The Smiths United are one of the Detroit areas most popular tribute acts, playing to capacity crowds in some of metro Detroit’s most prestigious venues, and even garnering a 2013 Detroit Music Award nomination for Outstanding Tribute Act. As their name not so subtly implies, the band pays homage to highly influential Brit-rockers The Smiths.
Formed in Manchester, England in 1982 by singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, The Smiths became one of the most influential alternative rock bands in history. The “Smiths” sound was defined by Morrissey’s melancholic-yet-mordant lyrics and vocal melodies juxtaposed with Johnny Marr’s multi-layered mod-rock and country and western guitar stylings. The Smiths career spanned only five years, but gave life to four studio albums, numerous one-offs and singles, and an enduring legacy.
The Smiths sound is difficult to capture, requiring careful thought in recreating Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr’s multiple layers of guitar tracks. Jonathan Epstein, guitarist for The Smiths United uses a carefully selected set of guitars in order to best present an accurate representation.
Epstein, like Marr, is a long time fan of Gibson ES style guitars, preferring them for their “beautiful sustained electric sound,” and calling them the perfect hybrid of acoustic and electric. Beside The Smiths, all of Jon’s favorite Indie and Brit Pop bands like Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure, Depeche Mode and New Order all commonly used an ES style guitar. Jon’s newest and most prized acquisition is a Gibson ES-345 semi-hollowbody guitar that previously belonged to legendary Motown house-band The Funk Brothers guitarist Dennis Coffey. “Playing in The Smiths United tribute band, the ES fits the Smiths sound Hand in Glove,” says Epstein wryly.
The ES-345 is similar to the ES-355 that was a mainstay of Marr’s in The Smiths. Both guitars have stereo outputs but the 355 features a tremolo while the 345 has a trapeze tailpiece. Without the tremolo to capture the whammy bends in Smiths classics like Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now Epstein “just bends the neck” to achieve that effect.
Epstein also uses a Rickenbacker 330 in The Smiths United, another guitar used heavily by Marr during his Smiths period, as well as a Takamine 12 string acoustic/electric as heard on Bigmouth Strikes Again. The Rickenbacker was used frequently on many of the early Smiths recordings and Epstein uses it to achieve the clean, twangy yet jangly tones of that era.
When it comes to amplification, Jon favors a Vox Valvetronix and its accompanying foot controller in order to cop the variety of amp and effect sounds required for his gig. “I used to always play through Fender Twins but converted to the power and clarity of the Vox,” says Epstein.
Jon describes his style as “modest and anti-rock star, like Marr,” and often prefers the overlooked and under-appreciated styles of players like Peter Buck, Martin Gore, and Scotty Moore. That’s not to say Epstein can’t rock out to players with a little flash ala Marc Bolan of T. Rex, Johnny Thunders from the New York Dolls, or his faves: Bernard Butler of Suede and his childhood hero, David Bowie’s Mick Ronson. He once went so far as to sell his first guitar, a Rickenbacker, to buy a black ’76 Les Paul Custom in honor of Ronson, which he played in his 90s band Spider the Cat.
Currently Jon’s focus is on refining Marr’s style and sound in order to keep improving the accuracy that The Smiths United presents. Additionally, Jon enjoys working on some Gene Vincent-esque country and rockabilly riffs in order to keep things fresh and not get stuck in a rut, something he absolutely abhors. “I will continue to study Marr’s wizardry, but would like to return to an original project someday when the inspiration strikes,” he says.
Be sure to check out Jon and the rest of The Smiths United on Facebook and catch them at one of their next shows: Friday May 31, in Ann Arbor at The Blind Pig, or Saturday June 8 at Cadieux Cafe in Detroit.