At the Marshall amplifier factory in Milton Keynes, central England, there’s a small museum piled high with musty, well-used equipment. There are original models of the 100-watt amps favored 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 Motorhead bassist customized 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.”
April 5 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 e-mail. 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 Britain.
“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 endeavor would last 50 years.”
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 drum kits to his students. But it soon became the unofficial labor 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 [of London] 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!”