Johnny Marr turns 50 on October 31. Indie rock doesn’t birth many “guitar heroes,” but Marr is certainly one. Though Marr is not really “indie,” to be honest: yes, his time in The Smiths, Modest Mouse and The Cribs loom large. But he’s also collaborated with Pet Shop Boys, Girls Aloud, Bryan Ferry, Talking Heads, The The, Bert Jansch and many more. He’s simply a very versatile guitarist.
Eyes down for an appreciation of the man Noel Gallagher calls “a wizard” of guitar.
Johnny Marr’s Guitar Style
There isn’t just one. In the Smiths, he was known for a chiming/arpeggio-based style – so much so that he eventually resented the “jingle-jangle” words that were written about him. But he’s definitely more chord/riff-based than a soloist – in the whole Smiths catalog there are only two or three “guitar solos.”
On many Smiths recordings, Marr employed a capo at the 2nd fret to meet Morrissey’s high tenor voice. And open strings have always been a big part – blasted barre chords are not part of his usual style. When he does play big chords, there’s usually a twist – The Smiths’ “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” have a capo on the fourth fret.
Alt tunings also play a part. “The Headmaster Ritual,” a baffling piece of Marr guitarism inspired by Joni Mitchell, is in open D but then with a capo on the second fret. So it’s Open E, really, but has more tension because of the capo making the strings “shorter.” He’s an adept fingerpicker. Listen to The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow acoustic version of “Back to the Old House.”
Nashville tuning also turns up: 'It's a good tuning for coming up with new stuff 'cos you kind of feel like you're playing backwards,” he told me. “I used that on loads of Smiths stuff – “You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby” and “Half a Person” for starters.”
The Smiths were incredibly prolific – over 70 songs in a recording career of just four years, and Marr also acted as co-producer and de facto manager in later days – Morrissey seemed to have trouble with third-party managers. When Marr left he was still only 23 years old.
To outsiders, “How Soon is Now?” is probably The Smiths’ defining track.
“I wanted to write a track with an intro that you couldn't forget, something that you knew straight away was The Smiths,” Marr says. “In that regard it was very ‘worked on.’ I arrived at the studio with a demo of the whole thing, apart from the tremolo effect - though that was bound to surface on a Smiths track sooner or later, because at that time I was playing Bo Diddley stuff everywhere I went. I wanted it to be really tense and swampy.
“Layering the slide part was what gave it the real tension. As soon as I played that bit on the second and third strings, [producer] John Porter put an AMS harmoniser on it. Then we recorded each individual string with the harmoniser, then we tuned the B string down a half step and harmonised the whole thing.
“The tremolo effect came from laying down a regular rhythm part - with a capo at the 2nd fret - on a Les Paul, then sending that out in to the live room to four Fender Twin amps. John was controlling the tremolo on two of them and I was controlling the other two, and whenever they went out of sync we just had to stop the track and start all over again. It took an eternity. God bless the sampler, because it would have been so much easier!” The clanging harmonics on “How Soon is Now?” are Marr hitting his guitar with a knife, as Sonic Youth did.
Post-Smiths, his funkier influences came to the fore on his some tracks with Electronic, The The and Modest Mouse. Marr is a huge fan of Nile Rodgers (he even named his son Nile), so he wasn’t always about emotionally-fraught indie – “the rhythm lick on “The Boy with the Thorn in his Side” is pure Nile Rodgers,” he says.
His own Healers band (circa 2000) – where he first sang lead vocals - were a swampier rock set-up, but still boasting a highly-melodic streak.
Marr’s 2013 solo album, The Messenger, stylistically draws on his first post-punk guitar influences of U.K. bands such as Wire and Magazine.
Johnny Marr’s Gibson Guitars
Marr has always played numerous brands over the years, but Gibsons have always been part of his sound. In his JohnnyMarr.com’s “Guitarchestra” pages, you’ll see some wonderful vintage instruments of all makes.
The final Smiths album, Strangeways Here We Come, saw him reach for 12-string Gibson ES electrics. “I wanted the electric guitar parts a lot less layered and with a lot more weight, which you can hear on “I Started Something I Couldn't Finish.” The stuff that wasn't acoustic was mainly led by my ES-355 12-string; in fact, a lot of the songs – “I Started Something...,” “Paint A Vulgar Picture” and “Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before” - were written on that guitar.” Marr cites Strangeways… as his favorite Smiths album.
He’s generous with guitars, too. He eventually gave his Gibson ES-335 12-string to friend Bernard Butler (Suede, solo) and two vintage Les Pauls to protégé Noel Gallagher, when Oasis were starting out. He’s lent Gibsons to Electronic partner Bernard Sumner for New Order cuts, too.
Watch Marr’s humorous recollection of how he was persuaded to give away super-valuable Gibson Les Pauls to Oasis’s Noel Gallagher.
His use of red Gibson 335/355s proved highly influential on Butler and Gallagher, too. Here’s another video with Marr explaining to NME.com how he got his ES-355 in return for The Smiths signing to Sire Records in the U.S.
Johnny Marr’s Influence
It’s hard to pin down to one thing. But Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante is a huge fan (Marr guested on Frusciante’s The Empyrean album) for his chordal work. Frusciante studies music theory a lot, Marr is self-taught, but the two blended well. Frusciante appreciates that Marr “has really complex chord progressions, but he goes by his instinct and his own mental pictures.”
Marr’s ability to hop genres, from techno to folk to movie soundtracks (Inception), is what many others players dream of. And his melodicism on a guitar – rarely involving solos – make him a very-rounded composer.
Noel Gallagher reckons, “You can’t be “influenced” by Johnny Marr because he’s unique, you can’t play what he plays. Even he can’t play what he plays! Even he’s not as good as he is! If anyone knows how to play guitar, it’s him.”
There are others as talented, of course. But it seems a fair time for a salute. Happy 50th birthday, Johnny Marr.