Why does Johnny prefer Jaguars? “When I’ve played with other guitarists, my guitar tends to sit just a bit above everyone else’s Les Pauls and even Strats, and that kind of suits me well,” Marr shares. Photo by Lindsey Best
“Hey Angel” is a very T. Rex-esque track and has some very muscular, distorted guitar sounds that are a departure from those most would associate with you. Could you tell me how you copped the tones on that one?
I was definitely a child of glam and it’s been on quite a lot of things that I’ve done over the years, and I’m happy that that came through there! The main rhythm guitar on there is a 1973 Les Paul Custom, like the one James Williamson used in the Stooges. That guitar was running through a Fender Bassman cranked up very hot. The solo and lead parts were done with the Carl Martin PlexiTone pedal, which is a great-sounding thing!
On that track, I didn’t layer the guitar because sometimes when you track a thick barre-chord rhythm part, you can make it sound more conventional or too polished if you’re not careful, which can go against your intention to make it heavier. A good example is what Mick Ronson used to do with Bowie when he would try to ape Jeff Beck’s 1960s Yardbirds style, and I’ve often intentionally left just one raw, in-your-face Gibson sound on a track in that style. “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” off the last Smiths record comes to mind.
Are you still using the Boss GT-100 multi-effects processor live, and can you explain why you’ve stuck with that unit for so long when the industry has experienced such quantum leaps in modeling tech over the years?
I use that live and for a very, very simple reason: I need to be able to scroll up and down through patches without having to look at my feet. Those Roland/Boss multi-effects have a control input that allows me to scroll patches the way I like without breaking my concentration on being in the moment with an audience. I found when I toured in the early 2000s with the Healers and had a more conventional board that I had to either make the decision to have less patches available—which I didn’t want to do because it meant standard delay times, overdrives, lead sounds, etc., and I had to be looking down between verses and solos—or doing it the way I do it with the GT-100, which is have a single up/down pedal at my mic stand and learn the combinations up and down through the patches that I need to do, which is easy. It’s so much more about simply honoring being a singer and a frontman.
I have to say that I defy anyone to be able to tell the difference live between the GT-100 and my boutique effects board sonically. When I program it, I’m pretty nerdy about it and I get in pretty deep with the tonal modification. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I might be going to a different system sometime next year, but I also didn’t want to take someone with me on the road just to go up and down through my patches. I’m not playing stadiums yet!
On the flipside of that, could you tell us about the gear that inspired you or made important appearances on the new album?
I used the amps that I’ve had and used forever: a 1965 Fender Deluxe Reverb, which is my main amp, and a blackface 1960s Fender Twin Reverb that I’ve used on almost every record I’ve done. A lot of guitar sounds on the album came from an old HH Musician transistor amplifier, which all the British new wave bands used in the late 1970s and sounds crazy good. I also used my old tweed Bassman from the ’50s.
Pedal-wise, the Lovetone pedals that I got in the ’90s still sound really good to me, and I used the Brown Source overdrive and the Doppelganger on a really slow setting, so it’s very subtle and gives the sound a sort of trippy modulation. One of the really old MXR flangers from the late ’70s was on the album a fair bit. I also like the Carl Martin AC-Tone, which is really good, and the Carl Martin reverb is excellent. I always use a Diamond Compressor with my Jaguar; they’re sort of made to be with each other in my experience. I also use a subtle modulator pedal called Mr. Vibromatic, by SIB! Electronics, and I really like the new Electro-Harmonix MEL9 Mellotron pedal. For some backwards sounds, I use the old green Line 6 DL4 delay—there’s something about the creaminess of the sound and the lack of artificial top end on those things. They’re kind of the best real-time backwards sound I’ve heard so far. I only use them for that particular sound. A good crunch sound I get on the song “Rise” is the Menatone King of the Britains, which I love.
I think we’re living in a really interesting age where there are sooo many pedals and tones available, which I’m excited about despite the option fatigue thing.
Could you tell us about your love affair with the Fender Jaguar? What makes them the perfect guitar for what you do these days?
What makes it so good for me from a technical point of view is the scale length, the radius of the fingerboard, and the way they set up—when they’re done right—steers me in a direction that really accentuates the way I play. It doesn’t invite me to play too bluesy, and it makes me want to play in a way that really rings out the notes, and if I want to get more rock ’n’ roll or bluesy, I have to make a real conscious decision to do that on these guitars. Part of that is because the fingerboard radius makes it more of a chore to play that way—sort of the opposite of a Les Paul. There’s also something about the way they sit on me, as an instrument, that makes them feel very lively. I tend to play louder than people might imagine, but with a light style, and that gives me an opportunity to really pop it sometimes and dig in, and the Jag has a lot of dynamic range in how responsive they are. The way the whole thing comes together harmonically cuts through the mix out front really well, too. I tend not to play a lot of moody bass note-y things, and a Jag pokes through in the upper mids in a way that really suits my melodic sensibilities. When I’ve played with other guitarists, my guitar tends to sit just a bit above everyone else’s Les Pauls and even Strats, and that kind of suits me well. Presence is a good word for it, but not like some horrible bright machine, which is a reductive and inaccurate way of looking at a Jag.
Jaguars can be a complex instrument to set up. Could you explain how you like to run your Jags, and perhaps any tips you have for getting the most out of one?
I find you absolutely have to have .011s on a Jag. No question on that! Guitarists that are used to playing with .010s on other guitars will find a Jag with .011s will behave in a way they understand. I personally set up my Jags so they have a little bit of fight in them. I won’t say high action, but they’re certainly not set up for fast shredding, and that gives it some real punch when you’re playing rhythm, and some real wallop and bottom end. I have a little shim that I put in the neck that’s .6 mm, and I find the neck angle is crucial on Jaguars, more so than almost any other guitar. The neck angle and the string break across the bridge really needs to be fine-tuned, but I’ve got it down now, between myself and my tech. It’s all about string tension with them.
How many of the iconic guitars from your past do you still have? Some of those instruments have taken on a life of their own, for example, Ryan Adams bought a red ’80s Les Paul Standard and fitted it with a gold Bigsby because he’s such a big fan.
I’ve still got all of those guitars! I should say that the red ’80s Les Paul that Ryan’s so fond of is an exceptional guitar, and I used that one on this record on quite a lot of arpeggio parts to double-track what I would do on the Jag. You hear the ES-355 from the Smiths days on “Hi Hello,” but I find I’m able to re-appropriate that sound really well with my new blue signature Jag onstage. I’m surprised with how well that’s turned out. I still have that green Telecaster that a lot of fans talk about—weighs a ton! I’ve got all the old favorites because I really love ’em. I still have the first Smiths guitar, the Gretsch Super Axe, and my black Rickenbacker 12-string was used on “Day In Day Out.” I also used the Epiphone Casino, which I wrote a lot of Meat Is Murder on, and a white ’63 Fender Strat from those days.
All of those guitars had a real direct effect on my songwriting back then, simply because it was so incredible to me that I was able to own each one of them. I had been so broke as a kid that I wrote a whole load of songs as soon as I got one of those guitars, and that was a rule I had for myself to justify buying one. The only Smiths guitars I don’t have any more are the ones I’ve given to Noel Gallagher and Bernard Butler.