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 4×12 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.
What is the key to the sound of the Marshall amplifier that makes it so unique?
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 4×12 cabinet evolve?
We started off with 2x12s, 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 4×12. 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 2×12 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 4×12 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 8×12 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 4×12, 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 8×12 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,