Here’s part of the transcript of a long interview I did with Johnny Marr for the Rickenbacker Electric 12-String book.
TB: When did you first hear electric 12?
JM: George Harrison and Roger McGuinn’s influence was so all-pervasive. You can’t get around it if you were born anywhere between 1963 and the present day. A lot of my musical education came from pop records of the early 70s onwards, because that’s when I started buying records. Whether they were T.Rex or Cockney Rebel, Sweet, Sparks, they were a synthesiser-free zone but still quite elaborate. It may be my personal nostalgia, but that was my golden era, from glam rock onwards. Luckily those records were adorned with lots of multi-layered guitars. Post-Beatles.
Much as I was into T.Rex, you’d hear things like ‘Magic’ by Pilot, and I remember when they were on Top Of The Pops the guitarist played a double-neck SG. I was 10 or 11 and I was fascinated to know what that other neck was doing. He looked immediately twice as proficient as anyone else who’s just been on. So it was things like seeing double-necks gave me a curiosity – a visual cue.
There was a guitar break in ‘I’m Mandy Fly Me’ by 10cc, that was an acoustic 12-string. You see people like The New Seekers, if they had more than one guitar player, I doubt they troubled a 12-string in the studio or on record, but some of those pop bands would be holding 12-strings. I was soaking up information on that pop culture.
Double-necks sound incredible, because you have all of that body mass. A giant table-top. One of the best double-necks I’ve ever heard is a Rickenbacker. It’s just god-damned unwieldy.
TB: And when did the 12-string penny drop?
JM: When I got into Neil Young in the mid 70s, when I first went to high school. By proxy, or by default, I discovered David Crosby, because of CSNY, and that was where musically I learnt about fitting a few different guitars together. My first practical experience of that would have been listening to David Crosby. His solo record and the stuff he did with CSNY, and he would play acoustic 12-string. Me and my friends went through a phase of learning how to sing harmony and getting into that kind of music. They definitely were thinking about what they were doing, those guys. From there I began to find out about the San Francisco scene, and then look a bit backwards. Then I got more into the San Francisco garage rock, and Jefferson Airplane – Paul Kantner played a Rickenbacker 12-string.
That’s when I discovered that some guitar players will avoid them. As you can imagine, for a 15, 16-year-old, they were quite an elusive item. Me and my mates would get together with a bunch of crappy acoustics and start playing some songs, and after a few numbers the 12-string would get passed around. I didn’t mind letting someone use my Eko and I’d get on the 12-string. That’s where I learned how to get comfortable with the 12-string. I’ve noticed right up to now, sometimes if there’s 12-strings around, guitar players who are very capable will maybe pick one up out of curiosity, then leave it down after a few minutes and not bother picking it up again.
I think there are a few reasons for that. You have to apply yourself, to play it. In a sense you have to apply yourself constantly to tune it, depending on what sort of condition the guitar’s in. There are plenty of things that a rock guitar player can’t do readily on a 12-string that I actually think is one of the benefits of the 12-string, because it stops you just going into those automatic clichés. So all those things, the tuning, the physical application, and no-entry signs, so to speak, put some guitar players off. It’s an instrument apart: it’s a guitar but it isn’t a guitar, if that doesn’t sound too stupid. One of the reasons I played a R six-string in the early days of The Smiths was to shut down some of those roads that you have as a guitar player that make you play without thinking.
TB: That was the intention, was it?
JM: Yeah, and that’s why I play a Jaguar now. You just can’t be unthinkingly bluesy on it. You have to approach it as something you’re going to get guitar music out of, and if you want to be bluesy or rocky, you have to be really deliberate about it.
TB: When did you get your first Rickenbacker? I presume a six before a 12?
JM: Yeah, I got a six in late 1982.
TB: Right at the beginning of The Smiths, is that?
JM: Yeah, I had a Gretsch, I think a Super Roc Jet [actually a Super Axe], one of those things with the built-in compressor and phase and all of that. I had that for the first six or seven months, and then we got our first publishing deal I went out and bought a Rickenbacker straight away. It was to stop me doing certain things, and at the same time to bring out a side of me that I wanted to explore: more chordal and melodic, essentially being a songwriter. I knew the band purely about riffs. Most singers like changes, chord changes. You tend not to be too modal on a Rick – it encourages chord progressions and harmonic changes and arpeggios and all those things.
TB: That was the 330?
JM: A new 330. Rickenbacker at that time were producing really good well-balanced 330s. I say that because a few players I’ve known over the years have picked up mine and been really pleasantly surprised, having thought that they didn’t like them, and then bought one and it’s not been as good. I’ve since got a couple from that same time and they’re just as good. It was a good period. Obviously, I was very keen to get an old one, but they were really hard to find, even in those days. I’ve still got that one and it’s a really good guitar, I still use it now. Like a lot of guitar players I go through phases of different periods where I use a different instrument, but I think that’s probably the guitar that to most people is associated with me, that black-and-white Rick.
I discovered in talking to Peter Buck about why he got into a Ricky at the same time that his thing came more directly from being influenced by some 60s groups, and liking the look of it and the sound of it – because it had been on some records that he was influenced by. It was a slightly more practical decision for me: shutting down some of those roads and being a good alternative to playing a Tele or a Strat, and helping my songwriting. Finally, with the Ricky, I really liked the picture of Brian Jones on the inside of High Tide And Green Grass playing his fireglo – that kind of sealed the deal for me. Iconic is a much overused word, but whatever it is … if anything is, that picture is.