“Leslie West said: ‘I prefer your licks, Pete. Eric seems to be playing things he’s learned, that he’s picked up from other blues players’”: Pete Townshend says the Mountain legend favored his expansive rock licks over Eric Clapton’s blues vocabulary

Pete Townshend and Leslie West
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Heralded for his history as The Who’s windmilling firebrand and celebrated for his timeless arsenal of riffs and licks, Pete Townshend is considered one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time.

It’s a list Townshend shares with the likes of Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Gary Moore, Eric Clapton and countless others, and an accolade he’s been awarded following decades of knockout electric guitar feats.

Now, speaking in the new issue of Guitarist, Townshend has reflected on his personal playing philosophy – a strategy that has helped him craft his assortment of legendary licks, and won him some high-profile fans over the years.

In fact, according to the Stratocaster loyalist, he once received a particularly notable compliment from Mountain hero Leslie West, who said he preferred Townshend’s licks to Clapton’s.

When asked whether he still views the guitar as a tool for creativity, Townshend explained, “What I’m happy about is that I can do two days of practice and learn some really flashy runs if I want to, though I’m still stuck with the old order, which is trying to make sure that I don’t let my fingers play a series of clichés. 

“I remember Leslie West saying to me about Eric Clapton: ‘I prefer your licks, Pete, to Eric’s, because Eric seems to be playing things that he’s learned, that he’s picked up from other blues players,’” he added. “And I think that is a fair comparison, although I have seen Eric play live, where he really goes sky high.”

That West would be particularly fond of Townshend's playing especially comes as little surprise. After all, the pair had worked together on a cover of Marvin Gaye's Baby, Don't You Do It, and (according to ZigZag magazine via Guitar Player) Townshend had lifted some of West's licks “for the stage”.

In his Guitarist convo, the Who hero then went on to single out what he believed to be one of the biggest intimidating factors facing players today: Instagram guitarists, and the overwhelming urge to copy their fretboard acrobatics, instead of being “willing to take risks” with the instrument themselves.

“I think one of the things that all guitar players of today are intimidated by is these young guys on Instagram that shred to hell and back, or to heaven and back, I should say, who started when they were six,” he offered. “But we are just our fingers.

“So The Who have just done a tour of the UK, and I don’t expect people to go on YouTube and get their minds blown, but I do think that some of the playing, some of the solos, some of the chordwork, some of the surprises, some of the avoiding tricks and being willing to take risks is really what I still feel the guitar is great for.”

During his comprehensive conversation with Guitarist, Townshend didn’t just talk about his playing philosophy – he also discussed his current guitar-buying habits, which recently saw him veer into more progressive territory.

Specifically, the 78-year-old recently bought his first-ever Jackson after deeming it time to try a “heavy metal guitar”, and found it had him playing “three times” faster.

Head over Magazines Direct to pick up the latest issue of Guitarist, which features the full interview with Pete Townshend and an in-depth look at Mark Knopfler’s upcoming guitar auction.

The new issue also includes an interview with Jake Kiszka, in which the Greta Van Fleet member explains why he only used combo amps on the band's last album.

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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.

With contributions from