The Who’s Pete Townshend has played – and smashed – many different guitar brands over the years. But he had a ripe period when he played – and again smashed - Gibsons. From the mid '60s to mid-‘70s – for many The Who’s glory days – Townshend relied on a variety of Gibson electrics and acoustics. Here’s a brief rundown.
In The Who’s early days, Townshend’s stunt of smashing guitars onstage made him notorious. It was good theatre. Only problem? It was costing him more in guitars than the whole band were earning.
Townshend first started using Gibson semi’s circa 1966-’67: at first a borrowed ES-175, then ES-335s (345s and 355s). And before Jimmy Page made the Gibson SG EDS-1275 doubleneck famous (for live performances of “Stairway to Heaven”), Townshend was using a black EDS-1275 6/12 to play “Substitute” live.
He even maimed that guitar – there are photos of Townshend in 1967 at London’s Saville Theatre with the 6/12 guitar, obviously rebuilt, as the necks are at splayed angles and a there’s clearly visible repair in the body between the necks.
Pete Townshend and Gibson SGs
The more regular single-neck Gibson SGs soon became favorites of Townshend. He played a double-cut Les Paul TV and a single-cut Les Paul Standard for various 1967 shows, but it was 1968 when Townshend was more often seen with a Gibson SG Special. Townshend played SGs for many famous late-’60s to early-’70s Who live recordings, including Woodstock, Live at Leeds and Isle of Wight, as well as the recordings of Tommy and “The Seeker.”
As ever, the original guitars got battered, but his favorite model was first honoured by Gibson in 2000. It had a mahogany body, satin cherry finish, mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard, chrome hardware and two P-90 pickup. A limited edition signature added an issue number decal on back of headstock and “tour worn” faded cherry finish. If you wanted to smash up the $3500 guitar, that was up to you.
In 2011, Gibson put out a 50th anniversary signature of another of Townshend’s famed SGs. In Polaris White, this was a repro of PT’s early-’60s SG Special with a smaller pre-’65 pickguard. Townshend used his for The Who’s first British Quadrophenia shows in late 1972 and early ’73, before switching to Gibson Les Paul Deluxes for the remainder of the ’70s.
Pete Townshend and Gibson Les Pauls
As The Who got heavier in the 1970s, Townshend turned to full-on Les Pauls. Notably, he favoured the relatively-unloved Deluxe model, with mini-humbuckers. Why? Townshend had smashed many an original SG Special and they weren’t widely available anymore. Maybe Townshend had destroyed his own supply line, hmm?
He used Les Paul Deluxes widely in the 1970s, when Townshend started stickering his Les Paul stash with numbers. It wasn’t about preference – Townshend at first used the LetraSet stickers to help his guitar tech know the guitar he needed for which Who song (and, thus, where any capo should be).
Cherry Sunbursts and Gold Tops were to the fore. Townshend regularly made modifications – DiMarzio humbucking pickups in the middle (making his Deluxes DIY-‘Customs’, if you like), and coil-tap switch on some. And nerdy fact alert: Townshend played Gibson 340 Sonomatic .012 strings (.012, .016, .016 or .018 for G, .032, .044, .056) on his Les Pauls. Many of these Les Pauls have been auctioned/displayed in various states of disrepair/carnage.
In 2005, Gibson issued three Pete Townshend-signature edition Les Paul Deluxe guitars, based on his #1 Wine Red Les Paul Deluxe, his #3 Gold Top and his #9 Cherry Sunburst (all 1976). According to Who sources, Townshend himself now only owns one of his nine Les Paul Deluxes - #8 is a cherry sunburst Les Paul Deluxe, also built in the 1970s.
Pete Townshend and Gibson J-200s
A Gibson J-200 was the defining acoustic sound of The Who when Pete Townshend stretched out as a composer. He wrote “Pinball Wizard” on his J-200, which starred on The Who’s Tommy album. “I picked it out from about five at Manny’s in New York in 1968,” Townshend told Gibson.com. “It had a crisp sound and an easy neck. It was only later I found how well the J-200 records when you play it hard. Like the Everly [Brothers] acoustic, it has a rather dead soundboard and that allows you to really dig in when strumming.
“They are hard to bring to life with piezo pickups because the sound is so distinctive in real air, but the body shape, the necks and the sheer strength of the guitar are all very important to me. They also look utterly beautiful.”
Townshend’s favorite J-200 “exploded.” He was working on his solo album Iron Man in 1990 when disaster struck. Townshend told Guitarist magazine: “I don’t have romantic misconceptions about musical instruments – they’re just wood, probably far more useful as pulp than anything else. There are actually a couple of instruments that I would miss, and in fact a weird thing happened to the J-200 that I’ve had for a long time. Half-way through Iron Man it got wet in the studio and exploded. It was almost like the guitar getting back at me – the only guitar I cared about dying on me!”
Townshend donated the original guitar to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1993.
From SGs to Les Pauls to J-200s, Townshend smashed and crashed untold amounts of Gibsons. Beyond the debris, there remains some The Who’s greatest songs and performances.