Top 10... - September 30, 2014

What are Johnny Marr's Top 10 guitar riffs?
by James
James
by James hmv London, Bio "Like the legend of the Phoenix, I've just eaten a whole packet of chocolate HobNobs..." Editor, hmv.com

What are Johnny Marr's Top 10 guitar riffs?

Ask any guitarist in the UK to name the best British guitar players in history and the chances are that Johnny Marr will feature in there somewhere. For many of those who grew up in the 1980s, he may well be the reason they are guitarists in the first place.

The Smiths' first appearance on Top Of The Pops in 1983 was a watershed moment for the British music scene. For a start, they looked quite unlike anything the programme's audience had seen before. Guitar bands in the early 80s generally fell into one of two camps; either you were a Van Halen-type outfit with the long hair and the denim, or you were a punk with the short, dyed hair and the...er...denim. Yet here was Morrissey, sporting a quiff and swinging a bunch of gladioli, and there was Johnny Marr, with his 60s-style bowl cut and his equally retro-looking Rickenbacker.

But more striking than their appearance was the way that they sounded. Johnny Marr's playing was unlike anything else of its era – no distortion pedals, no power chords and, inconceivably, no guitar solos. Instead, there was the summery, shimmering jangle of 'This Charming Man'. It was a game-changer.

It's difficult to imagine a British guitarist of the modern era that has been more influential than Johnny Marr. Aside from his work with The Smiths, he's written and performed with an incredible range of artists, featuring on recordings by Kirsty MacColl, Billy Bragg, Bryan Ferry, Pet Shop Boys and The Pretenders, to name just a handful. More recently, he has been a member of The Cribs and Modest Mouse, and even released a couple of solo albums – one with his band The Healers in 2003, and 2013's The Messenger, the first album released under his own name. Next week (October 6th) he releases Playland, his second solo LP, and his guitar work sounds as fresh, original and exciting as ever.

So, as a tribute to one of the finest guitarist these shores have ever produced, we dug through his considerable back catalogue and dredged up our top 10 Johnny Marr guitar moments...

 


10. 'I Want the Heartbeat' – Johnny Marr

Taken from his first solo album The Messenger, 'I Want The Heartbeat' sees Marr channelling E.S.G. and Wire with a discordant riff that's dripping in chorus as it propels the song along. It's also one of the best songs on the album.

 

 

9. 'Sodium Light Baby' – The The

The The featured a constantly shifting line-up with only its singer Matt Johnson being the constant presence on all their albums, but Johnny Marr featured on two of their albums – 1989's Mind Bomb and 1993's Dusk. It's on the latter that you'll find 'Sodium Light Baby', which finds Marr wheeling out the wah-wah pedal and getting funky. It's brilliant.

 

8. 'The Messenger' – Johnny Marr

The title track from his solo debut, 'The Messenger' features some trademark Johnny Marr riffs throughout. Marr's playing is often compared to that of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and nowhere are the similarities more evident than on this track. From the intro riff to the melodic counterpoints in the verses, 'The Messenger' illustrates the way he always finds a more interesting alternative to banging out some power chords, but the track is no less powerful for it.

 

7. 'Handsome Devil' – The Smiths

You can only get so far down a list of Johnny Marr riffs without mentioning a track by The Smiths, and the first of which is this cut that first appeared on their 1984 compilation Hatful of Hollow, recorded during a session for John Peel. Its angular, chiming guitar riff provides the perfect counterpoint to the band's driving bassline and drumbeat, sitting underneath Morrissey's distinctive baritone. There's a point in the verse where it sounds like there's a second guitar, but no – that's just Marr harmonising with himself. Yep, he's that good.

 

6. 'We Share The Same Skies' – The Cribs

Fans of the BBC's Match of the Day may recognise this number from its stint on the show in 2011. Just by the sheer sound of the opening riff, you can tell it's Johnny Marr's fretwork. Taken from The Cribs' 2009 LP Ignore The Ignorant, it's still one of The Cribs' most popular tracks and that's in no small part down to Marr's excellent guitar playing.

 

5. 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' – The Smiths

Taken from The Smiths 1986 album, The Queen is Dead, Marr himself described the riff to this song thus: "With 'Bigmouth Strikes Again', I was trying to write my 'Jumping Jack Flash.' I wanted something that was a rush all the way through.” For a generation growing up in the 80s, this song was just as anthemic as anything The Rolling Stones recorded, and with Morrissey's barbed lyrics accompanying Marr's furious strumming it's easy to see why. Still regarded as one of the band's finest moments, it's also one of Johnny's best ever riffs.

 

4. 'Easy Money' – Johnny Marr

Featuring on next week's new release, the riff from single 'Easy Money' goes straight onto our list. Its intro riff is unmistakably Johnny Marr, but his guitar work throughout the track is brilliant and it helps make this one of the best cuts from the new album.

 

3. 'How Soon is Now?' - The Smiths

Many Smiths fans are probably already cursing us for not putting this at the top of the list. It is, unquestionably, one of the band's most enduring songs and perhaps their most iconic. The only reason it doesn't top our list is because of the painstaking way it was created. Playing the chords straight onto tape without any effects, the sound we've all come to know and love is the result of the tape being played back through four amplifiers, each with a tremelo unit, with Marr controlling two and their producer Stephen Street working the others. Marr himself admits it is very difficult to recreate live and by that measure it isn't really a 'riff' in the traditional sense, but it's still brilliant.

 

2. 'This Charming Man' – The Smiths

The song that introduced The Smiths via Top of the Pops to a mainstream audience for the first time, 'This Charming Man' features some of Marr's most inventive playing. It's summery, it's complex and it was simply unlike anything else around at that time. If there's one song that completely changed what 'cool' guitar playing sounded like, this is it.

 

1. 'What Difference Does It Make?' - The Smiths

When all is said and done, we couldn't put anything else at the top of this list. It's perhaps the most Johnny Marr riff that Johnny Marr ever recorded and its driving yet delicate picking makes this one of our favourite Smiths songs of all time. As Morrissey sings in its chorus, “the Devil will find work for idle hands to do”, but for many budding young musicians their hands were already being kept busy working out how to play this song. In our opinion it's the standout track from their eponymous debut album and it helped launch the careers of one of the most important British bands of the decade.

 

Playland
Playland Johnny Marr

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