From his jangly Rickenbacker rhythm days in The Smiths to the Jag swag of his solo albums, serial collaborator and creative Johnny Marr has made his guitar his staple piece for over 30 years.
At the age of 51, Marr has a back catalogue to rival most of the industry’s heavyweights. Best known as the plucky young guitarist with the black bangs and turtle necks in iconic 80s outfit The Smiths (alongside equally influential frontman Morrissey), Marr helped to define the sound of the era with his jingly riffs and writing abilities.
Post-Smiths, Marr became a prolific sessions musician, formed new bands, wrote soundtracks, released two solo albums, and tours consistently promoting it all.
Marr was born John Martin Maher on 31 October 1963 in Manchester, to Irish emigrants. He had aspirations to be a professional football player, but grew fascinated by the New Wave moment and the guitar, so the later passion took hold.
He formed his first band at the age of 13. It developed over time into funk band, Freak Party, and by 1982 the line-up, style and name was complete: Marr on guitars and music production, eccentric Stephen Morrissey as singer-songwriter, Andy Rouke on bass and new recruit Mike Joyce on drums – enter, The Smiths.
Since the band’s controversial demise in ’87 and subsequent court cases, Marr has played with the likes of The The, Talking Heads, The Pretenders, The Cribs, Paul McCartney and Modest Mouse, formed his own bands (Electronic with New Order’s Bernard Sumner, and Johnny Marr + The Healers), and released two dynamic solo albums: 2013’s The Messenger, and last year’s awesome rock n’ roll release, Playland.
Although Johnny has played many different guitars throughout his career thus far, two types have become his notable axes – the Rickenbacker and the Fender Jaguar.
The Smiths are synonyms for the jingly-jangly riffs of Marr’s full-bodied, Californian Rickenbacker, and although he mixed it up on the albums, the undeniable emotive charm and chime of the Rick quickly became a staple sound for the band. He even busted out a 12-string model a lot in the studio too!
Over the years, and particularly on his stand-out solo efforts, the sexy space-age curves and swerves of the Jag have captured Marr’s imagination. The off-set waist body and smooth chrome finish makes for a stunning looking model on stage, and Marr’s signature colours are cream and green (dubbed ‘The Green Genie’). Marr’s guitars include switch and control plates a plenty, as well as separate bridges, a floating vibrato system and short neck (he’s 5’ 7” after all!).
A master of melody, layering and texture, the Johnny Marr sound is one of dreamscape beauty, intricate melody and rock n’ roll undertones – the British birthplace of “indie”.
On a Rickenbacker, the sound was jingly and ringy – typically 80s. The Smiths songs were known for their melodic riffs and finger-picking intros, and ever the cool dude, Johnny never played showy licks, distortion or solos. The sound and tone was about creating a mood and atmosphere that complemented and enhanced Morrissey’s whimsical and melancholic lyrics.
In his solo work, Marr has retained his disntictive rhythms, with the most notable inclusion being his voice. It has taken him 30 years to sing in the studio, but when his voice eases in – a lazy macho Mancunian lilt – the whole song just comes together. Paired with a grittier Jag sound of soaring licks, rockin’ riffs and classic arpeggio chords, Marr’s sound can be sweet and gentle one minute, and full-tilt 80s power rock anthem the next.
The essential Johnny Marr playlist is the best guitar songs from his days with The Smiths to now.
The post-punk plucky picks of ‘This Charming Man’, the lingering reverb and emotional piercing slide notes of ‘How Soon Is Now?’, the groove of ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, heavy metal-esque ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’ solo, fast-paced anthem ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, urgent strokes of ‘Panic’, the where-did-that-come-from funky wah-wah on The The’s ‘Sodium Light Baby’, driving Jag of The Cribs’ ‘We Share The Same Skies’, Rick riff of Talking Heads’ ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’, repetitive rhythm of ‘Generate! Generate!’, the transcendent beauty of ‘New Town Velocity’, the stuttering chords of ‘Back In The Box’, catchy pop rock of ‘Easy Money’, the dainty intro of ‘Candidate’ and the grunt of his Depeche Mode cover ‘I Feel You’.
All the YouTube videos! Marr has done a host of great in-depth interviews and TV/radio performances.
The Smiths – The Complete Picture is a collection of 12 promos by The Smiths. Derek Jarman presides over a few of the videos, including ‘The Queen Is Dead’, a short film featuring the song of the same name, ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ and ‘Panic’.
A documentary by Simon Mark-Brown about the making of the 7 Worlds Collide album, The Sun Came Out, chronicling the days in the studio in Auckland, New Zealand with Neil Finn, Ed O’Brien, Jeff Tweedy, Phil Selway, Marr and a host of other musicians during the Christmas holidays in 2008/2009.
Check out the below interview with Fender where Johnny Marr talks us through his signature Jaguar: