Johnny Marr on how he created the sound for "How Soon Is Now?" without effects pedals
Johnny Marr is an iconic and influential guitarist best known for his work in the Smiths, which broke up in 1987. His guitar phrases and his genius for crafting textured and tonally rich rhythmic leads has influenced countless rock guitarists of the last quarter-century. Since leaving the Smiths, Marr hasn't exactly been idle or resting on his laurels.
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Marr, once a member of Electronic with Bernard Sumner of New Order and Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys, has played on a number of records and contributed to numerous other high-profile projects, including his recent stint in Modest Mouse. This weekend, Marr returns to Denver in support of his debut solo album, The Messenger, and in advance of the show, we spoke with the charming and intelligent guitarist about how he got the sound for "How Soon Is Now?" and his signature model of the Fender Jaguar.
Westword: You got started playing music early in life. How did you become friends with Andy Rourke and Kevin Williams?
Johnny Marr: I'd already played a couple of shows before that with a couple of bands. I'd been in a couple of bands before I met Andy, even though I was fourteen or fifteen at the time. We met in school, Andy and I. I'd been playing in these little kid's kinds of bands at twelve and thirteen. When I got to fourteen and fifteen, I got invited to play in a couple of bands with much older guys.
There was a band in Manchester called Sister Ray, who were just this scary bunch of men/reprobates. I guess word had got around that I had a knack and was a useful little guy to have around, and you only have to buy me some Coca-Cola and I was good to go. So I played with them. I started playing my first sort of shows in front of real [crowds] when I was fourteen.
What got you excited to play music of your own that early on?
The truth is that I've never known what it's like to not want to play music of my own because I come from an Irish family that all played instruments. Luckily for me, my parents were very young when I was born -- they were like sixteen, seventeen -- and they were from a tradition of people playing instruments, accordions, pennywhistles, guitars, harmonicas and things like that -- cheap little instruments. But because they were young and moved over to Manchester, they liked rock and roll and pop music of the day.
The culture of staying up late and having some drinks any and every night of the week was what I grew up around. But it was also twinned with a kind of mountain vibe because they were young and happy to have gotten away from the farmlands. So they were really into pop music. So the two things kind of came together, this assumption that you played or sang.
I started playing harmonica when I was a little boy. I used to get pushed out to entertain adults at two o'clock in the morning. I also had a kind of obsession about the guitar. The first actual toy that I had that I loved was a little wooden guitar that my folks brought me from a shop that sold brooms and buckets and stuff like that. I used to carry that guitar around like my friends would carry a football. I took this thing with me everywhere.
In all honesty, it's never been in my mind to not play an instrument in front of people. A bunch of things sped me along in my life to doing it for a living. I moved from the inner city to the suburbs, where there coincidentally happened to be a bunch of kids my own age or a little older who took themselves very seriously as guitar players.
And very quickly after that, the punk explosion happened to these older friends of mine. So I was watching all of this very closely. I guess there was some part in the personality as well that was artistic, and also a desperation to get out of my own economic and social situation -- so a whole load of things went into getting me where I am now.
You started playing guitar before there were a lot pedals around to process sounds. Do you feel that helped you in some ways develop your own style rather than having to rely on those options for a signature sound?
Absolutely. Whatever bit of advice and guidance I could get from anywhere -- whether that was rare books of interviews with Chet Atkins, or I remember John Lennon talking about being a rhythm guitar player and how important that was -- all of these little snippets of wisdom and information I just took on board.
I remember some guitar player saying it was better to learn on acoustic and that that would make me better. That was advice I took and I've always given when I've been asked. I was aware at the time that if I got good on acoustic that electric wouldn't be a problem, but that that's not necessarily the case the other way around.
I started out doing pretty much what I do now on an acoustic and transferred it to electric when I was able to get a paper route and buy a crappy red electric guitar. I knew the value of working stripped down and I still do, although in this day and age I've made a lot of records with different sounds. I must say I really love what technology can afford you.
I kind of think what I do is like producing with my feet because I do a lot of that in my own shows. Particularly when I'm playing guitar with other bands, I'm always changing reverb [settings] and modulation types and the very sorts of things that [maybe no one else realizes what's going on], but it keeps me interested. I think because I come from a time before that was possible, it's a magical thing for me.
I think I understand the value of not being tied to those things so your own technique can flourish -- not relying on anything, really. I think that it's cool to keep an eye on your purism sometimes. I'm glad I can pick up an acoustic guitar, and if it's not sounding too good, I just put it into a tuning until it does. I also have an appreciation for the almost novelty factor of being able to hit a couple of switches and go from one amp sound to another.