Marshall Amplification is 50 years old. Good grief.
Few things have been as seismic in the development of popular music over the last five decades as those ominous black boxes standing in massed ranks behind practically every electric guitarist of note since the Sixties.
Fender and Gibson may not have become quite the iconic names they are today were it not for these English marvels. Marshall’s innovative amplifiers, originally a mish-mash of copying and good old-fashioned British DIY, unlocked the savage beast that lurked, hitherto unheard, inside all those guitars.
Marshalls went into overdrive and distorted at a much lower level than comparable equipment. It was this ‘crunch’ that made them so appealing to the leaders of teenage revolution
Perhaps ironically, the band that had the most to do with the birth and development of the Marshall amp, the boys responsible for the invention of the ‘stack’ (where one speaker cabinet (or cab) is stacked on top of another) stopped using them after only a couple of years, owing to a dispute over an unpaid bill. But that’s The Who for you.
Talking ’bout their generation, it was not long after big band crooner-turned-drummer Jim Marshall opened his drum shop in Hanwell, west London, that the likes of Ritchie Blackmore (later of Deep Purple) and the legendary ‘Big’ Jim Sullivan started pestering him to sell, and build, guitar-related equipment. Before long, local terrors The Who, with their penchant for smashing things up and being generally loud, came looking for something to augment their aural assault.
With the input of Pete Townshend and John Entwistle, Jim Marshall built his first 50-watt amps, essentially copies of the Fender Bassman. These then progressed to what became the classic 100-watt models; then amps that could be linked together; then speaker cabinets that could be stacked limitlessly. These led directly to the sonic onslaught that Sixties rock became.
The British sound
Not that the development was entirely smooth.
Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour tells me that his TV repairman in the Seventies claimed to be an early casualty of the scene. According to this chap, he was in at the beginning with Jim Marshall, building the Fender copies. They changed the kit a bit to get round patents, upped the power and put them on the market as Marshalls. But they had trouble shifting them at first, and the TV repairman sold his half to Jim. “Then along came Hendrix and Cream. He was a bit sick about that.”
After that, everyone from Jeff Beck, Paul Kossoff (Free) and Jimmy Page, all the way through to Gary Moore and countless Eighties poodle-heads to Slash and beyond, has relied on the sweet valve ‘crunch’ that came to personify the ‘British sound’.
This was at least in part due to the British-produced KT66 valves – instead of the 6L6 tubes more commonly used in the United States – a choice made for economic as much as technical or aesthetic reasons. However, the valves would be changed several times over the next few years and, if you have a taste for them, there are plenty of guitar bores willing to engage in endless debate over the relative merits of the 6550 versus the EL34.
Back then, the only other serious game in town, British amp-wise, was HiWatt, the ultimate weapon of choice for Messrs Townshend, Gilmour and others. Rock ’n’ roll – as opposed to rock – bands, such as the Stones, would usually stick with the more traditional Fender or Ampeg brands (though there are pictures of Keef with a Marshall rig during the Seventies).
In truth, however, the wall of stacked speaker cabs and amps behind so many legendary axemen is as much about showbiz as volume and power. Jimmy Page always had four Marshall 4×12 speaker cabinets on stage but, when I played with him, only one of them actually had speakers in it.
The rockers’ amp of choice
The real reason Marshalls became the rockers’ amps of choice was because they went into overdrive and distorted at a much lower level than comparable equipment. It was this ‘crunch’, rather than the sheer volume they could produce, that made Marshall amps so appealing to the leaders of teenage revolution. When Spinal Tap changed the world forever, though, with the amp that ‘went up to 11’, it was only ever going to be a Marshall.
Personally, I’ve never owned, or even wanted one, mainly because the Marshall company has never really been known for its bass amps. We purveyors of the low end aren’t after huge crunch and distortion; rather, something that will deliver our notes from the murky depths with clarity and poise.
True, I did have a Marshall ‘amp in a box’-type pedal that I would use to thrash out sad, drunken renditions of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ over my headphones in lonely tour-hotel rooms, many moons ago. But the only time I’ve ever played through one in concert was at Live 8 in Berlin with Roxy Music.
I had no choice what I could put my bass through. And as my amp was behind about four more on stage, I couldn’t get at it to adjust the settings. Whatever it sounded like when I plugged in was what it was going to sound like. It was OK, not amazing – but given the circumstances, more than acceptable.
So what can I say except happy birthday, Marshall! I can’t help thinking that on this auspicious anniversary I may have been missing out on something…