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One of the finest guitarists and composers to emerge from the early days of alternative rock, Johnny Marr’s virtuosic yet understated approach has indelibly influenced an entire generation of modern bands. After his seminal work with The Smiths in the 1980s, his career has taken him through a diverse range of successful collaborations that include The The, Electronic, The Pretenders, Modest Mouse, and The Cribs, to name but a few. In 2000, Johnny also began fronting his own band, The Healers, and he’s currently heading into the studio to record a new solo album with the group.
Johnny recently sat down with us for Edition 39 of the BOSS Tone Radio Podcast. He talked about his long, prolific career, using the Roland JC-120 amp in his early days with The Smiths, and how he currently employs the GT-100 Amp Effects Processor to recreate his refined studio sound on stage.
The following is an excerpt from the podcast. To listen to the full interview, visit www.bossus.com/experience/podcasts.
You formed The Smiths when you were just 18 years old. Did you play in bands before that, while you were in school?
Oh absolutely, yeah. I started playing in proper bands when I was 14. That was when I started playing in venues and little shows. When I got to 15, I played in couple of bands with older guys against my parents’ wishes, and looking back on it now, I don’t blame them. Some of these guys I played with were really pretty undesirable, let’s say. But it was all part of an apprenticeship.
I left school very shortly after that, because a band I was in took me to London to make some demos at Nick Lowe’s house for Elvis Costello’s manager. I told the school, “Hey, I’m about to be in the big time,” and they wouldn’t let me go. So I just decided to leave. Let’s say it was a mutual arrangement, and they accepted my resignation. But that was okay. I just left school to be in bands, really.
Your early sound is identified with Rickenbacker guitars, but you also used Telecasters and acoustic guitars. How did you choose those instruments back then?
Well, the choice of tracking a Rickenbacker with a Telecaster was actually recommended to me by our producer, John Porter. I was very fortunate that John produced the early Smiths records, and he had a great knowledge of guitar techniques and tones. I was just like a sponge, man, and I soaked up everything he had to teach me.
I already got into layering on my demos, on a little four-track. But things like tones and different pickup selections and different types of guitars were a new world for me. The sound of “This Charming Man” is almost as much Telecaster as it is Rickenbacker, and it just enhanced the Rickenbacker.
I learned a lot of those techniques, and obviously those things stick with you, essential things that I keep with me to this day. For instance, if I’m going to track a lead part or a riff or something, I’ll pick the appropriate guitar to go with it and I’m usually right. I don’t usually have to experiment with too many different guitars to get the right tone, because over the years I can identify what a guitar is going to do in whatever pickup position.
In 1987, after releasing a number of successful records with The Smiths, you began working with artists like Paul McCartney, Bernard Sumner, and The Pretenders, just to name a few. How did that influence your approach to playing guitar?
When I was in The Pretenders, that was a very short tenure. They needed someone to stand in to play some concerts opening for U2 on The Joshua Tree tour. They had already been around the world a couple of times on that tour, and Robbie McIntosh had left and they needed someone who could step in really quickly. I knew a lot of the first album from playing it in my bedroom, and I had to learn the rest of the set in about four days and then go out and play, opening up for U2 in San Francisco and Los Angeles, places like that. It was a pretty terrifying prospect, but it was a great experience.
But when I think about the immediate period after The Smiths and my journey as a guitar player, it really all starts with The The, the band I was in with Matt Johnson—they were my favorite band at the time. I’ve been very lucky all the way through my career in that when I’ve joined existing bands, I’ve pretty much joined my favorite band at the time, whether it was Modest Mouse or The Cribs, you know.
I was really into The The, and I really respected Matt. From a guitar point of view, I had to reproduce some of his early stuff, [where he’d] pulled out some really random guitars and [played] all kinds of stuff through wah-wahs and filters and forgot how he had done it. I had to reproduce this kind of stuff and the weird keyboard parts on all of that. It was a real challenge, and that stepped me up massively as a guitar player. I learned to play in a lot of more textures, background things, more esoteric style guitar.
Reproducing things that were done on keyboards is really quite an interesting exercise. I did that again recently when I worked on the Inception soundtrack with Hans Zimmer, where I could play a lot of things that were meant to be guitars that were played on keyboards. And then playing with Electronic really gave me more experience as a kind of “sonics” guy. I learned so much more about technology, and I learned a lot about arrangements and beats.
I’ve learned a hell of a lot. I don’t want to get too technical, but I learned about playing against the beat, playing behind the beat. Playing with Karl Bartos with Kraftwerk taught me a lot about orchestration. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and luckily, I think no experience has been wasted, and everything has gone into getting me to where I am today.
You did We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank with Modest Mouse. I believe that was the first U.S. Number One album for both you and the band. Is that correct?
Yeah. I’m particularly proud of that, because obviously getting a Number One album in America is something that, if you‘re growing up as an English kid, is an amazing achievement. It’s an amazing achievement for anybody, but particularly with that music. I felt like Modest Mouse weren’t really the sort of band [that would top] the American charts. It did a lot for my idealism—it wasn’t just an ego trip. It gave me a lot of faith in the American alternative record buyer putting a band like that to Number One. With all the success of The Smiths being so long before that, and then have the biggest kind of success in my career was a really sweet, unexpected thing.
You mentioned Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception. As a composer, how do you approach guitars when creating a soundtrack? Is that process different from your other musical works?
Oh yeah, it’s an absolutely different discipline. I like it because it’s all about the emotion in the scene. That is something I really enjoy. It can be any emotion that’s required in any scene if you think about it—it can be dramatic, it can be playful, it can be glib, it can be tense, it can be stressful. It doesn’t have to be some poignant, emotional, sentimental thing.
I don’t sit there with a guitar and only try and do something that fits; I watch the scene and I try and get a very clear notion of what the vibe is. Sometimes it’s obvious. If someone’s being chased down the street by a bunch of dudes with guns, then you need that kind of manic tension. But whatever it is, I clock that in my mind, and then I pick up the guitar and try and make it.
I really like working to an emotional remit. I think it’s good for art in general to be working within a remit, it’s good for creativity to have a strong direction. When you’ve got no limitations and you can choose any color and any palette under the sun, it’s more difficult. Sometimes people have the assumption that a guitar player working on a soundtrack could be a little bit abstract, maybe because of what Neil Young did on Dead Man, which entirely worked. But you can’t just plug in though a fuzz pedal and stick a load of delay on and hope that it works because it’s esoteric—you have to be a little more specific than that. I’m very lucky because I’ve been learning from the best person in the movie industry—he’s the greatest composer around—and that’s Hans Zimmer. It’s great to still be learning and getting opportunities to work with people who are so good.
You’ve used a lot of Fender amplifiers and others throughout your career, including the Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus. Tell us about that.
The interesting thing is that people forget that a lot of musicians, particularly young musicians, want to be of their time. You don’t want to be old-fashioned. When I started out, I understood the attraction of old guitars; I already loved old guitars. Back then, they weren’t called vintage guitars—they were just old guitars that no one really cared about, other than old guys. There were only a few of us guys sitting in the UK playing beat-up old Gibsons and ‘50s guitars and stuff.
I came out at a time when there were a lot of no-nos in guitar culture. It’s gone down as being post-punk, but it was actually the birth of what has come to be known as indie rock now. And with that there were some musical politics, throwing away everything that had happened in the previous generations of rock culture, which was a lot of distortion, bluesy playing, extended solos, fast solos, and effects. All of those things were considered passé and somewhat outdated in the culture that I came out of.
I was trying to still have that love [of guitar history] and bring guitar culture forward—not completely annihilate it and be anarchic, but be of my time. And so a lot of my sound came out of that. There was not a lot of distortion, there was certainly not extended solos, there was not a lot of effects, and it was certainly not bluesy.
I was talking to Peter Buck [of R.E.M.] about this, because he and I [played] Rickenbackers. It wasn’t all because I liked The Byrds or even Brian Jones—it was because that guitar made me play a certain way. I didn’t have a lot of sustain going, so I had to find some way of filling out the sound, and a lot of that was by doing a lot of arpeggios. I’m also a melody freak. So I was filling up a lot of space finding melodies and playing very busy.
And the Roland JC-120 was a brand-new innovation [at the time]. To use a Roland amp was very unusual and exciting and a lot of people did it. I got one as soon as I could afford one. I had a Fender Twin, but the next thing I got was a JC-120, and those two amps fired together were really quite amazing. That was a big part of my sound, you know, that clean, chorus-y sound. It’s not really a surprise that your gear dictates the way you play, and so I was fortunate. The interesting thing is that now—many, many, many years later—kids still ask me about playing the JC-120. They like that sound. I’ve had quite a few people really geeking out over the JC-120.
You have a BOSS GT-100 Amp Effects Processor. How are you using that?
When I was in The The, as I said, I had to duplicate a lot of textures and different sounds from song to song, and within songs, live. So I had a big rack, and that was a really exciting thing for me. Not all guitar players want to go there, but at that time it was great. I realized then that I could produce with my feet—that’s the way I looked at it. The idea of being able to go from one part of the song to another with a completely different kind of sound—even just changing reverb sizes and delay times—it really set my imagination on fire.
Over the years, I wanted to scale down and not take a big rack out with me, because I’m just not really a rack person, but I love what [it] facilitates. [Multi-effects] processors were really in their infancy in the late ‘80s, and they weren’t too great tonally. The things they could do were kind of fun, but it really was at the expense of a decent tone. But that’s all right—it’s early days.
I kept my eye on multi-processors and I tried [them as they got better through the years]. When the GT-5 came out, I happened to be going out with The Healers, and [it was] really useful for me, particularly as I’m in the position of having to reproduce a lot of different sounds. My audience expects me to sound like my records, [and] as a singer I don’t want to be looking down at my feet every 16 bars or every time I go into a chorus or verse.
The GT-5 did two things for me: it made it so that I could change sounds and reproduce some of the things that were going on in my records, but with just hitting one pedal. I still wasn’t entirely there with the sound of it, but I got there. I did a lot of interesting things, and being able to change ring modulation, for example, or dial in very precise delays and all of that, which for someone like me was really fun.
I was working on it and working on it, and then I heard about the GT-100 coming out. It surprises some guitar players that I use it live. But I set up my analog board through my studio setup, and then I programmed and copied all of the things I was doing with the analog board into the GT-100. And I’m pretty sure that it would pass the blindfold test to absolutely anybody including me, because I’ve gotten pretty good at programming those things.
Because I’m singing, I think it’s absolutely crucial that the audience doesn’t watch a guitar player singing. They need to see a singer playing great guitar—there’s a difference. When you go see a show picking the kind of music I do, if I’m fronting my band, the singer (which is me) has to be engaging the audience and singing the song, and I just have to do what is expected of me as a guitar player, which is great fun.
The GT-100 has these two external control pedal functions. I have those two at my feet, and I just go up and down all those patches, and apply a certain part of my brain. A lot of my rehearsal is learning “up two with the right,” “down one with the left,” “in the middle of that verse go up two there,” and “now here comes the solo.” I’m just going up and down often with my two feet by the mic stand. I’m reproducing, pretty much faithfully, the sound of my boutique and funky old pedals.
It’s a fantastic thing, and as I said, for me it’s producing with your feet. It’s like I’m in a studio. If you’ve got the patience to get into really programming that stuff, man, you can have a lot of fun doing it, and it can really enhance your creativity. I really like that when I get into my fourth number of the set, I just go into it and it sounds like the record, and when I get into the second verse it sounds like the record. And I can do all of that without having to have three guys load a rack in. Also, when I go and guest with people, I just throw it in the back seat of my car and I turn up with this studio at my feet.
That’s awesome. Besides being practical in those ways, the multi-effects are very mobile, as you say.
Yeah, I like that. There are more high-end range ones, [but] I’m not convinced that they sound better. If they did, I’d be using one. We’re in times now where when you travel around, musicians need to be able to take a lot of stuff with them without freight and stuff. When we fly around Europe, I try and do it as guerrilla style as possible, so I just throw those things in pedal cases and stick them in the hold on the planes. It’s the way I like to do it—I think it’s the modern way, the way it should be done.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’m going to be working on a soundtrack for a film that’s [coming] out next year, and then I’m working on the next record with my band. It’s a solo record, but I have my band now and I have the same musicians. We’re in that great situation where I’m writing and we’re a touring band, so I want to take advantage of that and make the record whilst we’re a touring band, not go away and [spend] too long thinking about it. I want to take the vibe of the live show into the studio. So, between putting out my next record and some soundtrack stuff, that’s plenty for me to be getting on with. Maybe I’ll surprise people and do the expected thing instead of my usual, which is taking some crazy left turn.