Pete Townshend rarely gets his due as a guitar player. Sure, The Who’s creative leader for the past six decades has gotten more than his fair share of acclaim, but usually, the praise is centred around his songwriting ability or grand thematic concepts. When it comes to nitty-gritty guitar playing, Townshend might actually somehow be underrated.
Maybe that has to do with the fact that, especially in the band’s earlier years, Townshend was more famous for destroying his guitars than playing them. He also has an understated style that pretty much ignores flash, histrionics, wild guitar solos, or ego. Townshend is a songsmith through and through, pairing down his six-string playing to the bare essentials of power chords and simple melodic solos while leaving enough room for windmills, leaps, and eventual destruction.
Don’t be fooled, though, Pete Townshend is a remarkable guitar player. That’s mostly based on the things he chose not to do to hold down the fort with rock’s busiest rhythm section blasting away behind him. “Usually, it’s the guitar that leads everybody else. So that required me to create more tonality and more harmony, more sound to create this bigger foundation for them to move around as they would,” Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson gushed about Townshend. “So playing those open chords and open strings ringing out, and all of that was all part of that desire to create that foundation. And a lot of it did come from Pete, I think more so than any of those other players like Hendrix or Clapton or Page did at the time.”
Townshend could be flashy when he wanted to be as well. Take the intro for ‘Pinball Wizard’ as one of his more famous examples. Featuring a descending sequence of suspended chords that adds an operatic level of drama and anticipation for what’s to come, Townshend crafts the perfect lead off to the track proper without ever feeling the need to return to the opening chords again. Once he crashes into that familiar pattern with the monster B power chord, there’s no going back.
Throughout ‘Pinball Wizard’, Townshend strives to keep the wild energy of the song at the forefront. Most guitarists would throw in a flurry of notes to accomplish this task, but Townshend trusts his songwriting skills to carry the load, breaking into new sections every couple of seconds just to keep the arrangement interesting. That includes a wild key change for the final verse as well, perfectly illustrating how Townshend used the guitar as a tool for storytelling rather than to shine the spotlight on himself.
The guitar parts to ‘Pinball Wizard’ are pure theatrics, but not in the way that most guitarists interpret theatrical playing. Townshend’s devotion to the simple power of alternative between the suspended chord and the full major chord is what gives ‘Pinball Wizard’ its memorability, and Townshend is smart enough not to get in his own way. The result is one of the most iconic guitar lines in classic rock that remains an essential track to pick up when you’re first learning how to play the guitar.
Check out Townshend’s isolated guitar parts for ‘Pinball Wizard’ down below.