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Dave Keuning on Johnny Marr’s enduring influence: “We talked about countless Smiths songs in the early Killers days”

Dave Keuning and Johnny Marr
(Image credit: Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns; Rob Loud/WireImage)

There’s a handful of players out there that have carved out their own style and flavour, and Johnny Marr is definitely one of those. He and The Edge were the most interesting guitarists from that ’80s era with what they’re playing, and they both had a great band. 

For sure they did something worth noticing, instead of a slew of guitar players just doing rock chords or whatever. It’s hard for me to know exactly how much each one of my influences has influenced me, but Johnny Marr, Robert Smith, Billy Corgan and Angus Young are all part of the recipe of who I am. They pop their head out at different moments.

I’ve been listening to The Smiths recently while I’ve been working on stuff with The Killers. When we’re writing, I try and I go back to the old influences because there’s still plenty more stuff I can do. I haven’t sat down and learned every Smiths song. I’ve only learned a handful of them, so there’s always something more to discover.

A lot of people try to say the coolest answer to why they picked up a guitar as a kid, but when I started I wanted to play songs that were fun – and what was fun on guitar was AC/DC, Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses. There are Smiths songs like This Charming Man that are fun to play too, but with Johnny Marr some of the songs aren’t entry-level guitar, so it had to come later.

There were some Smiths songs I grew up listening to, but I got more into the band in the late ’90s, when I was looking for more music post-Kurt Cobain. The Cure, New Order and The Smiths – those are probably the three biggest [bands] I was listening to in the early Killers days. We talked about countless Smiths songs. 

I like a certain sound that’s clean but tough. I like my voicings to be heard. And that’s what’s beautiful about some of Johnny’s stuff, like Back To The Old House – there’s these cool voicings that if it was full of gain you wouldn’t really hear. It sounds geeky, but as a guitar player I really enjoy new voicings.

If I’m practising on something like The Smiths or The Beatles, from time to time I’ll still stumble onto a new chord voicing after all these years. It’s cool because to my ears each one evokes a certain emotion, a certain flavour that’s unique to it. 

You’ve got to appreciate all the different chords to really understand that. I like it when there’s a song full of seventh chords and you hear the voicings, and you’ve got to have the right sound for that. When Johnny has chorus on it, it sounds even more beautiful. 

There’s a certain jazziness to some of Johnny’s stuff – and I don’t like jazz – but like a willingness to play different jazz chords and great clean, pretty parts

I like the sound right down the middle. That’s why I like the Fender Hot Rod Deville. I want to take a different approach with every song, and Johnny has definitely has been an influence on that. You don’t have to be dirty. You can let your chords speak for themselves. But Johnny has got plenty of dirty songs, too. London has got heavy guitar. There’s a time and place for it.

There’s a certain jazziness to some of Johnny’s stuff – and I don’t like jazz – but like a willingness to play different jazz chords and great clean, pretty parts. I always liked the Smiths song Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want

There’s just a lot of beautiful chords in it that evoke emotion, a lot of major seventh chords. That stuck with me. Johnny also has a lot of dirty, great single lines, too. He was ahead of his time just playing all this single line, angular stuff.

I think of Johnny sometimes when I write a pretty acoustic song with cool voicings. I usually think, ‘Oh, is that too much like some of that Smiths stuff?’ But no, I usually just go with it. I’m probably influenced more by his guitar playing, but I wish the songwriting would be the bigger influence. 

He throws in a lot of sudden out-of-key chord movements. He’s out of key just for a second on a couple chords, but it’s all really cool. I wish I would do a little more of that. Not to mention the quality of his songs is really good as well, so I might have to learn a few more and try and let those influences sink in!

It was an honour to see Johnny play Mr. Brightside with The Killers at Glastonbury 2019 [Dave did not perform with the band]. It’s pretty cool that I’ve learned a few of his songs and then he had to learn one of my songs. He played the riff a little differently from me. If he wants to do a different interpretation, I think it’s great.

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Jenna writes for Total Guitar and Guitar World, and is the former classic rock columnist for Guitar Techniques. She studied with Guthrie Govan at BIMM, and has taught guitar for 15 years. She's toured in 10 countries and played on a Top 10 album (in Sweden).