What can I say about Marshall amps that hasn’t been said since Mr Marshall himself brought to life amplifiers from his small shop in Hanwell, London for the likes of Pete Townshend, Richie Blackmore, and Big Jim Sullivan in the early 60s?
The answer is: not a great deal… but let’s have a little refresh on the history, the origins of the brand, the journey and ultimately where we are today with probably the biggest name in Rock ’n’ Roll.
Jim Marshall wasn’t a guitarist or an electrical technician but instead a very accomplished jazz drummer: not the most likely candidate to go on to define the sound of generations of guitarists the world over spanning many different genres and styles for years to come.
What Jim did do though was listen; he listened to what guitarists at the time were craving, and this craving was volume (probably among other things).
The amps of the time were not especially quiet but lacked the power to be felt. Guitarists as we know them now went from the being part of the background of the music from the 1940 and 50s to the forefront melting faces in the 60s and 70s, they needed some extra clout in order to fulfil that desire.
Jim Marshall lacked the knowledge how to build this mythical amplifier but hired a couple of electrical engineers to help him realise this vision. They ’borrowed’ and built upon a tried a tested amp design from a well know American amp manufacturer; these amps were extremely popular at the time with guitarists and bass players alike but equally they were very expensive as they were imports from America. They played around with the design until they got what they were after: volume.
The JTM45 was born out of desire, trial, and error. It was hugely popular with guitarists of the day and thus began Marshalls accent into being not just one of the music industries big brands but arguably the biggest of them all.
Legend has it that components were swapped in and out until they all agreed on what would become known as the ‘Marshall sound’. I think this little story should be taken with a pinch of salt, as the Marshall sound, like many things is was more of an evolution rather than a revolution. I find it hard to believe that there is just this one moment in time where the stars aligned and the sound of a wailing guitar was born and they all went home.
There are a few factors that went into creating the Marshall sound: Their first amp design wasn’t all that powerful but what it did do was something quite different, this was to separate the amplifier from the speakers, thus inventing what adorns many stages the world over to this day: the Marshall stack.
This was quite outside the box thinking (pun intended) as it allowed guitarists a more modular system to use for their needs. Marshall decided against using the low powered 10” Jensen speakers that were the norm for most guitar amps of the time, instead opting for a more robust UK manufactured speaker produced just down the road in Ipswich, the Celestion 12” guitar loudspeaker.
They needed to use these as they had produced an amp that was approaching 50 watts and most speakers at that time topped out at 15 watts apiece. The minimum amount required to run the amp safely was four speakers, if you didn’t, you ran the risk of an embarrassing blow out on stage. Using these speakers provided the volume that was so lusted after and also brought in their own sonic signature to the overall sound.
Pete Townshend actually ordered six 8x12” cabinets! This was to be quite short lived as not long after receiving them he returned them to Marshall and had them cut in half because as I’m sure you can imagine, they were quite heavy and completely impractical for normal use, even if you are in The Who.
The second big point to make about the evolution of the Marshall Sound rather than being invented is that of a component that makes up quite a large part of the sound: Valves.
Marshall went through a few different kinds in the early days. They started out with 5881s that were incredibly similar to the 6L6s that were fitted in the ‘borrowed’ amp circuit, going over to a more readily available KT66 valves and then eventually settling on the EL34 valve due to their availability and reliability.
Thirdly there was a completely unforeseen consequence as to what would happen when they turned the volume up on their new amp: amazingly thick, sustaining distortion that was chock full of harmonics that nothing else at the time could produce. This changed the sound of guitar forever as we know it.
Check out this video to see just what that sounds like:
Of course they didn’t just produce the one amp and then called it a day, they kept on listening to players and produced many variants upon that initial design.
Players such as Eric Clapton wanted an amp ‘that will fit in the boot of my car’ and they came out with one their first combos, affectionately referred to as the Bluesbreaker. Inevitably players craved more volume, more headroom and obviously were hooked and wanted more distortion. Although in the early days there were only a few models but these changed on the fly, which is why collectors go mad for particular years, even going as far as tracking down particular months of production. The Marshall Super Lead Model 1959, more commonly known as the Marshall Plexi must have blown peoples minds at the time. Here was an amp that was just so visceral it required you to learn how to tame it; it truly was an extension to the instrument and players relished in this new tonal palette. The notion that they were just a louder copy of an American design soon disappeared as countless artist turned the music world upside down while stood in front of a wall of cranked Marshalls.
The 60s gave way to the 70s and the song remained the same (true rock fans will get that one!), people still couldn't get enough of the Marshall sound. It had increased competition from other manufacturers but it still remained king. The sound evolved further with more emphasis on gain as musical styles became more in your face as the decade progressed. The 70s was peak rock, something that sadly I feel will not be repeated.
Like the generation before it the 1980s took technology of yesteryear and brought it up to date for what musicians were wanting at that time, but this time round it was to be the transistors time to shine, they were used in synthesisers, drum machines and recording technology that changed the sounds of the decade.
People had access to a whole new world of effects; the largest and most influential of these is easily the sound of the gated reverb snare (again, another happy accident in itself discovered by Phil Collins during a studio session, If you are unsure of this sound just check out most of his back catalog and pretty much anything from anyone in the 80s).
Marshall were still as relevant as ever though, as the decade progressed the guitar virtuoso came to the forefront of the publics collective attention. The likes of Paul Gilbert, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and none other than Eddie Van Halen (alright thats the late 70s but still the 1980s were his time to shine). They were, and still are the absolute wizards of the guitar world. They drove amplifier and guitar design to the next level. They needed the ability to switch from beautifully clean sounds to soaring saturated lead sounds in an instant. Marshall were a little late to this party but what they did produce was to be the bedrock sound of these artists. They released the JCM800 channel switching amplifier that went onto evolve into something much more a few years later.
Enter the 90s, music was once again reshaped by the uprising of the anti-guitar-hero. Although they went against the grain of the guitar heroes of generations past they still used Marshalls, and Marshall still pushed the boundaries of amplifier design by introducing multiple channels with ever increasing tonal flexibility for this new generation of musicians.
Coming into the time where I was picking up the guitar myself I distinctly lusting after many a Marshall within the range at the time. I ended up saving my pennies and getting an AVT275 combo, this was a hybrid amp that had all the channel you could possibly need and also a plethora of effects to boot. This eventually gave way to a 1980s 50 watt JCM 2205 (which I mentioned before). This became my main gigging amp for about 3/4 years before my tastes changed and I got old. During this time I met Jim Marshall himself and got to play most of the range available at the time. Nu-metal was all the rage when I was a teenager and Marshall even catered for that somewhat obscure genre with the Mode 4 amplifier, although these were generally not well received as it was quite a large departure
The reason I have taken you on this little journey is to give you some understanding as to what Marshall have achieved in their time, the tones they have given over to the players and how they got to where they are today.
This innovation has finally culminated in the advent of a range of amplifiers that cater for all players from the bedroom guitar heroes to the stadium filling touring professional.
First off is the most technically loaded amp they have produced thus far: the Marshall Code digital amplifier. They released this amp only a few years ago for the player that wants access to this entire back catalog of Marshall tones as well as seemingly infinite effects to experiment with.
For the purists among you that want that classic visceral 70s tone from the company’s heyday, they offer the Origin series. These are full valve amplifiers that takes the best of the old tones but brings them up to date with features that today's players expect.
Next up is the DSL line of amplifiers, these have a more contemporary edge to their tone but are still unmistakably Marshall. Of course they are fully featured with different tone shaping options, effects loops and channel switching.
The MG series is the perfect
gateway drug entry level amplifier that brings the Marshall sound to masses of up and coming bedroom artists. These are incredibly affordable but still offer that Marshall crunch in order to emulate their heroes.
Lastly there is the JVM, Marshall's answer for the new wave of virtuoso guitarists needing every conceivable tone from one box.
These are Marshall's current offerings but they do of course provide hardwired and various reissues of classic amps from their back catalog.
Although I feel we are entering a different era of music, an era where guitar music is less at cutting edge. With this in mind the company still remains the biggest name by branching out into different areas of music lifestyle all-the-while building upon an incredibly solid reputation as one of the founders of Rock.