It was Pete Townshend who once said, “Rock ‘n’ roll may not solve your problems, but it does let you dance all over them.” It’s a pithy little quote that outdoes itself. With 17 words he distilled the history of a cultural movement down to a single sentence. The original pioneers propagated the art form as a way to push through exultant liberation despite the problems surrounding them. Townshend himself has picked up that very mantle. How can you listen to something like ‘Baba O’Riley’ and have a single care left in this whole damn world?
When it comes to the heroes who have made him dance, Townshend is usually quite reticent. Iconoclastic criticism, on the other hand, is his forte. “When you actually hear the backing tracks of The Beatles without their voices, they’re flippin’ lousy,” he once said. As for Led Zeppelin, he opined: “I don’t like a single thing that they have done, I hate the fact that I’m ever even slightly compared to them.”
However, he isn’t always silver-tongued. Over the years he has also heaped praise on the pioneers who inspired him. He might not have many favourites but that keeps his plaudits meaningful. We’ve collated these with his five favourite guitarists below. From his early hero Howlin’ Wolf to the ever-present excellence of Jimi Hendrix.
Pete Townshend’s favourite guitarists:
Hendrix might be so singular that he is beyond the level an influence, but aside from his virtuoso playing, his performative style is something that made his skills travel even further. It is this that Townshend most admires. “Well, that was a cosmic experience,” he told Rolling Stone about the first time he witnessed him live. “It was at Blazes, the nightclub in London. He was pretty amazing. Now I think you have to have seen Jimi Hendrix to understand what he was really about.”
He continues: “He was a wonderful player. He wasn’t a great singer but he had a beautiful voice. A smokey voice, a really sexy voice… When you saw him in the live arena he was like a shaman. It’s the only word I can use. I don’t know if it’s the right term. Light seemed to come out of him. He would walk onstage and suddenly he would explode into light. He was very graceful.” If a musical shaman delivering something cosmic isn’t what the pinnacle of live rock ‘n’ roll is all about then I don’t know what is?
It’s a measure of Townshend’s prickly public persona that even his praise for a close friend and the guitarist he perhaps most admires most comes with an asterisk. “I have to say, that was my experience listening to Cream,” he once explained, “it felt to me that sometimes it sounded so empty. I thought they would’ve been so much better if they had a Hammond player.” However, he did show some humility, saying: “I always loved Eric’s playing, but not always his sound. It always felt to me like it was a bit muffled, in the Marshall days. That’s why I prefer Traffic and Blind Faith. I like the sound of that.”
This jiving between the friends flows both ways too. When Keith Moon and Pete Townshend made a rare appearance playing with Eric Clapton in 1974, the former Cream guitarist offered up the following cheeky introduction: “And tonight, for your pleasure or my pain, one of the two, the great Pete Townshend.” Needless to say, aside from the high jinks a lot of respect flows between the guitar greats and Clapton’s tight sound can even be touted as a direct influence on Townshend.
It was Iggy Pop who once said, “There was a guy named Link Wray,” Iggy Pop begins, “I heard this music in the student union at a university. It was called ‘Rumble’ and it sounded baaad. I left school emotionally at the moment I heard ‘Rumble’.” Pete Townshend seconded its perturbing power when heralding the track in an interview: “I remember being made very uneasy the first time I heard ‘Rumble’, and yet very excited by the guitar sound.”
Adding on another occasion, “He is the king, if it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble’, I would have never picked up a guitar.” This inspiring notion of shaking up the daily malaise with sheer sound is something that has always stayed with Townshend. As he opines: “When I grew up, what was interesting for me was that music was colour and life was grey. So, music for me has always been more than entertainment.”
While ‘Rumble’ may have made Townshend pick up a guitar, he also needed something to base this sonic stirring on. Howlin’ Wolf provided something to cut his teeth on. “I was at Ealing Art school in 1961 and some time in the following year I met a young American photography student Tom Wright,” he recalled of his musical introduction to Wolf. “He had a big collection of R&B, including Howling Wolf. I’m afraid I can’t remember the album, but ‘Smokestack Lightnin’ was one of the tracks. I have to say that I loved the guitar sound on these records, and the drummer played in a New Orleans style I was unfamiliar with until then.”
Beyond the guitar, it was Wolf’s overall style that Townshend adored, and just as he said in praise of Chuck Berry, there is no point being a good guitarist if you haven’t got the rest of it. “He is not just some guy with a band, he helped to change our view of the world and to harden up this new way we have found to express our deepest feelings,” he said of Wolf. “Unlike the radio pop of that period Howling Wolf had real teeth; he showed us we could let our music be unapologetically masculine without being chauvinistic.”
The Who started out as an R&B covers band. While they worked out their sound and Townshend tried to piece together lyric writing, his favourite anthem to play was Bo Diddley’s classic ‘Roadrunner’. In fact, they have played it over 40 recorded times in total. And when they moved away from it, the churning, slick rhythm of his tight guitar playing remained.
An even more specific trait lingered too; Townshend has always lifted the trick of running the edge of a guitar pick along the low E string ala Diddley for a classic zipping sound and performative flourish (check out his tribute below). What’s more, Townshend also shares the influence of violins and cellos in his playing, giving both artists a sort of soaring reverence that goes way beyond any pedals they used.