When I think of Marshall amps, I think of the concerts I frequented in my teens and twenties. The wall of Marshalls was a sign that the band had arrived. Later on, when it was revealed that those backdrops were empty cabinets just for show, it felt like that day that I found out that Mom and Dad were playing Santa Claus.
Just like the wall of Marshall Cabs announced that a band had hit the mainstream, so did the local player announce his seriousness by obtaining a Marshall. I remember when local hotsticks picked up a Marshall amp; it was an event. We’d head down to the local music store, and the hotstick would proudly stand with his arms crossed as one-by-one, each of us not-as-worthy players would have a go playing our flashiest licks carelessly and out of time.
But that was the culture then. Even at Berklee, we’d share the experience of playing through sought-after gear. I was a Berklee student when I played my first 1959 Fender Strat, Paul Reed Smith guitar, Mesa/Boogie amp, Ibanez Tube Screamer, etc.
The Marshall sound is the sound of our generation, and this new acquisition by Zound Industries doesn’t change that. Instead, I’d like to take the opportunity to celebrate and appreciate the Marshall sound. Let’s start at the beginning.
Amp Number One
Jim Marshall (1923–2012) was born in West London to a family of boxers and musicians. But childhood ailments exempted him from military service in WWII. Being a drummer and crooner, he rode his bicycle to gigs hauling a homemade PA and was a regular on the London club scene.
After the war, Marshall took drum lessons gaining the skillset to begin a teaching practice. In the 50s, the working and teaching musician had made enough money to open a music shop. Talk about timing, the 50s, the birth of rock and roll, a buzzing music scene, and Jim Marshall’s West London Music Shop at the center of it all.
Jim’s early students were Keith Moon and Mitch Mitchell. And his early guitar customers were Pete Townsend, Ritchie Blackmore, and UK session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan. These three future guitar greats urged Jim Marshall to create a more affordable guitar amp than the ones he was importing from the USA.
Part of Marshall’s success was that he always listened to his customers and had already custom-built PAs and bass cabs for his client base. A story suggests that Marshall and his team acquired a Fender Bassman 4 x 10 combo and reverse-engineered it.
Due to the scarcity of parts and the Marshall Team’s ingenuity, they created 6 prototypes making some tweaks along the way. And Number 6, with a separate cabinet housing four 12-inch Celestion speakers, was born.
According to guitar lore, the amp debuted on a Sunday in September 1962 at the infamous Ealing Blues Club—opened a few months earlier by British Blues icons Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies. The Ealing was the center of the British Blues Scene, where future greats cut their teeth and paid their dues under the mentorship of Korner and Davies.
Ealing regulars included members of The Yardbirds, Cream, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, Fleetwood Mac, and The King of British Blues, John Mayall. And this is to name a few. By the way, The Ealing was a short walk from Marshall’s shop.
That Sunday, the word around town was that Pete Townsend was debuting Jim Marshall’s new ‘Loud Sound.’ The band consisted of Pete Townsend on guitar, Mitch Mitchell on drums, and Terry Marshall (Jim’s son) on sax.
And the Marshall JTM45 became the amp of choice for the British Blues Scene.
Side note: JTM stands for Jim and Terry Marshall.
First Clapton and The Birth of the Bluesbreaker
In 1963, The Yardbirds formed. Truth be told, they went through a few name changes beyond this piece’s scope. But, they originally began as a backup band for Ealing club founder and harmonica ace Cyril Davies. The Yardbirds quickly gained notoriety as one of the premiere groups in the British R&B scene.
In October 1963, founding member Anthony “Top” Topham left the group and was replaced by Eric Clapton. The Yardbirds toured the UK, backing up blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II. But, just as the band released their biggest hit, “For Your Love,” Clapton quit because he wanted to play blues, not pop.
Clapton recommended Jimmy Page as his replacement. But, Page was worried about the political backlash on the British blues scene, so he, in turn, recommended Jeff Beck, who performed his first gig with The Yardbirds two days after Clapton’s departure.
This brings us back to our Marshall story. Clapton then joined John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. However, the Telecaster/Vox sound that Clapton wielded in his tenure with The Yardbirds would not cut it. EC was searching for a new tone, and inspired by Freddie King’s Les Paul Gold Top from an album cover, he wanted that Les Paul tone.
So, Clapton commissioned Jim Marshall to create a (Vox-sized) 2 x 12 combo version of the JTM45 that would fit into his car’s trunk (or, as the Brits call it, the boot). Clapton used this amp with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers on the club scene. But, in 1966, Clapton used the amp to record the famous “Beano” album. He turned the amp to “live performance” volume to get his tone.
The sound of the Les Paul through a KT66 tube-driven JTM45 with two 12-inch Celestion speakers in an open-back cabinet became the must-have sound of the late-60s British Blues Scene. Hence the moniker “Bluesbreaker” describes the amp model and tone.
Hendrix, Townsend, and the Birth of the Plexi
More guitar lore. I tried to find an exact date, but in 1966 or 1967, Hendrix and Townsend began asking for more. They both shared their admiration for the JTM45, but they wanted more of it. More power, louder! So the Marshall Team thought about strapping two JTM45s together and creating the first 100-watt amp (really 80-85 watts, but 100 sounds better).
The problem with finding an exact date is that parts were scarce then, and the Marshall Team needed help to obtain the proper output transformers. Finally, in 1968, Jim found a company that could build and supply the transformers with the correct specs making an actual 100-watt head.
The other problem was tubes. For example, the 1959 Fender Bassman used as reference and research for the JTM45 used 5881 tubes that were expensive and hard to get in the 1960s UK. Also, the 5881 tubes were a military-grade version of the 6L6GB. Marshall replaced the Fender tubes with the easier-to-obtain KT66s and KT88s. In either case, the change in tubes altered the amp’s sonic characteristics, but, there’s no denying, the KT tubes sounded great.
By late 1965, the KTs were replaced with EL84 tubes. These tubes were easier to acquire and more affordable. Also, EL84 quality was consistent in the mid-60s and, in 1967, was used exclusively.
This 100-watt model is officially called the Super Lead 1959 but is known by players as “The Plexi.” The JTM45 used an aluminum control plate, and by 1965, they switched to a gold Plexiglass panel. Plexi devotees include Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Paul Kossoff, Eddie Van Halen, Billy Gibbons, and Angus Young.
Let’s Talk Stacks
Nothing says ‘rock’ like a wall of Marshall cabinets. And I love a good story. So, for this segment, we’ll explore how the Marshall Stacks came to be.
The first speaker cabinets were 4 x 12 but stacked in a column. And that only lasted a year. These were replaced with the two-by-two design, but different from how we imagined them. The top speakers were slightly offset to the left, and the cabinet was wider. There was no technical reason for this; it’s just how Marshall designed them for the first few years.
In 1964, the square design we associate with speaker cabinets was used. These cabinets housed four 15-watt speakers because the JTM45 produced 45 watts. And these cabinets could handle guitars, basses, and vocals.
In 1965, the Marshall Team started getting more power out of their heads. So, they uprated the speakers. But, in late 67/early 68, the amps jumped to 100 watts of power, and one 4 x 12 cabinet could not handle that power load, which led to the creation of the 8 x 12 cabinet.
More guitar lore, as the story goes, Pete Townsend of The Who pestered Jim Marshall into making the 8 x 12 cabinet. Marshall thought Townsend was crazy as making a cabinet of this size would bring the weight up dramatically to just under 150 lbs. Legend has it that only 8-10 of these cabinets were made, and they were impossible to carry.
The next stage of the development was the slanted top cabinet. And in an interview, Phil Wells, Marshall’s Head of Heritage and Archive, said that Jim’s slanted design was purely aesthetic. This made the head look like it was part of the top cabinet. It was a coincidence that the angled cabinet spread the sound over the top of the audience, creating a bigger sonic spread.
You still needed two cabinets to handle the power of the 100-watt head. It wasn’t until 1970 that the 25-watt Greenback speaker was developed. This allowed one cabinet to run the 100-watt head. And, my experience playing a 100-watt Plexi through a 4 x 12 cabinet with 25-watt Greenbacks is that it’s loud, I mean deafening.
The Plexi is not as distorted as you might think, and some modelers incorrectly emulate. Instead, the combination of amp and speaker distortion creates that classic Plexi sound. But it certainly is powerful.
My 5 Favorite Marshalls
One of the benefits of working in the NYC scene during the 1990s–2000s was the ability to experience high-end gear in the music stores on Guitar Avenue, rehearsal studios, and recording studios. I also want to give a shout-out to Randall Wallace of Allaire Studios, who offered me free reign in his Manhattan and Upstate New York studios. Not only does he have a wonderful collection of vintage guitars, but he also has a collection of vintage amps.
I’ll share this experience. In Allaire Studios, I experienced the glorious tone of the 1959 Super Lead Plexi through a basketweave 4 x 12 combo loaded with Celestion Greenbacks while playing a Gibson 1959 Les Paul Custom. OMG! That’s the Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and ACDC tone. Power chord riff heaven—I felt like a god of rock.
Through these experiences, I developed an infatuation with certain Marshall heads. Here are my top 5 in chronological order.
JTM45 (1962 Bluesbreaker)
This is Marshall Amp Number One and based on the Fender Bassman. It was created by Jim Marshall, Ken Bran, and Dudley Craven in 1962 and produced less than 45 watts of clean output.
The JTM produces a smooth, warm, and round tone. The best reference for this is the John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton recording.
Super Lead 1959 (1965 Plexi)
As in the story above, the Super Lead was developed because guitar players wanted more volume and gain. Initially, the Plexi used KT66 tubes, but in 1967, four EL84s were used instead.
The Super Lead is the sound of classic rock and blues-based rock. In addition to the players I mentioned above, check out Judas Priest’s 1982 release, Screaming for Vengeance. The guitar tones on that recording are stellar.
2203 Master Volume (1975)
The 100-watt 2203 introduced a master volume and used two inputs instead of four—both the JTM45 and Plexi have four inputs. Also, this model introduced rocker switches for power and standby.
The 2203 produces a sweeter, more transparent tone than the JTM45 and Super Lead models. This is my favorite of the bunch—I wish it had reverb.
JCM800 2205 Dual Channel (1982)
Finally, two channels and reverb plus the famous diode clipping circuit that added a little extra grind. This model became a favorite of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal players. Although early 80s Judas Priest used Plexis because Tipton’s tone was driven by non-master volume Marshalls.
This is the sound of 80s hard rock.
2555 Silver Jubilee (1987)
This model was created to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Marshall and Jim’s 50 years in the business. The Silver Jubilee introduced a dual-voiced rhythm channel and Triode/Pentode switching, which changed the harmonic complexity. This gave this amp some versatility. Slash and John Frusciante adopted this sound.
I reluctantly used this in the recording studio because I wasn’t familiar with it, and I’m a slow learner of new gear. Fortunately, the recording engineer knew me and the amp. He dialed in a sweet tone, making me want to steal the amp.
Marshall has some new models like the JVM, CODE, and Origin amp that sound great, but my focus for this piece is on the innovative models of yesteryear. A follow-up piece to these Vintage Marshalls is worth looking into.
Here are some important models I want to mention, although I haven’t had the privilege of playing.
Major 200-Watt (1967)
The Major is a rarity. Like the name states, it’s a 200-watt head driven by four KT88s, and early models had an active EQ that was later changed to passive. I learned of this model because it’s the sound of Ritchie Blackmore on the 1970s Deep Purple albums.
Dual Super Lead 100 (1997)
In 1997, Marshall introduced the JCM2000 Series, a dual-channel DSL100 that combined the high-gain performance of the JCM900 Series with the classic Marshall sound.
That is, the Classic Gain channel replicates the high-gain Plexi sound, while the Ultra Gain channel has the characteristics of the JCM800 and JCM900 tones.
JVM 410H (2007)
This model brought Marshall into the 21st Century. This is a four-channel amp with 3 modes per channel. It also includes MIDI, digital reverb, silent recording mode, and more. But, the main signal path is all tube goodness.
The legacy of the Marshall sound is etched in rock and roll, and electric guitar history.
We’re living in an exciting time where technological advances are creating new versions of our tools of the trade. But, the same could be said of the little music shop in West London during the early to mid 60s. The Jim Marshall Team was designing louder amps and the musicians that were pushing the envelope created the sonic soundscapes that virtually every modern electric guitarist has been influenced by.
Today we’re not struggling to get louder. Instead we’re trying to get smaller without sacrifice the quantity and quality of ‘loud.’ I’m also experiencing enthusiasm in a different way when I use a virtual amp, amp modeler, and/or speaker simulator and hear that wonderful sizzle of distortion to my chord riffs and sweet singing sustain to my lead lines. It’s not the same enthusiasm as the 1959 Les Paul through a Plexi that I had in Allaire Studios. But it’s an experience worth noting.
The classic guitar sounds of yesteryear have been archived and continue to stream a majestic rainfall of music to our devices. But I’m hopeful of the next wave of new technology, and innovative musicians. I also imagine that the Marshall legacy will be represented in some way, shape, or form.
Thanks for reading.
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