    Examples with 3:
    The Real Me,
    Had Enough,
    I Don’t Even Know Myself,
    Another Tricky Day
    Examples with 5:
    Is It In My Head? (acoustic),
    Keep Me Turning
    Examples with 7:
    Going Mobile,
    Bargain (acoustic),
    Blue Red and Grey (ukulele arr. for guitar)

    For more information, see How to Read Transcriptions – the capo.

  • Leads with the 5th and major 3rd of the chord

    Examples include: See Me Feel Me and Naked Eye solos: C: xx5x5x).

    This can be applied to scales too, with the blurring of major and minor pentatonic leads, regardless of the tonality of the chord (for an example, see Relay, where the chord is E major, but the lead is E pentatonic minor and major.).

    [example from Naked Eye]

    |F6/9                 |Cadd9               |

    I was wondering how you play a certain part in the My Generation Melody on the Live at Leeds album. About 5:19 in the song he does something like this. When I try to play this it doesn’t sound anything like it sounds on the record. Can you tell me anything that would help me play this (i.e. hand position, finger movement, etc.)?

    I’ll try to describe! First, it’s likely impossible to get it to sound correct on anything but an overdriven guitar (though I don’t think I’ve tried on an acoustic or anything. So if you start there, that will at least help.

    I use my middle finger (or maybe index?) for the hammer-on on the fourth string, and the ring finger for the second string. The second string note should be allowed to continue to ring. I pick the fourth string with my pick, and the second string with my middle finger. In picking the fourth string, just the open note, then the hammer on covers the higher note. So you’re basically hammering on/releasing immediately on that string.

    You’ve got to have enough power in the hammer on to effect the note. I think I find that if I straighten my thumb out behind the neck, it helps to provide additional power in the hammer on (I’m also using .011 gauge strings, so it would be necessary anyway).

    Pete also used double-stops quite a bit in leads, which tend to blur the distinction between lead and chord (a double-stop is two notes being played at once).

    [example of double-stops]


    I’m putting leads last in this list because, while it’s a key to his style, Pete’s mark on the world of rock guitar is the way he propelled the use of the guitar as a rhythm and “soundscape” in a way no one ever had. And the lead style Pete developed over time was pretty much based on the styles of other late ’60s guitarists, though he executed it quite differently (see Young Man Blues for the definitive lead style of that era). But, if I were to make a recommendation (and I’m not…), conquer the other aspects first — those that made his style unique — then move on to leads.

Power chords and windmills

A lot of power chords require that only a few strings be played and others be not played or muted. When Pete is windmilling or emphatically strumming the guitar strings during a concert, do you know how he plays only the proper strings for the power chords? I figure he either... 1.) Really does manage to play only the proper strings 2.) Mutes them with his fretting fingers 3.) Doesn’t worry about it if some of the other strings are strummed... Thanks for any insights you might have about this.

Good question. I would venture to guess it’s the second two items. Having seen plenty of videos with up-close shots, you can see he fingers those typical “PT” chords in a way that prevents the B and E strings from sounding, and also uses the thumb to either mute the low strings or to play the bass notes of chords. Such as with A, it’s usually x022xx, with the low E muted by the thumb, and the B and E strings muted by the first finger. For G, he usually fingers it 3(t)x0033, with the low E-string 3 with the thumb, the A string muted by the thumb, and then the D and G with the 3rd and 4th fingers. For E, and not just the power chord E, but the whole thing, it’s 0224xx, with the B and E again muted by the fingers hanging down. D has the thumb wrapped around to block the low E or to hold the F#, making it a D/F#; the thumb probably also mutes the A, though that could sneak in there and wouldn’t sound dissonant.

And, though other strings tend to get hit, he will mute the strings after the windmill with the entire hand.

Remember, this is a risky move — many a thumb has been smashed into the neck or body or vibrato bar, not to mention the fingernails going at first windmill. Use this move at your own risk.

For more information on chording, see Chord fingering – Pete style.

NB: Pete’s “windmill” move came about in 1963 when the Detours were opening for the Rolling Stones. Keith Richard was “stretching” his arm before the curtain went up. After the gig, Pete asked Keith if he could use the move, but Keith wasn’t aware he’d done it.

The “morse code” effect

How does Pete get that great feedback sound? I’m talking the middle of Anyway Anyhow Anywhere and the end of My Generation and Baby Don’t You Do It, the 1964/5 studio version. That morse code sounding blipping and that fragmented tremolo kind of crashing sound, I’ve done everything like holding my guitar against the amp and stuff, but nothing.

It takes a two-pickup, two-pickup-control guitar (like a Rickenbacker or Gibson), where there’s a separate control for each pickup (unlike a Fender). Turn the neck pickup down, the bridge pickup all the way up, stand near a cranked tube amp, hit a chord or harmonic, let it feed back and toggle the pickup selector switch back and forth, a la “morse code.”

On some, it’s also using a tremolo amp setting (Out in the Street is a good example).

Pete’s use of effects on stage

I’ve been reading on your site about Pete’s sound. Specifically about those early 1970s live concert sounds. Keeping in mind everyone has to experiment with effects and find their own sound, I also wanted to work against a known reference. What I mean is, did Pete use any sort of rule in general that would dictate when he used the compressor and/or the superfuzz?

Here’s kind of a primer for Pete’s sound in ’69–’78. The amp is what’s really providing the overall sound. Saturating the power amp stage of the amplifier, then controlling the amount of overdrive with the guitar’s volume. Pulling back on the volume just cleans up the sound, but maintains audible level. The fuzz goes on during some leads (e.g., listen to Heaven and Hell or Sparks, on Live At Leeds, you can hear it switch on when the solo starts; or the end of Won’t Get Fooled Again in the TKAA video). The fuzz provides that gritty crashing airplane sound, but the overall sound you hear is just the amp’s overdrive.

Also, tube amps compress the signal anyway, when you’re pushing the power amp (as opposed to the gain stage), as I understand it.

In ’79, he began using the non-LED MXR Dyna Comp to do the same thing. More punch on leads and the outros. Far less “grit” than the Univox Super-Fuzz, though.

As far as the overall stage sound, the PA employed tape echoes during this era, likely the WEM Copicat echo, to provide the bounced-back sound on the instrument.

For more information on Pete’s setups throughout the years, see An equipment overview – Pete Townshend’s guitar gear history.

A cautionary tale

I would caution you, once you “master” his style, that you then try to build your own style, either from it or otherwise, so you don’t get yourself in a rut just playing PT songs — I know I fall into that trap!