BY COLLEEN CAVANAUGH//
The Smiths. Like most people I go through a lot of phases and have a lot of different favorite bands depending on the month and the mood I’m in, but I think in this case I can definitively say they are a true all-time favorite. At this point they’ve been meme-ed to death with the rise of the male manipulator trope. You know, I cuff my jeans and then say “let me gaslight you” to the tune of the This Charming Man riff. It’s not like that’s inaccurate, but… The Smiths are just so good. I love them, and what I really love about them? Johnny Marr.
Over Thanksgiving we were talking about music and my brother asked me if I liked Morrissey. Of course, the answer is no. I despise the man and his uh, how would you put it, fascist tendencies. But more than that I’ve genuinely tried to listen to his solo stuff, and while I can get down with a few songs it’s not my bag. That’s because, for me, Johnny Marr is the heart of The Smiths. He wrote the music. And though I do love to hate on Morrissey, that man can write a lyric. So his writing paired with Marr’s guitar really do combine to make something divine. To use a cliché The Smiths are greater than the sum of their parts. I mean, the band was only active for 5 years with 4 studio albums, but they made an impact comparable to that of a large meteor striking earth.
Yet, it will come as no surprise that some of my absolute favorite Smith’s songs are purely instrumental – “Oscillate Wildly,” “The Draize Train (Live in London),” “Money Changes Everything” – I could listen to them on repeat. Marr’s style is just so magnetic, flowery and melodic but sometimes biting, it’s no surprise everyone wants to work with him. His contributions over the years are too many to count, but to give you an idea he’s either been a member of, or worked with The Pretenders, The The, Pet Shop Boys, Talking Heads (*David Byrne voice* this is not my beautiful Johnny Marr!), Beck, Oasis, and Modest Mouse. Oh, and he’s collaborated with Hans Zimmer on the scores for Inception as well as the new Bond movie No Time To Die. He now works under his own name having released 3 solo studio albums over the past few years.
Let’s talk more about style. Marr has said that the aim of post-punk was to essentially be anti-rock, in music and lifestyle: no downstroking, no power chords, no meat, and no hardcore drug use or drinking. It seems to be working for him because he ran the New York Marathon sub 4 hours in 2010. A lot of his signature sound comes from his distinct picking patterns and syncopated rhythm. Some of his riffs seem deceivingly manageable, I wouldn’t go so far as to say simple, if you’re just looking at note placement, but mimicking his rhythm is another beast to tackle. To facilitate this deadly picking/rhythm combo, he often uses open chords, triads, and open tunings. Open tunings are interesting because you tune the guitar’s stings so that when played completely open, no fingers touching any frets, it plays a chord. All that means is more opportunities, or different opportunities, than what’s offered by standard tuning.
As for tone, Marr has described his approach as clean but not hi-fi. It’s got attitude. In continuing the anti-rock sentiment, he doesn’t like distortion because once you go there you can’t really come back from it. Still, that doesn’t mean he’s afraid to throw some driven tones in there. Just listen to the solo in Shoplifters of the World Unite, that sounds like it could be in a hair metal song or something. Marr is also known for using a lot of reverb, chorus, and most importantly tremolo. Imagine how much different “How Soon Is Now” would sound if the guitar wasn’t soaked in that glorious trem.
A lot of his gear makes sense when thinking about it in connection with tone. He overwhelmingly favors Fender amps, which always top the rankings for amps with great cleans. Over his long and varied career, Marr has played a lot of guitars. Most are from the traditional well-known brands, including pretty much all the Gibson and Fender standards, plus a few Gretsch guitars. There’s also the iconic 1983 Rickenbacker 330 that he used prominently during the early Smiths years. It’s the guitar you hear on “What Difference Does It Make” and “Reel Around The Fountain.” In the past 15 years or so he’s leaned heavily into Fender Jaguars, getting his own signature model in 2012. If you want every detail on how much careful thought Marr put into his model you can watch him talk about it here. It has vintage ’62 pickups and a 4-position switch. Normally a guitar with only 2 pickups has a 3-way switch, but in this case the fourth position puts the neck and bridge pickups in series. This makes the two single coils act almost like humbucker to give a thicker sound.
Talking about playing guitar Marr said, “It’s like turning your daydreams into sound.” I think he succeeded.