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Interesting Mods: Pete Townshend’s Stratocaster

Written by on April 30, 2015

Pete Townshend Fender

One of the most heralded guitar smashers in the history of rock and roll was also quite the modder, as the Who’s Pete Townshend was known for playing a Fender Stratocaster that was hardly stock.

When the Strat became Townshend’s No. 1 electric choice around the Who’s first reunion tour in 1989, he chose a standard Eric Clapton model. But over the years, Townshend implemented several changes, the most prominent of which was the use of a piezo transducer pickup. Built directly into the saddle, the piezo transducer allows the player to achieve a faux-acoustic sound by tapping into the vibration of the body wood.

According to Townshend, he first interacted with the piezo upon meeting jazz guitar legend Pat Martino in 1993 while working on the musical Tommy. Martino brought out a guitar with a piezo pickup, and Townshend was quite intrigued, sending his tech Alan Rogan out to track down similar instruments and experiment with the mod.

It didn’t take long for Townshend to incorporate the piezo pickup into his main rig.

“What is useful to me onstage is that I get a sizzling string sound from the piezo, to give color and detail to the sustain sound I use these days for solos,” Townshend noted in a 2010 interview with Premier Guitar. “There are some added benefits. One of my techniques is banging the bridge and back pickup with the palm and wrist, and I do this quickly to create a kind of thunderous explosive sound — like a heavy machine gun. The piezo plays a big part in this sound, because it relays the sound of the body of the guitar being thumped. Fishman has gone a long way to make these piezo systems extremely silky sounding.”

To accompany the piezo pickup in the Clapton Strats, Townshend needed some work done on the body, namely adding an extra volume pot behind the bridge (above the cord jack). Not only does the knob control the piezo, but it also makes Townshend’s guitars easy to spot.

Townshend’s more recent models – typically Torino Red versions – feature the Fishman VMW Powerbridge system, which boasts a six-screw vintage tremolo, and an EMG buffer preamp.

Both are as essential to the Who’s live performance as Townshend’s trademark windmill spins.

“The EMG preamp is a huge part of the sound,” Rogan said in the book The Stratocaster Chronicles: Celebrating 50 Years of the Fender Strat. “It makes the acoustic side sound far better than a proper acoustic guitar with a pickup on it. The electric and acoustic sides can be used separately, but Pete likes to blend them, which is why I placed the extra volume control knob where it is, for easy accessibility and also to leave room for bridge adjustments.”

Watch a video of Rogan discussing Townshend’s gear in the video below and click here for more #FenderMods.