Johnny Marr: The Smiths

Why You Should Know Him

British songwriter and musician Johnny Marr rose to fame in the 1980s as the guitarist for The Smiths, one of England’s most successful alternative rock bands to emerge from that era. Johnny Marr’s notorious guitar sound became synonymous with the band’s alternative sound, which featured basic rock structures, subtle use of vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation, and mixed acoustic and electronic instrumentation. The band saw moderate success in the mid-‘80s, thanks in part to their self-titled 1984 album, which rose to #2 on the UK charts. Their fan base then quickly grew and The Smiths became quite successful, peaking with their 1985 LP, Meat Is Murder, their only album to reach #1 on the charts.

During 1985, the band completed lengthy tours of the UK and the US while recording their next studio record, The Queen Is Dead in 1986. Many critics called this an incredibly influential record. The band’s time in the spotlight continued for a few more years with the release of several albums, including The World Won’t Listen (1987), Louder Than Bombs (1987), Strangeways, Here We Come (1987), and a live album entitle, Rank (1988). However, amidst all of their mainstream success, the band became caught up in a seemingly endless jungle of controversy, accusation, overwork, and violence.

Around the time of arguably their most successful single, “Panic,” tensions among the band members began to grow, and it looked like the beginning of the end for the group. Like many short-lived pop acts of the decade, Marr and his bandmates retreated into the fog. However, their musical legacy still lives on today and has inspired countless alt-rock musicians.

Their most popular hit singles such as “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” “Panic,” “How Soon Is Now,” “Girlfriend in a Coma,”and “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” still live on in active rotation on ‘80s stations; however, Marr’s talent for guitar playing and songwriting is often overlooked.

The Gear

During his years with The Smiths, Marr played several different guitars. He has always been an advocate of fine musical instruments, and his diverse and unique sound can be attributed in part to the wide variety of guitars in his collection, as described on his website:

“These are The Smiths guitars: Rickenbacker 330, Rickenbacker 360 12 String, Gibson 355, Gretch 6120, Gibson Les Paul Standard, Fender Telecaster, Custom Green Telecaster, 1963 L-Series Fender Strat, Gibson 330 12 String, Martin D-28 Acoustic, Martin D-28 12 String Acoustic.

My other favorite guitars are a red ‘59 Gibson ES-355, a ‘59 sunburst Les Paul, a custom green quilted-maple telecaster, and three Rickenbackers—my first 330, an amazing ‘66 wood-grain 330, and a 12-string that used to belong to Pete Townshend. I bought a few ‘63 Strats from John Entwistle. And then there’s a ‘69 Strat I bought from Jeff Beck. I use Ernie Ball strings, gauged .010 to .046, on most of my guitars.

I always used a few different guitars in the studio, some of which I still use now. I did use the Rickenbacker a lot, particularly on the first album and The Queen Is Dead, as well as the early singles/b-sides. The ‘54 Telecaster was also used a lot; it’s the main riff on “This Charming Man.”

A lot of The Smiths was actually recorded with a ‘54 Telecaster belonging to John Porter. I used a Rickenbacker 360 12-string as well, and that was the guitar which subsequently got all the attention, but in fact, it was mainly the Tele, and a bit of Les Paul.”

Where Is He Now?

Marr currently resides in Manchester in the United Kingdom and since the dissolution of The Smiths, Marr has been associated with many well-known musicians, yet somehow has still managed to remain relatively free of the spotlight. Marr returned to the music scene in 1989 with New Order’s Bernard Sumner in the super-group, Electronic. Marr was also a member of the band, The The, and recorded two albums with the group between 1989 and 1993.

He has also worked as a session musician and writing collaborator for artists such as The Pretenders, Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, Black Grape, Jane Birkin, Talking Heads, and Beck. In 2000 he started another band, Johnny Marr, and the Healers, with a moderate degree of success. In 2006, he became a member of the band, Modest Mouse, and their 2007 album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank reached #1 on the Billboard charts, becoming Marr’s first #1 record in America.

He continues to keep himself busy with his latest project—indie group, The Cribs. Marr is extremely well respected in the industry, and even though his talent is quite often overlooked in the US, he remains popular in the UK. Marr continues to create new music and do what he loves to do.

In 2014, Marr recorded music with Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 soundtrack and later joined Zimmer as a guest musician at two of his concerts. He also released his second solo album, Playland, in the same year; subsequently announcing a tour centered around the new album.

Currently, Marr is working on another album with Hans Zimmer and he contributed to Blondie’s upcoming album, Pollinator, with the song, “My Monster.” The album is set to release in May 2017.

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