It was guitar wizard Smiths who inspired a legion of independent guitarists to experiment with loud tones. And, from the Madchester scene and 90s Britpop to later bands like The Killers, The Decemberists and The Drums, Johnny Marr’s influence is truly lasting.
Notably, he created his legacy without languishing in a band for four decades – Marr’s influence comes from the extent of his career work with bands such as The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse, The Cribs, and more recently as a solo artist.
Here we look at some key elements of Johnny’s playstyle; parts of his playing that were central to the Smiths’ sound in the 80s, through to today’s solo work. Our sample tabs showcase some of the technical and compositional approaches Johnny has used over the years.
Work at your own pace and enjoy the magic…
Example 1. Sophisticated Chords: Slash Chords
Johnny Marr is a fan of using rich-sounding chords in his arrangements, like the C/F slash chord here – it’s a C major chord over an F bass note.
F does not appear in the C chord (the notes are C, E and G), so you can be sure to add color to the sound of the basic chord. To record our part, we used a 12-string electric guitar, inspired by Johnny’s use of the Rickenbacker 360-12.
Example 2. Sophisticated Chords: Extended Major Chords
This example shows a great way to play the sound of the 9 major chords, but also listen to those dips on the tremolo arm, which are key to the sound.
We used a trem-equipped Gretsch but Johnny is best known for his Bigsby loaded Gibson ES-355, which featured on tracks such as The Smiths’ God knows I’m miserable now.
Example 3. Sophisticated chords: major 7th and minor 9th
Here we use a chord form in two different contexts. First, we play the 12th fret shape with the bass guitar playing an E note, creating an Em9. Then the shape is played at the 7th fret on a D bass note to give a Dmaj7 sound. It’s a trick Johnny used in The Smiths I owe you nothing.
Example 4. Acoustic strumming
Johnny has a great sense of rhythm, and songs like Bigmouth strikes again by The Smiths or Hi hello from Marr call the comet The 2018 solo album features strummed acoustic parts.
The galloping rhythm here features on many Smiths songs; open strings help create continuity between chords and add to the ringing jangle.
Example 5. Capo 2nd fret
In this example we add a simple electric guitar line to our strummed acoustic example – similar to Marr’s work on The Smiths’ Back to the old house Where This tension of his 2014 Playland solo album. Use alternate picking and make sure the strings resonate consistently.
Example 6. Capo 2nd fret
During some recording sessions with The Smiths, Marr would tune his guitar one tone to standard F# (F#BEAC#F#) tuning. Obviously, a 2nd fret capo is the most practical choice to experiment with.
Our example is inspired by 2nd fret capo songs like Barbarism begins at home and This night opened my eyes.
Example 7. Blurred tones
There are several Smiths songs such as What a difference it makes and Sheila takes a bow which feature fuzz distortion tones, in addition to newer songs like Dwelling time. Our example has a shuffle feel to it, so all eighth notes are slightly swayed. Open strings provide sustain, ringing out to provide a denser texture.
Example 8. Funky partial chords
For this example, we’re sprucing up the acoustic guitar basics we established in Example 6. Johnny’s two-note chord approach can be heard on Smiths’ tracks such as This charming man and meat is murder. The main consideration here is to keep the string mute open with your inactive fretting fingers.
Example 9. Layering Parts 1: Jangle Chords
Marr is known for his multitrack soundscapes with layered guitar parts. For our example, we started by doubling an acoustic guitar part with a 2nd fret capo. The next layer is notated here and consists of simple spread chords played on a 12-string electric guitar with a capo on the 2nd fret. The idea is to add to the track, but leave enough space for the next layer.
Example 10. Layering Parts 2: Doublestops and Harmonics
Inspired by Cemetery gates and This charming manhere we add another layer to the previous part with a simple pattern using double strings and natural harmonics.