Johnny Marr

Brit Gets a Git
Johnny Marr
Johnny Marr
Photo: Carl Lyttle/courtesy of Fender.

When pop-music fans in the U.K. talk about guitar heroes, they tend to put more stake in the way a player’s work fits, contextually, into that of his band. To wit, in a 2006 poll, BBC listeners were asked to choose the best guitarist to emerge since 1980, and many of the 30,000 who responded picked Johnny Marr.

Co-founder of and co-songwriter in ’80s alt-rock legends the Smiths, Marr became a guitar hero in the U.K. thanks to his jangly style and the fact he and vocalist/frontman Morrisey rendered some of the most critically acclaimed music of its time. Post-Smiths, Marr stayed busy in groups like Electronic, The The, and helped create music with Bryan Ferry, Talking Heads, Crowded House, and many others. More recently, he emerged as a cohort to Isaac Brock and helped write songs for the 2007 Modest Mouse album We Were Dead Before the Ship Sank. His work in that band and the Cribs was laden with Jaguar-through-a-Super-Reverb tones, so it was only natural that he teamed with Fender to create a version of that guitar with his name on the headstock. VG recently sat with Marr to talk about it.

Did you play a Jag prior to getting into Modest Mouse?
I had a green one in the early ’90s, and I don’t really get rid of a lot of guitars, but I got rid of that and wish I hadn’t. I wasn’t really aware of how great they sounded until I started playing with Modest Mouse, and that was just a complete fluke because at three o’clock in the morning on the first night I was playing with them, my Telecaster just wasn’t cuttin’ it, and this beat up, old dusty, black Jag of Isaac’s caught my eye. As soon as I picked it up, it was like, “Where have you been all my life?”

We wrote quite a lot of good songs from then on. I just got this good connection with it, and it seems to do exactly what I need and sounds the way most people think I sound. I’ve not looked back, really; that was in 2005, and it set off this series of events that brought out the obsessive-compulsive in me.

Which guitars did you favor prior to that night?
Most of my work has been with Telecasters, Rickenbackers, and Gretsches, and my tech thinks my rig with the new Jaguar sounds exactly like a cross between a Rick and a Gretsch. I’d say that was pretty accurate.

I went through a period in the early 2000s using an SG exclusively, and I really enjoyed it; I still think SGs are very, very good guitars. But what I’ve done with the signature Jag is try to make it all things to all men and really put it through its paces. Luckily for me, there have been a lot of scenarios where I’ve been able to try it out, like with Modest Mouse and the Cribs in the U.K. and on the Inception soundtrack, so this Jaguar’s been where no Jaguar’s got any business being (laughs)!

Was Isaac’s guitar mostly stock?
No, entirely stock. It’s a ’63, but it needed some love – he hadn’t got along with it! But I just got this great feeling from it. Most players know how if you pick up an instrument, even if it’s in bad condition but it feels good in your hands, you fall in love with it.

What did you change on the signature model?
Essentially, I made it with Bill Puplett, whose been fixing my guitars in the U.K. since 1988. Billy’s a Jedi. I’ve been very lucky to have him as a resource, sounding board, and expert to work with. By now he’s used to my sort of obsessive whims and ambition.

There are so many things I love about the original Jaguar, aesthetically and sonically, but there are what I’d call “unwanted conditions.” The first – and most important – was that the bridge on my favorite old one kept dropping down. With the Cribs, I was playing a lot of fast rhythm parts. Several shows would go by, and I’d start hearing this horrible sort of clicking kind of distortion that sounded like digital distortion to my ears. So I’d pull my pedals apart and go through my cords and get grumpy with my tech… Eventually, I was coming around to the same thing each time – the bridge had gone down. So I got crazy and put Loc-Tite on it, or super glue, or nail polish because of all these old wives’ tales about how to fix it.

Essentially, the problem was one of the things that was so great about the guitar – the transients and the vibrations that traveled through the bridge into the trem beneath it was the cause of the problem. That is, the vibration would turn the screws, no matter how much super glue I put in there, or lock-tight.

I remember being with the Cribs in Australia, and during shows I would take a little screwdriver and, between songs, I would raise the bridge or drop the bridge… that was partly because I decided I was making very good, accurate decisions in front of an audience! It’s true. If you put on a prototype guitar and you’re not quite sure about the neck or the sound, you can make a decision in 45 seconds. At soundcheck or rehearsal, it would take you an hour and a half of headscratching. Nothing focuses you quite like standing in front of 5,000 people!

Fender Jaguar sigmature Johnny MarrFortunately for me, I was trying out all these different Jaguars – mostly ’63s – with bigger necks, smaller necks, darker pickups, brighter pickups, all of these idiosyncrasies I’d be trying in the middle of the set with Modest Mouse or the Cribs, making these very, very quick decisions.
So we ended up trying lots of ways to stop that bridge going down, and ended up with was a very elegant, simple solution – I put screws in it that set inside little nylon “feet” if you will, inside the poles. But leading up to that, we had all kinds of contraptions.

Then, we dealt with the trem system, because the arm on my ’60s ones would just swing around. An engineer friend of mine who is a Hank Marvin freak and always fancied doing something on a guitar, set his mind to doing something about it. Much like with the bridge, we tried all different kinds of systems over a two- or three-year period – locking devices, extra screws again, blah, blah, blah – and we ended up with a very simple solution of putting a bushing inside the tremolo unit that keeps it sturdy. More importantly, it means there’s no play in the trem, because I use the trem a hell of a lot as an expressive thing.

Also very important was addressing the pickup switching, which, to my way of thinking, was problematic because it could be switched off, which was fine in 1962 on a radio date. But in this day and age of jumping around and having band members dive on top of you, it was a real problem! Like a lot of players, I’d find myself hitting those switches and creating silence; you see so many Jag players with duct tape over those switches!

So therein lay one of the biggest problems for me, because I love the look of the tone wheels on the original, and I love those three switches. But when you’re trying to devise the most perfect guitar, technically, and thought about putting the blade switch from a Telecaster to stop from switching the guitar off, but also to enable a real quick maneuver from one pickup position to the next – and I change pickup positions a lot – that was a big jump because it changes the aesthetic. But after 10 minutes – maybe less – of seeing it, I thought, “This is great. It keeps it in the Fender/early-’60s design aesthetic, but technically got rid of the problems.” After putting in the blade switch, I preferred my signature guitar to a vintage Jag, which was really interesting for me because that was when I broke away from the original aesthetic.

Once I had done that, the enthusiasm grew to take on the original tone circuit. I knew that 19 out of 20 Jaguar players just didn’t bother with that system. I fretted over it for a long time and, technically speaking, because I had switched out the pickup system, I needed to find some place to put the high-pass filter switch and where I was gonna put the switch used to change to the rhythm circuit. So that decision was made, and it was to my advantage because you need it up close to you, anyway if you’re like me and use the high-pass filter switch quite a lot. I find that high-pass filter a really useful and very musical design. So it was great having it up closer to me, but the tone wheels drove me mad for 18 months. I’d be talking to other Jag players and wondering what I was gonna do; maybe I’d put a compressor in there, like the Rickenbackers, but then I didn’t want a battery in the guitar, of course, because that’s a sin! Then, through messing around on a Mustang, it struck me that I could use a sideways switch. So, the Telecaster switching system gave me opportunity to put the pickups in series and create a big, thick humbucker sound, and therefore shut up the naysayers who think a Jaguar is just a one-way ride to Treblesville, you know?

So I did that in-series thing and, to my surprise, it was too dark-sounding. Presto! That gave me a reason to put the sideways switch in, instead of the wheel.

I had a hard time letting go of all the original elements, because it was so beautiful. I wanted to keep the chrome and keep it looking like a Jaguar, but it had to have function. After a lot of thinking and OCD, it worked itself out.

Do you have a project in the works that will give us a chance to hear the guitar?
Well, I used it quite a lot on the Inception soundtrack, and we played a concert at the premier that people can see on Youtube. There’s a very Spaghetti-western feature to certain parts of that soundtrack where the Jaguar really came into its own. And I’m recording an album with my band, The Healers, using the Jag quite a lot. I just did a couple more tracks with Brian Ferry, which is nice because we haven’t worked with each other for a long time. I also did an album with Collin Newman, from Wire.

I’m always collaborating; that’s something I’ve done since 1983, when I first started out.

Plans for a tour?
Yeah, I’ll be playing the U.S. in the fall, actually. I was hoping to be playing in the U.S. by now, to try some of the material, but I’d forgotten that when you’re producing a record as well as writing it and singing it, it’s a lot of work. I ain’t complaining – I love it, but I’ve got to get the record finished and recorded.

This article originally appeared in VG June 2012 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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