PHOTO: Jon Shard
What I Know So Far ... Johnny Marr
The prolific guitarist on how he conquered the F-chord and why it's important to play well with others.
By Mike Duffy
Johnny Marr has lived an undeniably remarkable life.
Raised in Manchester, England, Marr was practically born with a guitar in his hand. He began gigging in his early teens, became a founding member of legendary English rock band the Smiths and continued to push the limits of creativity with stints in Electronic, The The, Modest Mouse, the Cribs and his acclaimed solo offerings (2013’s The Messenger and 2014’s Playland).
With a new all-encompassing memoir, Set the Boy Free, recently hitting stores, Marr reflected on his storied career, from humble beginnings to current guitar god status, and Fender had a chance to catch up with him.
Here, in his own words, the Fender signature artist shares what he's learned throughout that unique journey.
“I’d like to say getting my first guitar wasn’t destiny because I’m getting so cosmic these days, but I believe that if you’re looking for cosmic connections in life and you find yourself as a guitar player, there are plenty of opportunities to make them. When you go into a store, there are some guitars that you like the look of as soon as you pick it up you know whether it’s for you or not.”
“Learning to play the F chord—that was a bitch. That first position F and then B-minor, those two. I really wanted to play B-minor because Mott the Hoople has their version of ‘Sweet Jane,’ and that’s the key chord. I was really struggling with that at about 11 or 12. One bit of advice I would give for people who are struggling with that cliff is get a capo and cheat. The Nashville guys used to call capos ‘cheaters.’ Put a capo on the seventh fret even and learn how to play those chords and get those shapes changing, and then bit by bit, move the capo down and down.”
“If you’re serious about playing, you should really be able to deliver on both the acoustic and electric guitar. The people I looked up to that played seriously—people like Rory Gallagher and Burt Jansch and even Neil Young or Jimmy Page—those guys were great rock guitar players but they always could deliver on an acoustic. Sometimes I even take it to the next level and go through a period where I only play 12-string acoustic. When I get a few days into that, it feels like it’s the greatest sound in the world and nothing can beat it. Put it this way, if you always keep your acoustic chops up, you’ll never ever regret it.”
“If you identify yourself as a guitar player, that’s the coolest thing for a young guy or girl to have as your persona. What happened to me is it got reflected back to me, when I moved from the inner city, where I was playing on my own, in very quiet places, out to these huge housing estates—they’re called the projects in America—it was considered really cool that I played the guitar. It gave me confidence. It became my identity, and if your identity is as a guitar player, you can knock on doors. They won’t always open, so you’ve got to make sure you can back up the talk.”
“I find that a lot with people starting out to play guitar, it’s so much better if you get in there and thrash around and mess up than trying to slowly think about, ‘down strum, one, two, three, up strum, one two three.’ If you throw yourself in the pool and splash around, you’ll learn how to swim. But if you’re timid, you’ll sink. Just get in there and don’t worry about sounding crappy.”
“It’s absolutely vital to play with other people when you’re starting out. You learn more in three hours of playing along with someone, particularly if they’re at a slightly higher standard [than you] than in two weeks on your own. It’s a game-changer. It’s a little like two cyclists on the same team in the Tour de France. They can slow down for you or say, ‘To hell with this, you’ve got to keep up.’ There’s something about it that makes you more intrepid.”
“What happened with me and finding my style was part desperation, like I really needed to form a new kind of band in the Smiths. And without sounding too intellectual about it, I didn’t want play the things that wouldn’t relate to my generation. In my case, blues rock was out, a lot of classic rock stuff, a lot of pentatonic soloing, a lot of Chuck Berry stuff. I was left with a few options that I had to do a lot with, and that suited me.”
“If you focus on what your direction is, in anything you do, and you decide in a way some of the things you don’t want to be, that could be really helpful in finding your own true voice. Because I do believe there are a ton of people who play the guitar that are not necessarily individual voices. Some of the best and most interesting musicians and guitar players to me have a limited vocabulary and do one thing well. Well, unless you’re John McLaughlin, who has an almost monastic approach that I revere. He’s incredible.”
“A certain chord change would sent me into rapture. That’s very important at the heart of the instrument, whether I was locked away on my own or playing with a band, what music can do to me, whether it makes me want to run 10 miles or made me want to rebel against my teachers as a kid. It doesn’t all have to be romantic music.”
“I’m inspired by the two-guitar sound. It’s something to do with the voicing in the way it gives one guy scope to be super tight and rhythmical and someone else can wash over it. When I discovered that, it was a great benefit when I was writing on my own without a bass player or a drummer making these tapes before the Smiths started out, to be able to almost act those different parts. Like, ‘I’ll be this guy who plays really choppy, and on the next thing I’ll be the guy who plays really washy.’”
“It was a challenge to write the book, for sure, because I know a couple of people who have written books and they’ve told me about the process. You can write for five or six hours and then at the end of the day it’s only like 2,500 words. And then you have to do the same the next day and the next. I realized if I thought too much about that, I’d psych myself out. It’s like trying to get up a mountain. There were points where I didn’t want to look down, but also didn’t want to look up. I just wanted to concentrate on whatever is right in front of my face. That’s not to say that it was arduous. It was really fun writing about making the records and all the amazing experiences. It was really about rolling my sleeves up and getting it done, which I hope will hold me in good standing when I’m writing new music.”
Click here for more information from Johnny Marr and to pick up your copy of Set the Boy Free.