When it comes to guitar amplifiers, two names stand tall beyond the others: Leo Fender and Jim Marshall. Even “civilians” recognize these names. Two names, from two different countries, with two very individual sounds. Although Marshall’s original amplifier designs were largely influenced by Fender’s original Bassman, the resulting amplifier later took on a whole new character when it was paired with Marshall’s unique new 4 X 12 cabinet.
But what many people still don’t know is that Jim Marshall is a drummer – and he does not play guitar. As a drummer, Marshall rose through the ranks in England, taking lessons from drum star Max Abrams, and sought to emulate the style of his hero, Gene Krupa. By 1949, Marshall was a confident, well-seasoned player, and began giving drum lessons to many local musicians. He quickly built an impressive group of students, including Mitch Mitchell, who played with Jimi Hendrix, and Nicky Underwood, who played with Ritchie Blackmore.
With the income he saved from teaching, he was able to open his own business. In 1960, Marshall began building bass and PA cabinets in his garage because of the lack of equipment available in the U.K, especially for bass guitar. Later that year, Marshall opened his own retail shop, where he gave lessons and sold gear. At the advice of the musicians he knew, Marshall stocked his store with the most popular Fender and Gibson products – Stratocasters, Telecasters, Tremolux and Bassman amplifiers, Les Pauls and ES-335s.
Many of the guitarists who regularly visited Marshall’s store expressed interest in finding a guitar amp with a sound that was dirtier than the cleaner tones produced by the Fender amps available at the time. As a result of these requests, the very first Marshall amplifiers were born in the fall of 1962, created by Ken Bran, the service engineer at Marshall’s shop, with the assistance of his apprentice, Dudley Craven. There were many orders placed for these first prototypes, and Marshall gradually expanded his manufacturing facilities and production to accommodate demand. The Marshall sound was definitely catching on (for more information on the history of Marshall, there are few better sources than Mike Doyle’s book, The History of Marshall/Hal Leonard Publishing).
One of Jim Marshall’s very first customers was Pete Townshend, a lad he’d known since he strummed his very first chord.
“I’ve known Pete since he was a baby, because I played with his father in the big bands. His father was a very good alto clarinetist,” Marshall recalls. “When Pete started beating up his equipment, his father and I thought this kid had gone stark raving mad. He was trying this new kind of showmanship that we couldn’t appreciate.”
Little did he know that artists like the young Townshend, with this showmanship, using Marshall’s massive backline, would catapult this amplifier into the mainstream, making it perhaps the most popular amplifier in the history of rock music.
Vintage Guitar: What is the key to the sound of the Marshall amplifier that makes it so unique?
Jim Marshall: It became obvious to us that it was the overdriving of the valve with a special transformer, which, fortunately enough, no one has copied exactly. We’ve become the backdrop to all the groups ever since.
Which guitars were used in shaping the sound of the amp?
I knew very little about amplifiers, but I knew a lot about drums. I taught so many of the top drummers and their groups bought guitars and amps in my retail shop that was part of the drum school. They insisted I stock all the top American gear like the Gibson Les Paul and Fender Stratocaster. Those were the two guitars that we actually used when we were developing the sound of the amp. Still, my favorite is the Les Paul through the Marshall amplifier. That’s just what my ear prefers.
How did the 4 X 12 cabinet evolve?
We started off with 2 X 12s, but in those days speakers weren’t all that good, so we used two 25-watt speakers and a 45-watt amplifier that peaked at around 75 watts, and we blew every speaker. That’s when I designed the 4 X 12. It was purely because we were blowing speakers. I thought about the smallest cabinet I could make to hold four 12″ speakers, and there was nothing clever about designing the size, or anything like that. It was purely so that it would go into the transport of those days. We couldn’t make a more powerful 2 X 12 cabinet because there were not speakers available that could take the abuse of the amplifier. So I made a small cabinet, put in four 12″ speakers, and it worked. Then I put the amplifier into a cabinet, which was a square-ish one, then I had the idea of putting the angle on the 4 X 12 to make it look better. I think the angled cabinet is the best one to use if you’re only using one cabinet.
That cabinet design that’s been copied by so many manufacturers since.
If I’d have registered the design in the first place, I’d be earning a lot of royalties.
When did the first Marshall stack appear?
I think that came about in ’65, when Townshend said he needed 100-watt heads. We made the first three 100-watt heads for him. I asked him what sort of cabinet he wanted, and he said he wanted eight 12s in one cabinet. I said that a big square cabinet with a little amplifier on top would look ridiculous, so I told him to let me design something. I built what turned out to be an 8 X 12 stack. Pete tried to carry it out of the workshop and it was so heavy. I told him his roadies were going to kill him, but he said, ‘They get paid.’ Two weeks later he came back and told me I was right, and he asked if I could cut it in half. I told him to leave it to me, and that I would redesign something that would do the job. I went back to the straight 100 4 X 12, which is now the bottom cabinet, and put the angled one on top, and the amplifier on top of that. The stack was born.
So would you say that it was Pete Townshend’s request for an 8 X 12 cabinet that inspired the design of the Marshall stack?
Yes, he’s the one who inspired it. But actually, some lads have even gone so far to say that Pete was responsible for the design.
Other than Pete Townshend, which other artists influenced specific Marshall amp designs?
The Marshall Major was a 200-watt head made for Ritchie Blackmore, and he’s still got the same one. The amp, being 200 watts, overheated a lot because in those days the tubes didn’t last very long. The original Majors used EL34s. Then we changed the tubes in Ritchie’s amp to KT66s. Customers had a choice to order the amp with either EL34s or KT66s. We made very few of them.
How did you meet Jimi Hendrix?
I used to teach Mitch Mitchell, and he brought Jimi in to see me. So here was this lanky American saying, ‘I’m going to be the greatest, man.’ I thought, here’s another American who wanted something for nothing. But, as if he read my mind, he said that he didn’t want anything given to him. He wanted to pay full price, but what he did want was service anywhere in the world. I thought that was a tall order at the time, because we weren’t that big yet, but I said we would do it. Even if I had to have flown a technician out to wherever he was, I would’ve done so, because he was such a nice guy.
How much input did Hendrix have on the development of the Marshall amp?
None at all. He just bought standard models and he used to loop them together to get more power, and that’s all. He never asked for a thing. He was just happy that he got what he had and the sound that he wanted.
Did both Townshend and Hendrix require a lot of maintenance to their amps?
Pete never broke any one of his amps or the speakers, just the speaker cloth. He used to tear those with his guitars. That was it, and we used to replace them. Jimi Hendrix never smashed anything, really. He just tore the speaker cloth. But Jimi was away from England a lot and rarely got his speaker cloth replaced.
How did the relationship between Slash and Marshall begin, leading to Marshall’s first-ever signature model?
We were asked to build Slash 10 new amps for a tour, exactly the same as what he’d been using (a model 2555 Silver Jubilee). After all that time, we’d have to do some research and development to find all the right components to do them all over again, which would be very costly. I said that the only way I could do it would be to produce a limited edition of 3,000. I said that what I will do is let Slash put his signature on the front with mine, which is the first time I’d ever done that.
Were there any changes made to the amp’s original design?
No, they were made exactly the same as his old ones. Slash was afraid of losing his sound.
A few years ago, when the EL34 power tube became scarce, how did that major changeover to using the 5881 affect the Marshall amp’s signature tone?
We had to do that, but we weren’t happy doing it. The amp’s sound was a little cleaner with the 5881s than with the EL34s. That was better for the clean channel, but no so good for the distortion channel. When musicians were able to find the EL34s, they were putting them in themselves, but many forgot that they had to change the bias of the amps as well. So many people were destroying their Marshalls by not changing the bias and also by trying to hotrod them, because if we could have gotten more out of the amplifier we would’ve done it.
So the hotrodding thing was not very clever. It either ruined transformers or meant replacing tubes. We’ve since changed back to using the EL34s as they became more readily available once again. We had to do that because we found that EL34s are better tubes to use for that type of amp because you get better harmonics. Once the EL34 became more available, we had to find a constant supply because we use hundreds of them. The tube we use now comes from Russia, and it’s the same EL34 they use in their fighter planes. Funny enough, they still use a tube in fighter planes! So, it’s military spec and we have no problems, whatsoever. The ECC83 used to be a bad one, very microphonic. We have them made in China and they’re the best ECC83s there have ever been.
Is there a difference between ECC83 and 12AX7 preamp tubes?
There’s hardly any difference, it’s virtually the same tube, up to a point. We find the ECC83 better to use these days because we don’t have to throw so many away.
What was the reason for using 6550 power tubes in the Marshall amps sent to the U.S. in the mid 1980s?
They were shipped to the U.S. tubeless and the distributing company, Unicord, used to put the 6550s in because they thought it was better for their American market. But it wasn’t really, because many of the top American groups used to come to us when they were touring in Europe and ask us to please put the EL34s back in, because it is a better sound.
Do you think that the sound of the Marshall amp changes with the variations in the current used in different countries?
I think it’s better to use [British] current (220 volts), really, and that’s what quite a few American musicians find when they tour and prefer the sound of it. They do sound different. Japan is at about 120 volts, and the amp sounds different there. I think it sounds best in Europe, or anywhere that there’s 220/240 volts.
How do you think the sounds people want to hear have changed or evolved since the ’50s?
That’s the funny thing, you see, we’ve just gone ahead and listened to musicians telling us what they really wanted, but it’s basically been no different from our original sound. I’ve stayed with using tubes all the time, but lately we’ve developed transistor amplifiers, as well. But even our Valvestate has the ECC83 in the preamp section so they can get some of the valve sound, too.
Do you feel that in some ways, Marshall is competing with its own history?
I don’t think so, because the sound wanted now is really the sound we managed to get in the first place. For the future, I cannot see musicians wanting anything much different. Most musicians are back to using an amp with cabinets only. If they have problems using a rack, they’ve got to find what’s gone wrong within all those units within the rack. They’re wasting their time.
Do you have any special old Marshall amps that you keep around for reference?
Oh, yes, I’ve got a lot in the museum. Our chief engineer, Steve Grindrod, can take out any one he wants to listen to if he needs to have his mind jogged for a particular sound.
How many amps are in the museum?
I’d say about 50. I recently paid �8,000 to Guitar Center to buy three of my heads back for the museum. They were part of what used to be Aspen Pittman’s collection.
What’s the prize piece?
The number one amplifier – the first Marshall amplifier that was ever made. I managed to buy that back many years ago.
What do you think of the new breed of amplifiers that incorporate digital modeling technology to emulate the sound of tubes?
It’s not what you find on the measuring instruments that produces the sound. It’s what you hear up here (points to his ear) and whatever they do with digital or solidstate will never produce the harmonics of the tube. It’s the same as with electronic drums, they sound nothing like drums, to my ear.
Do you think that a day will arrive when tubes will eventually be phased out and replaced by solidstate technology?
No way! We use so many that there will always be a proposition for somebody to produce valves. Our Valvestate, for instance, has a very good sound, that’s why it’s the biggest thing we produce now. Marshall makes more Valvestates than anything we’ve ever done before, but if you give someone like Gary Moore a choice, he would always pick a tube amp, and he just bought two of the new JCM2000 DSL100 heads.
In which direction do you see Marshall’s amplifier designs moving in 10 years?
If I had to guess, I’d say that people will still want the same sounds, and I think the sounds I hear from the JCM2000 series will be desirable for many years. I don’t know how Steve Grindrod can compete with what he’s already given us. He’s done a good job and I think he’ll continue to do so for many years. But I’ve also got a very good bass designer now in Bruce Kier, and he’s been with us for about seven or eight years. Marshall will be expanding in the bass area, as well as in keyboards.
How much involvement do you have in the development of new products today?
None really at all, now, but my engineers do speak to me and see if I have any suggestions. My design staff is very good. I have 20 people and 30 in development. My time is taken up now going in at 6:30 every morning, and between 6:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. it gives me a lot of time to do things that I couldn’t during the day because people come in and ask me questions all day. I also handle things on the financial side of the company. And one major thing I do is open the mail every morning, so we actually read every letter that comes in. I think that’s the most important thing a boss could do.
Where do you turn for input and ideas on new products for the future?
We always listen to everybody, and I think it’s essential that we do, since you never know – somebody may say something that we hadn’t thought of.
Are you still performing regularly as a drummer?
Yes, but mainly for charities these days. My life story is being written for a film, and I’m going into the studio to record some numbers that will be used in the film. I’m not sure when it’s going to be released. They’ve got a young chap who’ll be playing me at the age of 19, and they’ve approached Phil Collins to play my father. Then I’m going to be in it right at the end.
Jim Marshall illustration: Sean Thorenson.
This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’97 issue.