Guitar hero Johnny Marr has spent the last few years putting together a signature Jaguar model for Fender, which will hit shops this year. Ronnie Dungan visited the former Smiths, Modest Mouse and Cribs guitarist, who is now full-time with his own band The Healers once again, at a studio in Salford to find out how it all came together…
The UK MI trade perhaps doesn’t know it, but it owes a lot to Johnny Marr. When it comes to influencing and encouraging a new generation of guitarists – and therefore a new generation of customers - few have done more in the last 30 years.
History records that Brit pop was all Oasis and Blur, but those haircuts, that attitude, those guitars? Johnny Marr. Noel Gallagher’s transformation from guitar tech to guitar hero? Johnny Marr. The Smiths captured, lyrically and musically, the elusive and much-vaunted ‘Englishness’ of Brit Pop long before Damon Albarn found out he was born within the sound of Bow Bells.
Another facet of Marr is that he is comfortable, indeed, he loves, the role of guitar hero, in his own understated way. Traditionally it has been bluesers and metal-heads that have had the monopoly on guitar obssession, but while you would struggle to find much in the way of soloing or noodling in the Marr canon, he is as much a guitar freak as any from what he would call the more ‘Harley Davidson’ end of the spectrum.
And it’s his genuine passion and immersion in certain parts of guitar culture which he has brought to the creation of his new signature Fender Jaguar.
The honesty, graft and integrity which has underpinned much of his work has been applied to the creation of the new model, which has essentially been some six years in the making, ever since his own love affair with the Jag started.
“I started playing Jaguars in the summer of 2005 when I joined Modest Mouse,” he says. “That was just some strange quirk of fate or destiny, because the first night I was writing, my guitar wasn’t really cutting through at the time as I wanted it to.
“I was using a Telecaster because I just figured I would bring over a guitar which was pretty much all purpose and I thought I could do pretty much what I do on a Telecaster. I still love ‘em. I noticed that Isaac, Isaac Brock, [Modest Mouse, lead singer] had a beat up old 1963 black Jaguar amongst his rack.
“So I pulled that out and at the same time he said to me, very forcefully, ‘have you got any riffs?’. And I had this riff in the back of my mind [plays Dashboard] and it just felt really good on this Jaguar so we wrote the song in about ten minutes.”
“And then the rest of the night I just stuck with that guitar. And I was thinking about it the next day and quite looking forward to playing it. I got it and I fixed it up and gave it some love and I just started playing that guitar almost exclusively and I immediately realised that it kind of sounded like I think I’m supposed to sound. It steered me in a way that was good for my playing and very exciting for me. And sonically I really loved what it was doing. So that got my interest in Jags going.”
The popular, but false, perception of Marr is as a bit of jangler, sixties haircut on head, Rickenbacker in hand. But Rickenbackers only ever featured for about 18-months on the Smiths’ first tours. The truth is that Marr has never really been reliant on one guitar more than any other (Strats, Les Pauls, 355s, Teles have all figured). Until he became a Jaguar aficionado, that is.
“The record we made was really successful, so there was a lot of touring, lots and lots of shows and I was around the culture where I was able to get Jaguars and Jazzmasters quite easily and cheaply for those days and I started to put together out of a few Jags that I had, the idea of the ultimate Jag for me. And getting rid of what I call the unwanted conditions while maintaining all the stuff that I really love about them.”
So the Fender signature was being designed before they even asked him to do it, essentially. And as anyone who has ever played a Jaguar will testify, he couldn’t have picked a more…idiosyncratic guitar to get to grips with.
“The very first thing I noticed from being a Jag player and all Jag players notice this (and naysayers complain about it), is that the strings pop out, so the first thing every Jag player does is put a Mustang bridge on, with Mustang saddles in there.
“The vibration of a Jag, which is one of the things that makes it so great and adds to the sound of it, causes the grooves that keep the bridge in place to move. And the only ones that don’t do that are ones that have been stuck with gunk and dirt and age and rust. So I got a couple of new ones, reissues from Fender, and I ended up trying nail polish… Loctite and Superglue even, won’t keep it from vibrating such are the vibes in this guitar.
“And I had this thing where I would do 12-14 shows and I would get to a sound check and go ‘what is that sound? What is that high-end digital clipping? It’s horrible’. And I would go through all my pedals, go through my leads and after about the eighth time I did this over a period of a few months my tech said to me, ‘it’s the bridge, every time’. The last thing I would try. The next time it would happen I would still go through all my pedals, still go through all my leads. And after a while I did go ‘shit man! It’s the bridge every time’.
“Believe it or not, the solution that we arrived at, which is much fatter screws and crucially that sit in these little plastic tips that stop them spinning around, took about 18-months of trial and error. Seriously, you think that we had a problem and you sit down and brainstorm and then two hours later you come up with this eloquent, simple solution, the only way you come up with those solutions is to come up with three different types of bridges that went right.
“So we had ones that had little locking heads that stopped the screws turning round. For the longest time, I was playing one of the prototypes. It had a screw in bottom and then it had a second screw on top keeping that one in. And we thought, bingo! We’ve done it.
“And it was only when that solution still was a problem - and this is over a year’s work - it was ‘what the hell are we going to do about this!’”
It could have been that the guitar obsessive in Marr had bitten off more than he could chew in endeavouring to improve such a complex machine, but it meant that the end result is not merely some label-slapped model with a nice colour scheme and some custom knobs, there’s a lot of the guitarist in it as well as his signature on the headstock.
“The guitar has taken four years. I didn’t design it in Fender. I designed it with me and the guy who does my guitars over 300-400 gigs with Modest Mouse and The Cribs. It was me playing and then I’d say to my tech ‘OK. On the next one give me the prototype’.
“Nothing quite gets you to make a decision quite as well as when you are stood in Madison Square Garden, 10,000 people, and the neck pickup is wrong or the bridge pickup is wrong. You make a decision very quickly. And I was doing that all the time in Modest Mouse, constantly using different Jags and going ‘the neck on that one is not quite right there’ or ‘that A-line neck right there’, ‘that’s a really good pick-up sound, give me that tomorrow’. All the time working with Bill Puplett who fixes my guitars and an engineer called John Moore all the time building that guitar and saying to Fender, ‘it’s coming’.
“They let me just build a guitar and said to me whatever you need from us, we’ll do it. Supplying necks and parts and whatever I needed and they’ve been really, really good. But I didn’t go in with a design team and a drawing on a napkin.
“I went through about 15 different Jaguar necks over a period of a year and a half and luckily for me was given a one-off 1965 neck by Jerry Rosen in San Francisco, who said ‘you’re a Jag freak, I’ve been waiting to find a home for this.’ And he gave me this neck and it was bigger than a regular Jag. I put it on the prototype and thought ‘right, Johnny, learn to love this one’ because other guitar players will like it.’ And because there’s more mass in it, it made the guitar louder and it was better.
“So now I’ve got the bridge and the neck. And the first big thing to break out of was the thinking that I love Jags so much that I didn’t want to change any of the aesthetic. But the other serious problem with it is that these switches that switch the pick-ups on, also switch the pick ups off. And the amount of times, like every other guitar player, where my amp would go off and every single time without fail I would glare at my guitar tech saying ‘what the hell?!’ And it happened with the Cribs at Reading 2008 and it’s on the TV and while we’re doing it in front of 40,000 people, my guitar tech is saying ‘it’s not the guitar is it?’ And I’m going ‘of course it’s not the guitar’. Oh. Shit! It’s that switch.
“It was Bill who put it together with me, who came up with the idea and put it to me very meekly, he said ‘well you could change that switch out’. And I immediately was like, ‘what? Change the perfect look of a Jaguar? I love those switches.’ And he said ‘yeah, but you keep knocking it off and that’s why people put duct tape over it.’ He just said ‘you could try a Telecaster switch. I said, ‘that will look horrendous’. Fast forward a few months and now when I play a normal Jag, those switches are a pain.
“Really, what you’re supposed to do with old Jags is you’re supposed to put it in that rhythm mode and set your amp up in that mode. That normally sounds like that [makes muffled noise] and then you bring in this bottom section for all your colours, that’s the way it was designed. Modern guitar players don’t do that. They just go ‘bang, there’s my sound’, bridge pick up usually and then when they hit that button that changes the tone signal, suddenly you’ve got that very dull sound. So I realised that, for me, who uses a lot of different tones on the Jag, this whole beloved secondary circuit was redundant.
“But I wanted to keep the aesthetic of it and I use the high-pass filter a lot, that’s where the high pass filter is now. That rhythm section is gone. And believe it or not, I was on tour for a couple of years wondering ‘what are you going to do with the wheels Johnny? What are you going to do with the wheels?’ And I thought do I put a compressor in there? But no self-respecting guitar player from my culture wants a battery living in his guitar, it’s just a pain. Do I make it active? No. And I just did a lot of research on other guitar players. And for a time I thought, well I’ll leave the wheels and they won’t do anything. And then Ross from the Cribs who is the drummer and a very smart guy, said ‘I don’t know about you, but if I bought stuff from a shop and it had bits on it that didn’t work, I wouldn’t be very happy.’
“So I took that on board and I just decided I would make it look a little bit like a Mustang. Once we had the switch thing sorted out we thought we could take care of a lot of business by putting a fourth position on the switch. And that brings that in series position, which give you a thick, dark sound that no Jags have. But, weirdly, it was too dark. Which is really unheard of on a Jag and that necessitated putting this switch here as an extra filter.
“There are ten sounds on it without any batteries or out of phase nonsense or coil taps. It took care of all the business.
“My tech said to me when we’d got this done that he’d been playing the guitar and it sounds like a Gretsch, crossed with a Ricky and plays like a Fender and…that’s what I do. Also I use Les Pauls for a clean sound. In series position it sound like a clean Les Paul. So it sounds like all those guitars that I’ve used, together. But I play it like a Fender.”
Obsessive, see? At one point it looked as though he was going to say it should have ten sounds but he had managed to add a Nigel Tufnelesque eleventh. For that extra little push over the edge.
But no doubt Fender have got great value from him and there can be little doubt that anyone who ends up buying the Marr Jaguar will be getting a lot of the man himself for their money.
Being quite the guitar icon of course, you’re unlikely to find him shopping for a new strap in Dawsons, but he does retain a fondness for guitar retail and recognises its importance in bringing through new generations of musicians.
“It has been part of my life since I was seven or eight. First time I ever went to one. The first toy I ever had was a guitar. It wasn’t a train, it wasn’t a car, not even a football, it was a guitar, that was my first ever toy.
“And the first great experience I ever had with my Dad was in a music shop. He took me to buy a harmonica. So I don’t know any different. And I’ve been very fortunate over the last 25-30 years because as soon as I started to be able to make records I was able to get into being in the world of specialist guitar shops. And there was only a few of us doing it – myself, Robin Guthrie from the Cocteau Twins was into old guitars. But they were just called old guitars then. And over the years I have built a relationship with guitar specialists all over the world because pretty much everyone knew each other and that culture has changed with the Internet.
“And the other side of that which is the less elite side of it is the guitar shop in the suburbs, which is another disappearing culture, I stayed in touch with and have got a couple of friends who have a guitar shop in Manchester which has been able to be very successful.
“In the 90s I came across Sounds Great in the suburbs in Manchester and the guys who used to work in there until recently were absolute experts at boutique pedals, new amps, new PAs whatever. So I had my feet in both camps – the elite culture but also the world that normal guitar players inhabit.”
Is a healthy retail environment important for new bands?
“Yeah, it is absolutely, true as shit. And I really loathe the stranglehold that’s starting to happen with your tasteless chain, that shall remain nameless. Certainly in the North of England, it’s horrible. Selling crappy pianos and crappy guitars. It’s a big question because on the one hand I love that guitars are much less difficult to buy. But there is a knock-on effect. When I was younger they were exotic. And it wasn’t like now where everyone will know a family that have either had an electric guitar under their roof or know someone who has had an electric guitar under their roof. And I’m fine with that, I think it’s really good.
“In a lot of households I think electric guitars have gone the way of the skateboard which is it’s in a wardrobe gathering dust because a kid fancied playing one for a year and then gave it up. I’m on the side of that. I think that’s great, absolutely fantastic. But obviously we start to see a real drop in quality with things being more affordable and they sound cheap. It’s just the way of the world, you know, they sound cheap.
“It’s all swings and roundabouts because at the same time the internet has meant people are able to make very, very good pedals, on their kitchen table. And buy machineheads and capacitors. That’s the culture in Portland. Some of the guys who work for me in America, young guys, are absolute jedis at making guitars. And will do it for you cheap. So it’s all good and what you lose with one hand you gain on the other.”