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Get That Tone: Live at Leeds Era Pete Townshend

Published: Fri March 07, 2008  News Feed

From early British-beat classics, to rock-opera grandiosity, to “loudest band in the world” status (as listed officially in the Guinness Book of World Records for more than a decade), the Who have made an off-the-charts contribution to rock music.

[originally by Dave Hunter | 03.05.2008, Gibson.com] - Alongside a larger-than-life drummer and bombastic bassist—the late Keith Moon and John Entwistle respectively—guitarist and chief songwriter Pete Townshend made an enormous sonic impact with simple tools and a very basic—if undeniably inspired and energetic—technique.

Townshend has used a variety of guitar and amp combinations throughout his career, and has embodied rock drive and power with each of them, but when I think “classic Who,” I go back time and again to the band’s late-’60s sound, and the guitarist’s set-up during the Live at Leeds era. Townshend plus Gibson SG Special plus Hiwatt amp stack equals colossal tone.

The evolution of the legendary Gibson Les Paul Standard of the 1958-’60 into the SG/Les Paul of 1961 (soon just “SG” due to a temporary hiatus in Les Paul’s endorsement) has been well documented. Originally intended to revive the flagship solidbody model, the SG became a classic in its own right, particularly with rock players. Early models carried the same PAF pickups that were found on the Les Paul, which had evolved into “patent number” humbuckers by 1963, but their different body composition and style, and the altered neck joint, made them very different sounding guitars. Put briefly, you could say that, compared to a Les Paul Standard, the SG has a slightly lighter, yet furrier core tonality but with good range and plenty of body. Beyond that, Townshend’s breed of SG, the guitars he played between 1968-’71, was the SG Special, and he usually played 1966-’70 models (although occasionally pre-1965 models, too).


Instead of humbuckers, these guitars carried two P-90 pickups, the standard two-each plus toggle-switch wiring, and a wraparound bridge/tailpiece. Some of Townshend’s instruments originally carried Vibrola tailpieces, but he removed these and anchored the strings at the wraparound bar unit alone. This style of bridge might appear somewhat “down-market” compared to the refined Tune-o-matic (ABR-1) bridge, but including it on the SG Special gave players the option of discarding the Vibrola if desired. Effective in their limited way, a Vibrola tailpiece inevitably contributes to a little tuning instability—as any vibrato unit does—and Townshend was whacking these instruments pretty hard, so the firmest possible string anchor was clearly necessary. Besides, given the SG’s 22nd fret neck joint, a rhythmic jerk with the left hand provided about as much vibrato as the Who guitarist ever needed. In fact, Townshend used the technique to great effect, giving added movement and depth to his playing, or the occasional sustain-boosting jiggle that offered a subtler trigger into feedback than walloping the strings again.

Gibson’s P-90 pickups were always pretty hot for single-coils, and could drive a tube amp about as hard in terms of gain as the humbuckers of the same era. Their sonic signature is a little leaner and brighter, however, so a Special can occasionally provide a slightly brighter bite than a humbucker-laden SG Standard. P-90s are also a little less refined tonally than humbuckers, but many players love that about them. Good examples are raw and just a little gritty sounding, with a midrange emphasis that really suits rock and roll, but plenty of sweetness, too. They have a silvery high end that is bright enough to cut through, but is less harsh than that of many other single-coils.

Floor all that SG Special’s sizzle and bark through a Hiwatt Custom 100 DR 103 and you’ve got some serious wrecking-ball-sized rhythm tones to slam around. These amps were made to be driven hard, and can sound more girthsome and ominous pounding out the power chords than any over-saturated, cascading gain overdrive monster is ever going to manage.

Hiwatt amps were never intended as a Mashall copy, despite their generally similar looks, but were a design unto themselves from the start. Although many players have mistaken the amps for approximate copies of Jim Marshall’s stacks, anyone who has played a good Hiwatt for any length of time knows better, as does any tech who has had the pleasure of opening one up.

Hiwatt was founded in the U.K. in the mid 1960s by Dave Reeves, who had the intention of building the best guitar amplifiers he could build, and he did so with close consideration to everything from transformers and internal components right through to wiring and cabinetry. Hiwatt used Partridge transformers, which were bigger and better than most anything being used for guitar amps at the time, and Reeves even commissioned military-specification chassis wiring from Harry Joyce, who did other high-end contract electronics work, including wiring jobs for the Royal Navy.

Look beyond the impressive components and workmanship, and vintage Hiwatt amps further reveal very original circuit topologies that are quite different from the Fender and Marshall circuits that are generally considered to have given birth to rock tone. Throughout the signal chain, Reeve’s design goal was to pass a bold, high-fidelity signal along to the output stage, but one that is nevertheless fattened up in a major way by no fewer than four gain stages in the preamp and tone sections of the standard DR103.

Pump this fat signal via four EL34 output tubes running at high voltage, through an enormous Partridge output transformer, and into four or eight sturdy British-made Fane speakers, and you have got large sound on your hands, to say the very least. In fact, despite their nominal 100-watt rating, when cranked up these Hiwatts could often push something in the region of 120 watts RMS. Naturally, Townshend usually played through two of them at a time.

Being Pete Townshend, however, he didn’t stop there. He had his Hiwatt DR 103 amps modified by Reeves right at the factory, hence their “Custom” logos. Changes from stock included linking all four inputs, with a Volume control for each to make it easy to blend voices, and a 10dB gain boost at the first stage; disconnecting the Middle and Presence controls, so that only the Bass and Treble remained; adding a Master Volume; and using a 12AX7/ECC83 preamp tubes in the phase inverter rather than the lower-gain 12AT7/ECC81. After these changes, his Hiwatts pushed the front end a little harder for a crunchier sound, which in turn drove the output section a little harder too. Make these changes to some other tube amps, and you get the high-gain sizzle of a Mesa/Boogie style amplifier; done to a Hiwatt, these modifications contribute to the monstrous punch, crunch, and slam power that fueled Townshend’s thwacking rhythm assault.

So strap on that SG Special, plug into some 240 watts of Hiwatt mayhem, get your windmill spinning, and see what comes out. At the very least, you’re likely to be the loudest guitarist on your block.

For further info on Pete Townshend's gear, visit this site.

Pete Townshend's Gear Timeline

Getting the "basic" kit:

1) Obviously, go for a SG guitar.

2)Then, you must have Hiwatt amps. Hiwatt actually makes two Pete Townshend signature models (view). Though you might want to look at a  Hiwatt combo, instead.

3) Pete also was a keen user of fuzz pedals. We'd recommend the Big Muff, Double Muff or Fuzz Face, to get some cool lo-fi, gritty fuzz tones.

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