So this time twenty years ago you'd have found me with my headphones in – plugged into a walkman cassette player – lost in the world of kitchen sink melodramas conjured up by one Steven Patrick Morrissey with accompaniment exquisitely crafted by the guitar genius of Johnny Marr and the often overlooked but equally talented rhythm section duo of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. Yes, I was a huge, huge Smiths fan.
And you know what – looking back on it, it did me a world of good. By the time I went to music college, I was still a novice – barely advanced from Oasis and Nirvana and struggling to make the leap to Guns 'n' Roses, Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. Not only did Morrissey's tragicomic genius lyrics strike a chord with the skinny teenage me, but Johnny Marr's guitar work and arrangements were a masterclass in ensemble playing. I learned so much about rhythm playing and accompaniment from replicating his guitar parts, and I thoroughly recommend any serious student of the guitar at least delve into some of his classics.
Lately I've been running through a couple of Smiths tunes with a student of mine and it's caused me to to revisit some of the music that hooked me all those years ago.
“Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now” - glorious shimmering major 7ths and chord fragments creating a beatiful dynamic, agile rhythm part and almost pianistic melodic solo. Check out the bassline for a smorgasbord of goodies, syncopation, walking bass and tenths.
“Girlfriend In A Coma” - simple enough chordally, but great for honing your ska/ reggae rhythm chops
“Ask” - Driving arpeggios with surprisingly tricky leaps in register
“What Difference Does It Make” - Outlining chords with arpeggios with string elements of melody and voice leading.
“How Soon Is Now” - incredible textures, synchronised tremolo effects and haunting slide guitar.. Incredibly difficult to reproduce even now – and this was recorded in 1985! Check out this link for some fascinating insights into the recording process: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_Soon_Is_Now%3F#Origin_and_recording
“This Charming Man” - THAT hook, almost African style, thirds bouncing across the fretboard with reckless abandon and some unusual chords in the bridge.
“Back To The Old House” - a great fingerstyle party piece with a lovely descending sequence in the bridge.
“That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore” - a masterpiece of melodic chord playing, using extensions to create melodic movement throughout the chord sequence and Johnny Marr somehow making an augmented chord work as part of an utterly anthemic chorus.
“Bigmouth Strikes Again” - pounding 16th note gallop, great for building that right hand stamina!
“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” - an unutterably gorgeous tune, it will be played at my funeral.
We've only scratched the surface of the Smith's back catalogue, and I recommend the compilation “Louder Than Bombs” as a good start point along with the “Singles” collection. Although they only lasted from 1982 to 1987, the influence the Smiths have had on subsequent generations of artists is out of all proportion, and they should be on any guitar player's “must hear” list – so what are you waiting for? To Spotify with you!