The ‘80s weren’t just about electronic music, ya know? That decade also produced some of the most influential indie pop bands of all times – for example: The Smiths. At the time, the band’s guitarist Johnny Marr was regarded as highly as Morrissey for his inventive parts, but also for a sound that was as simple as it was unique – which made The Smiths the jangly band par excellence.
If you want to get a similar tone from your guitar, try this: assuming you don’t have a Rickenbacker, try a Telecaster or Danelectro U2. Use your bridge pickup or single coil, which have a softer attack.
Apparently, Johnny Marr used to tune his guitar UP 1/2 or 1 whole step, which slightly affects the guitar tone, so you can experiment with that too.
Of course, the performance is what conveys most of the jangle-ish feel. It’s really about playing the electric like you would play an acoustic, with rapid/jumpy but gentle strums while only hitting the thinner strings.
Ditch anything related to boost and distortion in your pedal/amp chain. Turn your bass EQ all the way down, the treble up just before it starts sounding too brittle, and keep the mids also very low – but make sure they give the tone the right amount of body if necessary. Chorus and reverb are pretty much a must – don’t exaggerate though.
Reverb.com posted a very comprehensive article about John Marr’s effect chain in some of the band’s most popular song (check it out here), accompanied by this video.