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Music

How Joe Walsh influenced the sound of The Who on 'Who's Next'

@TylerGolsen

When it comes to some the secret guitar heroes of the 1970s, Joe Walsh stands as one of the most underrated. Maybe it’s because he’s a world-famous goofball, or maybe because his “coolness” factor took a major hit once he joined the Eagles, but ask anyone with at least a cursory knowledge of guitar and you’ll find that Walsh is so talented that he transcends any and all hits against him.

If you want proof, just ask some of his most famous fans. That includes Jimmy Page, who liked Walsh’s work with the James Gang so much that Walsh and his Detroit brethren were asked to open a number of shows for Page’s bands. First, it was The Yardbirds, but then it was Led Zeppelin. Page and Walsh were so friendly that Walsh even gifted Page the 1959 Gibson Les Paul that quickly became his most identifiable guitar.

But Walsh was generous with the gifts to other artists as well. Case in point: when the James Gang opened for The Who is the early ’70s, Walsh and Pete Townshend became friends. “He really identified with what we were doing,” Walsh told Rolling Stone in 1975. “Pete’s a very melodic player, and so am I. He told me that he appreciated my playing. I was flattered beyond belief, because I didn’t think I was that good.”

Townshend admired Walsh’s fat tone, which Townshend was struggling to get out of his guitars. He had dropped the use of his signature Rickenbacker models of the mid-’60s and was mostly using a Gibson SG while performing. But in 1970, Gibson changed the design of the SG, and Townshend was looking for a new, bigger sound. Les Pauls hadn’t quite made it across the pond yet (hence why Page needed to get his from Walsh) and Walsh didn’t have another one to give away. So instead, Walsh gifted Townshend a 1959 Gretsch 6120.

According to Townshend during his 1972 interview with Guitar Player magazine, the guitar’s ostentatious orange colour was a major turn off at first. “I opened the case and it was bright orange, and I thought, ‘Ugh! It’s horrible, I hate it.'” But it didn’t take long for Townshend to realise what he had. “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.”

Walsh also threw in a Fender Bassman amplifier with the guitar, and that guitar-amp combination gave Townshend’s tone a new fullness that could bring The Who’s legendary power to new heights. Along with enhanced production technique from producer Glyn Johns that properly grounded both Keith Moon’s drums and John Entwistle’s bass for the first time, whatever the band were about to do was bound to be enormous. That album turned out to be Who’s Next.

“I used that guitar on every track on Who’s Next,” Townshend recalled in the same Guitar Player interview. “It’s the best guitar I’ve ever had. 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.”  

Townshend also used the guitar on the band’s follow up to Who’s Next, 1973’s Quadrophenia. With those two records combined, Townshend established a new signature sound full of resonance and power, but it was all thanks to the generosity of Joe Walsh, well before he broke through in his own right as a music legend.