Quiet man, loud machines. Jim Marshall is a pioneer who has had a huge influence on the history of rock. He came from modest beginnings and was a true gent.
I don’t know if you have been to Hanwell in suburban West London but it is an unremarkable place – apart from being the early Sixties intersection of two legends of rock: Pete Townshend and Jim Marshall.
Jim, born in 1923, had TB as a kid and spent much of his childhood in plaster casts. Due to his illness, he only had eight weeks schooling before he left at 13 and a half, drifting into a variety of jobs. But – maybe as a result of that lonely childhood – he had a keen, inquiring mind and became an avid reader of engineering books. Failing his Forces medical, he worked as a toolmaker throughout the war and at an aircraft plant in the late 1940s.
He sung and played the drums at local dancehalls and began taking drum lessons to play more like his idol, Gene Krupa. Talented and dedicated, Jim began to teach other drummers too.
“I taught Mitch Mitchell who joined Jimi Hendrix, Micky Burt of Chas and Dave, Micky Waller with Little Richard and Micky Underwood who played with Ritchie Blackmore. I used to teach about 65 pupils a week and what with playing as well, I was earning in the early 1950’s somewhere in the region of £5,000 a year, which was how I first saved money to go into business,” he said.
Jim used to buy drums in Tin Pan Alley and sell them on to his students, but then decided he might as well set up his own shop. Ritchie Blackmore and Pete Townshend were regular visitors to Jim’s store in Hanwell and Pete suggested that he stock guitars and amps, too. In July 1960, he started in that line, and around the same time, he began to build bass and PA cabinets.
“There was nothing produced whatsoever in those days for bass guitar. The bass guitarists used to complain that they were being out-gunned all the time by the lead guitar and they asked me for help. So I started building bass cabinets. They usually used a single 18″ speaker in a very small enclosure completely packed with sawdust and wood shavings. The back of the speaker cone was covered with a canvas back to prevent wood shavings from getting inside, and later used a 25 watt Leak amp as the power,” Jim said of his early bass amps, which were modeled on the Fender Bassman.
Jim was friendly with Ken Bran who played in the band Peppy and the New York Twisters, before going to work for Pam Am and retiring from touring. Jim modestly credits Ken with the idea of making their own amps, and Ken set about building an amp for lead guitar. Jim made the chassis and Ken, along with 18-year-old local engineer Dudley Craven, built the circuitry. Townshend advised on the sound: he found the Fender amps too clean and wanted something different.
The first prototype was built by September 1962 and five further prototypes were tried before Jim settled on what would be the JTM45. The logo stood for Jim and Terry Marshall – Jim’s son; and the 45 referred to the 45 watt output. They initially used two twelve-inch speakers but then figured that they could use cabinet space more efficiently by putting four 12-inch speakers, as well as enclosing the amp at the back. By 1963 Jim, Ken and Dudley were making one a week. By 1964 he had a 6,000 sq ft factory in nearby Hayes, employed 16 people and could turn out 20 amps a week.
Marshall amps were initially distributed by Jim’s pal Johnny Jones of Jones And Crossland in Birmingham; but Jim made a rare mistake in switching distribution to a company called Rose-Morris in 1965 that hampered the business. Rose-Morris put a 55% hike on the price of the amps which severely hampered growth in worldwide markets.
By 1965, of course, sounds were changing with the Beat Boom and the British Invasion. As he dueled with The Ox for sheer raw power and volume, Pete Townshend wanted a heavier amp version and Ken began work on 100 watt: the era of Marshall as the Father Of Loud was here.
In 1966, Jim’s most famous customer of all came into the fold. Young James Marshall Hendrix was in England for the first time and Chas Chandler brought him into Jim’s shop for some gear. Jim recalled:
“Jimi said that he wanted to use Marshall gear and that he was also going to be one of the top people in the world at this type of music. I thought he was just another American trying to get something for nothing, but in the next breath he said that he wanted to pay for everything he got. I thought he was a great character, I got on very well with him and he was our greatest ambassador. I saw him play about three times, and I saw him at the first sort of major concert which was at Olympia with Jimi Hendrix, The Move and Pink Floyd. I was very impressed by him as a musician; it was something new to me. I also went out with Ken and saw bands like The Who and Cream.”
Jimi used the 1966 Plexiglass-fronted model, which gave a louder more intense distortion than the earlier models, and brought the amps to the attention of the world.
“I really like my old Marshall tube amps, there’s nothing can beat them, nothing in the world. It looks like two refrigerators hooked together!” he said. Now there’s an idea.
Throughout the Seventies they were the definitive classic rock amp and were made in increasingly vast and terrifying sizes for Deep Purple, Priest and Sabbath, and arms race that culminated in the legendary “Put It Up To 11” moment in ‘Spinal Tap’. When Marshall released the JCM900 series – known as “the amps that go up to 20” – Jim appeared in a promo video with Nigel Tufnel.
In 1992, the 30th Anniversary Model was released, which was able to reproduce the sound of classic Marshalls including the clean sound of the JTM45 and the grungy sound of the 900 series.
Another great range to look out for is the chrome-fronted Silver Jubilee series of 1987, which came out a couple of years after Jim was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame alongside Les Paul and Robert Moog. The Marshall name has been consistent with quality for coming up 50 years. As one famous devotee, Slash, puts it: “I won’t even consider trying anything else – something that consistent you just don’t f**k with.”
Even after Jim’s death, Marshall remains the manufacturer of rock amps. Last word goes to Zakk Wylde:
“What does a Marshall sound like? Strength, warmth, commitment, beauty and destruction… all wrapped up in a giant f**kin’ wrecking ball!”
Quotes from the excellent ‘Jim Marshall: The Father Of Loud’ by Rich Maloof