Roy Orbison’s Marshall Model 1961

Dream Baby
Roy Orbison’s Marshall Model 1961
Photo by Keith Necaise. All other photos by Michael Mastro.
1965 Marshall Model 1961
• Preamp tubes: four ECC83 (a.k.a. 12AX7)
• Output tubes: two KT66
• Rectifier: GZ34
• Controls: Volume II, Volume I, Treble, Middle, Bass, tremolo Speed and Intensity
• Speakers: two Celestion G12 Alnico
• Output: approximately 30 watts RMS

One of the most-desirable vintage amplifiers ever made goes by a name it never officially had. Possibly the first Marshall brought to America, ownership by the great Roy Orbison adds plenty of allure to this Model 1961 “Bluesbreaker.”

Marshall model names and designations have always been confusing, and it didn’t help that Jim and company decided to label many products with four-digit numerical codes that are easily mistaken for calendar years; the Model 1961 and 1962 were not made in those years, for example, but simply denote the company’s 2×12″ combos developed at the end of ’64 and put into wider production throughout ’65 and beyond. The Model 1961 also carries the name Super Tremolo, while the 1962 is the Lead & Bass, and both were part of the JTM45 series until 1967.

Further confusing it all is the fact that most guitarists have referred to both simply as a “Bluesbreaker combo” ever since Eric Clapton used one to record his seminal tracks on the Blues Breakers album with John Mayall in ’66. The recordings almost single-handedly launched the Marshall sound and sent countless aspiring rock guitarists scrambling to attain it. Other artists had already been using Marshall’s amps for some time, however, even if the sound hadn’t quite been codified. And among the definitive British artists on the Marshall roster appeared one unexpected American – Roy Orbison.

The amp that gave legitimacy to Marshall’s use of Orbison’s name in promotional literature is now in the possession of former rock-music photographer and roadie Michael Mastro, its only caretaker other than Orbison and his bandmates. Of interest for reasons beyond connection to the late star, it’s also an extremely early example of the then-new Marshall combo, and an historically significant amp from several perspectives.

“In the mid ’80s I had the honor of working [as a roadie] for Atlanta Rhythm Section, and their lead guitarist, Barry Bailey, told me about being a member of Roy Orbison’s Candymen in 1965,” Mastro told VG. “Roy booked a tour of Europe, but because Barry was only 17, he couldn’t get a work visa. So, Roy called the guitarist Barry had replaced, John Rainey Adkins, to do the tour.

“While they were in London, Jim Marshall gave Roy a JTM45 2×12″ combo. Roy later sold it to Adkins, who in turn sold it to Barry. Barry used the amp on Mylon LeFevre’s 1969 album We Believe, and on his last album with Atlanta Rhythm Section, Truth in a Structured Form. In ’96, I went to Barry’s home to photograph him with the Marshall, and when Barry passed away in 2022, he left it to me in his will.”

The speakers’ original Celestion labels are still faintly visible beneath the yellowed Marshall labels.

Most recollections point to Marshall manufacturing its first 2×12″ combos around December of 1964 in a bid to bring a “grab-and-go” model to the lineup. The effort simply involved porting over Lead & Bass and Super Tremolo chassis used in the head cabinets into 2×12″ cabinets, which is why even the very first Bluesbreakers carry a “MkIV” designation on their back panels. By every indication, Mastro’s is an early amp indeed; Marshall used rectangular black-and-gold plexiglass logo plates on them partway into 1965, then changed to the new white script “Marshall” logo, allowing us to peg this as an early-’65 example at a glance. A deeper look confirms this, and indicates this might have been among the very first 2×12″ Marshall combos.

After receiving the amp from the Bailey estate, Mastro took it to guitarist and Sheryl Crow bandleader Peter Stroud, who consolidated his know-how as a co-founder of 65amps (alongside Dan Boul). After probing, Stroud found component codes dating from no later than the fourth quarter of ’64. The discovery doesn’t necessarily ensure it was built in late ’64, since manufacturers commonly built new products with parts they had on the shelf for a few months or more, but it does point to early origins.

“I also checked with Marshall historian Hugh Gilmartin and Jeff Hime, in Nashville, who believed it was a very early combo,” Mastro said.

Early Marshalls retain several manufacturing quirks that further point to the DIY-like origins of the company’s beginnings. Among these, the chassis is made from a much thinner aluminum sheet stock than would later be used, folded into shape without welds to join the corner seams (L brackets were bolted to the corners of this one, likely later, as reinforcement). Otherwise, the circuit is remarkably intact, with the hallowed Mullard “mustard cap” signal capacitors, several large, brown carbon-comp resistors, and other components that help make vintage Marshalls legendary.

The control panel (top) displays the grime evident from 58 years of use and storage, along with a missing tremolo Intensity knob. Marshall enthusiasts immediately recognize the originality of this circuit, including several “mustard caps” and other desirable components. The “MkIV Super Tremolo Amplifier,” as designated on the chassis’ back panel, indicates its origins with the tremolo-equipped head version of the JTM45.

The cabinet carries a pair of 15-watt Celestion G12 speakers with Alnico magnets, which in later ’65 would be replaced by ferrite-magnet G12M Greenbacks. A close look at the yellow “Amplification by Marshall” label applied to the circular magnet retainers at the backs of the speakers reveals the red “Celestion G12” legend and Thames Ditton, Surrey, address visible underneath. Though early JTM45s generally put out only around 30 watts rather than the 45-watt nominal rating they are often given, one operating at peak could blow a pair of 15-watt speakers, and often did, so it’s unusual to find two of them intact.

Anyone who has perused Marshall’s early promotional material likely thought of Orbison as an unlikely proponent of “the Marshall sound,” but other pop-leaning artists of the day also endorsed the new maker’s work, and certainly don’t come to mind when the Bluesbreaker is discussed, much less the archetypal British full stack. Trade ads from late ’64 or early ’65 boasting “Go over big with Marshall” listed semi-forgotten artists such as The Next Five, The Nashville Teens, The High Numbers, Peters Faces (no connection to Small Faces), Tony Rivers and the Castaways, and more significantly, Brian Poole & The Tremeloes and The Yardbirds. Two years later, such ads would list not only Orbison, but – far more appropriate to the brand image – Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Small Faces, and Procol Harem (along with, yes, the Bee Gees).

Arguably, however, if not for it having been less-definitive of “the Roy Orbison sound” than that of latter names, there’s a good chance this Super Tremolo would never have left the Big O’s backline and found its way to Mastro, to be preserved for posterity on these pages. Mercy!

This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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