PART ONE: The Birth of the Marshall
Pete Townshend once told an interviewer that when The Who first formed, he saw the guitar very much as a weapon. Long before it had a name, he was looking for shock and awe. And he found the man willing to supply it – Jim Marshall.
One day in 1965, Townshend went to Marshall’s music store in London, threw down his Marshall JTM 45, and said, “I want that, twice as loud.”
And almost like Krups, the military manufacturer, Marshall’s eyes sort of lit up and he said, “I’ll supply this man with the weapon he requires.”
And from that, Townshend says, came the Marshall stack and the big amplifiers of the ’60s.
Pete has long been an embellisher of stories, and what actually transpired probably wasn’t exactly like that. But there’s no doubt the Marshall stack would come to dominate the sound of rock and roll, beginning with that fateful day.
Of course, it’s easy to think of Marshall amps starting with the famous stack, but Jim Marshall had been building separate heads and speakers (and later, combo amps) since the early ’60s. Marshall’s original inspiration was the Fender Bassman, which may have been a difficult amp for the average guitarist to obtain in England in the early ’60s, when the nation was still in the throes of post-World War II rationing (as Dave Marsh wrote in Before I Get Old, the sharply dressed “Mods” The Who modeled themselves after, and in fact, Townshend’s equipment-smashing routine itself, were manifestations of the lifting of the rationing).
Bettering The Bassman
In July, 1960, Marshall, having developed his reputation as a regularly gigging drummer and drum teacher, opened a musical equipment store at 76 Uxbridge Road in the Hanwell section of West London, which would come to be frequented by some of England’s top guitarists.
At the time, Marshall says that most felt the Fender Bassman was the amplifier to beat – but it wasn’t perfect.
“Players like Pete Townshend, Ritchie Blackmore and ‘Big’ Jim Sullivan (one of the busiest session guitarists in England) pointed out to me, that although they used the Fender, it didn’t produce the sound they wanted. So they described the sound they were looking for to me. And that’s how the JTM 45 came to be.”
That the sound of the Marshall amp would come out of the Bassman isn’t all that surprising, as it’s not too difficult to compare Jim Marshall to Leo Fender. Neither man was a guitarist, but each made his career as an entrepreneur who was willing to listen very, very carefully to their guitar-playing customers, and give them what they wanted.
“I liked the sound of the Fender,” said Marshall. “In fact, it was my favorite guitar amplifier at that time without a doubt. But it wasn’t the sound the boys described to me… it wasn’t the sound I heard in my head.”
Getting the sound Marshall heard in his head required a considerable amount of experimentation.
“My repairman, Ken Bran, had a young assistant named Dudley Craven, and he was the chap who managed to put what I was hearing in my head into an amplifier,” Marshall adds. “Dudley was a brilliant engineer who used to work as an apprentice for EMI, and I more than doubled his wages so he’d help us build our first rock and roll amplifier.
“Dudley made five amps for me, one after the other, and I turned them all down because they didn’t have the sound I was after. Then he made number six; and that did it – that’s the one that had the sound I had in my mind that the players had put to me. The players must’ve agreed, too, because when we put number six in the store in September 1962, we sold 23 that very first day!”
1 A late-’60s JMP SLP 100 half-stack in red tolex and basket weave grillecloth.
2 A late-’60s JMP Super Lead head and Model 1960A cab (with “100” logo) in white tolex.
3 1962 JTM 45 offset prototype, atop an early-’60s 2×12 PA cab with matching “coffin” logo.
4 A 1964 JTM 45 Mk II head with Model 1984 4×12 cab.
“Number six” was a 35-watt head whose circuitry closely resembled the Fender Bassman. The difference in sound was, “…the harmonics of the valves – or ‘tubes’ as you call them in America – when they’re driven in a certain, special way… along with certain things we do within our amplifiers that we do not discuss!”
For those who wish to compare the differences between the first Marshall amp and the Fender Bassman, Mike Doyle’s The History of Marshall compares the circuitry of each amp design, in-depth.
Of course, for Marshall (and the guitarists who purchased his equipment) the “feel” of the amps was – and is – as important as their technical specs. Nick Bowcott, Marshall’s product manager for Korg USA, says that whenever there’s a design session for a new Marshall amp, “One of the questions always asked is ‘How does the amp feel to you?’”
Bowcott is a fine guitarist himself.
“Let’s be honest,” he says. “We’ve all plugged into amps that sounded great but felt wrong because they didn’t react or ‘give’ in a way that you like. An amp isn’t just there to make sound, it’s an instrument in its own right, so its playability is every bit as important as that of a guitar… in my humble opinion, anyway!”
It also didn’t hurt that Marshall combined his early amps with cabinets containing four 12″ Celestion speakers, a classic combination that endures to this day. “Number six” became known as the JTM 45, named after Jim and his son, Terry.
Breaking the Blues
While Marshall continued to offer the JTM 45 head through 1966 (it’s been reissued since 1989), he also offered it as part of a combo amp, with a pair of built-in 12″ speakers, and dubbed the model 1962.
“I put it in a combo originally for Eric Clapton, who used to practice in my shop and one day he asked if I could build him a combo version of the JTM 45 so it’d be easy for him to get into the boot [trunk] of his car. So I did, and that’s how the Bluesbreaker combo came about.”
Its sound, of course, would be heard on the landmark 1966 John Mayall album, Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton, as Clapton created the definitive electric blues guitar sound, mating a 1960 Les Paul with a Marshall model number 1962 combo amp. Eventually, the album would make the guitar, the guitarist, and his amplifier all legendary.
Indeed, the Marshall 1962 would come to be known simply as “The Bluesbreaker” amp. While the distorted sound of the Les Paul with humbucking pickups played through a Marshall disturbed some purists in the mid ’60s, ironically, the man the guitar is named for was firmly nonplussed.
“That fuzzy sound didn’t surprise me at all,” Les Paul told Guitar World in March of 1983. “I’ve always been one to spread out and go where angels fear to tread… so if Eric Clapton came along, used one of my instruments to get a big fat sound, I’ve got nothing but admiration for him. In some cases it didn’t sound too pleasing, but in most cases it was very interesting.”
Despite having the success of the JTM 45, the 1962, and their variants for PA and bass work, Jim Marshall continued to operate his retail music store, added a second store in March of 1963, and ultimately owned several retail music stores in England.
“In fact, I didn’t get out of retail until 1979!” he says.
The second store was necessary, because “My first music shop in Hanwell, London, became the place where the amplifiers were built by Dudley and Ken, while I did all the chassis work, cabinet-building, and that sort of thing in the back of my other shop, as there was more space there. The trouble was, all my drum-teaching studios were in the back of that place too, so it got quite cramped in there at times!”
5 A rare “NARB” chassis, built in the mid 1960s and named after Marshall builder Ken Bran in an effort to skirt the company‘s distribution deal.
6 1967 20-watt PA head.
The Who: Maximum R&B
Amplifiers, of course, radically changed when The Who began to make their mark on the London music scene. In 1964, John Entwistle was already using a JTM 45 connected to a pair of side-by-side 4×12 cabinets for his bass guitar. Townshend wanted something similar, not just for louder volume, but for more controlled feedback. He used a JTM 45 himself for a time that same year, but ultimately, both men decided it just wasn’t powerful enough to blast over both Keith Moon and the audience.
A glimpse of the future was offered when Townshend placed his 4×12 cabinet (driven by the ubiquitous Bassman) on a metal stand, putting the speakers in line with his guitar’s pickups, and allowing for controlled feedback – an increasingly popular technique amongst British guitarists.
The solution was a 100-watt amp for each player, but many amp manufacturers were afraid that the internal circuitry of such a powerful amp would simply melt from the heat. One exception was Vox, in an arms race of its own to produce equipment powerful enough to blast out over the screaming crowds faced by the Beatles. And in fact, Entwistle and Townshend did try a pair of Vox AC100s for a time in mid 1965, but were dissatisfied with their sound.
On the fateful day he entered Marshall’s music store, Townshend had another unusual request for Marshall. To accompany his 100-watt amplifiers, he wanted cabinets that each contained eight 12″ speakers!
“I told him I could, but warned him that an 8×12 cabinet would be terribly heavy and that his roadies would be bloody furious at him,” Marshall says. “I suggested putting an angled 4×12 cabinet on top of a straight one instead, but he was having none of it.”
“Sod my roadies!” was Townshend’s reply. “That’s what they’re paid for!”
So Marshall dutifully built him three 100-watt heads and three 8×12 cabinets, “And sure enough, a few weeks later he came back and said, ‘You’re right, these 8×12 cabs are too heavy! Could you cut them in half and make me two 4x12s that stack like you originally suggested?’
“Well, I couldn’t literally saw his cabinets in half because of the way they were constructed so I said, ‘Leave them with me, Pete. I’ll sort them out.’”
Marshall would ultimately make only six monsterous 8×12 cabinets, with four going to The Who and two to the Small Faces.
It’s significant to note that Marshall had the idea for the angled top of the speaker stack, even with the 8x12s. According to Nick Bowcott, Marshall chose the design as much for aesthetics as the sound. With the angled speaker cabinet, the top of the cabinet naturally tapers into the amp head above it, unlike when it’s placed on a conventional cabinet. Marshall looked at those and said, “Just doesn’t look designed – it looks like a small box on top of a bigger one!”
7 Mid-’60s Super Tremolo Mk IV with white panel and rare grey Bluesbreaker“ grillecloth.
8 1964 “Bluesbreaker” combo.
91967 JTM 45 Mk IV “Bluesbreaker” combo.
While the visual aspect was certainly pleasing, he was very happy that several players told him that the angle of the top of the cabinet helped to project the two speakers into the ears of the guitarist, allowing them to better hear their guitars over a thundering drummer.
Townshend and Entwistle bought the first four Marshall 100-watt heads, at £160 each. Besides the sheer power of the amps driving eight speakers (and eventually 16, as double stacks quickly became de rigueur in hard rock), the stack also made for an impressive visual look, one that would ultimately dominate hard rock: in most early Who photos, the two are seen in many shots backing Roger Daltry, each with two Marshall 100-watt amps and four 4×12 cabinets, with Keith Moon flailing away between them.
Now that’s an intimidating backline!
In late 1965, production versions of this “stack” followed, known as the Marshall 1959 100-watt amplifer, the Marshall 1960A (angled-front top) and 1960B (flat-front bottom).
Curiously, Townshend’s Marshalls almost always had built-in tremolo circuits, which were never all that popular in the Marshall line and according to Doyle was dropped as an option in 1973.
Jim Marshall Gets Experienced
When Jimi Hendrix arrived in England in 1966, he was ready to add the look and sounds of England’s top rock groups (such as The Who, Cream and The Yardbirds) to his own R&B-influenced playing.
Ironically, Hendrix’s newly drafted English drummer, Mitch Mitchell, once worked in Marshall’s shop and received drum lessons from James Marshall. And Hendrix’s real full name was James Marshall Hendrix.
All of which made Marshall stacks for Hendrix and bassist Noel Redding a natural. Over 35 years since Hendrix’s debut on Are You Experienced?, Jim Marshall still counts him as his favorite client, and greatest ambassador.
“Jimi was definitely number one, without any doubt, and it’s a shame he died so young because I don’t think he’d reached anything like his peak.”
Curiously, at least one of Hendrix’s Marshalls may have been acquired by another famous guitarist with a similar first name and a love of Marshalls – Jimmy Page.
In interviews, Page has said that one of his amps– serial #A10053 – may have been used by Hendrix at his the Isle of Wight concert in August of 1970, not long before he passed away. In the July ’86 issue of Guitar World, Page’s guitar tech boasted that this 100-watt head had 180 watts of power when fully cranked.
The basic design of the Marshall would continue, with numerous variations, including a master volume model until 1981, when the JCM 800 series was introduced, timed to coincide with the end of their contract with the Rose-Morris Co. Ltd., their original worldwide distributor.
This would be the first of several significant changes in Marshall’s lineup in the 1980s and ’90s, which we’ll look at in part two.
PART TWO: The ’80s, ’90s, and Today
“When I was in my teens, and my band started venturing out of our home town, I didn’t feel I could be taken seriously until I got my first Marshall.”
Nick Bowcott may be a bit biased, given his position as Marshall’s Product Manager for Korg, but most players can relate to his sentiment.
“It was almost a status symbol,” he said. “It was like I was saying to the audience, ‘Okay, I’ve arrived. I’m serious.’
“In my mind, to this day there’s nothing like seeing a band, and the first thing that hits you is a wall of Marshalls. That has always been synonymous with the sort of music I like – and great tone. It speaks volumes without a single note being played, because it’s such a powerful visual statement.”
What was Bowcott’s first Marshall?
“A 50-watt JCM800 2204 – an amp I still have and is actually spittin’ distance from me in our sound room here at Korg. I still use it as a sonic reference, because it’s something I grew up with, and it still sounds amazing.”
Marshall’s reputation for sound was furthered by the image a stack of its amps made onstage. In part two of our look back at Marshall amps, we let Bowcott and Jim Marshall detail how the company has remained atop the amplifier “stack.”
JCM800 – Flagship For The ’80s
Marshall’s JCM 800 series grew out of the company leaving what it describes as “the stranglehold” of distributor Rose-Morris in early 1981.
Sensing it was time to shake things up, company founder and president Jim Marshall created a new line of amplifiers whose name derived from the license plate of his Jaguar, and his own initials – James Charles Marshall: JCM 800.
“I wanted a new name for the amps, but every idea we came up with was dreadful,” Jim recalls with a chuckle. “And then, one day, I looked at the plate on my car and immediately thought, ‘That’s it – that’s what we’ll use.’
“And the amusing thing is, it was staring me right in the face me all along!”
The initial JCM 800s were mostly a cosmetic redesign of Marshall’s existing amps, namely the Master Volume and Super Lead. A big plus, however, was a redesign of the combo amps, placing the controls in the front of the amp (similar to Fender’s placement of its combo amp controls since the 1950s) rather than in the top rear portion, as they were for years on such classic amps as Marshall’s model 1962 “Bluesbreaker” combo.
Eventually of course, the JCM 800 line was replaced by newer models, with the first being the JCM 900 series in 1990, kicked off with a humorous series of ads featuring Christopher Guest’s Nigel Tufnel character from the “mockumentary” This Is Spinal Tap. But during its initial run in the ’80s, the JCM 800 series proved quite a success.
The Anniversary Amps
In 1982, to celebrate Marshall’s 20 years in the amplifier business, a limited edition series of the JCM 800s were available in swanky white-colored vinyl, instead of the more traditional somber-looking black.
Similarly, in 1987, to celebrate his 50 years in music and 25 years of building amps, Marshall released an anniversary series dubbed the Silver Jubilee line. The exterior of these amps used (appropriately enough) silver-colored vinyl and chrome control panels. They were based on the 2203 and 2204 models in the JCM800 line but with a twist; these amps featured a switch that could split their output in half for greater distortion at quieter volumes. Thus, the model 2555 could go from 100 to 50 watts, and the rest of the amps in the series could go from 50 to 25 watts.
13 The model 5005 Lead 12 was small, but guitarists love its warm tone.
14 The Silver Jubilee version of the 3005 Micro-Stack.
15 The hard-to-find “plexi” version of the 3005 Micro-Stack.
The 2555 proved popular with a number of high-flying rockers, including Slash of Guns ‘N’ Roses fame, who became the first player to have his signature on a Marshall when the limited edition 2555 Slash signature model was released in ’96.
Finally, in ’92, Marshall released its 30th Anniversary amps – the 100-watt 6100 head and 100-watt 1×12″ 6101 combo. Driven by 11 tubes (seven 12AX7s and four EL34s) these three-channel amps were loaded with a plethora of features, including MIDI channel switching and four power stage options.
The first 800 anniversary amps were not only covered in blue vinyl, but boasted a brass-plated chassis.
Lead 12: The Little Screamer
Greater distortion at low volumes was also the goal of one of the most interesting amps Marshall released in the early ’80s – the model 5005 Lead 12.
A 12-watt transistor practice amp with a 10″ Celestion, it retailed for under $200 and for many came surprisingly close to capturing the great, warm sound of the distorted Marshall amps of years gone by. It was a favorite of many working musicians, including luminaries like Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.
The Lead 12 proved to be enough of a hit with consumers that Marshall has continued to make transistor mini-amps. The ’80s and early ’90s saw the introduction of the tiny one-watt MS-2, the popular 3005 solidstate Micro-Stack (based on the 5005), and the 10-watt 8001 Valvestate Micro-Stack (part of a series of Marshall amps launched in ’91 where all models with 40 watts or more used a 12AX7 tube in their preamps, to drive a solidstate power stage designed to sound and feel like an all-tube power amp), as well as numerous more high-powered combo amps, and even separate transistorized heads.
Solidstate: Maximum Crunch
What are Jim Marshall’s favorite solidstate amps?
“Without a doubt, our current MG line,” he says. “This range was developed from our successful Valvestate series of hybrid (tube preamp/solidstate power amp)amps.
“Our new hybrid AVT (Advanced Valvestate Technology) amps and the new Mode Four will also stand the test of time. The Valvestate and MG amps have made it possible for a lot of youngsters to have a Marshall as their very first amp, because they’re a lot cheaper than all-valve (tube) amps.”
“The essence of Marshall is, has, and always will be the all-tube stuff,” adds Bowcott, summing up Marshall’s excursions into transistor and Valvestate amps. “I love the sound of an all-tube amp like a 2203, 1959SLP, or DSL100. There’s something very raw and organic about it; it reaches out and punches you in the chest.
“We live in a weird and wonderful time, where technology is king and people want and expect more for less. You can buy a DVD player for 60 bucks, which even a few years ago would’ve been considered unbelievable. Guitar players are interesting beasts and there’s a new generation out there who view amps differently. They have a certain tone they want to achieve and they don’t really care how it’s created – they’re not caught up in that ‘It has to be an all-tube signal path and point-to-point wired or it’ll suck’ mentality… unlike many of their fathers!”
Mode Four: Marshall for the 21st Century
In early 2003, Marshall again introduced a new amp design, the hybrid Mode Four. Visually, the most obvious difference between the Mode Four head and its predecessors is its rakish-looking grill, fanning out in a V shape under the Marshall logo. Ads describe it as “…a state of the art, 350-watt, four-mode monster offering more gain, more low-end rumble, and more headroom than ever before,” as well as “an amazing clean sound and those classic crunch tones.”
The current Marshall line also includes its MG series of solidstate amps, the Vintage Series, which includes reissues of the legendary 1962 Bluesbreaker combo and the classic JCM800 2203 and JTM45 heads.
If forced to name just one amplifier that definies the Marshall sound – and the beginning of the company’s legacy – Jim Marshall says he’d pick the JTM45.
“In the early days, they were built purely for rock and roll. So to that end, to my ears, the complex and musical overdriven sound of the JTM45 – the first amp we ever built back in 1962 – is the essence of the ‘Marshall sound’ because that’s where it all started.”
But he is quick to point out there’s far more than just one “Marshall sound.”
“These days, the amps are capable of literally doing any type of music – from very heavy rock to even jazz and country.”
“Jim makes a great point – what the typical Marshall sound is really does depend on the listener!
“A fan of ’70s British blues rock might cite Paul Kossoff’s edgy, organic sound as typical Marshall or Clapton’s quintessential ‘woman tone.’ Others might hear it as AC/DC’s cleaner-than-you-think rhythm and bruise, Edward Van Halen’s jaw-dropping classic ‘brown sound,’ the raw, brutal roar of the rhythm work of Kerry King of Slayer, Zakk Wylde’s fat, woody overdrive, the singing sustain of a Joe Satriani or Slash, or the crushing crunch of modern players like Wayne Static (Static-X), Stef Carpenter (Deftones), Daron Malakian (System Of A Down), or Mike Mushok (Staind).
“As the saying goes, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ Likewise, the typical Marshall amp sound is in the head and ears of the listener.”
Or, as Jeff Beck said in a recent tribute to Jim on his 40th anniversary as Britain’s best amplifier manufacturer, “It’s all your fault!”
Ed Driscoll is a freelance journalist who has written about technology, business, and the arts for numerous publications. In his spare time, he’s a guitarist and songwriter who enjoys recording on his PC. His website is eddriscoll.com.
This article originally appeared in VG September and October 2003 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
Dig into VG’s vast article archive!
Be notified when the next “Overdrive” and other great offers from VG become available! Simply submit this form.