Johnny Marr’s contribution to The Smiths isn’t as overwhelmingly prominent as Morrissey’s. Marr prefers a slightly more scenic route to achieve his goals, its a mark of astute musicianship that has seen him become a guitar idol.
Unlike most guitar Gods, Marr isn’t particularly heavy or necessarily driven by egotistical solos or crunchy power chords. Instead, his vision is holistic and benevolent—all for the good of the tune.
Even back to his days with The Smiths, Marr was constantly pushing for a sound that didn’t challenge the heavy lyricism of Morrissey but supported it. With his iconic jangle tone, something his Fender Jaguar guitar provides with ample glee, Marr crafted not only songs sturdy enough to give Moz’s literary ideas a place to flourish but in doing so carved out his own inimitable niche.
It was a deliberate pursuit, too. Marr has often spoken at length about how and when he created his songs. Whether it was the Iggy Pop influence and cramped conditions of writing ‘Hand In Glove’ or the new guitar that spawned ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, Marr is always open about his techniques.
It’s part of his and The Smiths charm. While the licks he was playing certainly weren’t ‘guitar 101’, they weren’t quite Jimmy Page in a noodle bar difficult either. Yet despite the amount one tries to copy Marr’s sound it is almost inimitable, it’s probably why he’s so happy to share how he did it.
It was a similar laconic process that brought Marr to the construction of one of The Smiths’ most famous songs and their second single, ‘This Charming Man’. Although “flummoxed” by the lyrics, Marr allegedly wrote the guitar parts to the track “in 20 minutes” while the group prepared for their second John Peel session.
Marr told Guitar Player in 1993, “I’ll try any trick. With the Smiths, I’d take this really loud Telecaster of mine, lay it on top of a Fender Twin Reverb with the vibrato on, and tune it to an open chord. Then I’d drop a knife with a metal handle on it, hitting random strings. I used it on ‘This Charming Man’.” It’s a technique confirmed in Goddard’s Songs That Saved Your Life by producer John Porter who said that the band were very strict on the instruments used in any recording process.
“They wouldn’t allow backing vocals or whatever. Mozzer was clear about that so it was a case of ‘Okay, any sound we need we’ll do it with guitars’, so Johnny and me would be dropping spanners on them, taping bits up, just having fun smoking a lot of dope while staying up all night making silly noises.”
While much will be able of those silly moments, including doubling up the guitars with acoustic tracks for a layered sound, and the iconic knife being dropped on the strings of his ’54 Tele, the real technique can be heard in this isolated guitar track.
It shows Marr’s economical work as the arpeggiated chords propel the upbeat riff, it not only makes the song what is but it defined The Smiths sound, and, in turn, their influence across the globe. Nobody sounded like The Smiths because they didn’t have Johnny Marr.
Listen below to Johnny Marr’s isolated guitar on The Smiths’ iconic song, ‘This Charming Man’.