Saturday, 27 April 2013

Marshall Amps - How One Man Defined the Sound of British Guitarists

Marshall Amps first hit the streets back in 1962, when the recently-deceased Jim Marshall [often referred to as the 'Father of Loud'] founded the legendary Marshall Amplifier Company. In his small music shop in London, the 'stack' was designed and built as a reaction to what guitarists had been asking for - a loud amplifier head with large speaker's cabinet containing multiple speakers. Marshall has grown into one of the most popular amp manufacturers in the world. Models start from a small beltpack practice amp to 100 watt valve stacks as made popular by the likes of The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Status Quo, Malmsteen, and Slash....the list of professional users is endless.

Marshall started life with a range of valve models with the most iconic and collectable being the 1959SLP, often referred to as a plexi head because of the material used on the front of the amp. The JTM45 (2245) head was a loud clean sounding Marshall with minimal controls - a real purist's amp. Next came the 1962 'Bluesbreaker' combo - one of the loudest at the time, and the 1987X head.

In later years, when rock and heavy metal became more popular the JCM800 [2203] was born - a very loud amp which could achieve great crunch sounds without having to use a fuzz box, famously used by AC/DC. The JCM900 (4100) was next with two independent channels, clean and distortion sounds, switchable via footswitch. Onto the 1990's and the DSL and TSL ranges catered for the American guitarists desire for higher gain sounds with increased tonal versatility, especially the ability to minimise mid-tones.

For 2000, the range saw the addition of the Vintage Modern series, which blends old and new sounds in one easy to use amplifier. The JVM and JMD-1 series include multiple channels, with in built digital effects and sophisticated channel switching. Marshall even created a new type of amp for the 'unplugged' scene where guitarists required a suitable range for their acoustic guitar that sounded mellow and soft unlike the powerful cutting sound an electric guitar amp produced - the AS50D and AS100D are superb examples.

Marshall also recognised they needed an affordable entry level range and introduced the MG Series now re-named the MG Carbon Fibre Series. Solid state [PCB design] with in-built digital effects, 3 channels, clean, crunch and high gain. These excellent and affordable 10, 15 and 30-watt practice amps are popular and ideal for home use. The MG50, MG100 and MG102 are the gigging volume amps at 50 & 100 watts [1 x 12" speaker] and range topping 100 watts [2 x 12" speaker].

In 2012 Marshall celebrated 50 years of manufacturing world renowned guitar amplification with the release of a limited edition 1 watt range of amps, which design and sound wise, echo each decade of their time in business. JTM1 [50's] JMP1 [70's] JCM1 [80's] DSL1 [90's] and last but not least, the JVM1 [2000 and onwards].

For the guitarist, of course, that magical word ‘tone’ is all-important. So, is there a recognisable Marshall tone that is distinct from the other British makers such as Vox? After all, many modern modelling amps from the likes of Line6 and BlackStar tend to refer to British tone.

Well, there is a sound, and I speak as someone who’s owned Marshall’s for over 20 years, as well as several other amps from well-known US and British names. It’s best categorised as a raw growl, I suppose. Unlike the sweeter and smoother overdrive of classic Fender amps, Marshall’s heritage as the go-to amp of 1960s British bluesmen and prog rockers is encapsulated in the bite of its overdrive, which is a function of the power amp stage, as much as the pre-amp valves.

That sound is quite different from the ‘toppy’ cut of a Vox AC30 or even the more precise bite of Pete Townsend’s Hiwatt rigs. Even so, when today’s amp manufacturers mention the ‘British sound’, they’re really talking about the signature of Jim Marshall.

About the author: Andy Atkins is a regular writer and commentator on contemporary music from the musicians perspective, and has written articles and reviews for the likes of Fender, Korg, Soundslive and I Do Music. He plays rhythm guitar [badly] in a covers band that has reformed on and off for over 20 years! His current favourite musical 'toy' is the TC Helicon VoiceLive Play, as it makes his vocals almost listenable.

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