From all accounts, Jim Marshall was a truly nice a man, a gentleman in the British sense of the word, who happened to design the amp that caused all our ears to bleed. (Even before they went to #11.) The first guitar amplifier I ever owned was a small Marshall, and back in 2003, Vintage Guitar magazine asked me to write a two-part profile on the History of the Marshall Amp for that august musical equipment manufacturer’s 40th anniversary; here are a couple of excerpts from those articles:
In July of 1960, Jim 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. Most of them felt at the time, Marshall says, that the Fender Bassman was the amplifier to beat—but it wasn’t perfect. “Players like Pete Townshend, Ritchie Blackmore and ‘Big’ Jim Sullivan (a hugely talented player who was one of the most respected and busiest session guitarists in England during the ‘60s and ‘70s) pointed out to me, that although they used the Fender, it didn’t produce the actual 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.
Marshall says, “I liked the sound of the Fender, in fact it was my favorite guitar amplifier at that time without any 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 says. “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 was the one 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!”
“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 the 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, Tom Doyle’s invaluable book, The History of Marshall compares the circuitry of each amp design in depth.
* * * * *
Nick Bowcott, who is now Marshall’s product manager for their American distributor, Korg USA, Inc., may be prejudiced, but what he told me recently is something that most players can relate to. “This might sound somewhat strange, but when I was in my teens, and my band first started venturing out of our hometown, I truly didn’t feel like I was someone who could be taken seriously, until I got my first Marshall. It was almost like a status symbol, it was like I was saying to the audience, ‘OK, I’ve arrived, I’m serious.’ In my mind, to this very day, there’s nothing like seeing a band you’ve never seen before, and the first thing that hits you is a wall of Marshalls. That’s always been synonymous with the sort of music I like, and great tone. It spoke volumes without a single note being played because it’s such a powerful visual statement.”
And it speaks with even more volume, once it’s switched on, as the clip below, with Eric Clapton playing a late-1950s-era Les Paul plugged into an early Marshall amp demonstrates. RIP, Jim Marshall: