The Deceptive Guitar of Johnny Marr

If you've ever tried to learn a Johnny Marr guitar riff one thing that will happen rather quickly is a realization that the part you're working on is not as simple to play as it may sound...

Johnny Marr is one of the best players out there - able to execute a flawless groove on a guitar riff, yet keep the part both simple and in the pocket enough to have it remain under-stated within the song. 

His playing is both busy and smooth yet comes across as simple enough to keep in your memory - even when you first listen to one of his parts. 

However, you'll quickly discover how solid a player he truly is when you try and play a guitar riff from one of his hundreds and hundreds of recordings. 

Right away, you'll quickly discover layers upon layers of deceiving rhythms, double-stop lines, and complex syncopated small arpeggiated chord patterns.

When you begin digging through the various layers of how Marr plays his parts, you'll need to begin by getting an understanding for his overall approach and the style of his playing.

This area has a lot to do with gaining an appreciation for how Marr's "simple sounding" arpeggiated guitar style is not actually very simplistic after all. 

In fact, his playing (and especially his studio playing), is far more technical than what most of today's pop-rock guitar players are writing on the instrument (or even thinking about) when presently recording in the studio.

A big part of the "Johnny Marr" guitar style is how he approaches his sound. He uses a ton of layering through additional guitar tracks - both in the studio and live.

Plus, he also takes a lot of consideration for how the sound of his guitar will be affected by things like; tuning, the use of a capo and especially how guitar effects like reverb, delay and chorus will shape his final sound.

Johnny uses a lot of different guitars including: 

- Rickenbacker 330
- Rickenbacker 360 12 String
- Gibson 355
- Gretch 6120
- Gibson Les Paul Standard
- Fender Telecaster
- Fender Stratocaster
- Gibson 330 12 String
- Martin D-28 Acoustic
- Martin D-28 12 String Acoustic.
- Gibson ES-355

Johnny's amp's include:
-  Fender twin and a Roland JC120
- Roland Jazz Chorus
- Fender Pro

Johnny is a big fan of the Boss effects line of pedals. 
- Boss CE-2
- Boss GE-6
- Boss OD-2
- Boss pedal case /board (see below)

Johnny Marr's early pedal board:
From right to left is a PSM-5 followed by a GE-6, OD-2, TW-1, HM-2 and the CE-2 on the end.

In the 1980's he moved into using more rack-mount effects. Below is a shot of his 1986 rig:
Korg SDD 2000, 1000 and two 3000's(top to bottom)

Presently he uses the Boss GT-100:
Picture below of his home studio set-up

click image to enlarge as full-screen

When Johnny Marr works out chord harmonies, he tends to stick quite close to home on using chord changes that reflect more diatonic progressions. 

After examining a large group of his songs, the overall consensus shows that he leans into the favoring of more minor key centers rather than the major keys. This makes sense due to the more popular sound of pop-rock song compositions used across of a majority of his pieces.

Some of his more famous progressions, such as the one from the Smith's hit "This Charming Man," apply a Minor tonality color while bringing in some of the relative major tonality (in the bridge section).

The chord changes follow a fairly basic Minor Key harmony as shown in example one, of "Tonic chord" (Bm), to the "III-chord," (D major), into the "VII-chord" (A major) and wrapping up on a major "IV-chord" (E major). Note that the major "IV-chord" (E) promotes the subtle effect of the Dorian Mode. 

While his progressions may be mostly diatonic, he does not always remain exclusively within the basic major or the natural minor formats.

Example 1). A fairly typical Johnny Marr chord harmony, (key of B Minor / Dorian mode)

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In the Bridge section of "This Charming Man," the harmony shifts to a relative major idea with a collection of interesting sounding suspended and seventh quality chord types. 

Once you spend some time listening to the Johnny Marr guitar style, you begin to notice that the sound of the suspended chord, (as well as the "add" chord), is a fairly common part of his guitar style. 

This makes a lot sense to his style, since these chord sounds will lend themselves to the application of all those lush reverb's and chorus sounds. See example two.

Example 2). Major tonality shift example with suspended and seventh chords...

click image to enlarge as full-screen 

While a good deal of his songs feature minor tonality riffs and phrases, he also enjoys the tonal characteristics of the basic major tonality as well. 

Take a run through progressions as straight forward as the major riff "I-IV-V" in a song like, "Golden Lights," Here, he dominates the harmony and the groove by way of a basic key of "E Major," "I-IV-V" progression.

Example 3). Typical "I-IV-V" chord changes...

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The lead guitar style of Johnny Marr is certainly unique. His approach incorporates an almost never ending cascade of arpeggiated chords, that are combined with a very syncopated rhythmic style of performing the picking patterns across the chord outlines.

He combines this syncopated rhythm concept with a wide range of chorus and reverb settings dialed in to match each of his songs. And, on top of all that, he does a great deal of experimentation with alternate tunings, and the use of capo's plus he uses a vast array of layering effects in the studio. 

In fact his Smith's song, "This Charming Man" had a whopping15 guitar tracks layered in the studio, (including; three tracks of acoustic, a backwards guitar with a really long reverb, and the effect of dropping knives on the guitar — that comes in at the end of the chorus).

Johnny's very different approach to his "rhythmic picked style" of playing, (which he referred to as "high-life" sounding runs), is established by way of how he incorporates all of the matched picking patterns used to outline each of the chords.

His technique can be made more concise by re-tuning the guitar into other tunings. Once the new tuning is in place, the open strings (of the new open tuning) can match the key center better and will allow him to apply more open string lines around his parts.

This is quite evident in the Smith's song, "The Headmaster Ritual." In this piece, the guitar has been re-tuned into an, "Open E Major" chord tuning. Once the 5th, 4th and 3rd strings have been re-tuned the access to more open string patterns can be applied around single-string riffs. Try playing the part shown below in example three.

Example 3). Open "E Major" tuning Johnny Marr style riff...

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Chord changes that are used in his songs may be fairly common, (from a harmony and theory stand point), but the individuality for how he performs them can be very difficult to duplicate. 

This has a lot to do with the amount of syncopated rhythmic feel that he adds across the chord changes using small arpeggios.

In my final example below, I've organized a rendition of his "syncopated arpeggio" approach based off of a riff found in his song, "This Charming Man." 

The picking pattern is organized around outlining the chord changes. However, the groove of the part follows a never-ending amount of small chord changes into the cycle of the rhythm parts.

Example 4). Johnny Marr style chord outline technique with syncopated rhythm approach.

click image to enlarge as full-screen

Johnny Marr is one of those guitar players who is able to produce guitar parts that have a noticeably unique sound and style to them. From the varied types of open tuning that he applies, how he incorporates the capo, as well as his array of effects (that create a wash of chorus and reverb over his sound), he has a style and a guitar tone that is recognizable regardless of the band he's playing in.

Over the years, he's worked in several top industry bands like; The Smith's, The Pet Shop Boys, Talking Heads, The Pretenders, Beck, Modest Mouse, as well as the legendary Sir Paul McCartney.  

In working on his sound and his style of playing, focus on his use of syncopated rhythm picking by way of arpeggiated chord outlines. And, practice playing diatonic major and minor key progressions with that smooth strumming approach for which he is so well known for.

Experimentation with the use of different open tunings and with the application of chorus and reverb are also a must. 

- Andrew Wasson

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  1. Can't wait till the video. Your skills for covering artists are amazing Andrew. Thanks for going into this new direction. You're one of the best guitar teachers on the net.