How To Play This Charming Man by The Smiths/Johnny Marr
I've been playing and teaching this song for quite a few years now, but I've always had the nagging feeling that I wasn't getting it quite right. For this lesson I was determined to get to the bottom of things, and so off I set on a geeky, sometimes gruelling, odyssey into the heart of Johnny Marr's amazing guitar playing.
The first issue to be aware of when we're talking about This Charming Man is that there are actually three different recordings of the song. The track was first recorded for a John Peel session in September 1983, which is the same version that appears on the Hatful of Hollow compilation album. There were two subsequent studio recordings: the "London" version, which to me sounds a little too "produced" with its heavy reverb and effects, and the more muscular sounding "Manchester" version (in fact recorded at Strawberry Studios in Stockport) which was released as a single, and appears on some versions of the self-titled Smiths album. The arrangement and the main guitar part differ slightly between the Peel session version and the other two recordings. I've based this lesson on the "Manchester" version, which is probably the most well-known recording.
Now that's cleared up, let's move on to the actual guitar part. In the past I've always assumed that it was played with a capo at the second fret, which was the only way I could get those chiming open string notes to sound correct. It seemed pretty close to me, but just as I was about to film this lesson I thought I'd check out some live Smiths footage just to make sure I was right. Puzzlingly there's no capo to be seen in any of the old live footage. So the only other possibility was to tune the entire guitar higher. I gave it a try and - voilà - there was that magical sound. I'm not quite sure why (probably some science-y stuff to do with physics and string length) but there's something about actually tuning your strings up higher which adds a mysterious chime and jangle which a capo doesn't give you. So if you want to play the song totally authentically you'll want to tune all your strings up a whole step, so you have (from low to high) F#, B, E, A, C#, F#. (In fact the recording is a bit flat, so the actual pitch is somewhere between F and F#). Disclaimer: I assume no responsibility for any broken strings and/or guitar necks which may result from the use of this tuning. You should be fine on an electric guitar with light-ish strings, but possibly think twice before trying this on your vintage acoustic guitar strung with 15's. As I explain in the video, I chose to demo the song in standard tuning to keep things simple. The part is exactly as Marr plays it, but it just sounds lower in pitch and doesn't quite have the same chiming quality.
So we've solved the tuning conundrum, now onto the actual playing. When figuring out this particular part, identifying which notes are being played is only half the battle. There's also the question of which string the note is being played on, and whether a note is fretted or an open string. Part of what makes this guitar part special is its use of open strings to make the notes flow and chime together. With some careful listening I think I managed to get things about 90% correct, but there were still a couple of points where, in a busy mix, I couldn't quite hear what was going on. Fortunately, I came across this great video of Johnny Marr playing the song, so I was able to check my version against the way the man himself does it:
He's playing in standard tuning, but you can see exactly which strings he's playing on, where he's playing open strings, what fingering he's using, and how he's picking it. Sadly we don't get to see him playing the chorus of the song. So for this part I found myself scrutinising ancient Top of the Pops footage, freezing the frame whenever there's a decent shot of Marr's fingers just to make sure I got the chords played on the right string sets.
Just as I thought I could go no deeper into Johnny Marr geek-dom, I stumbled across this great article by Joe Gore, who's an all-round guru when it comes to things indie and alternative guitar-related. It confirmed, amongst other things, that Marr does indeed tune his guitar to F# for this song. You can also hear the isolated guitar stems, not just for the main guitar part but also for the other guitar parts, allowing you to hear details that are impossible to hear in the full mix. There are around 15 - yes, 15! - guitar layers in total. Who would have guessed there's all this stuff going on? Multiple acoustic guitars, backwards tracks , tremolo, knives...Amazing.
So there we have it. My transcription can be found below, updated to correct a couple of minor slips I made in the video. You can download a high-quality PDF here. Now I just need to get to work on the other 14 guitar parts. And look out for a future lesson on how to play your guitar using knives...
Note on left hand fingering. I perhaps should have gone into this in a bit more depth in the video, as it's really important to finger this piece in a logical way or it's difficult to play smoothly up to speed. One spot that can cause problems is the transition from bar 8 to 9. For me the best fingering solution is to play the 10th and 11th fret notes in bar 8 with your 2nd and 3rd fingers, then quickly switch to your 1st and 2nd fingers to play the same notes at the start of bar 9.