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Myth Busters: Pete Townshend’s Recording Secrets

Published: Fri April 17, 2009  News Feed

The sound is legendary: a maelstrom of rhythm and fill playing emanating from a single guitar part — a combination of crushing power chords and jangling suspended trills, all holding the floor together beneath an ordered chaos of seemingly floating drum and bass accompaniments.

Pete Townshend

The live persona is well documented: a tall, slim frame bounding around the stage, arm pinwheeling its incessant attack into the strings of a Rickenbacker 360, a Gibson SG Special, a Les Paul Deluxe, or a modified Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster.  From 1970 onward, however, the secret behind that sound revealed a very different studio rig from the one that Pete Townshend was seen using live on-stage with The Who.

Prior to the information revolution, it was a lot harder for fans to discover what their guitar heroes got up to in the privacy of the recording studio. Other than the few choice tidbits that were occasionally revealed in interviews in magazines like Guitar Player and others, you pretty much just imagined them glued to whatever guitar-and-amp setup you saw them with live.

Townshend was the consummate professional, though, and realized from very early in his career that that achieving a golden tone for recording and achieving an appropriate tone for live work are two entirely different things. While the 1970 album Live at Leeds proves a stunning and uncharacteristic audio documentation of his performance with a Gibson SG Special through raging Hiwatt stacks, that setup was difficult to manage in the studio environment, from a sonic perspective. Big amps, in particular, are an engineer’s nightmare: they make almost every aspect of capturing a winning guitar track more difficult, and can even destroy some sensitive studio mics — the kinds of mics that will deliver stunning depth and harmonic clarity when placed in front of the just the right amp. So, achieving three minutes of magic on tape required something entirely different.

These secret ingredients locked into place in one fell swoop when American guitarist Joe Walsh reciprocated Townshend’s earlier gift of an Arp synthesizer by giving The Who guitarist a fully-formed studio rig: a 1959 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Hollowbody electric guitar and a late ’50s Fender narrow-panel tweed Bandmaster 3x10” combo amp (along with an Edwards volume pedal and Whirlwind cable to run between them).  The discontinued Bandmaster looked a bit like a '59 Bassman (which has four 10" speakers instead of three)

Fender Bandmaster

Fender Bandmaster

This might look like one of the most counter-intuitive setups in the history of rock, far more appropriate to vintage rock and roll or country playing than to the gargantuan crunch and krang that Townshend wrestled from his gear. But a closer look — and listen — reveals just how perfectly the combination worked to achieve the sound that The Who guitarist had in his head, as revealed throughout 1971’s Who’s Next, 1973’s Quadrophenia, and a little of everything else he recorded in the studio from then on after, solo or with the band.

While a medium-depth archtop electric might seem like the guitar least suitable to Townshend’s sonic and physical abuses, a listen to many of the tracks on these classic albums reveals its characteristics loud and clear. The Gretsch 6120’s “FilterTron” pickups provide decent sustain and good punch, but they are also fairly low-output humbuckers, and provide plenty of string definition and harmonic sparkle.

Pete Townshend in the studio

Pete Townshend in the studio

Coupled with the hollow guitar, they excel at anything from the musical feedback that Townshend liked to induce as a recording tool, to an enticing blend of crunchy sparkle that helps power chords and arpeggios alike slice right through the mix. The tweed Fender Bandmaster, for its part, is an extremely rare and desirable amp that produces about 28 watts from a pair of 6L6GC tubes through the unusual speaker complement of three Jensen alnico 10”s. It offers enough clarity to present a yield, shimmer soundstage at clean settings, but breaks up early enough to provide chunky tube overdrive at volume levels that won’t send most delicate condenser and ribbon mics into meltdown. Together, they create “a sound from paradise”, as Townshend told Guitar Player magazine in 1993, having just used the rig once again to record parts of the latter-day Who album Psychoderelict.

Gretsch Chet Atkins

Love Townshend? Get a Gretsch Chet Atkins...view guitar details

As with all installments in the Gibson Myth Busters series, there are lessons to be learned from this unusual setup: don’t assess your studio needs by the standards that dictate your live requirements. They are two different worlds, and what works for one might well be the apparent opposite of what works for the other.

Townshend’s Gretsch, for example, had a tuning instability that makes it entirely impractical for live work (and hence has only been taken out onstage on a few rare occasions), and his Bandmaster is too delicate for the road. Keep them within the studio walls, however, and they constitute a rig made in heaven. (You can read more about the gear used by Pete Townshend and the rest of The Who on the fan site thewho.net.)

[original article by Dave Hunter, Gibson.com. To read it in full click here]

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