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The Who – Tommy: Pete Townshend guitar lesson

The Who
(Image credit: Future)

We've already covered guitar lessons on Abbey Road, Led Zeppelin I and Led Zeppelin II, now it's for a focus on the playing behind another classic British rock album from 1969; a full-blown concept album from The Who – Tommy. 

Acoustic guitars and plenty of clean electric guitar tones dominate this album, giving The Who’s Tommy a lighter feel than a number of their other recordings to date. That’s unsurprising, given that their fourth album is a pioneering early example of a rock opera, written to outline the ebb and flow of a dramatic story rather than simply act as another chapter in the band’s hard rock manifesto.

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Still, legendary guitarist Pete Townshend is one of the greats of rock rhythm and many of his signature playing techniques are in full flow here. Though Tommy is an acoustic-heavy work, Townshend’s trademark aggressive strumming technique, pin-sharp timing and authoritative delivery are all present and correct, combined with a few harmonic and textural approaches to learn from too.

Start off with a look at the basics of sus chords. You probably already know about these commonplace chords, but they’re a much under-appreciated songwriting tool. Just insert a sus chord where you can to make the most of a change to a major or minor chord.

We’re also looking at the kind of arpeggios you’ll hear peppered throughout Tommy. Again, it’s a technique you probably know well but Townshend displays a level of virtuosity on tracks like 1921 where he’s playing straight 16ths. Read on and get some of his essential techniques down.

1. Sussing it out 

Sus Chords

(Image credit: Future)
More on sus chords

Kelly Jones

(Image credit: Future / Kevin Nixon )

Guitar skills: A beginner's guide to sus guitar chords

The humble sus chord can inject a creative edge in your chord changes and Tommy’s Pinball Wizard features a classic example of the major to sus4 chord change.

Townshend’s simple shift from B to Bsus4 outlines the main riff, but it’s also a handy songwriting trick used subtly throughout the album to add flourishes to other more basic chord changes. Try it out with the sus4 chord then take things a step further with our easy sus2 chord change.


2. Arpeggios 

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You'll find arpeggios like these peppered throughout the album on tracks such as 1921, The Acid Queen and Sensation.

Townshend would often play simple chords like these D shapes over a repeating bass note (a musical device known as a pedal tone); listen to overture or the intro to Pinball Wizard for some great examples. 


3. Aggressive downstrokes

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Overture and Pinball Wizard are great examples of Pete’s down-up style strumming, but we’re taking inspiration from the aggressive downstrokes in Amazing Journey.

Perhaps surprisingly, the devil is in the detail; fret every note cleanly and make sure to keep the idle strings silent or you’ll risk a heavy downstroke on a wrong note. Yikes!

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