Johnny Marr Loves his Axes

Johnny Marr Loves his Axes

When the English musician and Smiths co-founder Johnny Marr conceived of his new book, “Marr’s Guitars,” he thought of it as an art book. It is illustrated with closeup photographs of some of the hundred and thirty-two electric and acoustic axes that he owns. The worn and discolored patches on their veneers, fretboards, and knobs—marks of the “loov,” as Marr puts it, that’s been lavished on the instruments—could pass for color-field abstractions.

Over French toast at Ladybird, an East Village vegan place, Marr recalled selecting guitars for his collaborator, Pat Graham, to photograph. He soon realized that “Marr’s Guitars” was going to be more than a coffee-table book for fetishists. It became a musical memoir of his encounters with great guitars that, he said, “turned my daydreams into sound.” Each time he pulled out an instrument, he said, “I remembered what movies I was watching, why I bought it—who I fookin’ was. It all came back.”

In the book, Marr writes that certain of his guitars seemed to have Smiths songs already inside them. (Marr created the guitar parts, and his collaborator Morrissey added words and melodies.) As soon as he picked up his 1963 Epiphone Casino, he wrote “How Soon Is Now.” When the music executive Seymour Stein bought him a 1960 Gibson ES-355, at We Buy Guitars, in midtown—now the site of a Hard Rock Hotel—to persuade the Smiths to sign with Sire Records, Marr took it back to the Iroquois Hotel and the “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” riff fell out.

Marr, who is sixty, was dressed in black, with black hair and dark tattoos on his arms. He long ago swore off drugs, alcohol, and meat, and, more recently, off talking about his former songwriting partner. In addition to the book, he has brought out a new compilation album of his solo work, called “Spirit Power.”

Marr explained that, as a young man, in Manchester, he had come of age musically with punk, when guitarists favored barre chords and major keys. He dreamed of a guitar sound that would combine the technique of such British folk instrumentalists as Bert Jansch with the chord structures of songs by sixties girl groups. “I listened to the Shangri-Las and thought, Holy shit, this is weird music! So much more interesting than the New Wave British bands that my age group were supposed to be coming around to. It also appealed to my sense of élitism. There were minor chords. And those chord changes.”

Finding the right guitars to make that sound became “my main concern,” he went on. “I chose the Rickenbacker 360, because it would make me play chords. Morrissey sang in a certain style, and singing over riffs wasn’t always going to cut it. More harmonic changes would be better for me and for the band.”

After breakfast, Marr headed for TR Crandall Guitars, a small fifth-floor sales-and-repair shop on Ludlow Street which has a rich inventory of vintage axes. On the drive over, he said that he had been looking for a Gibson L-5, and that if he were to see one that spoke to him he might buy it: “There’s a possibility of that, yes. A definite possibility.” It all depended, he explained, on whether the guitar had “chi,” or positive energy. “A lot of guitar players will tell you, when you go into a store and pick something up, you pretty much know in about three seconds whether that guitar is for you or not,” he went on. “I was once visiting this highly regarded acupuncturist in L.A., and, while he was waiting to stick pins in me, I asked, ‘Can objects have chi?’ ” The acupuncturist assured him that they could—guitars included.

In the store, Marr picked up a vintage Fender Jaguar and remembered how, the first time he played one, he discovered the riff in “Dashboard,” which he wrote when he was in Modest Mouse. He demonstrated it in the shop.

“Nice guitar,” Tom Crandall, the store’s owner and master luthier, said. “It belonged to this guy named Richard Shindell. Good taste in music.”

Marr spotted a cream-colored Telecaster like the one Bruce Springsteen plays, guessing correctly that it was from 1964. “If I pick that guitar up, I’d have to play ‘Born to Run,’ ” he said. He needed to get going, but Crandall said that, first, he wanted to show Marr a guitar: it was a 1942 Gibson L-5. “This was Roy Smeck’s guitar,” he said, naming a popular vaudeville performer known as “the wizard of the strings.”

“Oh, God,” Marr whispered, as the instrument’s sunburst veneer was revealed. He reached out and took it. ♦

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