The guitarist who was “the biggest influence” on Johnny Marr

Manchester has given birth to an absurd number of well-known bands; everyone from Happy Mondays to Frank Sidebottom has left their imprint on the city’s cultural scene. But none of those bands seem to have a more devoted and depressing fan following than The Smiths. Since their formation in 1982, the indie rock band has served as a soundtrack for the angst-filled lives of teenagers. The songwriting duo of guitarist Johnny Marr and lyricist Morrissey was the driving force behind the group.

The two eventually formed The Smiths a few years after first meeting at a Patti Smith gig in Manchester. Years earlier, at the age of thirteen, Marr formed his first band after teaching himself to play the guitar by following along with vinyl records. His jangly, energetic playing combined with Morrissey’s crooning became a hallmark of The Smiths sound. The Smiths were a hugely influential band overall, and Marr’s guitar playing in particular revolutionised guitar-driven indie rock for all time.

Marr is an extraordinarily talented musician, as anyone who has ever attempted to learn the tab for The Smiths’ “What Difference Does it Make?” will attest. For years, his intricate guitar riffs and deftly quick dances around the fretboard have mesmerised audiences and scared off guitar players. Since the band’s 1987 dissolution, the Manchester guitarist has had success as a solo artist in addition to performing with groups like Modest Mouse, The Cribs, and briefly The Pretenders.

So where’s the source of it all? Marr’s playing is more influenced by folk music than by extraterrestrial abilities, despite the belief held by some that he was beam down from a planet where everyone is an expert guitarist and can pull off a 40-year haircut.

Though it was not immediately apparent, Marr revealed in an interview with The Observer in 2022 that, despite his cultural awakening in the early punk scene, he is most influenced by Scottish folk guitarist Bert Jansch. “The biggest influence on me would have to be Bert Jansch. When I was about 14, a friend of mine told me he’d got into this folk group called Pentangle. And I immediately thought: ‘Well, OK, I don’t need to know any more about that’”.

A reasonable response from a teenager who was growing up during the punk movement’s 1976 explosion.

Proceeding, Marr remarks: “When I was round at his house, he played me ‘Basket of Light’ by Pentangle. And I couldn’t believe what I heard, especially from the guitar: it was jazzy, it was bluesy and kind of funky, it went off all over the place. I could see straight away that there are people who are influenced by Bert Jansch that don’t even know it.”

Thus, while the widely held belief is that Marr was motivated to form The Smiths after seeing the Sex Pistols perform at Manchester Free Trade Hall, it appears that a Bert Jansch record may have had just as much of an impact.

Extending the impact of the Pentangle guitarist, Marr advocated, “Anyone who got into Nick Drake – totally into Bert. Anyone who got into Led Zeppelin’s acoustic stuff, Neil Young, Donovan, therefore The Beatles. No Bert Jansch, no Back to the Old House, no Unhappy Birthday, even my electric stuff. So it runs all the way through what I was doing in The Smiths. All roads lead back to Bert Jansch”.

There you have it: guitar-led indie rock today might sound entirely different if Bert Jansch hadn’t made the contributions that it did. One more justification for not discounting folk music.


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