Personalities | Johnny Marr | Bona Fide British Legend | Guitar Heroes

Indie guitar legend Johnny Marr (b. 1963) was born John Maher in Manchester, England to Irish Catholic parents. He grew up in a household where music was a constant fixture, and he recalled, ‘I always had guitars, for as long as I could remember.’

Guitar technique came easily to young Johnny, and he quickly mastered chord structures and progressions along with picking and fingering techniques. As a teenager, he fell under the spell of Marc Bolan & T. Rex, which led him back to Howlin’ Wolf. Marr went on to soak up an extensive range of influences, preferring American punk to its British counterpart, in particular Television, The Patti Smith Group and The Stooges’ James Williamson. Intrigued by the guitar heroes of the 1970s like Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore, he was particularly taken with Irish bluesman Rory Gallagher. Inspiration came from English folk pickers Martin Carthy, Davey Graham and Bert Jansch. Also in the mix were Thin Lizzy, Neil Young, Nils Lofgren, Tom Petty, George Harrison and new wavers John McGeoch (Magazine, Siouxsie & The Banshees) and Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott.

Marr had been in various teenage bands before teaming up with singer and lyricist Steven Morrissey in 1982. They met when Marr called at Morrissey’s house on the recommendation of a mutual acquaintance. The pair immediately struck up a songwriting partnership, and The Smiths were born. The band’s ascent was rapid; in little more than a year they were on the charts with their second single, ‘This Charming Man’, ignited by Marr’s exuberant, intricate riff played on a Fender Telecaster, not the 12-string Rickenbacker with which he mimed on ‘Top Of The Pops’ and in the video.

The Smiths became the most important and influential British indie group of the 1980s. Marr’s music sometimes complemented and sometimes played counterpoint to Morrissey’s frequently misunderstood lyrics.

Marr employed a diverse range of techniques to ensure that no two Smiths songs sounded the same. Highlights included the shimmering effect over the Bo Diddley shuffle on ‘How Soon Is Now?’; the tumbling glam-rock intro to ‘Panic’; the trebly, jangly opening of ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ from Meat Is Murder (1985), played on an Epiphone Cornet; the dynamic riffing of ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, and the wah-wah attack of ‘The Queen Is Dead’. Marr aimed to be a modern guitar hero, serving the song rather than his ego. He took only two solos in the entire Smiths’ canon, on the single ‘Shoplifters Of The World Unite’ and on ‘Paint A Vulgar Picture’ from Strangeways, Here We Come (1987).

Marr left The Smiths in 1987, frustrated with the direction of the group and exhausted by the demands of being the de facto manager. His first post-Smiths venture was controversial with the band’s fans; ‘The Right Stuff’ was a collaboration with Bryan Ferry that adapted a Smiths’ B-side, the bluesy instrumental ‘Money Changes Everything’. He went on to...

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