Guitar Legends: Johnny Marr – a unique guitar hero with a chameleonic talent
From teenage ‘indie’ beginnings, Johnny Marr has flourished into one of the finest guitar stylists in rock music. He’s famously driven and single-minded, constantly seeking out great instruments and unique sounds to build a unique catalogue of stellar guitar music.
Johnny Marr. Image: Donna Santisi / Redferns
It would be wrong to call Johnny Marr an enigma. Because he doesn’t keep secrets and he’ll happily talk all day explaining exactly how he’s achieved his kaleidoscopic sounds. But it would also be right to call Johnny Marr an enigma… because even with all his explanations and detailed breakdowns, you still don’t know quite how he does it.
In his four decades of recording, Marr has (most famously) been the musical architect of The Smiths. But he’s also been a member of The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse, The Cribs, and he now has four albums to his own name. Add his numerous guest spots and cameos – everyone from Bert Jansch to Girls Aloud, Pet Shop Boys to Oasis, Billy Bragg to Bryan Ferry – and you have a CV that’s possibly unrivalled in the modern guitar universe.
But even when playing with others, he’s no ‘session player’ sticking to a script: artists ask him to contribute because he adds something uniquely Marr-esque. It’s perhaps no coincidence that when he was with The The, Modest Mouse and The Cribs, all three scored the biggest albums of their careers.
The below is a bit of a gear frenzy. But, if nothing else it shows how the sounds in Marr’s ‘guitarchestra’ are sometimes as important as the notes…
In his own words
“I never really thought just as ‘a guitarist’, I’d always thought like a producer who just happened to play that instrument. In my own head, I was always like a Phil Spector… even when I was a teenager sat in my bedroom.”
“Guitarists copying me is fine. I copied everyone when I was starting out. But, ultimately, I’m the best Johnny Marr-style guitar player around.”
“I like change. I hate dogma. A lot of musicians who are influenced by older groups seem to be missing the point of relativity… Sticking to the authentic isn’t what made Hendrix, otherwise he’d be playing pure Delta blues. Sticking to the authentic isn’t what made The Beatles either. As well as passion and amazing talent, it was innovation.”
Johnny Marr’s most famous guitars
Over his near-40-year career, Marr has played and owned so many guitars, a comprehensive list is beyond our remit (or knowledge) here. And although we’ve never heard him talk of poring over magazines or books as a kid, he clearly knows guitars inside and out – even his main workhorses are often highly-desirable vintage models. As soon as he’d scored a record deal with The Smiths, he clearly made seeking out superb instruments one of his main obsessions.
“I’m terrible,” he admitted to Guitar.com. “I’ll go into a shop to sell two guitars and actually come out with an extra one I don’t need. I’ve been doing that since I was 20.”
Here, we’ll concentrate on the main ones that have brought his melodic talents to life on an enviable catalogue of tunes.
Marr’s first “real, decent electric guitar” (his words) was a second-hand 70s Gibson Les Paul Standard in black. Iggy And The Stooges’ Raw Power remains one of his favourite ever LPs, and he admits that James Williamson’s playing drew him towards a Les Paul early on for short-lived school-era bands White Dice and Freak Party. But by the time Marr met Steven Morrissey in the spring of 1982, he’d traded it for something more idiosyncratic…
1970s Gretsch Super Axe
The young Marr traded his Les Paul for this, because it meant he could also afford a TEAC multitrack cassette recorder to demo his tunes: with these two, he started perfecting his layered guitars before The Smiths had even formed.
The Super Axe was a rather strange Gretsch, co-designed by Chet Atkins in 76, with a very wide but shallow single-cut body. It had white dice as fretboard inlays which may have been an attraction, plus built-in compression and phaser circuits, each with its own on/off switch.
“It sounded better tuned up a step,” Marr recalls, which also happened to suit Morrissey’s baritone, and a tuned up guitar/ capo at the second fret soon became a Marr signature with The Smiths. He played it live a lot, but not much was recorded on the Super Axe: mainly the debut Smiths single of 1983, Hand In Glove. They were cheap back then: these days, you can pay £1500 for a decent condition used model as they were only made for a few years. Atkins severed his ties with Gretsch in 1978.
1983 Rickenbacker 330 Jetglo
Marr’s main Ricky 330 6-string was bought new from A1 Repairs in Manchester and is the sound of the Smiths’ early shows, as well as some of the eponymous debut album of the same year (notably What Difference Does It Make and Reel Around The Fountain). Marr bought his Rickenbacker deliberately to avoid the overtly ‘rockist’ tendencies he believed his first Les Paul might give his songwriting. It remains one of his favourite guitars.
1954 Fender Telecaster
However, Marr also borrowed John Porter’s Fender Telecaster a lot for their debut: The Smiths’ producer had bought a “destroyed” 1954 Tele for just £17 but had it restored by luthier Roger Giffin, and the 19-year-old Marr loved it. Porter was convinced Johnny needed more tones than just his Gretsch and Rickenbacker and the main riff on This Charming Man is Porter’s Tele, not Johnny’s Ricky, though there are Rickenbacker overdubs. (Indeed, Marr once claimed there 15 guitar tracks in total on that single alone.) But the veteran producer had plenty of knowledge, friends and connections in the guitar business, and Marr made the most of them… He later had Roger Giffin build him a custom ‘Tele’ with a very un-Marr-like green quilt burst.
1960s Rickenbacker 330 and 330/12 Fireglo
Marr was seeking out good stuff from stars from the beginning. A Fireglo Rickenbacker 12-string came from Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, and Marr was told it even originally belonged to The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, but Marr confesses he doesn’t know for sure. It’s an oddity in that it has only 20, not 21 frets. Two tracks of Rickenbacker 12 form the rich open-D riffs of the Joni Mitchell-inspired The Headmaster Ritual (from Meat Is Murder).
Further sources of vintage finery were even bigger names than Manzanera. “I got introduced to a guy called Alan Rogan who used to work for Townshend, Clapton and Keith Richards,” Marr recalled, “and I ended up getting a load of guitars off him.” Hence he also owns a fireglo 1964 330 that used to belong to Pete Townshend in prime-era Who (“one of the few he didn’t smash!”) that became a staple of Smiths recordings.
Gibson ES-335s and 355s
By the time The Smiths were ascending with speed, Marr was indulging his love of guitars to the max. In late 1983, the band met with US A&R veteran Seymour Stein (the man who signed MadonnaTM ) in NYC to discuss signing to Sire Records. Stein regaled Marr with tales of guitar shopping on 48th Street with Brian Jones years earlier when The Rolling Stones were in town.
Marr struck a deal: if The Smiths signed, Stein must buy him a guitar. Contract duly agreed on January 2 1984, and Stein was good to his word: “Seymour took me down to We Buy Guitars on 48th and bought me the 1959 Gibson 355. I took it back to the Iroquois Hotel and wrote Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and Girl Afraid immediately.”
The Bigsby-loaded beauty became a totem of Marr’s for a number of mid-Smiths years: both Noel Gallagher and Bernard Butler cite seeing Marr on TV with this guitar as the reason they bought similar red 355s.
Marr also owns a black 1959 ES-355 w/Bigsby that has no Varitone and bound f-holes, so it appears to be a custom order. He played it in mid-80s Smiths shows, but you can see it best later on, in Electronic’s videos for Forbidden City and For You (1996). He also has a walnut ES-335, more likely late-60s, with a stop tailpiece. Like many players, Marr is no fan of the stereo output on ES-355s and has his rewired for a single cable.
And, he also used to own a 12-string tobacco burst ES- 335 12-string used for a lot of writing and recording in later Smiths years: looking for a fatter sound for the Strangeways Here We Come LP, he used his ES-335/12 on Sheila Take A Bow, I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish, Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, Paint A Vulgar Picture and Death Of A Disco Dancer. He also played it when he guested on Talking Heads’ Nothing But Flowers (from their final Naked album of 1988) in the wake of The Smiths’ split.
A precious one to him, you’d imagine… but he gave it to Bernard Butler. Which was nice of Marr. Don’t worry, he also has red, sunburst and black 12-string ES-335/345s as well. (See the black one with trapeze tailpiece in the video for Hi Hello.) Here’s some tips on maintaining your Gibson ES-335 series guitars.
Gibson Les Pauls
Marr swerved back to Gibson Les Pauls a bit more in 1985 as he sought a weightier sound. As he doesn’t use much overdrive or distortion, Les Pauls were his answer. His most famous is a cardinal red 80s Les Paul Standard, on which he retro fitted a Bigsby, Seymour Duncan pickups and a coil-tap. It was used a lot on Meat Is Murder, to write and record Nowhere Fast, That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore and I Want The One I Can’t Have.
By the time of The Queen Is Dead, he was playing a 1972 vintage black Les Paul Custom (with no pickguard) and that was used for Bigmouth Strikes Again and across the whole album. The black Custom was later given to Noel Gallagher, who re-fitted a scratchplate (sometimes with ‘Oasis’ sticker) and replaced the bridge.
The black Custom itself was, unbelievably, the second Les Paul that Marr had ‘lent’ to Gallagher. Earlier, Marr had given Gallagher his refinished 1960 LP Standard (used on Panic) that he’d got from Pete Townshend. It’s pictured on the inside of the of Oasis’s …Morning Glory sleeve, and Gallagher wrote Live Forever on it, but it was soon destroyed by Gallagher on the head of a stage invader at a riotous 1994 Oasis show in Newcastle. Well done for destroying a bit rare history, Noel.
Despite Gallagher’s mega-success, Marr jokes he can’t bear to remind Noel the guitars were meant to be loans. Again, Marr has it covered. He still owns a 1959 Les Paul ’burst (yep!) that he played a lot on The The’s Dusk (1993).
He has two main Strats. One is a white 62 (originally with a maple neck), the second a sunburst 63 (rosewood neck), the latter usually used with a capo and on There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby and Half A Person. Marr said getting a Strat was “very deliberate”. Nile Rodgers is a big influence on his funkier excursions, yes, but it was the crystalline sounds he sought: think The Queen Is Dead-era b-side Unloveable and the sublime Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others. (Well, sublime in a musical sense at least.) The Strats featured heavily on The Smiths’ final tour of 1986.
He also used his Strats a lot in his time with The The, on the Mind Bomb and Dusk albums and tours. “In The Smiths I used to take 14 guitars on the road: with The The it was just two Strats. Matt [Johnson] wanted me to do more melodic, atmospheric orchestration…” and the Fender vibrato’d Strats were more suitable than Bigsby-loaded Gibsons or Gretsches.
Fender Johnny Marr Jaguar
The above haul could deliver just about any electric colour Marr wanted, and it did, but he desired all his sounds – if possible – in one trusty stage guitar. It started one day when he picked up Isaac Brock’s cast-off Fender Jaguar at a Modest Mouse rehearsal (Marr was a member 2006-09) and culminated in his own lauded signature – the first time he’d put his name to a guitar.
Marr did a lot more than just ask for a replica of Brock’s plus a few snazzy colours: his own specs include a four-way pickup selector (allowing for standard pickup selection in addition to choosing to combine both pickups either in series or parallel), dual ‘bright’ slide switches on the upper control plate, custom Bare Knuckle single coils, a body with an extra deep belly cut, nitrocellulose finish, custom Fender Mustang saddles in the bridge and an improved-design vibrato arm. Fender had to modify their own production processes to build it. Marr says, “It might even be the thing I’m most proud of in my career.” Watch him explain it below…
Martin and Gibson acoustics
In the early 80s, Marr bought a 1972 Martin D-35 for £900 (over £3,000 in today’s money) but it proved a worthy investment. It proved the spark for getting a Martin D-28 which became his main writing and recording acoustic in The Smiths, used on the likes of Well I Wonder, There Is A Light…, and I Know It’s Over.
He also played this one on his duets with hero Bert Jansch. Marr also has a 12-string D-28, used on Unhappy Birthday and Bigmouth Strikes Again among others. As a Beatles fan (of course), he also has a Lennon-esque Gibson J-160 used on William, It Was Really Nothing and Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want.
He’s got a 1962 Epiphone Coronet mostly used for alt tunings (overdubs on William It Was Really Nothing, Shoplifters Of The World…), a super-valuable 1954 Gibson ES-295 à la Elvis sidekick Scotty Moore, a Fender Bass VI baritone (The The’s Helpline Operator) and his Keef-alike 1964 Epiphone Casino ( the main tremolo riff on How Soon Is Now?), a bit like this. He also has an original 1965 Fender Jaguar in Lake Placid Blue. Marr favours quite sturdy strings: Ernie Ball Power Slinkys, 11-48. That’s not all. But that’s quite enough for now…
Amps and effects
Marr’s amp choice is simpler. A mid-60s blackface Fender Twin has been a mainstay for much of his career, but he’s also used silverface Twins, Fender Champs, Vox AC-30s and even Marshalls. The latest Fender Tone Masters will get you close on a reasonable budget. In the 80s he also leaned heavily on a Roland Jazz JC-120 (Jazz Chorus), utilising the onboard effect. He became somewhat ambivalent about their thin tones later, though. “They sounded fine to the player… but I think they failed out front. There seemed to be a big hole in the sound.”
He’s still a fan of Boss effects though, singing the praises of the GT-100 amp effects processor for live shows a few years back. (It’s now been upgraded to the BOSS GT-1000.)
He’s had numerous boutique pedals and classic big-name boxes over the years such as Boss CE-2 Chorus, RV-2 Digital Reverb, OS-2 Overdrive/Distortion, plenty of Carl Martin pedals… More recently, for his more ‘new wave’ tones, he’s been using a Lovetone Doppelganger, an EHX Superego, and MXR Flanger, and plenty of Fender’s pedals such as The Pugilist, the Bends, the Santa Ana Overdrive, Marine Layer Reverb and Mirror Image Delay.
Where to begin? Here’s a random-order JM playlist with great playing, and a lot might depend on whether you like the singer (including Marr himself). But suffice to say, the guitars are always stellar.
The music-obsessed Marr is sponge-like and admits it. He namechecks a very diverse range of early guitar influences that came to bear on his chord-led-style: Bert Jansch, Rory Gallagher, the Stooges’ James Williamson, Marc Bolan of T Rex, The Pretenders’ James Honeyman-Scott, Hendrix, the Beatles, the Stones, the Byrds, Joni Mitchell, the Kinks, African ‘highlife’ guitar… and much more.
Blend all these together with deft technique, occasional thumbpicking, individuality, expert use of feedback, riffs built from chord notes, plenty of augmented and suspended voicings, plus innovative recording techniques and overdubs and you’ll be sounding like Johnny Marr before your vegan lunchtime. Easy!
How To Play Chords Like Johnny Marr part 1
How To Play Chords Like Johnny Marr part 2
For more features, click here.
Get the latest news, reviews and features to your inbox.Subscribe