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Jim Marshall, the pioneer of loud guitar amplification and creator of the Marshall stack, has sadly passed away at the age of 88.
The story of his career, and the rise of his company, is also the story of how the scrappy kids from the ’50s skiffle boom started to make inroads into the British music industry during the ’60s, until they were setting the standards for others to reach by the ’70s, and leaving a hefty rock ‘n’ roll template to either follow or ignore forever after. His name is on instrument amplifiers the world over, and his organization long since took its place alongside the iconic manufacturers of musical instruments – Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker etc – as being key players in the development of rock music.
His career began as a London singer and amateur PA maker, during the Second World War. Kept out of the forces due to a bout of tuberculosis, he would double up on drums sometimes, as musicians were called up to the forces, and of course kept refining his amplification designs as a sideline to his day job as an electrical engineer.
Having gained quite a reputation as a drummer in the Gene Krupa mold, Jim began giving lessons to other would-be sticksmen, including the young Mitch Mitchell (later to find fame in the Jimi Hendrix Experience). This proved to be so successful, especially as all of his pupils needed instruments of their own, he opened his own shop, selling guitars and drum kits to all the budding London rockers, most notably Pete Townshend, Ritchie Blackmore, and Keith Moon.
It was in conversation with these musicians that it became clear the state of guitar amplification left something to be desired. Fender and Vox amps were the standard, but they both provided a very bright, brittle tone, which became shrill at high volume. As the ’60s progressed, the need to find a way to distort a guitar, loudly, without making an unmusically buzzing racket, became something of a holy grail. And having worked up a design with Dudley Craven, an electronics whiz fresh from the white-coated atmosphere of EMI, Jim set to work.
Their creations were quickly assimilated by the rock elite, and one amplifier setup in particular – the Marshall stack – took on a totemic resonance to any band who wanted everything to be louder than everything else. And in the ’70s, that was every band.
So in tribute to the man and his mighty works, here’s a handful of clips (we could have probably picked any band ever, so don’t carp if your favorite isn’t shown) of the Marshall stack in action. Look just behind the guitarists, for the door-shaped monolith with the white piping and the immortal Marshall logo, and there it is:
Lured over to London by Chas Chandler on the promise of some decent amplification (and pop supremacy), Jimi sought advice from Pete Townshend (who wasn’t particularly brand-loyal to any form of instrument or amplifier), and wound up with one of the early stacks. One for him, one for Noel Redding on bass. Both turned up extraordinarily high. And look in the middle there, there’s Jim’s former pupil Mitch flailing away, trying to match their astonishing volume.
Eric Clapton’s ‘God’ reputation was made on the back of his experiments with a Gibson Les Paul guitar and a Fender Bassman amp turned up very loud, but once the new Marshalls were available, he took to them like wet bread to a duck’s beak. It’s fair to say Cream and Jimi Hendrix Experience were mutually influenced by one another, having met and jammed only months after both groups were formed, so it’s not surprising that their set-ups look so similar. The stack was becoming ubiquitous.
Only a couple of years later, and we’re into the development of heavy metal, the genre that deifies the Marshall stack more than any other. The Sabs, observing the fine work of Led Zeppelin and the Who in filling the back of their stage with amps, did likewise, and the classic Marshall wall-of-amps took on legendary proportions. You simply weren’t a proper metal band without one.
30 years later, and Marshalls have become part of rock iconography, to the extent that they can withstand the gentle ribbing of Spinal Tap (they made a special front plate for the scene in which Nigel Tufnell boasts about having amps that go up to 11, because that’s “one louder”) and even the mock rock willy waving of this video from the Darkness (check out the guitar solo, they’ve got more amps than you). None of which would have happened if they weren’t uncommonly good amplifiers.
And to give you a brief insight into the love guitarists have for their Marshall amps all over the world, here’s Kerry King from Slayer on his personalized rig:
He got it signed by Jim Marshall himself. How very satanic of him.