Music News

Johnny Marr Is the Quintessential '80s Guitarist

The excess that characterized the 1980s has since been decried, extolled, and examined ad nauseam. The musical landscape that developed during that decade was one of the most compelling in history, not necessarily based on the content that flowed through the mainstream (which was unique in its own right) but for the alternative art and music made in objection to the over-the-top shtick and fodder that had become the standard. Postrock, postpunk, art-pop, shoegaze, and the lion's share of styles that now inform and cue the sounds and aesthetics of today's hypemakers emerged in the '80s.

Of all the bands that spawned amid the chaos and hair product of the era, few have gained the sort of following of the Smiths. And their fans are rarely the casual type. While Morrissey's inimitable voice and personality quirks cannot be minimized in any way when discussing the success of the Smiths, Johnny Marr's guitar work and compositional sense were a defining feature that was entirely necessary to the Smiths' sound, making Marr a quintessential guitarist of that era.

While the archetype of the '80s guitarist was defined in the minds of most by Eddie Van Halen — who fought to progress technique and athleticism with mind-boggling licks and tricks that humbled even the most respected of the period's shredders — Marr's understated arrangements and style choices were the reset button many musicians were looking for.

Armed with vintage gear that defied the trends of the time, Marr built a foundation for Morrissey's soaring croons and melodies with the jangle and clang of 12-string Rickenbackers, classic Fender and Gibson guitars, and buxom '60s Fender amps. While those choices might appear quite normal to the layman, most guitarists at the time were knee-deep in the muck of locking whammy bars and pointy headstocks and running amps with as much distortion as possible to match the feeling provided by the cocaine flowing through their veins.

Marr has spoken about his preference for undistorted tones, explaining that if one is always shouting, there is nowhere further to go dynamically — just one of the many pearls of wisdom this antihero has provided guitarists with over the years. Beyond basic tonal choices, Marr approaches the guitar in a way that defied the trappings of most lead guitarists, using unique tunings, off-kilter chord voicings, and mod-inspired rhythms to round out the Smiths' sound. Though it is the most frequently referenced of Marr's countless earthshaking musical contributions, the melange of churning tremolo (created by sequencing the tremolo effect of four Fender amps at once) and the haunting slide guitar of "How Soon Is Now" is more than enough to cement Marr as an unsung legend of the guitar.

Marr has transcended his place as an icon of '80s guitar in maintaining relevance through the years and never shying away from opportunities with younger groups. Marr has performed with fresh bands like the Cribs and Modest Mouse, always adding his flare to the established sounds of the artists without changing the entity altogether. While the media already spend far too much time making verbal Venn diagrams of the Marr-Morrissey relationship, it is important to note that Marr — beyond being Moz's former musical foil — really has become the anti-Morrissey in his dealings with the media and fans, maintaining a reputation as one of the friendliest legends in music.

As Marr's first solo performance in South Florida approaches, one should take the time to delve deeply into the guitarist's massive catalog and understand the genius of Johnny Marr beyond the Smiths. Perhaps begin with The Messenger, Marr's first proper solo release and a far more listenable record than anything Moz has released in recent memory.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
David Von Bader