Johnny Marr's Guitars

In a new book, the Smiths co-founder reveals the stories behind his instruments

December 18, 2023, 11:26 PM
"Every single one of my guitars tells a different facet of my musical life," says guitarist Johnny Marr.
"Every single one of my guitars tells a different facet of my musical life," says guitarist Johnny Marr.
Niall Lea

In 1984 Johnny Marr bought a Gibson Les Paul Standard guitar in cherry red from A1 Repairs in his boyhood hometown of Manchester, England. The purchase, at age 21, was ostensibly made for the recording of “Meat Is Murder,” the second album for the Smiths, the influential British band he formed two years earlier.

Yet for a musician who owns more than 130 guitars (he admits to losing count of the exact number after 132) this Gibson Les Paul went on to be used on more records than any other, including during his post-Smiths stints performing with rock luminaries from the Pretenders and Brian Ferry to Talking Heads, The The, Electronic, and Modest Mouse.

The story of Marr’s cherry red Gibson makes up just one of the numerous accounts he shares inside “Marr’s Guitars,” a handsomely produced coffee table book that charts the 60-year-old musician’s career through virtually every electric and acoustic instrument he’s owned over 40 years of recording music.

Each guitar in the 288-page volume is accompanied by Marr’s personal reflections that detail his encounters with great musicians - Chrissie Hynde, David Byrne, Brian Eno, among many others - and on what tracks and at which shows the guitars were played.

But the running commentary also reveals how Marr’s distinctive sound and musical aesthetic were amplified by his guitars. Lyrical and melodic, he has long been viewed by his peers as one of the premier craftsmen of his generation, with a distinctively restrained sound and a tasteful chording style that separated him from the flock of synth-induced British bands of the 80s.

From the ​​Martin D-28 acoustic​ used to create the tuneful arrangements and layered guitars that formed the foundation of recordings with Morrissey and the Smiths to the Fender Stratocaster​ and Rickenbacker 370/12​ employed for the full-bodied, shifting chords on recordings with a string of celebrated artists. For his collaboration with composer and music producer Hans Zimmer on the 2010 soundtrack of the Christopher Nolan film “Inception,” Marr grabbed the Gibson EDS-1275 doubleneck electric guitar.

“For me, every single one of my guitars, from when I was just a boy up until today, sort of tells a different facet of my musical life,” Marr tells me in a recent Zoom interview from the U.K. It was just a few days after he performed with a 30-piece orchestra at Manchester’s Aviva Studios where he incorporated string, brass, and woodwind instruments to reimagine Smiths songs and other works that he composed over four decades.

“When you can take a Smiths song like “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” probably my favorite of all the Smiths songs we recorded,” he says with boyish enthusiasm. “And perform an orchestral rendition of it with a 30-piece orchestra and you just sit back and can’t help but be amazed to realize that this song, with all its drama and energy, originated from a guitar riff off my Gibson Les Paul Custom,” he says.

PHOTO: Guitarist Johnny Marr’s Gibson Les Pauls.
Guitarist Johnny Marr’s Gibson Les Pauls.
Pat Graham

Though the book will please ardent music fans and guitar geeks alike, Marr says the goal was to create a biographical portrait that would also be accessible to everyday fans of music and art.

“My initial thought was that the book would be about all of my guitars,” he says of a volume that includes illustrated photographs by Pat Graham that present each instrument as a full portrait, supported by micro shots highlighting the specific details that make each one unique. “But along the way, I discovered it was also a story of my life and we were able to tell it with beautiful images of the instruments that I think will appeal to anybody who cares about music.”

The publication of the book coincides with the release of “Spirit Power,” a new compilation album of Marr’s solo work over the past 10 years.

Below, a few excerpts from “Marr’s Guitars,” published by Dey Street Books.

PHOTO: Johnny Marr in 1986 during The Queen Is Dead tour in North America.
Johnny Marr in 1986 during The Queen Is Dead tour in North America.
Nalinee Darmrong


This is the first pro guitar that I owned. I always wanted a Les Paul since I was a kid, because Marc Bolan played one and he was my first hero. I loved the look of the black one and I took the pick guard off it. I bought the Les Paul from A1 Repairs, which was the guitar shop that everyone knew in Manchester. I made the money to pay for it from buying clothes on the Kings Road in London and selling them to my mates in Manchester. At this point, I was in a band called Freak Party. The amazing thing about this guitar is that a year after this photograph was taken, in 1982, I traded it in for a different one, and I’d not set eyes on it for over forty years when a guitar tech friend of mine found it in a shop in Southport. He suspected it was mine, identified it and I bought it back.

PHOTO: Marr's Guitars, a new book by guitarist Johnny Marr.
Marr's Guitars, a new book by guitarist Johnny Marr.
Dey Street Books.

RICKENBACKER 330 Jetglo 1982

The Rickenbacker was the first guitar that I would become associated with. I decided to get one because, as well as loving the look of it, I thought it might make me write and play in a certain way. Unlike Gibson Les Pauls or Fender Stratocasters, the Rickenbacker isn’t known for a traditional rock approach and I thought it would be good for my melodic style of playing, focusing more on chord changes and hooks. It sometimes sped my playing up a bit too, as quite a lot of the songs I wrote on it were fast and hyperactive sounding. The best example of the way it sounds is on the intro to ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ by The Smiths and on ‘For You’ by Electronic. I still go back to this guitar and have played it on lots of things right throughout my career. It’s also pictured on the cover of the Oasis single ‘Supersonic’.

GIBSON ES-355 Cherry 1960

In some ways, this is my most famous guitar. It was bought for me by the head of Sire Records, Seymour Stein, on 2 January 1984. I was a big fan of Sire, and when I discovered Seymour was interested in signing The Smiths I was thrilled about it. He took the band out to dinner before we played at the ICA in London, and during that evening he told me that in the 1960s he had bought a guitar for Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. I told Seymour if he bought me a guitar we’d sign to Sire, even though we were going to sign anyway. The band headed out to New York to play our first American show at Danceteria on New Year’s Eve 1983. A couple of days later, after going into the Sire offices to sign the record contract, I marched Seymour through the snow to We Buy Guitars on 48th Street. Seymour was true to his word and bought the guitar for me. I raced back to The Iroquois hotel, where the band was staying, took the guitar out of its case, and the first thing I played on it was what would become the next Smiths’ single, ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’. The song just arrived under my fingers, complete. Then the very next thing I played was what would become the B-side, ‘Girl Afraid’. Some instruments come with songs in them, and this guitar came with quite a few. It coincided with the band moving to another level of success, and when people saw me using it on Top of the Pops, it made an impression. Noel Gallagher and Bernard Butler went on to use red Gibson 355s in their own bands, Oasis and Suede. The guitar also became well known for a photo that was taken after a gig at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, in 1984..