“I was playing at three times the speed that I normally play at”: Pete Townshend resisted buying “heavy metal” guitars for decades – but he just got his first Jackson at the age of 78… and loves it

Artist's depiction of Pete Townshend playing a Jackson guitar
Artist's depiction of Pete Townshend playing a Jackson guitar (Image credit: ANNA KURTH/AFP via Getty Images / Jackson)

Throughout his decades-long career, Pete Townshend has been associated with a handful of electric guitar templates.

Over time, The Who legend has dabbled with a select range of conventional and vintage guitar formats, ranging from Rickenbackers, Gibson’s Les Paul and SG models to – perhaps most notably – the Fender Stratocaster. Indeed, it is the Strat that has accommodated much of Townshend’s playing across the decades.

But, as the guitar hero explains in the new issue of Guitarist, Townshend recently ventured into new, more progressive-leaning territory, and found himself seeking out a guitar from a completely different corner of the market.

As Townshend puts it, he deemed it time to try “one of these sort of heavy metal guitars”, and found himself purchasing a flashy new speed machine – an instrument that apparently had an immediate impact on his playing.

Pete Townshend of The Who performs on the opening night of the bands North American 2017 tour headlining Day 8 of the 50th Festival D'ete De Quebec (Quebec City Summer Festival) on the Main Stage at the Plaines D' Abraham on July 13, 2017 in Quebec City, Canada

(Image credit: Ollie Millington/Redferns)

“The other day, I thought, ‘It’s time for me to try a Charvel, or one of these sort of heavy metal guitars,’” Townshend mused when asked about his latest gear discovery. “I’ve stuck with Eric Clapton-style Strats for such a long time now, though I do pick up Les Pauls and SGs and I love them, but they don’t allow me enough scope and change on stage. 

“So I’ve always thought, ‘If I buy a Charvel or a PRS or any of those super-fast new jazz guitars, I’m going to have one sound and it’s going to be finger memory.’ 

“But the other day, I thought, ‘Fuck it. I’ll try one out.’” His guitar of choice? A Jackson.

“I didn’t know that they were owned by Charvel and that Charvel are now owned by Fender, but I bought a Jackson,” he went on. “I got it out of the box and it’s got very light strings on and a notch where the strings are locked down, and it’s got the strings locked at the other end, too, and you tune them with little buttons. And so, the whammy bar is extraordinary!”

But Townshend didn’t just appreciate the guitar for its fine-tuned functionality and alien specifications – which no doubt were unlike anything any of his Fender Strats had offered before. Instead, he also admired the fact the guitar literally made him play faster.

“I was playing faster. No question,” he asserted. “I was playing at three times the speed that I normally play at. And when I did fingering, drumming, it didn’t stop. It didn’t go thunk; it went ding. Because these guitars are built for a particular kind of thing. So I’m still learning and I’m still having fun with guitars.”

Townshend doesn’t mention the specific Jackson model he’s been experimenting with. If we had to speculate, we’d wager it’s the newly launched American Series Soloist SL3 – or maybe the Virtuoso. Those guitars, after all, are “built for speed, precision and power”. We like to think he went for the Shell Pink version, à la our artist's interpretation above.

It raises an interesting point of discussion. Yes, some models are engineered to prompt faster playing and are predisposed to help players noodle quicker – flatter or compound fretboard radii, sculpted neck heels, lower action and so on – but an instantaneous three-fold increase in agility? That’s quite something.

Whatever the case, it sounds like Townshend is besotted with his latest purchase. Does this mean we will see The Who icon swap his Strats for the Jackson next time he takes to the stage? Well, probably not, considering it would come with a significant tonal shift. That’s not to say he might not use it for future material down the line, though...

To read the full interview with Townshend, head over to Magazines Direct to pick up the latest issue of Guitarist, which also includes an in-depth look at Mark Knopfler’s upcoming mammoth guitar auction.

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.

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