According to Marr, string tension is the key to playing Fender Jaguars. Here he is with his signature model in sherwood green. “I personally set up my Jags so they have a little bit of fight in them,” he says. Photo by Debi Del Grande
You’ve done a lot of soundtrack work for major films in recent years, working alongside the great Hans Zimmer. How has that work changed you as a player?
What it’s brought to my playing is a certain freedom to really go whichever way I want. Hans generally wants me to find a killer melody to work over his chords, and it’s nice that I’m given that job. I follow emotional themes in the movie and try to find melodies that fit them, and Hans uses me to be both melodic and atmospheric, and abstract, which is a pretty fun combination. I’m not thinking about what it’s going to be like onstage, which is how I think when I write for my own records, and I’m not thinking about arrangements. Another important part of playing with Hans, which I think is obvious, is that we really go for something dramatic.
I’ve seen photos of Hans Zimmer playing guitar. How’s his guitar playing?
He’s a really interesting guitarist! He learned all the prog stuff when he was a teenager and he’s a damn good rock-guitar player, but he likes breaking the rules, so he plays weird homemade guitars and cigar-box guitars. It’s a combination of wanting to be maverick and knowing a few killer Steve Howe riffs. He’s really good when he wants to play, though he’ll say he’s much worse than he really is.
You work your guitar in around electronic elements a lot. A great example on this album is the track “Actor Attractor.” Do you have any advice for guitarists struggling to write and play on tracks with big synth sounds?
Yeah! When I first started layering guitars on top of a lot of synthesizers in the late ’80s with Electronic and the Pet Shop Boys, it was a challenge and I spent an awful lot of time trying to match the guitar sound with that of the synth. I don’t do the sound matching so much these days. I think so much of it is about the part specifically, and then making the sonics fit the part. If the part is right, you can grab an ES-335 and put it through a Vox amp and I’ve found that often will sit nicely on a synth bed or a synth pulse, and almost do more honor to what that guitar sounds like, which I find offers some contrast and is more interesting than trying to bury a guitar in with the synths. Over the years, I’ve found a bluesy guitar sound over a synth pulse really works for some reason.
On “Actor Attractor,” I found I could help the guitar join the party by making it very, very backwards and atmospheric, but I still didn’t try to make it sound like a synth. I honored what the synth was and let it be its own thing and then tried to imagine that the guitar was in a similar mindset, and asked what would be a similar mindset to a moody, dark synth? Backwards immediately came to mind and, hey, I think it did the trick. The other guitar sound on that track is my Jaguar through the nasty transistor HH amp. So, if you’ve got to find something that complements a synth, it should have more to do with attitude than sonics.
I’m a fan of the rockabilly side of your playing, like the Smiths’ “Vicar in a Tutu” and “Nowhere Fast.” Are you still interested in that kind of playing, and is it something you still mess around with at all?
I guess it was such a big part of that period of the Smiths, from early ’85 to late ’86, and I associate it with writing a certain kind of song. The last few years, I’ve remembered how much I like Les Paul as a guitarist, and if you listen to his more sparse stuff, like his version of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” it’s really futuristic in the realest sense. That’s something that I’m attracted to these days in that sound, but I wasn’t thinking like that back in the day. I just really liked the approach to the guitar on early rock ’n’ roll records: Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, Eddie Cochran, that great thing that those rock ’n’ roll guitars had on records, including acoustics! But my interest in the ’50s guitar now rests much more on the ’50s idea of futurism. I must confess I’ve been wondering about that sound and approach again, but I don’t know if rockabilly songwriting is where I am these days. So much of those great rockabilly records are really about the singer singing in a ’50s kind of style and the guitar is a great adornment for it, and I really do love what those records are about, but I haven’t really thought about writing in that direction for a really long time. I still like them as a listener and a guitar fan.
Do you have a guitar contribution to the Smiths that you feel is underappreciated?
A friend of mine is completely nuts about “The Draize Train,” and when he plays it in the car, there are some pretty good things going on in it. There’s a sound that people assume is a sequencer on there—especially because I’d been working with Bernard Sumner of New Order around then—and it’s actually a really badass Les Paul Custom through a gate. The very fact that I wasn’t using synths made that approach quite unique then. And there’s a thing I did with harmonics on that track, which I quite like.
I think the whole of the last album, Strangeways, Here We Come, has some good moments of guitar on it that I was really working on. “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” has some good stuff on it, sort of a guitar orchestra going on. The little figure on the end of “Well I Wonder” was always something that I liked. What I was doing with echoes and delays that people didn’t notice so much—but things like the outro on “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” and things like “Half a Person.” In all honesty, I think over the years I’ve been fortunate to have had a lot of stuff appreciated, like nothing hasn’t had the light shined on it at some point. That isn’t false modesty, but when I really think about it, people have mentioned liking quite a lot of that stuff along the line, and I appreciate the thought!
In this live video from Conan O’Brien’s talk show, Johnny Marr and his killer band crack into “Bug” off of Call The Comet.
Johnny Marr in full flight with the Smiths on the German live music program Rockpalast in 1984.