Jingle and jangle are the words most often used to describe Johnny Marr
's guitar sound they hardly do it justice. Marr, most famously known as the guitarist with the Smiths
but someone who has performed on albums by everyone from Beck
and Pearl Jam
to the Cribs
and Modest Mouse
, created a sound that shimmered and undulated. It was simultaneously transparent but filled with echo and delay and sonic trail vapors that all but defined the sound of Britpop in the 1980s. So many guitar players have emulated his sound everyone from former Red Hot Chili Peppers
member John Frusciante
's Jonny Greenwood
finally saw fit to give him his own Signature guitar. After years of development, the Johnny Marr Jaguar
has finally come out.
Here in a long distance call from the United Kingdom, Marr
talked at length about the new instrument, life with the Smiths
, and how limitations can be a good thing musically speaking.
UG: Scoring your own Fender Signature Jaguar guitar must feel amazing.
Yeah, it's great to finally have it out in the world so to speak. It's been quite an interesting process and one that I would have done myself anyway in terms of [Fender] making the right instrument for me. Justin Norvell from Fender approached me I guess in 2006 and said they'd like me to do a signature model, it was such a privilege and obviously I was stoked because it's a totally different thing to have Fender behind you. They've really been so helpful and done a great job.
So it's taken about six years to get the Jaguar right?
Yeah, it's been refining things and a constant process. Being away a lot on the road with the prototype and waiting for a chance to get back to the UK to work with Bill Poplarwho does my guitarson everything from the frets to the bridge and almost every aspect of it. There's not anything that I haven't customized for myself and nothin' is stock on that except for the knobs, which I coulda changed if I thought they could have been improved on. But I left those alone. That's not to say that the original Fender design wasn't a thing of beauty and near perfection but I just think 50 years on it can be different for the modern guitar player.
You require different things from the Jaguar now than back in the Smiths days?
It's the combination of myself as a player and what I require from the guitar. My particular sort of journey over the last four years on stage and in studios with Modest Mouse and the Cribs, the Healers, Hans Zimmer and orchestras and all of those things with Fender's experience and resources and support have all led to the making of the instrument. So there's been a lot of different factors involved and not just from my side.
Everything had to be tweaked to accommodate the music you play now.
As I said, there's nothing from the nut to the bridge [that hasn't been changed] including the contours of the body and the chamfer [angle] is even slightly different. The top chamfer is a certain way from my '63 Lake Placid Blue that I got in 2006 to the chamfer on the bottom left curve on the front of the guitar beings from a certain kind of '54 Strat. That's what I mean when I say every single aspect of it has been put under the microscope and made my own specs. Yeah, it's been a number of things and time-consuming but we didn't want to release the finished article until absolutely every aspect had been perfected and 100 per cent there.
The guitar has been refined to include everything you need from an instrument. What will other players think of it?
Now I think of it the other aspect is that I didn't want it to be something other guitar players wouldn't absolutely love either. So there's no scalloped fingerboards or anything that only a certain elite can work with. I did want to keep it something that we all could work with really. I think the neck was the biggest aspect in that decision and was the biggest consideration. I took the longest time over deciding whether the neck should be an authentic 1963 of some type but I eventually went with this one-off unique 1965 that I was lucky enough to be given by Jay Rosen in San Francisco [Jay Rosen Music is a serious and prestigious vintage guitar shop] and I considered that for a long time. I thought Jag players will really like it but people who think they don't like Jags who would normally have a hard time with a regular '63 Jag neck will be more likely to like this one. So there was consideration towards people who even don't usually like Jagsnaysayers if you like. I'm trying to please everybody but without it being too diluted. That's what I mean when I say every aspect that we could think of has been looked at.
What drew you to the Jaguar as opposed to a Stratocaster or Telecaster?
What drew me was a very practical moment when myself and Isaac Brock were playing at deafeningly high volumes at 1:00 a.m. in Portland and my Telecaster wasn't doing what I needed at that moment. I cast my eye around and saw this beat up black '63 Jag that was stashed in the corner and just pulled it out of the rack and plugged it in and we wrote the song Dashboard for Modest Mouse and that was the start of the journey. I had the riff in the back of my mind but picking that guitar up just pulled the riff out from under my fingers and I immediately then heard this sound that ended up on that track. And pretty much all of the Modest Mouse record and everything I've done since. It suits the way I feel these days but also covers so much of what I've done in the past.
What were those requirements on the earlier records that you needed to cover with the Jaguar?
"It's the combination of myself as a player and what I require from the guitar."
To be technical about it, my Signature Jag can certainly cover the Gretsch sounds that I've used back in the day and the Rickenbacker sounds that I've done back in the day. But suit where I've gone as a guitar player over the last say, say, seven or eight years from the Healers up to Inception. That's as wide a scope as I need really.
You talk about the Gretsch, Rickenbacker and Fender sounds you created with the Smiths. Was that a voyage of exploration in learning how to create those beautiful clean tones?
I had the patience, imagination and enthusiasm to turn the reverb knob right up and right down on the amp. Tune the guitar into drones and hit them with bits of cutlery and switch on the tremolo at the end of chords. A lot of the stuff that we now do with painting guitars sounds with a mouse, I was doing at four o'clock in the morning with classic stuff that was designed in the 50s.
John Porter helped produce those early Smiths recordswas he an important part of your sound?
Nearly all the Smiths records were produced by me but I was very lucky that the ones that weren't were produced by John Porter. Johnny is a great guy and a great guitar player and he taught me a lot. The songs that got his initial attention like This Charming Man and What Difference Does It Make were me having written these songs and running around with tons of energy and youthful exuberance and attitude. It was the experience, patience and friendship of John Porter who turned me onto the '54 Telly, say.
Is that right?
Yeah and how that would enhance the Rickenbacker because I was all about wanting a Rickenbacker. So the first bit of money I made, I bought a Rickenbacker. But there were things going on on those earlier records that people assumed were Rickenbackers but was actually a '54 Telly. Before I formed the band I was a Les Paul freak because everybody in the UK was and in the new wave days over here it was all about Les Pauls into Fender Twins. So quite quickly I wanted to return to the Les Paul but I was playing clean sounds.
You used the Les Paul for clean tones?
I added that to what I was doing on the second album [Meat is Murder] on songs like The Headmaster Ritual, Meat is Murder and those kinds of things were clean Les Pauls. Which most players know have a much more jazzy different sort of aspect to them. I found and still find now that it's usually just a small number of fabulous amplifers and classic, great guitars that all have their own sort of character. This was a long time before modeling amps, boutique amps and even digital recording and digital shaping and plug-ins and all those things that can really give you so many shades of tone. But lucky for me old guitars weren't called vintage guitars in those days with vintage pricesthey were just called old guitars. It was sort of unusual even for guitar bands to like old guitars. There was only a few of us sort of young bands into old guitars. Between the Ricky and the old Telly, the Les Paul and Gretsch, I was able to get a lot of different clean tones. What can I sayI was lucky enough to get my hand on a few very great instruments. And really primarily through great Fender amps.
You touched on songs like This Charming Man and What Difference Does It Make from The Smiths album. With tracks like that and Suffer Little Children did you feel that you were truly finding your way as a guitarist?
Oh yeah, very quickly I got up to speed and was just aware I was building up techniques. Tunings was something I was very interested in before the band even formed. As a 14- and 15-year old I was always messin' around with tunings and aside from the sort of songwriting adventures you get with that, I was aware that sonically it gave you some roads to go down. And capos too was a very cheap solution to getting a different sound for me. Hey presto, you've suddenly got a really ringing high sound that cuts through the rest of the track if you can be bothered to work out different inversions and it can get you all these different harmonies.
That first record was important in developing the Johnny Marr style.
All of those things I considered part of being a guitar player for me. So there were things that I picked up from being just a guitar-obsessed teenager that I brought to the band anyway. But I guess the key to it was having a band I loved and a record company who could put us in the studio even if it was Rough Trade saying, Come out with three entirely finished songs in 12 hours.
You had to learn quickly how to maneuver in the studio.
The BBC John Peel Sessions were great for that situation because you had to come out with four finished songs in about eight hours that were gonna be broadcast. I kind of got my production skills together at those John Peel sessions because the rest of the bandmembers just looked at the BBC guy with a grumpy face behind the board and they looked at me and said, Johnny get your wheels on.
What was that like writing with Morrissey? Did the songs really take on life after he added melodies and vocals?
Oh, absolutely. I was working on my own melodic sense and there was usually a bunch of different melodies going on in there as is still the case when I write. I try and have a lot of counterpoint in the guitar and it's something I can't resist doing. There's other stuff that jumps out at you and I tend to follow that. It was a little like painting a landscape and handing it over to somebody else and putting a completely differentor quite differentobject in the foreground that you continue to paint around. To use a clumsy metaphor but that's the best way I can describe it. It was always a joy and I found that was always great and the best thing about collaborating with other singers. Kirsty MacColl comes to mind too and she would do a similar thing when I'd give her an instrumental backing track and the vocal would come back in a way I hadn't quite imagined. That would encourage me to put a guitar that leads into the vocal break. Oh, I see you left a gap here and I'll answer your little vocal phrase with this part there. So yeah, it's a great way of bouncing creativity off each other and a delightful surprise.
Stephen Street engineered the Meat is Murder album. Did he have a hand at all in helping you with guitar sounds?
Stephen and I learnt to do what we did together. We were roughly the same age, which is to say very young, and in that situation on that record record was amazing. We decided to do it ourselves and the feeling was like, Hey, we're let loose in a recording studio with no adults and no supervision. That was also very scary because there was a lot expected of us and really it was the rest of the Smiths who just assumed that I would be able to do it and that I knew what I was doingwhich I didn't. I found that's often the case from what I gather that it's a scenario of your young engineer has been working on a couple of sessions and he steps in as your co-producer perhaps like Nigel Godrich did with Radiohead and Jimmy Miller with the Rolling Stones et cetera. You kind of figure it out together and the fact that you're inexperienced is quite useful as long as you're brave because you leave reverbs in too long and you put too much delay on things. You're just quite fearless and a bit pioneering and do things that aren't quite technically right but it's a little bit daring.
Give you give any examples of that pioneering spirit?
"I don't think I ever had any kind of prejudice against, or no, I don't think I had any kind of dogma against anything as long as it served the song."
I'm thinking of things like the false ending on That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore. That was just us turning the tape over and having some fun really. So Stephen grew into being who he was gonna be with us and entirely enabled the group to do so and throughout the rest of the band's career Stephen and I learnt to make records together. But without a doubt we wouldn't have done what we did without Stephen Street; he was perfect for us. The age thing was very important and he looked like us and he was like one of us. He was on a course set to be who he wanted to be in the way that we were. He was driven and he had his own agenda and he tried out all of the neat things he wanted to do with us and vice versa and it was just a perfect fit. It was a very, very useful thing. You know even with the record company, they were the right label for us and we were the right band for them so it was just one of those great bits of synchronicity when all the pieces fit.
One of the overlooked pieces of what the Smiths did was Andy Rourke's bass playing.
Oh, yeah. I talked to Andy last night and he's such a modest guy. Lots of things are often overlooked at the time and I'm really happy over the years as dust as settled and good things are being remembered and some nonsense is thankfully being forgotten that the good stuff comes to the surface. And one of those things about the Smiths is Andy's greatness as a bass player. Cause over the years bass players always want to know from me how he did what he did and what he was listening to and how he came out with that style. It's great that he gets that recognition. It's there for everybody to hear and now I think of it it was kind of one of the coolest things of doing all the remastering I did last year.
You remastered all eight Smiths records [including compilations and live albums] that will come out in September?
Taking all the crappy EQ off that had been put on by whoever in the 90s just brought back a lot of what was going on in the bass on the records. I didn't turn the bass up, I just took off loads of silly compression and EQ and maybe raised the gain only a little bit. It was one of the things that was important to me that we didn't need to be louder than the last Green Day record or whatever. I just wanted it to sound as I remembered it sounding in the studio and for years when I heard the records I'd be thinking, Whoa, I thought I was hearing things better than that. And hey presto, when we got the tapes up as they came out of the studio, there it was in all its glory sounding pretty cool and you can hear what Andy is doing.
Listening to all those old tapes kind of took you back to those moments of recording all those songs?
Yeah. I've said this before but before every acoustic strum or every little arpeggio or every vocal reverb or delay or tambourine hit, I know it's coming. It's in my muscle memory [laughs] so that is to say I haven't and don't listen to any old records that I make once they're done. I was always like that and I'm still like that now because you sort of live with em so obsessively in and out of the studio and sometimes in your mind at 3:00 a.m. when you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about an outro or, Is this riff right? and that business. So once they're out there they belong to everybody else and I can't mess with em and out they go and you just hope they do well.
But it was ultimately important to you to revisit all the music and make it sound right again.
I thought for a long time to get the remasters done and I doubt very much whether it's something that I'll do again. There was a lot of songs to do70-something songsand once you started doing the first few you think, Uh oh, there's no going back now. I put up such a fuss for so long because I thought the company could let me do it and I finally get to do it and I realized as I looked at this roomful of tapes and it was like, OK, smarty pants, let's see what you can do. But I'm really glad I did it and I don't think anyone can say that they don't sound better.
On the third album, The Queen is Dead, you've expanded from guitar to include synthesizers and harmonium. Where did that come from?
I don't think I ever had any kind of prejudice against, or no, I don't think I had any kind of dogma against anything as long as it served the song. Everything was fair game to me really and still is. The Emulator had just come out and I wasn't about to try to turn the group into A Flock of Seagulls or anything, it's just that I put the pads on a song like There is a Light That Never Goes Out. When I lived with those parts [sings the line] for a week or two, I started to wonder, Hey, well maybe a flute sound with echo on would be cool there because there are already four guitar parts on it. I mean now when I play it live I play it on guitar and it works nicely and that's how I originally wrote it. But the top line [sings it], I always imagined as a string part anyway and there it was this machine that thankfully had a pretty cool sound.
The Emulator was cool.
Yeah, I just used it like a modern-day Mellotron really; that's the way I saw it.
Did you think about bringing in a real Mellotron?
You've got to remember we were an indie band working on a budget. If there had been a Mellotron in the studio I would have used it as long as we didn't have to hire [rent] it. But we weren't working in studios that were posh enough to have Mellotrons hanging around. Back then everything was new new new new new and aside from my guitars and my clothes and a few hairstyles here and there, vintage culture had yet to come around. So keyboards were whatever were knockin' around and as I say luckily for us the Emulator didn't stink too bad if you put the right reverb on it and maybe backed it up with a little bit of acoustic or whatever to keep it nice and organic.
The Smiths' last album, Strangeways, Here We Come contains songs like I Started Something I Couldn't Finish, which has bigger and more distorted guitar sounds.
"On something like I Started Something I Couldn't Finish was me remembering I liked Mick Ronson and I'd yet to kind of reference him."
On something like I Started Something I Couldn't Finish was me remembering I liked Mick Ronson and I'd yet to kind of reference him. I think I Started Something was me being me really where it's almost like self-referencing as opposed to reverential. It's knowing that there's a thing I can do and I might as well do it to the max cause the song called for it you know. When I listen to that song it was like pulling out harmonics that sound like bells and chimes and gongs and stuff like that. But that was me sort of basically just doing the Guitarchestra that I'd done on a lot of other records. It was me happily being me on overdubs and overdubs and overdubs.
What other songs do you remember from Strangeways, Here We Come?
On I Won't Share You I was going, What's this little autoharp gathering dust in the stairwell here? It was an ornament in the house in the studio in the residential part. This'll be pretty cool and just strummin' away on it and deciding to not overdub anything else on top of it other than a harmonica at the end of it. The first song on that record, Strangeways doesn't have any guitar on it at all.
Which song is that?
The first song on it: A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours, which was something I'd wanted to do for a long time if only to see if anyone would notice and they don't [laughs]. I thought I was really kind of cool because by that time there's plenty of opportunity for you to be put in a bag by the media and critics and all that kind of thing and all these clichs I was hearing about myself. When you're young you don't like that so I had the opportunity and thought, I'll start the record sounding exactly like the way my band sounds and see if anyone notices there isn't one guitar on it.
You've referenced Mick Ronson here and in the past you've talked about guitarists like Marc Bolan and Jimi Hendrix. You never wanted to aspire to that kind of rock guitar stature?
No, because I came from a culture that thought that was macho nonsense. I loved and lived and breathed and obsessed about guitar culture from being a little kid when I was six or seven. But the culture I came out of as a teenager in the UK meant that kind of guitar shop posturing was outdated and pretty corny and had an overt sort of aspects of sexism to it and was just really overall pretty cheesy. As you pointed out I loved Bolan from the glam rock period but I wouldn't at all describe him as a macho man kind of rock guitar player.
The only real rockin' Les Paul guys I liked was James Williamson and I still dohe's my all-time favorite guitar player. But I didn't like the kind of just fast frettin' nonsense and I still don't. I don't think it's got to me just what does it have to do with music? Blazing over a fretboard is of course a real exciting, great, exhilarating moment as is on Raw Power or it's like pop art or something then I'm all for it and it's fine. There was a lot of things in guitar culture that were my generation that didn't relate to my generation.
What about players like Roger McGuinn from the Byrds?
I got into the Byrds because when our first records came out everybody kept telling me that I sounded like himit wasn't the other way around.
Yeah. I just played arpeggio guitar because in the post-punk days, which is what I came out of, distortion wasn't allowed and delay wasn't allowed and solos weren't allowedeven bending notes weren't allowed. I think that was very good for me because so much was thrown away, I think as an artist quite oftenspeaking personallyit's great to have to work within restrictions and confines. I'm aware of that these days because we can just sit in front of a screen and pull a Hammond out immediately from a menu next to an array of amazing-sounding Moog synthesizers and an orchestra and a ton of simulated amplifiers and you've just got an incredible amount of choice.
Your style came from not being able to play certain styles.
In 1980 and '81 you were kind of frowned upon if anything was bluesy. So a lot of the reason why I play that arpeggio was because I had to keep the sound going because there wasn't a helluva lot of sustain going around. In my band there were no keyboard playersit was just three musicians and a singer. But because I'd got into a lot of folk stuff in my early teens, I had a certain kind of technique to be able to do it. And also I was very, very melodic and that's how the whole kind of arpeggio thing came around is because the notes weren't hanging around very long [laughs]. In my mid-teens it was all about really trying to Bert Jansch through the equipment of the Patti Smith Group.
Photo credit: Carl Lyttle
Interview by Steven Rosen