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Johnny Marr

The Smiths

"There’s politics in it, there’s obsession in it, there’s romanticism in it, there’s poetry in it, and there’s your own personal relationship to it. It’s an entire world really."

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Johnny Marr: There's politics in it. There's obsession in it. There's romanticism in it. There's poetry in it and there's your own personal relationship to it. It's an entire world, really.

Johnny Marr: There's never a dull moment with guitar culture if you're an obsessive.

Johnny Marr: For some reason I had a complete fascination with this little wooden toy guitar that was in the window of this shop that sold buckets and brooms and paintbrushes and all of this stuff when I was five years of age. And, I used to just make my mother stop outside this shop and look in the window and that was my treat and "all right, we'll go past the shop so you can see the guitar."

Johnny Marr: I would sit gazing on television in the late sixties and early seven years in the hope that the musical segment come on would be someone who was playing a guitar. The iconography of it, to me is, started then. So, it wasn't seeing Jimi Hendrix or the stuff you get into later, that is very powerful iconography. It was almost mundane, I loved it that much.

Johnny Marr: Seeing my first ever real guitar close up, at, I want to say nine, 10 which was an Irish show band who played hits of the day as well as as Irish songs and this guy had a red Strat and he opened the case and let me see it. That was, that was a really, really powerful moment for me being so close to real actual guitar that I'd just go up to on the television. It was like treasure when I saw that guitar and in my memory it didn't have a ding on it, it was absolutely pristine. Something like Raiders from the Lost Ark or something. It was an amazing artifact.

Johnny Marr: So, for the longest time from as long as I can remember, having a guitar was my identity before I could even play it. So, I have no idea where this thing came from. I literally don't, can't remember a time when I didn't love the guitar.

Johnny Marr: You know, I feel that I was very fortunate growing up in the time that I did because the 60s had happened. I was very little now, but coming of age, becoming a teenager in the 70s pre punk and during punk was very interesting.

Johnny Marr: My first offer at about 11, I worked in a guitar shop for free. They weren't allowed to pay me, they weren't allowed to employ me so I would go and do it for nothing and then they'd give me guitar strings strings for it and plectrums and a capo and stuff like that for just running around, getting the boss's sandwiches and running around, buying him his cigarettes and all of that. Music was about to change and I think it's right that obviously part of the teenage experience is that you reject what is irrelevant for you and some parts of old guitar culture have become like that for me.

Johnny Marr: I'd start to look up some of the adverts I was seeing and certainly a lot of the music that I was hearing and it just sounded like really old fashioned and really corny to me and very macho.

Johnny Marr: Guitar needed to move on. I didn't think that I was going to necessarily like pioneer it, but I felt like I was riding a wave that was going somewhere. It was an escape for me. It was a way that I could get out of the suburbs and get out of the drudgery of a normal job as I saw it.

Johnny Marr: So, I made this declaration as a guitar player. I was going to dedicate my life to it and I had a feeling that it was going to take us some places. Amazingly, that is what happened to me.

Johnny Marr: I have to say it didn't happen immediately because I had plenty of kicking around in the rain and the cold, trying to find rehearsal rooms and paying dues, but I now know that those times are really invaluable, particularly playing in other people's bands, playing other people's material. Because, you just learn all these different quirks about songwriting. It was my way out and so there's a certain amount of desperation in it as well. It wasn't all entirely idealistic.

Johnny Marr: When I was learning to play and put chords together, I was completely studying glam rock, the music of the early seventies pop music of the early seventies and I still maintain that if you listen to Can the Can by Suzi Quatro, what's, it was considered complete bubble gum at the time for teeny boppers. All the Young Dudes, Mott the Hoople, This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us by Sparks. The David Bowie stuff, the T Rex stuff, The Sweet, Blockbuster. Hell Raiser, all of that, that was the stuff that I was buying and really studying as a kid and they were built on absolutely rocking great guitars with interesting overdubs.

Johnny Marr: So, I was aware of the difference in textures on guitars even before that, really with Everly Brothers stuff with what Chet Atkins was doing on really loud acoustics. And, when I'd heard Eddie Cochran, so I've grown up obsessively noticing the difference in guitar sounds.

Johnny Marr:
I mean this next touchstone was before The Smith's formed when I kind of locked myself away with a very strong sort of a direction of trying to do the guitar equivalent of the Phil Spector records. I was aware that the chord changes weren't necessarily the guitar chord changes. A lot of those songs were written on the piano and in weird keys. So, I thought, "Oh, right, capo's going to be pretty interesting." And, try to get this sort of similar sort of sound. But, I had this thing about the songwriting of the Brill building and the girl groups, Shangri-La's particularly and the Barnett's. How cool that would be if it was through the same equipment that the Patti Smith group used? So, that was this thing I'd go in. And, I had this little three track weirdly cassette player, which is up on it on the wall over there. So, I got into making these tapes.

Johnny Marr:
And, then a very important aspect of what I then became known for when The Smiths started making records was that we were produced by John Porter. First album was produced by John Porter and then quite a lot of the key singles because John taught me so much. He taught me about high string tunings, aka Nashville tunings and he taught me about putting the guitar through Leslie's. All these different, lots of capos, tunings. All of those different things ignited or connected with that person I was when I was making these tapes where I'd just over dub and over dub and over dub.

Johnny Marr: I still feel like that's what I'm doing now in this place. I feel like this is a logical extension of my bedroom, really. This is what I was dreaming about when I was in my bedroom making tapes so it's just the sort of grown up version of that.

Johnny Marr: The decision to get a Ricky, it was deliberately to put me in a place where it would improve my songwriting. They are not as easy to play some other guitars. I felt that the limitations of it would be would be advantageous to my songwriting. I would have to play a certain way, which is exactly what happened. I wrote at least two songs on it straight away when I got it home. I wrote a riff, which is still one of my favorite riffs, which is Accept Yourself.

Johnny Marr: Mostly with guitar players, you want to emulate your hero and you want to, you think this man or woman who's got a great cool looking guitar and I like their music. And, then you set about trying to copy them, but I was very serious about trying to write this new kind of guitar approach that was very much built on chords and trying to have riffs within chords. Make the chords the riff.

Johnny Marr: The other members of The Smiths will remember that in our early gigs, when I didn't another backup guitar, it seemed I was breaking a string every show. So, because I used to be skint, whenever the string broke there, I would, instead of the little ball I would, I would just tie it in a knot around a safety pin and then I don't even think that the punk guitar players did that. I don't, my guitars were the only guitars I ever saw that actually had safety pins involved. It didn't occur to me just get new ones.

Johnny Marr: I used to tune up a whole step. Andy used to tune down a step. For some reason I used to tune up. I think I just liked the sound of the guitar up there. And, didn't want to use a capo so I was asking for it really.

Johnny Marr: Part of being such a guitar fanatic was like a lot of people my age, you go into guitar shops and there's quite a few of them in Manchester in the late seventies. Every opportunity you could, so it was a couple of days a week after school and definitely religiously every Saturday just soaking everything up, hanging around there until they threw you out.

Johnny Marr: Part of that was checking out strings, seriously. Me and my mates, we'd have, one of the mates was into a different kind of strings and I was into my kind of strings, not like you could afford them as I've said, but you know, it's all part of your personality really.

Johnny Marr:
Ernie Ball came out with this very eye-catching packaging because I've been looking at strings from being nine, 10, 11 and then I'm 15 and there's oh, okay. And, the name sounded very, you know, and it was American or the Eagle on it. And, so you experiment, you know when you've got enough money to get a packet of strings and then you stick with your brand name.

Johnny Marr:
I use the Ernie Ball Power Slinky's, the 11s. So, I was very fortunate, it's part of my own signature guitar, the Jag. When I meet people who bought my guitar, it's the first thing I tell them. You need to put 11s on them, you should put Power Slinky's on. Because, that's how I designed the guitar and that's my sound and that's the right feel for it.

Johnny Marr: It's still a real buzz for me that I've got string endorsement with a company. I must have made it, I guess. It's just a great buzz.

Johnny Marr: I have a certain kind of hunger for what's going to get me where to where I need to go. I think my passion for it has never diminished and my sort of curiosity I think has never diminished. It's very important.

Johnny Marr: It's been a habit of a lifetime really following that I need to do that. I need to do that. It's a little like someone who constantly needs to learn a new language. I'll probably never ever change now, it's too late to change.

Johnny Marr: I'm glad that I've still got all of that. I'll always have it whether it was my livelihood or not, really. I made the decision, a conscious decision when success came for me at 18, 19 with The Smiths that if play in the guitar, I've got to bet chore or fame or stuff that came along with the success ever got in the way of my love of the guitar, I would stop doing it and honor being a guitar player, because that was my first love really. I thought that's always got to be protected at all times.

Johnny Marr: It's not about being famous. Never was.