From The Smiths to Modest Mouse: Johnny Marr’s best guitar riffs
Johnny Marr is one of Britain’s most treasured souls; the Mancunian has played a crucial role in shaping the sound of alternative music since The Smiths captured hearts all over the world in 1982. His unique, infectious guitar playing style was like nothing else that came before. His career has lasted the test of time, his style has never got tiresome and Marr has made sure that he has a place in the pantheon of guitar greats.
Everything about the former Smiths man is graceful. His guitar playing is up there with the best of them, but, sits firmly within Marr’s hand-crafted lane. Marr has played with some of the most incredible talents of the last 40 years and doesn’t have questionable politics like a certain former bandmate of his. His love for music has never waned as the years progressed, embarking on a stellar solo career which has finally seen him get the love that he well and truly deserves.
While many people from Marr’s generation stayed transfixed sonically on the period from when they gained success, he has been quite the opposite. The guitarist always kept moving by working with Electronic, The Cribs and Modest Mouse. He remains an impossible artist to tie down to one sound or movement, which can be traced to him never seeing music as confined to just four walls and his want to carry on breaking down barriers for decades is nothing but commendable.
Speaking about his style to Music Radar in 2018, Marr said: “There’s a lot about the guitar that is different to other instruments – the fact that electricity is involved and the really fabulous colours! One of the benefits of learning the guitar, for me, was that it was something where I could be on my own and just fuck everybody off and do something really engaging on my own. I feel very lucky to have found something that’s been a lifelong obsession, let alone get paid for it.
“It’s a great thing if you’ve got an identifiable style. As Chet Atkins said, ‘If your mother hears you playing on the radio and she knows it’s you, you’re a good guitar player’. There’s a lot to be said for that,” he added.
In celebration of Marr’s immense talent and musical reportoire, this feature will celebrate his greatness through a selection of his finest riffs from throughout his career. If you’re a fan of The Smiths, Modest Mouse, Electronic, The Cribs or anything Johnny Marr related then we’ve got you covered.
Johnny Marr’s best riffs
The Smiths – ‘This Charming Man’
It’s impossible to write this list without starting with 1984’s ‘This Charming Man’. This effort was the track from their eponymous debut album that immediately grabbed fans by tenterhooks and introduced thousands into the world of The Smiths thanks to Johnny Marr’s delectable riff.
‘This Charming Man’ was like a slice of heaven when it featured on their debut self-titled effort in 1984. It quickly became the track most synonymous with the group because it encapsulated everything that The Smiths represented. The killer jangly guitars courtesy of Johnny Marr coupled with Morrissey’s sexually ambiguous lyrics which were left open to interpretation which all led The Smiths to be the voice of the youth who previously felt like they didn’t belong. Still, now they finally had a voice in the Mancunians.
The Smiths – ‘How Soon Is Now?’
‘How Soon Is Now’ is the definition of a sleeper hit. A song that somehow, against all odds, became one of The Smiths’ most treasured tracks despite it initially being dismissed as B-side. With uncertainty around the song upon its initial formation, the band’s record label attempted to bury the track which was, at the time, stylistically worlds apart from the trademark Smiths sound, but, it’s now remembered as being possibly their best work.
Detailing their approach to the song, Marr previously commented: “The vibrato [tremolo] sound is incredible, and it took a long time. I put down the rhythm track on an Epiphone Casino through a Fender Twin Reverb without vibrato. Then we played the track back through four old Twins, one on each side. We had to keep all the amps vibrating in time to the track and each other, so we had to keep stopping and starting the track, recording it in 10-second bursts. It is possibly [the Smiths’] most enduring record. It’s most people’s favourite, I think.”
Electronic – ‘Getting Away With It’
Following The Smiths’ demise, it was time for Johnny Marr to flex his musical muscles and step into unknown territory once more. Electronic were born out of the ashes of The Smiths in 1989. They came following Marr working as a session musician with The Pretenders and The The. He formed the group with New Order’s Bernard Sumner and Marr had the fire back in his belly once again.
‘Getting Away With It’ was the group’s first-ever single and featured guest vocals from Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys. The track saw Marr break-away from The Smiths’ downtrodden, gloomy world and step into poppy territories. Electronic was Marr’s way of proving his versatility and on this track, he even delivers a rare solo to show that nothing is out of his wheelhouse.
Modest Mouse – ‘Dashboard’
Electronic were active, on and off for around a decade then following the end of that group Marr experimented in different areas. He first formed Johnny Marr and The Healers at the turn of the century, but, the project never hit the ground running. They released one record in 2003 before shelving their planned follow-up record.
Marr would rediscover his feet when he joined Portland indie icons Modest Mouse in 2006. Singer Isaac Brock asked him to join them in the studio for a guest appearance and they hit it off straight away. The guitarist played a pivotal role on their 2007 record, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, with ‘Dashboard’ being the stand-out track from the astounding album.
The track came about organically, according to Marr: “On the first night we (Marr and Isaac Brock) just set up two amps opposite each other and just got louder and louder and improvised. I just started playing ‘Dashboard,’ which I’d been playing a few weeks before and forgotten about. And he instantly started improvising the lyrics, which knocked me out. To see someone produce those lyrics just off the top of his head is amazing: I’ve never seen it done in such a way.”
The Cribs – ‘City Of Bugs’
After moving to Portland to join Modest Mouse, Marr met fellow English expat The Cribs’ Gary Jarman at a barbecue in the city and they agreed to jam together. Things went swimmingly and Marr ended up joining The Cribs for 2009’s Ignore The Ignorant.
At the time, Marr declared that the record was “as good as anything I’ve done” and he wasn’t far wrong. He added another dimension to the Wakefield band of brothers and another distinct layer to their sound. ‘City Of Bugs’ is one of the meatiest songs in Marr’s career and a world away from The Smiths, but, his prowess lives on.
Gary Jarman later talked about how he recruited the former Smiths man: “Johnny likes The Cribs and we like Johnny so we just started playing together. I guess any band that starts out like that they just get on as friends and want to keep on playing together. I know it seems a bit unbelievable when you talk about somebody Johnny but it was like starting a band with any friend. It was a cool, surreal and flattering thing and it was really simple.”
Johnny Marr – ‘Easy Money’
In 2011, Marr left The Cribs on good terms as he had some unfinished business as a solo artist that he couldn’t rest without doing. This decision was one that Marr couldn’t put off any longer, it had been close to a decade since his last album with the Healers and the new experience he’d picked up with The Cribs and Modest Mouse made this decision the perfect one.
Since making this decision, he’s released three albums to date, each one jam-packed with riffs that continue to thrill and exhilarate. ‘Easy Money’ from 2014’s Playland is one of the many highlights from Marr’s solo repertoire that has proved that he’s not only one of the all-time great guitarists, but a fine vocalist to boot.
“I like the idea of sneaking a serious concern into the mainstream, disguised as a big pop tune,” he told Rolling Stone about the track. “The riff was so catchy and infectious that I wanted it to be about something that appeared to be trite but was actually quite universal.”
“Money is a preoccupation of everybody, and it took me quite a long time to write something that appeared to be simple. If you were to ask anybody in the City [London’s equivalent to Wall Street] what they’re after, essentially the root of it is money,” he continued. “It’s the age-old thing of people thinking that it will make us happy.”