Watch the Who How: Rhythm Gospel online guitar lesson by Chris Buono from 40 Day Rhythm SWAT Camp

Nobody plays rhythm like Pete Townshend. Though he’s no slouch as a sololist, many consider him to be the power chord’s greatest gift to guitardom. The seeds were planted back in 1959, when young Pete adopted a quick strumming technique from the banjo player in Acker Bilk’s band. Townshend made suspended chords, displaced triads, and pedal points an essential part of the rock vocabulary. His enthusiastic sixteenth-note flourishes, machine-gun tremolo picking, and windmill quarter-note downstrokes are incomparable.

Time to get loose, rubber-wrist. Unscrew yer wang bar, batten down the bridge, crank up the Hiwatt, and get ready to remember why you picked up that canoe paddle in the first place!

Double or triple strums into the downbeat are a staple in Townshend’s rhythmic vocabulary:

Ex. 1 illustrates a typical Townshend double sixteenth-note approach into beat one, while Ex. 2a and 2b use sixteenth-note triplets to launch beats two and three.

Pete’s cyclonic tremolo picking kicked off many a Who song. When trem-picking, you can accent in twos (sixteenth-note triplets) or threes (sextuplets):

Ex. 3a stems from pre-Who days, when the band was known as the High Numbers. Try accenting your tremolo in both twos and threes. Accented sextuplets are the key to Ex. 3b, a classic intro from the Who’s “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” era. Ex. 3c recalls the capoed opening of “Out In The Street.” Pete generated the cool trem-picking effect by lacing strummed sixteenth-notes with electronic amp tremolo set to play eighth-note triplets against the beat. Wow!

A constant sixteenth-note strum pattern (accented in threes for three-quarters of each measure), combined with Townshend’s signature Bsus4 to B chords, gives Ex. 4a its stadium-rock appeal. Once you’ve got this wired, skip the repeats and transpose the riff down to A, G, and then F#. Follow this with the power-chord bonanza in Ex. 4b for a truly devastating part.

The Who’s first single, “I Can’t Explain,” blasted off with an unforgettable electric 12-string barrage like the one in Ex. 5. The power chord was born. The fuzzed-out electric bursts and eighth-note low-E pulse on “I Can See For Miles” are glued together with thirdless E, G, and A power chords as in Ex. 6.

When the Who covered Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” Pete made it his own with the muscular chord riff in Ex. 7. Townshend often improvised with power chords during lengthy Who jams. Ex. 8 developed during a live version of “Substitute.”

Examples 9a and 9b introduce two more Townshend trademarks: the I-bVII-IV progression (also heard in Ex. 2b) and playing into an accented chord by nailing its root half a beat early (9b).

Ex. 10 illustrates Pete’s penchant for displaced triads. Capo at the 3rd fret and lay down a three-against-four eighth-note rhythm for six beats before ending with a IVsus4-IV change. You’ll hear such action in “The Real Me.” Ex. 11 comprises parallel root-5th chords. A tricky rhythmic motif makes “I’m Free” the most deceptive “where’s one?” intro since Hendrix covered “All Along The Watchtower.”

Townshend built most of “My Generation” on a series of ascending power chords whose roots drop a whole-step for the second half of each measure. In Examples 12a and 12b play the chord for two beats, then allow it to ring over the displaced bass note. Ex. 12c features the riff played in full chords; each chord sustains for two beats in Ex. 12d. Add a C note to beat 4, and you’ll hear what evolved into a prominent theme throughout Tommy.

The displaced bassline in Ex. 13 is more independent; it works against an A triad and sounds similar to “Instant Party (Circles.” For Ex. 14’s “Tommy”-period riff, the bass b7th is played as a single note rather than part of the chord. Note the variation in the bVII-IV cadence (C-G, in the key of D).

Townshend personalized Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” with a powerful combination of single notes and doublestops, as in Ex. 15. Pete also put his stamp on a live version of “Goin’ Down” with a cool take on the song’s classic descending riff (Ex. 16).

Not every Who tune starts with a roar. Ex. 17 contains delicate, Hendrix-style embellishments and resembles the intro to “Dogs.”

Examples 18 and 19 illustrate another Townshend specialty: jangly signature riffs born of a Rickenbacker. The short and sweet “A Legal Matter” riff uses an electric 12-string, while the more complex intro to “The Good’s Gone” showcases a sparkling 6-string.

Doubled with an acoustic, each arpeggio in Ex. 20 shares the open high-E string as a common or pedal tone. Townshend used this idea to sculpt the intro to “Tattoo.”

Pedal tones are key to the Townshend sound. Ex. 21 shows a simple yet effective technique that belongs in every rocker’s arsenal. Pete accented these intervals over a sixth-string G pedal back in ’65 on “Much Too Much.” “so Sad About Us” features an E pedal tone sandwiched between moving chord tones, as in Ex. 22. “Substitute” and Ex. 23 use triads over open D, the string Townshend seems to favor for pedal points.

English Baroque composer Henry Purcell, claims Pete, provides the inspiration for his suspensions and pedal tones. Pedaling F# eight-notes for each chord in Ex. 24 yields a close approximation of the “Pinball Wizard” intro. For further authenticity, try a direct segue to Ex. 4a.

It’s back to triads over open D for a theme that began as part of “Rael” and ended up in “Amazing Journey” and the Tommy underture. Ex. 25a creates a Lydian flavor with E to D triads, while Ex. 25b creates a wall of tension by alternating between Gb and Bb triads before resolving to G/D.
In Ex. 25c, the mood switches to Dorian as Townshend builds the rhythmic and harmonic tension before climaxing with the biggest E chord you’ve ever heard (Ex. 25d). Play Ex. 25a through 25d in sequence (with repeats) to get the big picture.

Play the chords in Ex. 26b using the rhythm motif in Ex 26a. The open-A and high-E strings work straight through the temporary modulation, not unlike “Dr. Jimmy.”

We’ll close our Townshend lesson with another look at “ I Can See For Miles.” In Ex. 27, guitar 1 treats the open sixth, second, and first strings as drones, while E-shaped triads ascend strings five, four, and three. Guitar 2’s fuzzy Eastern-tinged ostinato functions as a pedal-within-the-pedal, played with a pedal, if you count the fuzztone! Maximum R&B, indeed.