For nearly twenty years, The Who's brand of rock and roll defined a generation that screamed out angrily against authority. Power chords and unprecedented volume drove home the band's message of rebellion like sledgehammers against skullcaps. And orchestrating it all from a sneering veneer -- which ultimately masked a core of confusion -- was Pete Townshend. No one else in the history of rock used the guitar so literally as an instrument of sheer aggression, from the monstrous chords of "Won't Get Fooled Again" to the Les Pauls that he regularly destroyed with an intensity that could be politely described as pyschopathic.
Townshend's ability to meld the guitar into songs that were both anthemic and operatic has elevated him above those contemporaries who chose to focus on playing and damn the songwriting. The Who's Tommy and Quadrophenia will surely go down in history as the definitive rock operas of the century, and Townshend masterminded them both from start to finish.
Today, The Who exists only for the occasional reunion tour, and Townshend's solo output has slowed to a trickle. But keep this in mind: Every guitarist who has ever swung his arm over his guitar onstage, every guitarist who has reveled in the joy of a single sustained barre chord played at full volume, and every guitarist who wanted to smash his guitar against somebody -- or something -- owes Pete Townshend a nod of thanks for being the one who kicked down the door and made it all possible.
Guitar.com: You've had a great impact on the way that the guitar has been used in rock and roll, especially the perception of the instrument as one of aggression and power.
Pete Townshend: The guitar, in my lifetime, has gone from being an instrument of accompaniment -- an instrument of composition, a portable approximation of the piano and one of the few instruments that enables the minstrel to do his work -- to becoming one of the great expressive virtuoso instruments of the driven, creative player. That latter individual is not me. I have no interest in going off into the stars and doing new things on the guitar. So I'm kind of left out of it, in a way. I've seen other guitar players that do that stuff owe their tradition to a line that perhaps briefly passes through Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. But really it has a much more direct line to Charlie Parker, to that place where you keep playing so you keep allowing your fingers to learn and flow, until in the end there's a direct link between your heart and your fingers, and the head is not in between. The guitar to me is still an engine. It's a rhythm, it's a canvas. So guitar and my life as a guitar player are very much a part of who I am, but I don't feel myself as having been through any kind of life as a guitar player. I do love the guitar, I do think it's wonderful. If I can say something about my life as a guitarist, it's that I'm very proud of my contribution to the way it's changed technically. I have the honor of still knowing Jim Marshall and his son Terry very well, and we still get together and go over what really happened in the early days with the design of the first really big amplifier. They credit me almost entirely -- along with a couple of other people, a couple of bass players -- with being the guy that drove them to produce the four-valve power amp. Fender didn't go any further with it after the late '50s, because the theory was if you went any further, all the other components would literally melt because they'd been designed for much lower voltages.
Guitar.com: Is it true that you smashed your first guitar in front of your grandmother?
Townshend: Yeah. It wasn't actually the guitar. I smashed up my amplifier. [The Who's bassist] John [Entwistle] and I were rehearsing at home, and I didn't like my grandmother. She'd bought me my first guitar, and it was a piece of shit -- not electric, a kind of Spanish thing that you'd put on the wall in a restaurant. And I was angry at my father for letting her buy me my first guitar. I said to him, "Dad, I wanted a guitar, not this thing with two inches between the neck and the string." And he said, "If you can get a tune out of that, I'll buy you a proper one," but he never did. So I was pretty angry at that woman. I knew that I was a musician, and my father was a musician and I knew that he should have taken a more active interest in what I was doing. Anyway, it turned out that my grandmother took the active interest. She bought me this piece of shit, and she thought it meant that she could criticize my work. One day, I was about 14, John and I were sitting playing something together in the front room, not very loud, and she came in and she said, "Turn that bloody awful row down." And I said, "Get out now or I'm going to kill you, you fucking old bag." She yelled, "How dare you talk to me like that!" So I picked up my amplifier [mimes grabbing a cabinet and heaving it across the room] and threw it at her. She ran to the other side of the door, and the amplifier landed there in a big heap and it fizzed and went off. And I'd just bought it. I'd worked delivering newspapers for three years to buy it. And John looked at me and said in that low voice, "That was good. Done it now, haven't you?" [laughs]. But, I got it repaired.
Guitar.com: How did it feel to smash your first guitar?
Townshend: Well, it was equally dumb, in a way. I was in the middle of an experimental session of trying to excite different noises from the guitar by feedback, by banging it, putting it up against the microphone, putting the feedback into the PA column. Then I discovered that even if you held it up close to a fluorescent lamp, things would happen. All those things I was doing, but lots of banging and physical stuff as well. Then I was in this club and I was banging on the ceiling playing with my Rickenbacker. They're delicately built instruments and there was not a lot of wood in the thinnest part that flares out into the head stock -- it was very, very narrow. So I banged it against this low ceiling and it fell off. I just literally went bam! and it fell off. A couple of people sitting in the front row looked like they were thinking, "That's what you get for being a show-off." But I thought, "Right, I've been here before." I suppose I saw my grandmother's face or something, and if I'd really been in the right frame of mind, I probably would have smashed the guitar right over the guy's head in the front row and maybe killed him, which would have been an interesting departure for my career. Instead, I just decided to just finish it off in a kind of a very carefully considered act of artistic destruction, and I smashed it up. I realized then that there was this incredible excitement in the audience. And then I picked up my other guitar, which was a 12-string, and finished up the show. That was it, really. I repaired other guitars to smash; I'd repair them myself. I'm not a luthier by any stretch of the imagination, but I could make a guitar. I've repaired acoustic guitars and electric guitars. A lot of them have been smashed to smithereens many times between concerts. When we were first playing New York, we were playing five shows a day at the RKO, and I ended up with one guitar a day, so I had to repair it every time. I don't know if you've ever had the misfortune to pick up some of the guitars that are made today, but they are hardly what we call "fine instruments." They kind of look cool, and they sound cool, but sometimes you think, "How does anybody play this?" But sometimes I'm standing up there at the shows and I'm carrying this '52 Telecaster. It's a California guitar, it's a masterpiece. Thank God for America. Thank God for Leo. It's a beautiful guitar. I play it like a chainsaw, and it's still beautiful. This is a perfectly good guitar. Somebody said to me the other night, "Smash it!" I never would. You have to realize that most of the guitars I've smashed have not been perfectly good guitars. They've been junk.