During his time with The Who, Pete Townshend played a number of legendary equipment. Townshend often wore a Rickenbacker, notably variants of the 335 and 360/12 models, during the band’s initial mod eras.
As The Who gained a reputation for damaging their gear while onstage, Townshend tore through guitars like a knife into butter, breaking and discarding them more quickly than they could be restored and used. Many of the initial expenses acquired by the group were caused by damaged equipment since Townshend was constantly looking for new axes to use and then destroy.
Townshend used a Gibson SG for a large chunk of the late 1960s and early 1970s, preferring the 1968 SG Special model, which gave him the perfect instrument from which to replicate all of his necessary tones. Before Joe Walsh gave him a studio jewel that could never be broken, and before Townshend started using Gibson Les Pauls as his main axes.
“They just brought out a new model, and this was in 1968. It had a slightly larger wound pickup, and it really suited my amplifiers,”In 1980, Townshend spoke with Sound International. “I started to use those, and they were a bit weak, which was the only problem; I could actually break them with my bare hands. But that’s when I started to develop that technique because you didn’t need a tremolo arm. You could do it by just shaking the guitar.”
“I got into this thing also of temper tuning the guitar with the second string flat and pulling back slightly on the guitar all the time to bring it into pitch,” he adds. “So using that on some of the higher chords where you wanted that second string to voice a bit flat, you could relax the guitar, and it would come out a bit flatter.”
Townshend then makes a little turnback. “No, sorry, I meant the G string. When you’re using a lighter G — I’ve never used light gauge strings. I’ve always used heavy strings — you can do that. The top string (high E) is an .012 downwards, and I use two Bs instead of a B and a G string. I got that from Jimmy Burton; that’s what he used to use. I can’t stand light strings; you don’t have to struggle for it.”
“Mickie Green, who is a guy who used to play with Johnny Kidd and The Pirates, was a great experimenter with the Jimmy Burton technique,” he explains. “He used to have this great lyrical string bending thing going on, and I went up to him one day and said, ‘What kind of strings do you use?’ and he said, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘Do you have a plain third?’ And he said, ‘A plain what?’ He just had big hands; he used to bend the third, a wound third, right up and over the back of the neck.”
“That was an affirmation to me that if you wanted to do it, you fought for it. I hate that guitar sound where people sound like they can bend the string just by kind of thinking about it,” Townshend said. “It fitted my sound and had a lyrical quality to it because the neck was so uncluttered at the top you could play high.”
Townshend provided more details on how SGs grew to be his go-to instrument in a 1972 discussion with Guitar Player.
“Well, the SG story is a bit disappointing,” Townshend revealed. “The first time I started to use the Gibson SG model guitar is when I got fed up with Fenders because they were too clean, but I liked them because they were tough. In guitar-smashing days, the Fender would last two or three shows and ten minutes if I wanted to smash it up. And I was into Jimi Hendrix; it was a fuzz box number. It was clean until you hit the fuzz box, and then it was dirty. So I went to the manager and said I really need an alternative to this, and he said I think you’d like the newest SG, and I looked at it. I played it, and it rang, it sang to me, not humbucking pickups, the plain pickups, and I’ve used SGs ever since.”
“They took the old SG off the market like about a year ago, so we used up every old SG in the country. I don’t break them deliberately anymore, but when I spin them around, when I’ve had a few drinks, I bang them, and they crack, and they break. They’re made out of really light wood; it’s a light guitar. That thing I do with the neck (bending it back to stretch the strings as the chord rings), you don’t need any strength to make the whole guitar bend because it’s made out of such a lightweight wood, but the factory stopped making those particular SGs.”
“So we said, ‘You’re going to have to make ’em for us, you’re going to have to customize them for us,’ and they said okay, but it’s going to be about $300.00 a guitar,” Townshend says. “So anyway, we had four of them made for the beginning of the tour. They brought them up to us, but the guitars were totally different. The pickups were in a different position, and on and on, so we said, ‘Forget it.’”
“So I raided every music store in the country practically, looking for old SGs,” Townshend concluded. “One I was using on this tour, the natural wood SG, is not modified except that it had a Tunomatic bridge on it. The SG that I use on ‘Baby Don’t You Do It’ is a 1966 SG Standard. My favourite guitar now for the stage is the Les Paul Deluxe with the small Epiphone pickups that you can buy on the shelf for $50.00. They’re like Humbucking, but they’re small, like what you have on Epiphones, and they’re really loud. I like those. I think that’s what I’ll probably end up using; either that or I quite like those Dan Armstrong pickups.”