Songwriter, storyteller, visionary... master of windmills and destroyer of gear. The Who's Pete Townshend is many things to many people, and it's perhaps easy to overlook the fact that he's also a damned great rock guitarist. His rhythm playing has set the bar for all subsequent generations, and as you'll see in the following playlist, his lead chops are nothing to sneeze at either. Let the amazing journey begin.
1. "I CAN'T EXPLAIN" (Single, 1965)
The Who's first single (and first smash hit) features Townshend putting a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar through its paces. The classic riff crunches and chimes, while the solo makes use of the instrument's strengths and limitations and delivers a bluesy, swinging jangle that would spawn many imitations. Amplifier enthusiasts will no doubt lust after the early Marshall stacks that serve as the backdrop for this early promotional video.
2. "I CAN SEE FOR MILES" (The Who Sell Out, 1967)
Slashing rhythm guitar stabs, spooky ostinato bends, and a psychedelic, surf rock inspired solo make this one of Townshend most haunting and ageless performances. Here's the band lip-syncing (admirably accurately) to the tune for a 1968 television show.
3. "PINBALL WIZARD" (Tommy, 1969)
Anyone who has ever tried to play the 16th note triplet strumming figure that underpins this centerpiece of the Who's classic Tommy rock opera knows that it is a right wrist breaker for the ages. Here is a classic electrified version of the song from the band's monumental Isle of Wight concert video.
4. "YOUNG MAN BLUES" (Live at Leeds, 1970)
This track, from what is arguably the greatest live album of all time, features Townshend at his hard-rocking best: impeccable overdriven tone, inspired rhythmic invention and furious single note lines that rival those of many more fawned-over lead guitarists of the era. A little known fact: this massive sounding album was recorded in what amounts to a cafeteria. Behold:
5. “EMINENCE FRONT” (It’s Hard, 1982)
While this late-period Townshend-sung tune hardly ranks among the Who’s greatest, the intro solo and subsequent flurry of smooth, David Gilmour-esque licks demonstrates that while he rarely chooses to deploy it on studio recording, the guitarist has some serious lead guitar power at his disposal. Here's the band's video for the track—dig those Schecters!