Last Thursday, the world of rock n' roll mourned the
passing of one histories true musical innovators. Like Steve
Jobs, he was a inventor of tools for musicians and artists alike to
realise their potential and find a unique voice - these kind of
creators leave a legacy as vast and inspiring as any rock star or
Shortly before his death last week, Jim Marshall,
creator of the famous amplifier, gave his last interview to Alfred
Hickling. He talked about his debt to Hendrix and Spinal Tap - and
his final invention, the one-watt amp
This article is taken from the
At the Marshall amplifier factory in Milton Keynes,
there's a small museum piled high with musty, well-used equipment.
There are original models of the 100-watt amps favoured by Jimi
Hendrix and Eric Clapton. There's a white leather model made for
Paul Weller with a mod target emblazoned across its front. There is
a replica of Lemmy's amp, which the Motörhead bassist customised
with Soviet army insignia and christened Murder One. But it is the
tributes that various stars have scrawled on to their gear that are
most striking. An amp belonging to Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist Zakk
Wylde is inscribed: "Dad Rules." A 50-watt model donated by Jeff
Beck states: "Thanks, Dad, for everything."
Last Thursday saw the passing, at the age of 88, of
the man the rock guitar community simply knew as "Dad". The timing
was particularly poignant, as the company was due to celebrate, in
September this year, the 50th anniversary of the first amplifier
Jim Marshall built - a design reckoned to be so perfect, and so
loud, that it has remained fundamentally unaltered ever since.
Until recently, Jim Marshall had always been first
into the office, arriving at 6.30am so that he could open the mail.
"If there was ever a complaint," he would say, "I wanted to be
first to know about it." But a series of strokes had weakened him
and, when I visited his factory earlier this year, he was too frail
to talk to in person. But, still determined to celebrate his
half-century in the business, he agreed to a correspondence by
email. It was to be his last interview.
Just a short step away from Marshall's office is the
original prototype amp, created in 1962. It looks like a poorly
welded combination of old, cobbled-together military components -
and that's precisely what it is. The amplifier that shaped the
sound of modern rock came about as much by accident as by design -
as Marshall and his engineering colleagues Dudley Craven and Ken
Bran were basically attempting to replicate an American-made Fender
amplifier with what limited components they could find in postwar
"We started out in my shed," he told me, "making an
amplifier from Monday to Friday that we could sell in my shop on
Saturday. This gave us the money to go out the following week and
get more parts. I would have been delighted if we could have built
and sold just 50 amps. I didn't dream that the endeavour would last
What is even more surprising is that the original
design has barely been altered. The key to the sound of a Marshall
amp is the continued use of practically obsolete electronic
components known as vacuum tubes, or valves. Remember the days when
you would turn on the TV and wait a couple of minutes for the set
to warm up? Well, Marshall amps still do that - yet guitarists
would not have it any other way. As Jeff Beck put it in an
interview with Guitar Player magazine: "If you want to get a little
bit rude and loud, you've got to have a Marshall. The Marshall
sound is the balls. It's the big daddy - it has that growl that no
other amp has."
Marshall played in swing bands, but was a drummer,
and drum-teacher, rather than a guitarist. Initially, he set up a
music shop in Hanwell, west London, to sell drumkits to his
students. But it soon became the unofficial labour exchange for the
emerging rock scene. "I was certainly the first to cater for
rock'n'rollers in the London area," said Marshall. "I had so many
top drummers as pupils that they started bringing their guitarists
into the shop with them - chaps like Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page
and Pete Townshend. Anyway, all the guitar players would say to me,
'Jim, if you sold guitars and amplifiers, we'd much prefer to buy
them from you because all the music shops in the West End treat us
like absolute idiots because we play rock'n'roll. Because we don't
play jazz, they just don't take us seriously.' So I did - and they
kept their promise!"
Although the first amplifier was a three-way
collaboration between Marshall, Craven and Bran, it was Marshall
alone who devised the concept of the imposing tower of speakers now
recognised throughout the world as the Marshall stack. Such a wall
of Marshalls became the ultimate statement of rock-star machismo:
the Swedish heavy-metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen once boasted
that there were two structures visible from space: "the great wall
of China and my Marshall amplifiers". However, even in the
mid-1970s, arguably the days of peak rock indulgence when Kiss were
touring with up to 18 stacks, it was a closely guarded secret as to
how many of them were actually switched on.
Marshall explained that the idea for the stack came
about as a result of a volume war being raged within the Who. "Pete
Townshend wanted a cabinet containing eight 12in speakers. I told
him it would be impossible to lift - and I was right. So we tried
cutting the cabinet in half and putting one on top of the
Jimi Hendrix paid the stack a back-handed compliment,
claiming that it looked like "a bunch of refrigerators strung
together". Marshall was initially suspicious when his former drum
pupil Mitch Mitchell introduced him to the then unknown guitarist
he had begun playing with. "I thought, 'Hello, here's another
American who wants something for nothing.' But Jimi offered to pay
for his gear if I would provide service and support for him
anywhere in the world. And Jimi was, of course, brilliant for the
brand - not only because of his groundbreaking playing, but also
because of his tremendous showmanship. As a result, I've often
referred to him as Marshall's greatest ambassador."
Yet, if Hendrix was the brand's greatest ambassador,
the second greatest may have been a guitarist who didn't really
exist. Even rock fans who care little about how all the sounds are
produced are familiar with the scene from the spoof 1984
rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap in which guitarist Nigel Tufnel,
played by Christopher Guest, shows off an amp specially modified so
that the volume controls go up to 11. "That's one louder, innit?"
"The 'one louder' catchphrase proved very popular,"
said Marshall. "Christopher Guest was just fantastic when we did
the launch for the JCM900 series in Los Angeles in the early 1990s.
We drove there together and, as soon as he stepped out of the limo,
he instantly became Nigel Tufnel - and he didn't go out of
character for a second. But then I've been very fortunate with the
people who supported me over the years."
These have included Paul Kossoff of 1970s legends
Free (big hit: All Right Now); Kerry King of thrash metallists
Slayer; and the former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, who testifies
to the special bond that developed when Marshall helped him out of
a spot of bother. "He took great care of me personally, ever since
we first met in the early 1990s. At that time, he did the
unprecedented - he had a brand new amp designed for me when my
Marshall amps were destroyed in a Guns N' Roses concert riot in St
Louis in 1991. We were friends ever since."
Today, Marshall is a
global brand producing up to 200 amps a day. The white handwritten
logo has begun to spread to other products, though: it's now
possible to buy Marshall headphones, Marshall DAB radios, even a
Marshall fridge. But having spent 50 years serving the often
contrary needs of guitarists, Marshall's last act as an amp
manufacturer was to create a range of amplifiers that are - whisper
it - not very loud at all.
The centrepiece of Marshall's 50th-anniversary range
is a series of mini amps that replicate five of its most famous
models - one from each decade - and are rated at only a single watt
each. That's good news for the neighbours of budding rock
guitarists, but it's also a reflection of the fact that musicians
are now asking for amps that still have the classic Marshall sound
(raw and distorted, yet warm and rich) but come without the
eardrum-piercing oomph, since modern systems mean you no longer
need a stack of amps to blow the back row away. A lion's roar at
pussycat levels, if you like. But does this mean the days of the
mighty Marshall stack are numbered?
"The little amps are only a part of our anniversary
celebration," said Marshall. "The reason we decided to do them is
simple: it's what a lot of guitarists want today. Every amp I made
came from me chatting to guitarists and trying to produce the sound
they heard in their heads. There will be some bigger amps too,
though. After all, I have been nicknamed The Father of Loud!"
As I passed his empty office on my way out of the
factory, I remembered my first Marshall amp. Shortly after I bought
it, I received a personalised letter, signed Jim Marshall, thanking
me for my purchase and welcoming me to the Marshall family. I don't
have the amp any more. But I'll always keep the letter.
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