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(Credit: Salford Uni)

Music

How to play the guitar like Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr is the ultimate indie guitar hero; there is no denying it. Singlehandedly, he helped to destroy the noodling era of the late-1970s and early ’80s rock via his busy and relentless riffing. His constant use of the arpeggio gave The Smiths a sound that was unlike anything anyone had ever heard before. The Manchester icons’ rhythm and lead guitarist in one, without Marr’s unique style, they would not have been the same band.

His style back then was a more back-to-basics approach, a set of guitar ethics that stripped away all of the frills that had been added to guitar playing by sock-stuffing cock-rock. Via a staunchly punk ethos, he re-wrote the handbook on what an alternative guitarist should be. Somewhat of a guitar-playing purist, Marr’s playing was the refreshing breath of air that music needed. 

Through his playing, Marr harks back to Neil Young‘s jangly strumming in the early days with Crazy Horse, The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn’s clean, constantly flowing sound and the moody aggression of James Williamson era Stooges.

Obviously, these days he is a successful solo artist who has also had stints in Modest Mouse, The Cribs and even worked with Hans Zimmer. Committed to progression, it is understandable Marr’s playing has developed. Today, he uses more effects and distortion, but the ethos is still the same. His style is unmistakable.

Of his style, John Doran, on the BBC documentary I’m In A Rock ‘n Roll Band, said: “Johnny Marr placed severe restrictions on himself. He wasn’t allowed to look at heavy metal for inspiration, he wasn’t allowed to lock at classic rock and it was the conflict, the battle, between his innate ability and talent and these restrictions… that’s where the sparks come from”.

“Long solos were out, distortion was out really, rockism that was the real (hisses), you don’t wanna do anything rockist”, Marr explained. “Your sound is almost political, really. I was trying to write just as melodically as I could but not use big rock chugging chord changes. I wanted to make a big sound. It was this constant arpeggioing to fill out the sound.” 

So in this sense, Marr’s playing in The Smiths was both out of necessity and ideology. He was committed to not fitting in with stereotypes and was also fully aware of the fact the band did not have a rhythm guitarist, and that he had to do the job of two musicians, and in the process he created a new role for the guitarist. Duly, he became one of the most influential guitarists of all time.

One of the latter guitar heroes that Marr inspired was Ryan Jarman of alt-rock masters, The Cribs. When Marr joined the band for their 2009 record Ignore The Ignorant, he and Jarman would create a dovetailing guitar sound that has never really been matched and is wildly underrated. 

On the BBC’s 2014 show, The Joy Of The Guitar Riff, Jarman opined: “He’s like the master of the clean tone. Not many guitar players can make a riff sound heavy without distortion, he did that really, really well. The riffs have so much drama… they’re quite pregnant riffs, you don’t really know where they’re going, but you know they’re going somewhere”.

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So now you’ve got his ethos pinned down, you need the equipment. It depends what era of Johnny Marr you want, be it The Smiths or more contemporary. Firstly, it’s critical you get your hands on a Fender or a Roland amp, namely the Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus, the Fender Deluxe ’65 Reverb or the Fender Tone Master Deluxe Reverb.

The Roland is what Marr mainly used during his very treble driven Smiths days, and the Fender Deluxe, which he claims has the “best reverb” he uses these days and can be seen using it in interviews concerning his playing. Marr explained: “The Fender has also got the best reverb, so I just let the Roland handle the top end most of the time; it’s a dream and sounds great. It’s something that I wanted to get together for a long time.”

To attempt to sound like Smiths-era Marr it’s a prerequisite that you get your hands on a rather expensive 1983 Black Rickenbacker 330. The guitar is what gave The Smiths their trademark jangly sound, and it featured on classics such as ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ and ‘Reel Around The Fountain’. He also used a Fender Stratocaster on their more gritty songs such as ‘Some Girls are Bigger than Others’, but his Rickenbacker sound is the most iconic.

If you want to sound like Marr today, then you need to get your hands on a Fender Johnny Marr Signature Jaguar. His axe of choice, it has all the right tone nobs and pickups to achieve his subtle sound. In terms of effects, Marr is a fan of Boss chorus, delay and reverb pedals, and also the Boss GT-100 effects processor for those of you wanting to experiment further with your sound. 

It’s Johnny Marr, so it’s understandable that he’s used a wide variety of instruments over the years, but the one’s we’ve outlined are his go to’s. Due to just how prolific and varying his work has been, Marr has also used Gretsch, Gibson and Martin guitars in the past and has even been known to use Vox amps. The equipment depends on the occasion.

Seemingly, there’s no stone Marr has left unturned. Just remember to own a capo, and you’ll well be on your way to emulating Marr.

Watch Marr talk about his sound below.