In this photo, a young Johnny Marr plays a sunburst Strat while rehearsing with Bryan Ferry in December of 1987, just months after Marr left the Smiths. Photo by Ebet Roberts
You bought a lot of guitars from John Entwistle of the Who, who had a legendary collection. Could you tell me more about what you got out of that collection?
The main one for me was the mid-’60s Gretsch 6120 that I believe was on the wall in that famous scene in The Kids Are Alright, where he walks down the stairs and has all the guitars on the wall. I wondered for a while if it was the one Pete Townshend used on Eric Clapton’s Rainbow
Concert, and it might be ... it really does look like it is. That one is a really radical guitar, so beautiful. I also got a couple of sunburst 1963 Strats from him, my ’60s Lake Placid Blue Strat, and the Fender Bassman I mentioned earlier.
How did that deal happen? I’ve heard he actually approached you.
Yeah! We have a mutual friend in Alan Rogan, who is the Who’s guitar tech. John knew that Alan was doing some work with me and Alan guided me towards it and thought I should have some guitars. Alan pretty much marched me ’round to John’s and made me buy them! He also made me buy my vintage Fender amps that I still use to this day.
I assume that includes Pete Townshend’s former 1960 Les Paul Standard that Noel Gallagher allegedly stole/borrowed indefinitely from you?
You know, he hasn’t really stolen it. It’s very much his guitar and I should say that for the record. He’s also got the black 1973 Les Paul Custom that I wrote and recorded The Queen Is Dead on. I gave him that back in the days when I was drinking and he needed a guitar, and I didn’t want to give him something terrible. Bernard Butler has my sunburst Gibson ES-335 12-string, which I used a whole lot on Strangeways, Here We Come and “Shoplifters of the World.” I’m honestly really happy about those guys having those guitars: They went to really, really good homes.
With Noel, I had no idea he was going to be a big success! He was just a guy who I liked who needed helping out. Strange how things turn out, but we all need a bit of help now and then. I’ve certainly had people help me out before, so it all works out.
The track “Bug” is such a banger of a rock ’n’ roll song, and sounds like something a band would write just jamming in a rehearsal space. How’d that one come about?
I was kicking around at home on the Jaguar with the capo on the 4th fret … surprise surprise! That combination’s been good to me over the years. When I was young and got into capos, for no educated or logical reason, I had a feeling the guitar just liked having a capo on the 4th fret. It was a super instinctive decision and, over the years, people thought it had something to do with the key myself or Morrissey preferred to sing in. But the truth is, I just felt like the guitar was happy there, and “Bug” was one of those where I threw the capo on there and before I knew it I had that intro riff. It all came together quickly. To be fair, I was sort of imagining how the Clash would have sounded were I in that band, so that was my lateral thinking.
When I have that scenario with a riff first, especially an electric guitar riff, I just program a basic beat to get the demo down, and I like to get a vocal down very quickly and work around that. That was something I did in the Smiths days, too. I learned not to be that guy who has got this killer backing track that you spent a week on, but then you have to climb the mountain and turn it into a real song. So, I like to have most of the vocal worked out before I get the band in, and that’s the frontman in me, I think.
Photo by Niall Lea
I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say the defining feature of your career is your brilliance as a collaborator. How do you approach placing your guitar in so many varied contexts without drastically altering your playing style?
One of the things that was handy for me was the way I learned, because I learned playing along with records. I was copying things off maybe something by T. Rex or Sparks, and studying how the guitar fit in with everything else, rather than just putting my head down and concentrating on me and no one else. So, much of my early learning was about listening to and analyzing records, and not just the guitar parts. Wanting to copy what was going on with an organ part and focusing on those chordal swells or the voicings underneath a verse, or even things like big pianos playing single notes to punctuate the accents on a song ... that kind of thing really taught me a lot. When it comes to playing with other people, especially if another guitarist is taking up a lot of space on record or onstage, I’m aware that there are a lot of other places where you can add some color and accentuate things, rather than defaulting to two guys trying to make some sort of a mosaic of guitar. That thing can be cool, too, and I know how to do that from being a big fan of the Rolling Stones in the mid-’70s and trying to work out how those two guitars got together.
I guess I had this idea early on as a guitarist about being appropriate, and sometimes being appropriate means being really big, and I did that a lot in the The. To maybe look at it a bit simplistically, I know that if I’m guesting on a track or onstage with somebody, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m supposed to be the loudest or most constant thing on the track. It’s got to be music and it’s got to fit the arrangement! That sensibility is probably why it’s worked out for me on a lot of other people’s records. You have to know that the music’s way more important than you.