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Pete Townshend's 20 greatest riffs of all time


There aren’t many acts that can hold a torch to The Who’s undying legend. The group burst out through the 1960s swinging scene with a searing rock sound and soon carved out their own niche, growing from their youth club band roots into something far more profound including a run of rock operas. Soon enough, The Who were a legacy act capable of filling stadiums wherever they went. We’d like to say, and guess most people would agree, that much of that was down to Pete Townshend.

Not only was the guitarist the mercurial lifeblood that moved around the body of the band but he was also the brain, the engine, and at some points, the muscle. Though he was also the cantankerous side of the group, often falling out with everyone in it, without Townshend, there really is no band. Here, we thought we’d celebrate Pete Townshend the guitarist, by revisiting 20 of his greatest guitar moments with The Who.

A selection of Pete Townshend’s greatest riffs is always going to be a smorgasbord of electrifying joy. The guitarist, never really famed for the noodling solos that many of his contemporaries preferred, always delivered his dose of rebel-rousing rock through a fuzzed-up chord or two. As capable of altering your mind as he was splitting your head open with a guitar, it didn’t stop Townshend from being one of the greatest guitarists of his generation.

When MOJO asked The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr where Townshend ranked among the greats of the 1960s he replied: “He’s the best of the ’60s guitar players by miles. Definitely my favourite. George Harrison was inventive, but I love the wildness in Townshend. His solos are brilliant – ‘I Can See For Miles’, and ‘Slip Kid’ – and he was always making progress. You can hear him developing his playing.”

Moving away from the band who tore up every stage they set foot on, quite literally on occasion, The Who quickly reached the top of the pile, became musical heavyweights and are now scratched into the annals of history forevermore. What’s more, they have Pete Townshend to thank for it.

The Who’s Pete Townshend’s 20 greatest riffs:

20. ‘The Seeker’

This riff is a handshake that lets you know everything about the song it extends out from in an instant. A few thunderously punchy sting-snapping strums let you know that attitude rules the roost with this anthem with an almost bluegrass feel to the instrumentation.

The beauty of the riff is not necessarily the guitar part itself, but the way that Townshend entwines it with his bandmate’s contributions. It gets things flowing but then awaits its turn to get the round in once more, without ever straying too far from the bar in case of a straggler in the midst.

19. ‘Slow Burn’ (David Bowie)

For David Bowie’s excellent Heathen track ‘Slow Burn’, Townshend collaborated with the star seamlessly and provided an unmistakable riff. The riff is the epitome of Townshend’s style, but it never treads on Bowie’s very singular toes which is a testimony to how well The Who star reads the musical room.

The riff is an amorphous swirl of sound that perfectly tessellates with Bowie’s kaleidoscopic take on music. However, even with that in mind the guitar line remains melodic and pulls the rest of the track along with it, producing one of Heathen’s high points.

18. ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away’

The 1966 track ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away’ offer up a riff that helped to introduce Townshend’s style to the world. With six distinct movements, a simple backbone was necessary to stop things from getting overly complex and unlistenable. Enter Townshend, a star who has made a career of just that.

The choppy riff style that runs throughout gives the rock opera a core that it can always return to. This is both a mark of his invention and imagination as a songwriter and also his knack for tethering his wandering muse to a sound compositional sensibility.

17. ‘Drowned’

The Quadrophenia anthem ‘Drowned’ is a musical oddity. On paper, the riff is really very unremarkable. However, if you have ever seen Townshend play it live then you’ll be left wondering how the hell he alchemically coaxes such a powerful sound from such a simple riff.

With superb right-hand intonation, Townshend makes each string sing its own song. When he wants to make the riff blunt he hits it with a straight stroke, but if he wants to get intricate with the sound then he plays around with his style transfiguring simple chords into a symphony.

16. ‘Happy Jack’

Sending it right back to the tracks that first inspired them, with ‘Happy Jack’ The Who reprised the sounds of early rock ‘n’ roll. Back then it was all about a riff and nothing else, however, as bands got moving things became more ensemble. With this in mind, Townshend almost lets the drums take the lead line here.

The notion of rhythm taking over might seem like a paradox amid a list of guitar riffs, however, it is sure-fire proof that Townshend understands that not every guitar line needs to be the lead. Subtlety is part of his style and that comes to the fore as he upholds things from afar like a puppet master.

15. ‘Rough Boys’

While ‘Let My Love Open the Door’ might be the peak of Townshend’s solo record Empty Glass, it is ‘Rough Boys’ that steals the show as far as riffs are concerned. There are echoes of about four or five The Who tunes woven into the one song, but it never comes across as a pastiche of his former work.

Love it or loath it, the riff will undoubtedly have your toes tapping regardless and that is testimony to Townshend’s ability to cram energy into his work. It might be more crowded than his refined best but the rattling way he plays it takes an erratic contour line and makes it fitting of his frantic playing.

14. ‘Behind Blue Eyes’

While it is mainly Roger Daltrey’s vocal toppling that melody that drives ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ home, the riff comes to the fore about two and half minutes in when suddenly the plucking stops and for a brief moment before things get thrashing and electrified, a few chordal strums can be heard and the backbone riff is laid bare.

The beauty of this revelation is how simple it is. The intricate plucking might dazzle and the second half of the song has swagger, but that brief window into the riff that spawned it is revealing. Behind the layers is a clear and concise idea, there always is with Townshend at his best.

13. ‘Blue Red and Grey’

Naturally, most of the time when we think of Townshend riffs, a certain thunderous arm swinging style springs to mind. However, it is a mark of his diversity as an artist that he has woven tender little ditties into the very same textured back catalogue.

In fact, the riff is so dainty that Townshend downscaled to a ukulele for the sunshine anthem. However, Townshend being Townshend, even on the meekest of instruments, he somehow offers up enough meet for the riff not to be bullied by a billowing brass section or John Entwistle’s bass playing. As he said himself, it’s reminiscent of “an old Smiley Smile Beach Boys number”. He might be able to rip a riff that can rattle the rafters, but if you’ve got an ear akin to Brian Wilson’s on top of that then you are truly one of a kind.

12. ‘The Punk and The Godfather’

Townshend is the master of the simple strummed guitar intro. With a few flourished full strums, he blasts the Quadrophenia anthem ‘The Punk and The Godfather’ into adrenalised action with understated aplomb. Peculiar production wizardry might add texture and tonal shifts to the song thereafter, but it is all about this fizzing intro when it comes to the song’s quick lapel grab.

Skill is one thing when it comes to guitar playing, but Townshend’s riffs are testimony that a bit of temperance is also essential. You could learn this intro riff in a few minutes even if you’ve never picked up a guitar, but you’d struggle to write something as refined in a lifetime.

11. ‘I Can See For Miles’

The 1967 track will rank among Johnny Marr’s favourite The Who songs, and we’d imagine, everybody else’s too. Largely because of the epic solo Townshend delivers which quivers the brain just thinking about it. It’s a classic track which has some strange undertones, written by Townshend while trying to demonstrate to his lover that even when he was on tour he had a good eye on what was going on.

Townshend was proud of the song too and made sure it was the only single to be released from 1967’s The Who Sell Out. Believing it to be “the ace in the hole” the songwriter was sure it would be the band’s first number one but it only reached number ten. Townshend is quoted as saying of the song, “To me, it was the ultimate Who record, yet it didn’t sell. I spat on the British record buyer.”

10. ‘Slip Kid’

Another addition from the mind of Johnny Marr is the 1975 track ‘Slip Kid’ from the band’s seventh studio album The Who by Numbers. The song was originally written for Townshend’s rock opera project Lifehouse but was revived in 1975 for a single release.

The guitar work is second-to-none in this piece and its contextualisation of falling through society’s gaps is still valuable to this day. In 2015, Townshend reflected on the song’s continued relevance, saying, “You could put it into the voice of some young Islamic student who decides to go fight in Syria and ends up in ISIS being forced to chop people’s heads off, and it would fit.”

9. ‘Baba O’Riley’

In truth, ‘Baba O’Riley’ isn’t a riff-driven song, but I’ll be damned if I can’t shoehorn a song of that magnitude into the list. After all, it hardly trounces the integrity of the list to slip one of the greatest songs of all time into the mix even if the riff takes a back seat, because in some way that is also to Townshend’s credit as he weaves his way seamlessly into a masterpiece.

Flourishing into proceedings as the song unfurls in a swarm, Townshend adds textures and key changes to the track while his Lowrey organ work drives the juggernaut. Taking a modal approach everything after that falls into place, and there isn’t a note out of place on everything else that adds a layer to the wall of sound.

8. ‘Quadrophenia’

The instrumental titular track from The Who’s sensational rock-opera Quadrophenia sees Townshend and his guitar completely at one with the album’s surroundings. As able to flit between synth patterns or change pacing as lead proceedings, Townshend’s guitar is in perfect sync.

Many people have commented on Townshend’s ability to make his instrument “sing”, or perhaps more accurately, have its own voice. If you needed any proof of that then just listen to ‘Quadrophenia’ below and receive a full-blown dose of what makes Pete Townshend so loved as a guitarist.

7. ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’

There was a moment in 1968 when The Who made The Rolling Stones look very ordinary. Not many times does that happen on the live stage but when the group joined the Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, that’s exactly what happened.

Townshend takes control of proceedings from the very opening of the band’s performance. The Who were in tip-top condition following a run of recording Tommy in the studio and they delivered a rousing performance of this guitar classic. Enough power to knock you over, Townshend delivers it with aplomb.

6. ‘Pictures of Lily’

Not including a guitar solo could well see you struck off most similar lists but when you’re considering the guitar of Pete Townshend it’s best to open your mind a little. It may lead you to astounding songs like ‘Pictures of Lily’.

The track, essentially a short story about masturbation, sees Pete take the bull by the horns and lead Keith Moon and John Entwistle down his bouncing riffy path. It’s a testament to Townshend’s playing that he can match up with The Ox, after all, Entwistle is rightly considered one of the best bassists there ever was.

5. ‘Pinball Wizard’

Perhaps no song is more recognisably The Who than their iconic number ‘Pinball Wizard’ taken from their huge rock opera, Tommy. The fact that the song is a composition of acoustic and electric and doesn’t include a solo, yet still is regarded as one of the finest air guitar anthems of all time, says a lot.

Whether it is the crunchy riff on “sure plays a mean pinball” or indeed the opening riff, which is about as easy to play as it gets, Townshend is economical and passionate with his work. It’s not always what you do but how you do it and on ‘Pinball Wizard’ they definitely did it right.

4. ‘5:15’

Bold as brass and with enough muscle to knock you down, ‘5:15’ is a swashbuckling song on the band’s rock opera Quadrophenia. The song perfectly typifies the angry young man at the centre of it and is positively bubbling with ego and aggression.

Jimmy The Mod is the central figure and ‘5:15’ is about as close as you can get to a perfect score as it sets the scene of the angsty kid making his way out whatever way he can. When Townshend’s solo kicks in, it does so with style and verve. Swagger isn’t normally something associated with Townshend but he does some serious hip-shaking on this one.

3. ‘Overture’

The opening track from Tommy is littered with instrumental high points for The Who. Keith Moon’s drumming is of particular significance as he bounces through the rhythm section like an energised frog—but listen a little closer and Townshend’s delicate acoustic steals the show.

Opening like so many summer flowers, Townshend proves that he isn’t only about the thrash and vigour of his electric live performances. Sometimes he is capable of slowing it down and melting your heart. The more vulnerable moment of his playing, therefore, becomes all the sweeter for their rarity.

2. ‘My Generation’

Perhaps not happy with just having one of the most powerful and frantic singles of the 1960s in ‘My Generation’ when the group began to outgrow their smash and grab live performances they decided to give it a classic rock makeover. It means that the once short and sharp dagger of a song is no more of the broadsword variety.

In the below performance, Townshend takes his newly acquired ‘My Generation’ solo and begins playing it off against the echo in the room. It’s a joy to behold and sees Townshend at both ends of the musical spectrum. Holding both the petrol and the match in one hand with a sinister smile on his face.

1. ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’

It turns out guitar solos are for wimps. On ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ Pete Townshend’s power chords enter into a love affair with a synthesizer and end up duelling it out across the whole song.

Firing out staccato bursts of guitar Townshend is again integral to the soundscape the group are creating with the song. It may be powerful and punchy but it is also precise and completely cultivated for maximum impact.

Simply put, it is the perfect combination of Townshend’s talents. An ear for a tune, the vision to complete it and the mouth to make himself heard, the guitarist is, without doubt, one of the best.