In the role of six-string picker, there’s no one quite like Johnny Marr. Most were first introduced to his unmistakable style—some not-quite-rhythm, not-quite-lead player who somehow managed to leave wide open spaces for Morrissey’s vocals while crafting winding leads of his own. We see his mark in standout Smiths tracks from the ‘50s-leaning “Girl Afraid” to the effects-soaked “How Soon is Now,” but Marr was much more than this one band. After all, his contributions range from complementary spots on Beth Orton’s Daybreaker to the door-breaking subtlety of Beck’s “Milk & Honey” to his short stint in Modest Mouse.
In celebration of Marr’s own just-released solo debut, The Messenger, we’re taking a look at 10 of our favorite guitar parts. List your own in the comment box below.
Billy Bragg had an unexpected hit with the Johnny Marr-co-penned “Sexuality” in the early ‘90s. We’re sure the positive, anti-homophobia message had a great deal to do with its success, but some angelic, tasty Marr guitar lines didn’t hurt either.
It’s often forgotten that Marr played guitar on the final Talking Heads studio album, Naked, tackling no less than four of the tracks that appear. Here, we see Marr at his most tropical, providing a busy backdrop of flurried notes while David Byrne sings as a protagonist longing for modern convenience. It’s a reminder that Marr can take something as mundane as a tired island vibe and color it with an inspired guitar performance.
One of the biggest advantages to The Smiths being a one-guitar band was how much room Marr had to spread out his work on a fretboard. On “Still Ill,” Marr shows that covering a lot of ground on the guitar can still sound playful, melodic and still have meaning. Pairing with Morrissey, this song can sound hopeful, morose and back again all within a few measures, and trust anyone who’s tried it, it’s harder than it looks.
As the name of the project might imply, the first focus in Electronic—formed by Marr and New Order’s Bernard Sumner—wasn’t guitar. And although the bass is heavy and the drums are plenty processed, Marr’s guitar remains intact, wailing out a wah-wah rhythm only to go into some mechanical, single-coil take on blues riffs.
It’s easy to see Marr in the forefront of a band like The Smiths, but it’s also good to see he plays well with others. In a totally understated but equally tasteful part on The The’s “The Beat(en) Generation,” Marr shows he can hang back in style and wait his turn to show some flare.
Here’s a track that shows Marr wearing his lessons on his sleeve, slinging ‘50s-flavored guitar riffs left and right while still holding down that whole gloomy Smiths reputation. It’s the kind of track that might bridge a generation gap in the ‘80s if you had a Chuck Berry-loving parent.
With its massive, wacky production, you might not be able to tell immediately that Beck’s “Milk & Honey” features a guest spot from Marr. After all, the distracting, quick-panning sounds range from turntables to laser beams. But if you lean in close enough—yep, there he is. Marr adds his own touch across the track, whether it’s lazily strummed tremolo parts or his tight-picked string chirps.
Some Modest Mouse fans welcomed Marr and his subsequent album with the band, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, with all the enthusiasm of a cat in a bathtub. Say what you will about the album (I like it), but here’s a great showcase for what Marr does best: Flavorful, pithy guitar parts that always put pop sensibilities first. Marr’s excellent riffage acts as the backbone of a song that climbed to big-single status, but not as high as it should have.
Some guitarists’ effectiveness lies just as much in their feet as their hands, and leave it to this Meat Is Murder single to prove that case. Although much of Marr’s sound was derived from a very simple guitar-to-amplifier model, Marr shows us that he’s still just as commanding when pulling tones from his stomp pedals, combining a harsh tremolo effect with overdriven, wiry guitars to produce a dizzying headphone experience. “How Soon Is Now” is a beautiful look at the guitar out of its natural realm and a sound that anyone with a tremolo pedal (or two) and an amp (or two) tries to crank in their garage.
It might be a no-brainer, but one of Marr’s best-known guitar lines is also one that wraps his playing up pretty nicely. “This Charming Man” kicks off with a two-string spattering of notes and ends up playing out like a style guide for Marr, incorporating the foundations his six-stringed forefathers like Keith Richards. Here we see Marr as rhythm and lead guitarist, bringing equal parts texture, melody and playfulness while bringing something completely new to the instrument itself.