10 Things You Gotta Do To Play Like Pete Townshend

A Pete Townshend primer that's all about big rhythm riffs.
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Nervous as he may have been back in 1967, Pete Townshend certainly had little reason to feel, as he confided to Eric Clapton, that both he and Clapton were about to be put out of business by an American bloke named Jimi Hendrix. After all, Townshend had already achieved considerable success with the Who, and had gone on to gain at least as much notoriety as Hendrix, especially in the fields of composition and rhythm guitar.

But the point is that both guitarists fueled and fed off of each other, only to end up formulating completely unique and revolutionary approaches to the instrument. Hendrix must have realized how great Townshend and his band were, and vice versa. Just listen to Townshend’s wild soloing during virtually any Who concert from the late ’60s or early ’70s, and you’ll hear how determined he was to compete—and how able he was to hold his own—with Jimi. Or, check out some of Hendrix’s crashing power-chord excursions à la “Wild Thing” and those on his final recordings.

It’s impossible to ignore the mutual admiration between the two. Still, even after 11 Who albums, nearly as many solo releases, endless touring, and numerous literary works and humanitarian projects, it seems that in the eyes and ears of the guitar community, Mr. Townshend’s greatest legacy will always be that of rhythm king. Hell, he’s the best rhythm guitarist of all time, and that’s a great place to start for anyone with a hankering to play like Pete.

Thus, this Pete Townshend primer is all about big rhythm riffs, the kind that make you feel like a kid again—or, if you are a kid, make you feel all grown up. First, you gotta ...


Townshend was a key figure in the development of Jim Marshall’s legendary 100-watt stack. Dissatisfied with his early Who rig, which teamed a Fender Pro with a Bassman, Townshend asked the drum studio owner and budding amp/cabinet builder to make him a bigger amplifier, one loud enough to drown out any punters in the front row. “I was demanding a more powerful machine gun, and Jim Marshall was going to build it for me,” Townshend told radio program Fresh Air in 1993, “and then we were going to go out and blow people away, all around the world.” Rising to the challenge, Marshall produced the first JTM-45s (soon bumped up to 50 watts) and 2x12 and 4x12 speaker cabinets.

One of Marshall’s first customers, Townshend loved the tone and the feedback the amps offered, but wanted more volume, so Marshall complied with his first 100-watt amplifier. Townshend still wasn’t satisfied with a single 4x12, and commissioned a whopping 8x12 speaker configuration to be built into a single enclosure. When Marshall pointed out the questionable logistics of the project and suggested using two 4x12s instead, Townshend insisted on having his way, and proceeded to lug several of these monster cabs around the U.K. for a few months before near-mutinous roadies sent him running back to reconsider Marshall’s original suggestion.

Legend has it that the giant 8x12s were cut in half, but Marshall himself has pointed out that that wasn’t possible due to how the cabs were constructed. Instead, he simply plopped an angled 4x12 on top of a straight one, and, lo and behold; the Marshall stack was born, and Pete Townshend was one happy camper!


Townshend has driven many other amps before and since those early years. A short list includes various Voxes, Fenders, Marshalls, and, of course, the Hiwatt stacks that would define his late-’60s and ’70s sound. More recently, he began stacking Fender Vibro King 3x10 combos on top of Fender extension cabs.

Guitar-wise, Townshend started out as a Rickenbacker and Vox man, playing electric 6- and 12-string, semi-hollow models during his early days with the Who. A developing penchant for smashing his instruments on stage (Townshend trashed a Vox Cheetah in 1967 on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour) led to a switch to more durable Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters before he settled into a lengthy association with the P-90-equipped Gibson SG Special. After Gibson changed the Special’s design in 1972, Townshend, for the remainder of the decade, favored a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe with minihumbuckers for live work, and a very special Gretsch 6120, a gift from Joe Walsh, in the studio.

Townshend’s ’80s arsenal included more Ricks, plus custom, Tele-style axes made by Schecter and others. From the late-’80s to the present, Townshend has played Strats, particularly Fender’s Eric Clapton Signature Stratocaster with Lace Sensor pickups, and models fitted with Fishman PowerBridge piezos to capture acoustic tones. The Gibson J-200 and various Takamines have remained Townshend’s acoustics of choice, and, as of 2006, Townshend’s modest Pete Cornish pedalboard included a compressor, a Boss OD-1 overdrive, and a T-Rex Replica delay pedal.


Okay, first timers and old pros, get ready to fall in love all over again. Imagine, if you will, a time before the music business ever entered your mind, a time when you were first seduced by the sound of an electric guitar being pummeled. For many of us, that meant chords big and beautiful, from 6-string grind to 12- string chime. We became enthralled with the sound of these harmonious fretboard shapes, especially when arranged in certain combinations.

Forget the fact that you may have played the simple voicings of yesteryear shown in the chord library in Ex. 1 thousands of times, and instead try to approach each grip as if it’s the first time you’ve discovered it. If you find yourself experiencing a sense of majesty and sheer grandeur, you’re definitely on the right track. Dial up some old-school Vox, Marshall, or Hiwatt grit (or put some manly strings on that acoustic) and kerrang your way through these old buds with all of the reckless abandon you can muster. Don’t worry about anything except the sound of the chords as you dig their raw, simplistic beauty. These are the basic tools that Townshend used to build a mountain of memorable riffs, and now they’re yours, so let’s get to work and lay a strong foundation for our old friends.

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The library of free-floating, one- and two-bar rhythmic motifs illustrated in Examples 2a-2e provides plenty of sonic glue for our chord pals. Grab any chord from Ex. 1, establish a tempo, and begin with the pair of essential pre-downbeat flourishes and trem-picked sextuplets in Ex. 2a. (Guess those banjo lessons paid off!) The general rule is to play eighth-note downstrokes on the downbeats and upstrokes on the sixteenth-note upbeats.

Carry on with the three-event rhythms in Ex. 2b, where you can apply three different chords to each rhythm. Things become even more Townshend-esque with the quartet of motifs in both Ex. 2c and Ex. 2d, a few of which we’ll be revisiting momentarily. Keep your chord choices simple until you’ve got the rhythms wired. (Tip: Sus4 chords, a P.T. hallmark, are a simple and effective way to create motion within a single voicing.) Finally, Ex. 2e depicts a trio of handy waltz-time motifs.

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Stoked? Well, get ready to ...


So far, we’ve used a cut-andpaste approach to produce elements of Townshend-flavored flourishes, and with a bit of luck, you may have come up with signature moves like the D-Dsus4-based riff in Ex. 3a, or the anticipated G-E-A progression in Ex. 3b. (Tip: Try preceding this one with two bars of G5 eighth notes.)

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But where do the really great riffs come from? Now that you’ve got the basic elements under your fingers, it’s time to formulate some killer power chord riffs à la P.T. Proof positive that a good riff stands on its own any way you slice it, Ex.3c maps out a trio of three-chord progressions transposed to three different keys. Note how each three-chord grouping spawns six permutations— that’s two starting with each chord. The idea is to weld the progressions to various rhythm motifs from Ex. 2 to yield a plethora of power-chord riffs. (Tip: These can easily be extended to four-chord progressions, as shown in the first I-bVII-IV progression.)

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Here are some recommended rhythmic pairings utilizing the top progression in each column to get you started: Combine column 1’s E-D-A riff with either the first or last rhythm motif in Ex. 2c. Use four chords (add an E) for the first one and three chords for the last. Pair column 2 with the second rhythmic motif in Ex. 2c, assigning one chord per accent. The I-V-IV progression that heads column 3 can be grafted to a number of motifs, including the third one in Ex. 2c (Tip: Play the first chord during beats one and two, and the remaining two chords on beats three and four, respectively), and the first or third motifs from Ex. 2d.

Continue to experiment with different rhythms as you explore the transpositions in columns 4, 5, and, 6, and you’ll discover some bona fide Townshend chestnuts, like the “Won’t Get Fooled Again” riff (Ex. 3d) that emerges when you combine the fourth motif in Ex. 2c with the A-G-D progression from column 4. Check out how Townshend anticipates the open D bass note in bar 2 by separating it from the rest of the chord. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!


Townshend’s chords don’t always sound like everyone else’s, with good reason. P.T. stands as one of an elite group of rockers who have actually become associated with certain chords and voicings—those thumb-fretted, 7th-postition B and Bsus4 chords in Ex. 1, for instance.

In truth, Townshend’s chord grips often remain the same, but he tends to move them around the fretboard to produce distinctive tonalities. Play the displaced D-, Dsus4-, and D5-shaped triads in Ex. 4a and you’ll immediately be transported to T-land. (Tip: Glue them to the first or third rhythms in Ex. 2b.) Following suit with the D, D5, and Dsus2 voicings in Ex. 4b will enhance your trip. More shimmery Townshend-ness appears when you apply the signature “fanned-out” F6/9, Cadd9, and G shapes in Ex. 4c to any of the 3/4 rhythms in Ex. 2e. And to illustrate how harmony works in mysterious ways, the Baroque-style voicings in Ex. 4d bring to mind one of Townshend’s most well-known intros—one that was admittedly influenced by period composer Henry Purcell (dig that string-by-string voice leading)—but the progression could just as easily cover the first four bars of “Hotel California.” Ha!

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The six-chord movement in Ex. 4e is the result of blending higher-up-the-neck inversions of the G5-E5-A5 permutation from Ex. 3c with the second rhythm in Ex. 2d (as seen in Ex. 3b), then preceding each chord with its IV. Ex. 4f demonstrates how to extract an arpeggiated pattern out of two more signature voicings: Dsus2 and Dsus2/C. (Tip: Consecutive eighth notes with a quarter-note on beat four works nicely.) Townshend has used the A7 chord scale in Ex. 4g, which utilizes open first, third, and fifth strings, for many on-the-fly improvs, and so can you. Start by pairing the first three shapes with the fourth rhythm from Ex. 2d, and let your ears and wrist take it from there. Another bit of Townshend trickery is to voice an entire descending scale on top of a static chord shape, such as the D Lydian chord scale played over an open D shape in Ex. 4h.

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Finally, no visit to Townshend’s pet chord collection would be complete without a peek at his penchant for pedal tones. The paired-off, free-floating triads in Ex. 4i, which evoke Townshend’s overall harmonic scheme for sections of “Rael” (The Who Sell Out) and “Sparks” (Tommy), shift from consonant (D Lydian in bar 1, D Dorian in bar 3, and D Mixolydian in bar 4) to highly dissonant modalities (altered and super-Locrian flavors in bars 2 and 5) by simply displacing a few triad shapes played on the top three strings over an open D string, then resolving to an “A Day in the Life”-style E-chord finale.


And progressions. Many of Townshend’s hallmark chord riffs and progressions are so powerful, they don’t even require melodies, or elaborate rhythms, for that matter. The Who’s epic rock-opera Tommy is full of majestic movements built, like many of our previous examples, from simple rhythms and a few choice chords. “Go to the Mirror!” contains several such chordal themes that recur throughout the opera, including the half-march tempo/ half-syncopated figure in Ex. 5a, which is the sum of the I-V-IV riff from Ex. 3c and the third rhythm from Ex. 2d.

Prior to our next riff, you’ll want to return to the chord library in Ex. 1, check out the G#m and C#m voicings, play them as straight eighth-notes for a bar each, continue simile with two bars of A, then, observing the switch to half time, segue directly to the B7sus4-to-B rhythm figure in Ex. 5b, wherein lies still another important Townshend technique: a pinky-barred b7 (A), added to the top string of this standard Bsus4 voicing. Next, you can repeat the whole shebang, or move on to the evocative “See me, feel me ...” chords in Ex. 5c.

After a desired number of repeats, sub a full measure of E5 for G5, then repeat Ex. 5b. From here you get a choice: Head back to Ex. 5a and do it all over again, or continue onward to the climactic “Listening to you ...” progression, which appears in all its glory in Ex. 5d.When you’re ready to shut it all down, return to Ex. 5a and plant an E5 whole-note on the downbeat of the fourth repeat. Bravo!


The Who’s choice of cover tunes, particularly Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues,” Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” and Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over” (all documented on Live at Leeds), were well suited to Townshend’s knack for muscular chord riffs. Ex. 6a shows Townshend’s double- stop-and-triplet-pull-off take on the Allison tune’s intro. And if Ex. 6b, the intro lick from “Shakin’ All Over,” didn’t at least partially inspire a certain group of Aussies’ black album, I’ll eat a bug. Ex. 6c outlines Townshend’s stripped-down version of the Cochran classic’s frenetic intro/verse riff.


If there’s one Townshend move you’ve gotta cop, it’s the spot-on, sixteenth-note strumming of his “Pinball Wizard” intro. Played on acoustic or clean-toned electric, the majestic, thumb-fretted Bsus4-to-B pummeling notated in Ex. 7a rings out like the clarion call of an era and screams “Pete Townshend.” To form the entire verse progression, play Ex. 7a sans repeat, then proceed to lower the exact same two-bar motif two consecutive whole steps, first Asus4-to-A, then Gsus4-to-G. Conclude with a half-step drop to F#sus4 for the first bar of the rhythm figure and a cut F# on the downbeat of bar 2. Follow up with Ex. 7b, the song’s instrumental re-intro, which again features Townshend’s bass-note-before-chord technique going into the downbeat of bar 2.


Above and beyond everything else, if you want to play like Pete, you’ve gotta protect your hearing. Townshend’s well-publicized tinnitus and partial deafness are directly attributable to extensive and prolonged exposure to loud music. (Fact: The Guinness Book of World Records lists a 1976 Who show in London measured at a whopping 126 decibels as the “Loudest Concert Ever.”) In 1989, Townshend became a founder and advocate for H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers), a non-profit hearing advocacy group based in San Francisco. Don’t take it lightly, folks. Wear earplugs, turn down, fire the drummer, and go acoustic—just do whatever it takes to prevent you from ending up like Tommy!