Johnny Marr's choice for the greatest guitarist of all time is surprising - and his new pedalboard is too

Johnny Marr
(Image credit: BMG)

Hendrix? Gilmour? Malmsteen? Not for Johnny Marr, he looks further under the radar for his ultimate guitar hero. A figure he holds in such reverence he admits he turned down the chance to meet them. But who?

"I was offered the opportunity to meet John McLaughlin, I don't know whether he's aware of this, only a few months ago and I elected not to," Marr revealed to Shaun Keaveny on his podcast The Line-Up

It seems Marr was simply too in awe to meet his hero. "He's the greatest guitar player that's ever lived, John McLaughlin," Marr adds of his ultimate admiration for the jazz fusion maestro. "He's not everybody's [cup of tea] because of his choice in music, because he's coming from jazz and fusion and all that, but the album My Goal's Beyond is absolute genius music. And the early Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff."

I feel almost like I have a duty to keep the guitar as modern in context as I can

Indeed Marr reiterated to Keaveny how he consciously didn't and still doesn't draw too much influence from past rock traditions in an effort to create a genuinely fresh style for guitar. 

"I feel almost like I have a duty to keep the guitar as modern in context as I can," he explains. "It's very easy to switch off and find yourself being too reverential to the past because obviously guitar music and guitar rock established itself very firmly in the '60s and '70s. 

"I Can See For Miles by The Who – you can listen to that, or Hendrix, and go, 'Oh god that's the best way to say it' but it is 50 years later, and at the same time one of the things that really inspired me as a youngster was the sound of glam rock and people like Sparks, who are still doing it. [When I heard] This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us, it sounded so wide awake and modern. There was something cutting edge about that. 

One of the things that excited me when I was a school leaver was the opportunity to take guitar into the future

"I want to have that sense of modernity, I want to keep that sense of modernity, because it's very easy to fall back into old tropes with the guitar." 

However Marr did reveal an unexpected blues influence on his work with The Smiths

"Funnily enough Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker were big touchstones for me in The Smiths at the time. I mean we didn't make that kind of music but I was listening to a lot of that… I've got no problem with that. I like it for what it is, but I just think guitar culture, one of the things that excited me when I was a school leaver was the opportunity to take guitar into the future."

And he sense that kindred spirit in his often unsung post-punk peers too.

"I recognised that in Will Sergeant from Echo & The Bunnymen, and John McGeoch from Magazine. I think Robert Smith doesn't get enough credit for what he does on the guitar – A Forest was a real game-changer, I think."

"My generation of musicians, we had this idea after punk of going forward. It's this idea that all the great stuff that was happening; building on that and trying to make it futuristic. Guitar culture + futurism is the great equation for me. So I try to make my records sound modern really."

Even so, Marr is not a player that springs to mind when we think of big effects rigs onstage. But his studio pedalboards are a different story… 

Unveiling his new second pedalboard at his Crazy Face Factory studio, he's clearly loyal to his favourite brands – one is entirely made up of Carl Martin units and the other is Electro-Harmonix, including the Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai, Cathedral Reverb, EHX Tortion, C9 Organ Machine, B9 Organ Machine, Synth9, MEL9, Mod Rex Polyrhythmic Modulator and the Superego +.

Are you detecting a theme here? In the studio Marr is a clearly serious sonic explorer., and he's clearly keen on synth sound but also knows where to draw the line. There's that futurist spirit coming through.

The Carl Martin 'board covers the more traditional tonal fare compared with the AC-Tone, PlexiTone and Hot Drive N' Boost overdrive pedals. Plus the Compressor / Limiter, DeLayla XL delay pedal, HeadRoom spring reverb and Chorus XII.

Looks like he's sorted for guitars too… 

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.