Quit a wildly successful band -- and turn down offers from other successful bands -- for musical reasons.Avoid solos whenever possible. Play few single-note passages. Put songs before showmanship.Don't clutter your records, even if it means laying out. Be subtle in your innovations: Don't pose with a four-necked guitar; instead, concentrate on offbeat harmonic ideas, unusual tunings, weirdo chord voicings, and finely detailed accompaniment. Paint with a feather, not a firehose. Cite unfashionable influences. Violate pop music conventions whenever possible. Denounce guitar heroism loudly and frequently.
Johnny Marr has followed these guidelines to the letter, and while he hasn't stepped in the guitar-god litter box, success has clobbered him like a ton of bricks. At 25, the Manchester, England, resident has more than a dozen successful albums to his credit. Marr was the musical director of the Smiths, the most critically acclaimed English band of the '80s. In England the quartet generated controversy, 17 hit singles, and an endless parade of imitators. In the U.S. the band became a college/underground radio staple and developed a fanatical cult following (a recent Spin magazine readers poll named the band's The Queen Is Dead "Best Album Of All Time," edging out Sgt. Pepper).The Smiths' records juxtaposed Marr's vibrant, tuneful pop arrangements with Morrissey's mournful, love-it-or-hate-it voice and witty, politically charged lyrics. Morrissey and Marr wore their record collections on their sleeves, their influences -- Motown, early Stones, and American punk prominent among them -- were readily apparent. At the same time, they attacked the sexist, escapist conventions of pop music via vinyl and the press.Despite their traditionalist streak, the Smiths developed an utterly original group sound, based largely on Marr's elaborate tapestries of overdubbed guitars. His oddball chord sequences and jarring major/minor melody clashes were leavened by a Beatlesesque sense of melody and an Olympic-sized palette of guitar tones. Marr's playing embraced the rock primitivism of the '60s, the funky groove of the '70s, and the bright, open-string chiminess of the '80s. He may have played a Rickenbacker, but there wasn't a Byrd in sight; it was a whole new angle on jingle-jangle. But in August '87, Marr resigned, citing musical and personal reasons. Since then, he's played with Talking Heads, the Pretenders, Bryan Ferry, Paul McCartney, and others. Marr is now a full-time member of the The, an intense, moody-sounding quartet led by singer/songwriter Matt Johnson. Johnny's playing on the band's Mind Bomb album is as colorful -- and understated -- as ever. The record is an underground hit, and the group's sold-out U.S. tour (postponed because of a sudden death in Johnson's family), will commence this month. When this interview was conducted, Johnny was in the process of mixing the first single from an upcoming solo album by Bernard Sumner of New Order. He is also working on his second album with vocalist Kirsty MacColl, and preparing for the next the The record.No matter what the project, Marr's guitars support the song, not a bloated shred-head ego. Too many guitar heros" bludgeon you with flash, but leave you hungry for music. On a Johnny Marr record, the song speaks first, while repeated listenings reveal the richness of the accompaniment. And which would you prefer -- guitar tracks that exist solely for the sake of the record, or records that exist solely for the sake of the guitar tracks? More Marrs, fewer spewers!
I've always believed that any instrumentalist is basically just an accompanist to the singer and the words. That's born out of being a fan of records before I was a fan of guitar players -- I'm interested in melody, lyrics, and the overall song. I don't like to waste notes, not even one. Who was it that said, "The reason why all those guitar players play so many notes is because they can't find the right one"? I like to put the right note in the right place, and my influences have always been those kinds of players. Keith Richards comes to mind, and I really like Nils Lofgren's soloing, because he's so melodic. I love John Lennon's rhythm playing, and George Harrison was an incredible guitarist.There's a lot of guitar culture that I don't like at all. I find the traditional idea of the guitar hero to be really irrelevant to the 1990s. I don't think that young people are that impressed with some guy brandishing Spandex trousers and a hideously shaped guitar, playing that kind of masturbatory, egotistical noise. Being a soloist who wants to just display virtuosity is a dated philosophy, and I don't think there's any room for it in pop music. It's the last stand of late-'60s/early-'70s rockism, and it should have gone a long time ago. Judging by the letters we receive, much of our readership is still obsessed with the mythology of the guitar hero.I get Guitar Player, Guitar World, and Guitarist every month, but I just read equipment and LP reviews. I find most of the interviews absurd, and so anally retentive that they're meaningless. I don't know about America, but here, no one has any respect for someone who can play a million notes per minute but can't put together a decent tune that someone can sing to or feel some sort of emotion from. I have a healthy respect for guitarists like Joe Satriani and Eddie Van Halen, disciplined players who really know what they're doing -- if you're going to be a virtuoso, you can't be hit-and-miss. But I think people like Yngwie Malmsteen should be forgotten as soon as possible -- I really do. It's got very little to do with music, and the "I'm the fastest gun in town" idea is almost like homosexual panic. Nothing against gays, but when players perpetrate this incredibly sexist image of being so macho, I find it suspicious. Plus, I can't do all that stuff, so that's why I say it's stupid [laughs]. You've often sung the praises of the three-minute pop song, but Mind Bomb features longer songs with expansive arrangements that take some time to unfold. On Mind Bomb, I was getting more into atmospherics and noises, but melodic noises, not just aimless doodling. And I wanted to get into open, wide arrangements with fewer chord changes.
True, but I still think that's a good guideline for a writer to follow. Before attempting any track, I have the overall picture in my head. Even if it doesn't work on an acoustic guitar, at least I could sing all the parts into a Walkman. It's nice to have accidents as a guitar player, but as a writer, I like to know exactly what I'm doing. But my philosophy has changed slightly. I've been making records for eight years, and I wouldn't like to anchor myself down to an attitude I had when I was nineteen.
To be honest, the parts that I think will work almost always do. But in the process of gluing one part over another, new parts spring to life. So there is a fair amount of trial and error. I'm into experimentation, but that only feels good once you know you've got a really good song cooking. I don't believe in doodling around, waiting for inspiration to drop through the ceiling. If I'm not hearing anything, I'll go for a walk for 15 minutes. Actually, I come up with my best melodies away from the guitar, like when I'm in a taxi, or making tea in the studio, hearing the track from down the corridor. The ones I sing before I play them are always my favorites. You're experimenting more with processed sounds. The Smiths were quite a purist group, and I was a great believer in traditionalism. Just plugging a Gibson ES-335 into my trusty Fender Bassman or Twin Reverb was romantic. But now I understand that when technology is used by someone with taste, you can have tasteful results. Whatever makes for a more interesting end result, I'll use. For example, I've been using the Roland GR-50 guitar synth, and I'm really impressed with that. If technology allows you to come up with an absolute killer part, then it can only be a good thing.
No, but I find it really inventive, especially if I'm just writing in a hotel on a four-track. I sometimes use the Casio MIDI guitar for that -- the onboard sounds are cheesy, but they're good for demo purposes. It's corny to say, but if Hendrix had been around, he would have exploited today's technology for all it was worth, as he did when he was alive, as did the Beatles. Just because they used 8-track in their time doesn't mean that that's what you use nowadays if you want to be as good as the Beatles. But I've still got a healthy respect for the traditional guitar playing and traditional guitar setup.
I'm trying to be open to any ideas, so long as they're fairly melodic and they relate to what the singer is singing. I'll try any trick. With the Smiths, I'd take this really loud Telecaster of mine, lay it on top of a Fender Twin Reverb with the vibrato on, and tune it to an open chord. Then I'd drop a knife with a metal handle on it, hitting random strings. I used that on "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" [from Strangeways, Here We Come] for the big "doings" at the start. And I used it on "This Charming Man" [from The Smiths], buried beneath about 15 tracks of guitar.Those dense, overdubbed textures are one of your specialties. Once I've put a track down, I put on a pair of cans and listen to the track really, really loud. I listen for the things between chord changes, the things that you almost play accidentally moving from one chord to another, and I try to fill in those gaps. I try to glue together those harmonic and melodic overtones, and state the things that you imagine you're hearing. And if there's a sad melody there, I'll find it, even if it's in a major key. I really like melancholic melodies.Yeah, even though most Smiths tunes are in major keys, the vocal and instrumental melodies often emphasize the interval between 3 and 5, the minor 3rd within the major chord. It's like a sigh. That's right. And moving up in semi-tones is really good, too. I've never liked jolly music full-stop, unless it's someone like the Fatback Band. Even when you were playing a lot of chimey, open-string chords on a Rickenbacker, your playing had a melancholy feel.
Well, I've been open to tons and tons of influences. My parents are avid country music fans, and I got into music at an early age. My father played accordian and he taught me harmonica. Because we were an Irish family, we had parties all the time. I had an uncle who played guitar and sang hits of the day, like "Walk Right Back," by the Everly Brothers, and I thought that was really cool. By the time I was 10 or 11, I started to buy T-Rex records -- they were the first group I thought of as "mine." "Jeepster" was the first record I bought. The main riff, which was a complete steal from Howlin' Wolf, got me into playing guitar. At 13 or 14, I started playing more seriously, and I back-tracked into Motown. I'd work out the chords, but I'd try to cover the strings, piano, and everything with my right hand, trying to play the whole record on six strings. That's one reason why I'm so chordally oriented, and why key changes and the strategy of arrangement are really important to me. I was heavy into Smokey Robinson and [Motownsongwriters] Holland/Dozier/Holland, because there was only Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple around. Then I moved from the poor side of Manchester to the most notorious part of the Southside, Wythenshawe, which was full of musicians. It was normal for someone to have a guitar there -- on the poor side, if you wanted one, you had to steal it. Billy Duffy, who now plays with the Cult, taught me a few chords, and someone else turned me on to Pentangle and Fairport Convention, with Richard Thompson. I started to get into guitar players as such, and when I got into Nils Lofgren, there was no turning back. He had a lot of cool and a lot of flash, but he had respect for the song and melody. Plus he's one of the best white singers I've heard -- I could talk about him for years. It was because of him that I started playing with a thumbpick. And I got into the one-note solo from Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl" [Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere], which I thought was incredible.Then when I was 13 or 14 -- hey, presto! -- all the kids at school were getting into punk rock. I was starting to develop a healthy interest in songwriting and good melodies, and then this movement came along. I knew it was pretty cool, but I was too young to appreciate it, because I couldn't get into the clubs and spit on the groups. I was caught between two things. So you were saddled with some unfashionable influences. That's exactly what happened. But I had my own thing, and that held me in good stead in the future. It was not very cool to be into the Supremes when you're supposed to be into the Jam. But I did get into the American new wave scene, Patti Smith in particular. When I heard Horses, that changed me quite a lot. Then I got into Television's Marquee Moon and Talking Heads '77. After Patti Smith, I thought, "Great, I can play big, loud chords on a Les Paul through a FenderTwin Reverb, instead of sitting around with an acoustic guitar." I could pick like Bert Jansch, but I wanted to look like Ivan Kraal from the Patti Smith Group. From then on, I didn't look back.Unlike some darker-sounding post-punk bands, the Smiths stuff had very pretty surfaces, with lots of major 7th and 6th chords."Reel Around The Fountain" [The Smiths] was my interpretation of James Taylor's version of "Handy Man". I was trying to do a classic melodic pop tune, and it had the worst kind of surface prettiness to it. But at the same time, Joy Division was influencing everybody in England. That dark element -- it wasn't that I wanted to be like them, but they brought out something in the darkness of the overall track. In a sense, Bernard Sumner [of Joy Division, later to become New Order] was one of the most influential guitarists and writers of the '80s. There would never have been a U2 or a Cure if it hadn't been for Joy Division.
The Byrds is an obvious answer, and I did like them, but not as much as people make out. I don't hear a lot of Roger McGuinn in your playing. You never use those open position add9th-sus4 voicings. That's good, for a change. Actually, a lot of it comes from Neil Young and Danny Whitten of Crazy Horse, but as if they were in a pop group. And it was George Harrison who influenced me to get a Rickenbacker. "Ticket To Ride" [Help!] -- what a brilliant song! But most of all, the jingle-jangle came from James Honeyman-Scott of the Pretenders. He was the last important influence on my playing before I went out on my own. The first time I played "Kid" [Pretenders] with the Pretenders, I couldn't believe it. I've used that solo to warm up with every day for years.
There was a lot of depth and mystery to your textures. Again, that comes from being influenced by groups and records, and not guitar players. For example, [producer] Phil Spector was really important to me, and I like the idea of records, even those with plenty of space, that sound "symphonic". I like the idea of all the players merging into one atmosphere. I tend to hear the record as it will be produced as I'm writing the song, and I hear how the guitars will link together. The Rolling Stones were a big influence in the way the two guitars played off each other. And Roxy Music was very important to the Smiths. They always had fantastic intros and outros, and on the eleventh hearing you'd pick out something you'd never heard before. But I must give credit to John Porter, who produced a lot of the Smiths' records. He worked with Roxy Music in the '70s, and he taught me a hell of a lot about guitars. He figured that if everyone spends two days getting drum sounds, why not spend the time on the guitar sounds if you're a guitar group? We spent a lot of time on our sounds, and I still do.
When Morrissey and I started writing, my ideas just sounded too low when we started working on them with the voice. But [Smiths bassist] Andy Rourke didn't play in F#, so all the guitar parts sounded really toppy on the first album, while the vocals were in a low register. It made for an odd sound that really worked. I also use a lot of regular boring open tunings like G, D and A, and I use Nashville tuning all the time. I've got an Epiphone Coronet with one pickup, and I string it with the high strings from a 12-string set. It's a really zingy, trebly guitar. I used that on a lot of things that people think are 12-string, like the end of "The Headmaster Ritual" [Meat Is Murder]. I also used it on the studio version of "The Draize Train" [the B-side of the "Panic" single], along with two Rickenbackers. I was working with Alan Rogan, the famed English guitar technician. He said, "Well, if you want a Pete Townshend sound, I'll bring down
two of Pete's guitars." I don't know whether Pete knows about that!
I played with a flatpick because I thought we needed a Ramones element. But since them, I've gone back to the thumbpick. I wanted something more fluid, and when you have all five right-hand fingers going, your fingers go to progressions you don't even know you're doing. I don't use right hand nails - I'm a horrible nail biter. But my fingertips are really hard. Do you have trouble getting a light strum feel with the heavy plastic of the thumbpick? I find that's one of the most difficult things. But I try to zing it with my fingers, like an upward flamenco-style stroke. I often hold the thumbpick just like a regular pick, just to get that bright attack. My thumb's quite fast. I use fingers and thumbs for soloing, coming up with parts, or for funky things where I'm sort of slapping. That's what I do on the funky line in "Violence Of Truth" [Mind Bomb].
The Queen Is Dead is certainly the best LP we made, the most focused from start to finish. It was a dark point in my life but creatively, it made for something really brilliant. I try to take care of myself and live in the real world, but some of my best work has been produced when I wasn't in the real world. Pop music isn't worth killing yourself for, but when you do something extra-special, it's almost worth it. Singles-wise, my favorite is "How Soon Is Now?" [on Meat Is Murder in the U.S.].
Were you behind the Smiths' eventual move towards more orchestrated, "produced" sounds? Your approach was quite like the Beatles at times.Musically, the production was my responsibility. But to be fair, it was a 50/50 thing between Morrissey and me. We were completely in sync about which way we should go for each record. But we started to lose that near the end of the last LP, which was another signal to me that we should stop. The "White Album" [The Beatles] was the strongest influence on us towards the end, things like "Cry Baby Cry" and "I'm So Tired".
I'd say so, because singles were one of the most important things that brought us together, a love of the classic 7" pop format. Those were the records I grew up with. A huge facet of what we were about was missed out on, because singles culture is so ineffectual in America. But I thought Louder Than Bombs, the singles compilation, was great.
Yeah, I did, and to be honest, it was more than "budding." I find the "guitar player does tour, is driven to drink" idea very corny, but it could have been a lot worse. It sounds incredibly Guns N' Roses, but the Smiths went through every conceivable rock and roll tragedy: drug busts, police harassment, controversy. We had everything but a death, thank God. That was avoided by us splitting up. You were luckier than some. We were smarter than some. Some groups actually start believing they're the Rolling Stones, and that's how they do themselves in.
It was mostly a personal thing. We were working at such a breakneck pace -- 50-odd tracks in four years -- that I thought I was going to end up repeating myself. Also, I was frustrated with what people expected me to come up with. By creating your own rules -- the influences, methods of songwriting, and so on that you allow yourself to use -- you end up boxing yourself into a corner of musical politics. And if you step out of that corner, it's immediately called "sell-out". Some "fans" -- for want of a better word -- just wanted me to jingle-jangle on my Rickenbacker till I died. But if I have to forsake fame, fortune, and popularity for the experience of being able to play exactly what I want when I want, I'd do it again. But in the beginning, it was good to be in a group that stood for and against certain things. We were against synthesizers, the Conservative government, groups with names like "Orchestral Manoeuvers In The Dark," the English monarchy, cock-rock guitar solos, and the American music scene at the time. We stood for the Englishness of the Kinks, T-Rex, and Roxy Music, the arty quirks that kept those groups from being huge in the U.S. We were into the Rolling Stones, the MC5, the Patti Smith Group, Oscar Wilde, [playwright] Shelagh Delaney, and certain actors. Some things were really important to us, and we made no secret of our obsessions. Morrissey and I wanted to be a modern-day Leiber and Stoller, writing bubblegum backing tracks with intense lyrics. We weren't minimalistic, but we wanted to sound very home-grown, not like a polished major-label group. I'm very proud of everything we did, musically, lyrically, and politically. It was a really great time, but only a fool doesn't know when it's time to stop.
My main guitar with the The is a standard gun-metal blue Fender Stratocaster. It's an absolutely fantastic guitar with a really beautiful zing to it. The new Fenders are really good -- I also have one of their '57 reissues and a 12-string, which I used on the Pretenders' "Windows Of The World." I used a new Fender Telecaster on the The's "The Beat(en) Generation" -- Chrissie Hynde now owns it. On all my guitars, I change the volume pot for an old-style Precision bass knob because they're bigger and you can get a better grip on them. On tour, I put a couple of rubber bands around it for when my hands get wet. My other favorite guitars are a red '59 Gibson ES-355, a '59 sunburst Les Paul, a custom green quilted-maple telecaster, and three Rickenbackers -- my first 330, an amazing '66 wood-grain 330, and a 12-string that used to belong to Pete Townshend. I bought a few '63 Strats from John Entwistle. And then there's a '69 Strat I bought from Jeff Beck. I use Ernie Ball strings, gauged .010 to .046, on most of my guitars and I prefer Ernie Ball thumbpicks. On tour, I'm using a MESA/Boogie Quad Preamp through Electro-Voice speakers in Marshall 2 x 10 cabinets (with the "Marshall" label taken off, of course -- that will probably offend some readers). The power amp is a MESA/Boogie 295. I had intended to buy a 400, but it had a cold, hi-fi sound. The 295 is much more sympathetic to guitar. From the effects send on the Boogie, I go into a T.C. Electronic 2290 and a Yamaha GEP50. I've got a Roland GP8, too -- those guitar processors are okay if you use them together with another effect. And I've got the wonderful Eventide Harmonizer, which I use for some of the expansive stereo choruses. I haven't used my Roland GR-50 guitar synthesizer onstage yet, but I'm planning to. The controller is a GK-2.At my studio, I've got a Roland JC-120 amp, one of the new Fender Twins (they sound great when they're turned up), a Fender Showman, and an old Fender Bassman, which I really like for soloing and practicing.I use a Jim Dunlop Cry Baby wah-wah pedal, and I have the same problems that everyone has with those things. They have the best natural travel of all the wahs, but they're really noisy and they break down all the time. I've had an LED put into mine so I can tell when it's on.-Johnny Marr
Lots, and I was quite flattered. But I was so lacking in confidence when I left the Smiths that I was afraid. To be honest, I thought I'd flushed my career down the toilet, but I was gonna have a good time, anyway. But it worked out well. I'm quite happy to keep on turning things down, because the people I'm involved with -- the The, Kirsty, and Bernard -- are my favorites. I'm very proud of the Kirsty MacColl record. I wrote two of the songs and played on nine tracks. I got a chance to play opposite Robbie McIntosh and Dave Gilmour.
It was mainly a question of timing. Chrissie wanted to take a break to write the LP she's working on now, and I was fired up to tour or make a record. The tracks I cut with the Pretenders I regard as a complete success. They were the first take, with live vocals and no punch-ins or re-recording. Chrissie is so good that she can inspire a group with her personality and her voice to play the best
they've ever played -- she's that good as a front person. I feel very good to have played with Chrissie, but the most important thing was our personal relationship. She helped me through a lot of crap with the Smiths' split, and I'm forever indebted to her.
Yeah, I was getting a little tired of the things I was coming up with on it. About '86, I got really into the Les Paul and rediscovered Peter Green. I tried to play less chordally, a little more solo-notey. But the solo on "Paint A Vulgar Picture" [Strangeways] was done on a Strat.
I was really pleased that the first solo as such on a Smiths record was one you could sing. Since then, I've done more wild, wacky fast things; that's going to be more of a feature of my new stuff. I like improvisation in the right place, but I find most solos corny. That "now I'm gonna solo my ass off" attitude is the equivalent of someone just being a loudmouth and talking rubbish. I prefer
the idea of a relentless riff that goes around and around, like the line on "The Violence Of Truth" [Mind Bomb].
I think of them as guitar breaks. I like the one in "Shoplifters" -- that was the first time I used harmonizing layering. People have said it sounds like Brian May, but I was thinking of stacked Roy Buchanans. For the frenzied wah-wah section on "The Queen Is Dead," I was thinking '60s Detroit, like the MC5 and the Stooges.
I like those overstated guitar parts, like the one on the Fatback Band's "Yum, Yum, Gimme Some" [Yum Yum], which gives you all the rhythmic bits that your body wants to feel. A classic for me is Nile Rodgers' guitar part on Chic's "I Want Your Love" [Les Plus Grands Succes De Chic]. All that is born out of an early love for Bo Diddley. That beat is the root of all dance music. When I do sessions and I can't find a way into the track, I look for the Bo Diddley, whether it's half-time or double-time.
That's right, and if it doesn't run through it specifically, it does subliminally. Bo Diddley took the bits that you wanted, and hooked them all together in an overstated way. One of the things that attracted me to Bo Diddley early on was my parents' copy of Elvis Presley's "Marie's The Name," which has that beat. The Talking Heads called me in specifically because the song "Ruby Dear" [Naked] had a Bo Diddley groove -- that's incredibly flattering. You often create odd clashes by superimposing the major and minor modes.I find a blue note whenever I can. I try to find the poignancy in any kind of lick. Not to get too poetic here, but I find a distinct lack of poignancy in most guitar playing I hear. It's as if people feel that by virtue of being a guitar player, they have to have this swashbuckling, gung-ho approach to music, an overblown, vulgar approach. I'd prefer a few notes played in the right place on one string. For example, I liked the melody at the end of "Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before," but it just felt a little too accomplished. I wanted it to sound like a punk player who couldn't play, so I fingered it on one string, right up and down the neck. I could have played it with harmonics or my teeth, or something clever, but the poignancy would have gone out of the melody.
The older I get, the more I realize that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I try to avoid an overly theoretical approach at all costs. I like putting in parts that I don't understand, parts that just sound good by ear. On the Talking Heads' "Cool Water" [Naked], for example, I tuned a Gibson ES-335 12-string to an atonal drone against the track at David Byrne's encouragement. I didn't know what the tuning was, so I was playing all kinds of shapes that I never would have gotten into. We miked it acoustically, without an amp. I try to avoid thinking about scales, keys, and anything like that. I really like the idea of not knowing what I'm doing. Ultimately, I end up with something more original, a little more from the heart than the head. I know it doesn't work for everyone, but it's convenient for me because I'm quite a lazy person [laughs]. But that's one of the things I'm looking forward to about getting old and grey -- I'm going to learn what I'm actually doing. But I think it would be the kiss of death to my songwriting if I did that right now.
It's an instinctive love of a melody that people find undeniably cute. Another example is "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side" [The Queen Is Dead]. That was the first time I used a Strat on a record. I got it because I wanted a twangy Hank Marvin sound, but it ended up sounding quite highlify. And then there as that submerged rockabilly strain. That comes from a love of Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me." I've been trying to capture that same swing -- I'd better be careful, because he'll probably sue me if he reads this. The way he sang against the bass and drums sounded so great to me as a kid. That, plus the soul swing of "What'd I Say," by Ray Charles. The Stones' "19th Nervous Breakdown" is another one. It's a wicked groove -- it really kicks. That's where my "rockabilly" influence comes from. Plus, obviously, the Elvis Presley Sun Sessions. Scotty Moore's playing on that is amazing.
I have an up-and-down relationship with the whammy bar. I've been getting into really interesting things with feedback, and I like to use the whammy bar with that. I'm really into false harmonics, like steel players and Nils Lofgren play with thumbpicks.
I like to pick a note with the volume turned down, and then swell it right up.
I've started to realize the importance of where my cabinets are placed in relation to where I'm standing. And when I get to a venue that had a wooden stage, I say, "Yeah, great!" especially if it's hollow. But if it's a rubber-covered stage or -- God forbid! -- carpet, then I'm in trouble. I nearly always keep my little finger on the volume pot, so if I hear the glimmer of something really interesting, I turn the volume right up; if it's not happening, I turn it down and try to find another note. I don't use a volume pedal -- it's all volume knob. That's inspired by Roy Buchanan, Nils Lofgren, and Jeff Beck. You're using a lot of wah-wah these days. I find that I approach it like a tone pot. The "whacka-whacka" sound was already done in the best possible way on "Theme From Shaft," and then there's Hendrix, of course. Now, I find myself keeping my foot on it all the time, just letting it out slowly without thinking about it too much. Also, you can leave it on, opened slightly without even touching it -- that gives you a completely different tonal range. The "Shoplifters" break was the first time that I really discovered that. And if the filter is open in just the right place, you can get a harmonic to sing like a bird.
Yes. I really like dance music, especially in the classic sense -- the Fatback Band, the Ohio Players, and stuff like that. If it's a good song, I'll play alongside machines any day. I'm looking forward to coming to grips with sticking guitars on electro music. Also, it confuses people about what I'm doing, which I'm quite into. I don't believe in painting myself into a corner anymore, and I'm open to any kind of technique.
I wrote "The Headmaster Ritual" [Meat Is Murder] on acoustic. It's in an open-D tuning with a capo at the 2nd fret. I fancied the idea of a strange Joni Mitchell tuning, and the actual progression is like what she would have done had she been an MC5 fan or a punk rocker. I knew pretty much what every guitar track would be before we started. There are two tracks of Martin D-28, and the main riff is two tracks of Rickenbacker. I wasn't thinking specifically of the Beatles' "Day Tripper" -- even though it sounds like it -- but I did think of it as a George Harrison part. The Rickenbacker belonged to Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music; I'm told that it was originally owned by Roger McGuinn. All the guitars are in open tuning, except for one of the chorus guitars, which is done on an Epiphone in Nashville tuning [the four lower strings tuned an octave above standard pitch], capoed at the 2nd fret.
"(Nothing But) Flowers" [from Talking Heads' Naked] was the first track I heard when I went in to do the session. They played it while we were waiting for the rest of the band to show up to record "Ruby Dear." I was playing along over the intro, and [producer] Steve Lillywhite stopped the tape and said, "Great! That's it!" I said, "What did I do?" The highlife-sounding part on the intro is mine, and so is the Beverly Hillbillies 12-string part on the chorus. I'm not an avid follower of African music, but I've heard plenty of stuff that I really like. I'm interested in how highlife and I come together, because unintentionally, I'm a very highlify player. I guess I like really overstated melody.
"This Charming Man" [The Smiths] was the first record where I used those highlife-sounding runs in 3rds. I'm tuned up to F# and I finger it in G, so it comes out in A. There are about 15 tracks of guitar. People thought the main guitar part was a Rickenbacker, but it's really a '54 Tele. There are three tracks of acoustic, a backwards guitar with a really long reverb, and the effect of dropping knives on the guitar -- that comes in at the end of the chorus
."How Soon Is Now" [Meat Is Murder] was in F# tuning. I wanted a very swampy sound, a modern bayou song. It's a straight E riff, followed by open G and F#m7. The chorus uses open B, A, and D shapes with the top two strings ringing out. The vibrato sound is fucking incredible, and it took a long time. I put down the rhythm track on an Epiphone Casino through a Fender Twin Reverb without vibrato. Then we played the track back through four old Twins, one on each side. We had to keep all the amps vibratoing in time to the track and each other, so we had to keep stopping and starting the track, recording it in 10-second bursts. This sounds incredibly egotistical, but I wanted an intro that was almost as potent as "Layla" -- when that song plays in a club or a pub, everyone knows what it is instantly."How Soon Is Now" is certainly one of the most identifiable songs I've done, and it's the track most people talk to me about. I wish I could remember exactly how we did the slide part -- not writing it down is one of the banes of my life! We did it in three passes through a harmonizer, set to some weird interval, like a sixth. There was a different harmonization for each pass. For the line in harmonics, I retuned the guitar so that I could play it all at the 12th fret with natural harmonics. It's doubled several times.
With "Bigmouth Strikes Again" [The Queen Is Dead], I was trying to write my "Jumping Jack Flash." I wanted something that was a rush all the way through, without a distinct middle eight as such. I thought the guitar breaks should be percussive, not too pretty or chordal -- I wanted a cheap, Les Paul sort of sound. The main riff is based on an Am shape, with a capo at the 4th fret. I buried this one little guitar part in just the right place, so it sounds like overtones of the main part, but it's really there. On the first of the two breaks, I'm playing slide through an AMS harmonizer, really high. For the second one, I used a Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty and a Rickenbacker together, playing a regular Em shape, but it's sampled and triggered off the snare drum roll. We credited the background vocals to "Ann Coates," but that's a joke -- it's the name of a place in Manchester. It's really Morrissey's voice, speeded up.
On "Ask" [Louder Than Bombs], Craig Gannon [second guitarist for the Smiths during their latter days] and I are playing Martin acoustics. I play the G-Am-C-D progression on a Rickenbacker 330. The highlify part is played on a '63 Strat. I'm also vamping on a G harmonica through a Urei Boom Box, an early '70s piece of outboard gear that we also used a lot on guitars, as well. It's like one of those vulgar "loudness" buttons on a hi-fi. It pushes things slightly out of phase, but gives them a bottomy, dense sound., It's a big chrome box with one knob: "intensity." Hey, maybe one of the readers can write in and tell us about it.
"The Right Stuff" [from Bryan Ferry's Bete Noire] was born accidentally out of a backwards riff at the end of a piece of tape on my 4-track. I learned the part, then recorded it forwards. That's one of the great things about being in the studio, those "tricks," for want of a better term. Maybe I'll have a part that's almost fantastic, and then I'll flip the tape over, learn it backwards, and then play it backwards. Originally, the song was called "Money Changes Everything," and it was the B-side of a Smiths single, an instrumental. Bryan heard it, and he wanted to put some words to it. All the volume swells were done on the volume pot of an American Standard Strat. The bass track and the Roland drum machine pattern had already been put down, so it was the first session where I did purely overdubs. It was a novelty, but when it comes to my songs, I like to put things down as a group, especially drums and rhythm guitar. Neil Hubbard also plays on Bryan's version.
We were working on "Good Morning Beautiful" [Mind Bomb] at 3 A.M. I was trying to come up with a part for the big A-B-F#m change. We got a really good sound with the '59 Les Paul through a Cry Baby and two brand-new Twin Reverbs. Matt Johnson said, "Johnny, I want Jesus Christ to meet the Devil." I said, "You know, Matt, this is a piece of wood with six strings on it, and I'm just some scruff from Manchester!" So I played a really simple part, but the sound was enormous, and it sat just right with the track. That's the only the The song where the lead parts were done with a Les Paul. Usually, I find that the false harmonics I use just ring truer on a Strat. And there's a track of me making wailing noises in the background. That was just echoes, atmosphere, and lots of wine. That track was just given an award by George Martin for some engineering magazine as the best-sounding track of '89.
Matt Johnson's lyrical images are so strong, spiritually and politically. "Beyond Love" [Mind Bomb] has a passionate, intense erotic feel, and there was plenty of room for some really nice noises, wails, and atmospheres. It's my favorite bit of volume-knob work -- I think I got it right that time. I played a harmonic D at the 7th fret of the G string on a new stock Strat, then, without a whammy bar attached, I pressed down on the bridge, raising it. The delay effect was on a T.C. Electronic 2290. The sounds at the end are harmonics, swelled up with the volume knob, and with the echo kicked in.
The "Super Bad" riff on "The Violence Of Truth" [Mind Bomb] is played on a Les Paul plugged straight into the desk, with the line inputs really hot. it was the only way I could get that tight, almost hi-fi distortion, as opposed to designer distortion, which a lot of these little floor pedals give you. I don't like those things at all -- they sound like a bee in a bottle. And one of my favorite riffs I ever played -- and one of the simplest -- is the one based on low F#. I tuned the low E up to F# for a drone, and then I played the octave F# on the A string, sliding up from C#. I put tape over all the other strings to keep them from ringing out.- Johnny Marr
HOME ARTICLES OVERSEAS ARTICLES