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This article was originally published in issue #7
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Johnny Marr’s multi-layered guitar parts on his '80s recordings with the Smith’s influenced and inspired a new generation of guitarist that fell slightly left-field with their styles.
Jamie Humphries pays tribute to Johnny Marr - the legendary UK guitarist, and unlikely guitar hero..
Often when we hear the term 'guitar hero' it calls to mind the flash and technique of the archetypal Rock lead guitarist, hurling blistering solos into the ether. But there are other players with their own distinct voices on the instrument that fall into other musical categories. Nile Rodgers, The Edge, Andy Summers, Mick Ronson, Steve Cropper, Jonny Greenwood, Bernard Butler, and Noel Gallagher - all carved their own sound in guitar history. Another candidate for Guitar Hero status - often given the label of 'Indie's first Guitar Hero' - is Johnny Marr.
Marr’s multi-layered guitar parts on his '80s recordings with the Smith’s influenced and inspired a new generation of guitarist that fell slightly left-field with their styles. He is also said to be one of the guitarist that helped start the 'Manchester' sound. Johnny’s blend of Bo Diddley and Marc Bolan inspired riffs, Roger McGuinn's jangly chords (from the Byrds), plus his use of layering and effects, have been hailed as some of the most important and influential guitar recordings of the 80’s and although Johnny’s career with the Smiths was over by the late 80’s, his legendary guitar playing has made him an in-demand session guitar celebrity, as well as him embarking on new musical projects, ever since.
Born in Manchester, England, in 1963, the young Johnny was mesmerised by the songs of Del Shannon, T Rex, Johnny Cash, as well as the anthemic sounds of Phil Spector’s galaxy of artists. Even from an early age, he recalls having a wooden guitar-shaped toy that he painted to look like a guitar and stuck beer bottle caps on to look like the controls!
Coming from an extended Irish family, there were often parties, weddings and birthdays, and at these family events the same band would play. The guitarist has a red Fender Strat and from the moment he took the guitar out of its case Johnny was transfixed. He felt a calling to play guitar, he had no thoughts of fame or making money, just a drive and passion to play, he says.
This passion blossomed in the summer of 1982, when an 18 year old Marr sought out reclusive poet Morrissey and formed the Smiths. Although they only released four albums in their five year life span, the partnership of Marr and Morrissey forged some of the most influential and important material of the '80s. Although critics were quick to label Marr’s style as 'Jingle Jangle', guitarists knew better, instantly recognising that the complex layering of intricate parts was like the work of an artist painting a picture.
It's not stretching the truth to say that Marr renewed the electric guitar in popular music, in a time of synth-dominated, synthetic Pop. calling on an astonishingly wide rage of unusual influences, like Bert Jansch, Marc Bolan, George Harrison, Keith Richards, and Iggy and the Stooges. Marr single handily re-invented British guitar based pop music, at a time when it was near expiry, influencing such artists as The Stone Roses, Oasis, Radiohead, The Arctic Monkeys, The Libertines, Suede, and Blur - all of whom cite Marr and the Smiths as a major influence, and in all of whom you can hear touches of Marr’s style.
Following the break up of the Smiths, Marr went on to become a high-profile session guitarist, although in many cases he actually joined the groups he was working for, including healthy stints with The Pretenders and The The. Marr also formed a long term partnership with Bernard Sumner of The Joy Division and New Order, two other seminal Manchester bands. Sumner and Marr formed Electronic in 1988, blending guitars with sequencers. The duo occasionally even added the vocal talents of The Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant. Other more recent projects have included Modest Mouse and the Cribs. Johnny was also involved with Neil Finn’s '7 Worlds Collide' recording and live performance that raised money for Oxfam and was also recruited by composer Hans Zimmer for the movie soundtrack to the film 'Inception'. Johnny also performed live with an orchestra performing the movie soundtrack.
Johnny Marr is a real working guitar hero, who continues to create and inspire, treating Rock 'n Roll as an art form. Above all, he is a lesson to those who think guitar playing is solely about technique an, in particular, playing as many notes per minute as you can before your fingers catch fire What Johnny Marr has proved is that, really, what it's all about is the music and the feel. That and developing what Johnny has in spades - an instantly recognisable, unique guitar voice.