How Marshall Got Its Start

It’s no secret that Americans and Brits have a mutual admiration for each other’s cultures. The Brits were fascinated by cowboys and fixated on American music, as it was arriving on vinyl records at port towns. In the 1950s and early 1960s, American R&B, Rock, Country, and Blues had captured the ears of the world—especially the UK’s.

At that time, the American sound was driven by the electric guitar and the very popular sound of Fender amps. But limits on American imports made Fender amps nearly unobtainable in England. This made used American gear highly desired and equally hard to find. If your “word of mouth” network heard news of a used Fender amp in town, you’d better hurry—and raid the family’s savings on the way. Used Fender amps cost more than just a “few quid.” And so the demand for the American sound of a Fender amp birthed a lucrative secondhand market in the UK, which led to a robust domestic industry.

Jim Marshall’s London music shop sold used Fender amps faster than they could source them. Soon, Marshall found a way to capitalize on this growing, insatiable need for a bigger, bolder, American-sounding amp. Marshall tasked one of his electronics guys to have a look inside a Fender. He gutted a Fender Tweed 4×10 and rebuilt it from the ground up, with a few substitute bits and pieces (domestic accessibility), and voila! Just like that the Marshall amp was born.

Landmark Marshall Amps

Here are three landmark Marshall amps that have practical significance for people like you and me, chosen for their historical relevance and plain, old, great sound.

JTM-45 “Bluesbreaker”

The 1962 Marshall JTM-45 is the cornerstone of an empire. Mere mortals seldom see an original model of this amp, much less play or own one.

The first Marshall amps were designed as a separate head and speaker cabinet. Back in the day, this setup was called a “piggy back” amp, as opposed to the all-in-one “combo” amp. Designed to be loud, the Marshall 4×12 cabinet had a closed back and 4 alnico Celestion speakers, which could handle the power without a soggy low-end. The early Marshall models used Fender-type components. The GZ34 rectifier gave the same “sag,” coupled with 5881 power tubes (aka 6L6s). Marshall’s amp differed from Fender in the preamp tubes used, which were 12AX7’s, while Fender used the less snotty 12AY7. This was true even in the combo amp realm.

The preamp tubes and the closed back cab made the Marshall JTM-45 sound less like the Fender Bassman it grew from. If the 5F6-A Bassman was daddy, the JTM-45 was a problem child, with more “attitude” than dear old dad. And the problem child was about to get a nod from a legend-in-the-making.

In jolly old England, the “bonnet” is the hood of a car and the “boot” is the trunk. Eric Clapton wanted a Marshall that would fit in the “boot.” He got his wish with the JTM-45. Clapton’s boot-friendly 2×12 JTM-45 is the legendary amp used on John Mayall and The Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton aka the “Beano” album.

The guitar playing and guitar tone on Beano is for the ages. It’s was a guideline, resource, and manual that would define electric blues guitar tone. The setup is simple, and except for some minor details, well documented. A Burst, a Dallas Rangemaster treble booster (some say the Rangemaster was not used), Eric Clapton, and the 2×12 JTM-45 carried in from Clapton’s “boot.” The tone is as fierce as the man playing.

The JTM-45 is set up as a combo with the controls facing up, not facing the player on the front panel. Ever after, any combo amp with knobs facing up was “Bluesbreaker” style. Because the Early JTM-45 used on the Beano album still shared many of its innards with Fender, so it has the American blues tone Clapton was seeking, but with some extra edge. It is reported by the album’s engineer, Mike Vernon, that in order to maximize the raspy, snotty, dirty tone that Clapton wanted (and everyone that followed), the amp was “dimed” (everything on 10, baby). As the JTM-45 evolved, the tube complement would make its way through KT88’s on its way to the potentially dirtier EL84’s, which we now recognize as having the distinctive, midrange heavy, crunchy, unmistakable, classic Marshall sound.

1966 was the last year the combo simply known as the JTM-45 was made. A benchmark, a new sound, and an empire in audio were all born in the JTM-45. The tone is divine, if you are a capable player. The setup hides no warts. The tradeoff is, everything you put in, comes out.

Of course, other iterations would follow, like the model 1987 and T1987 heads. And in 2016, Marshall released a faithful hand wired re-issue.

JCM800 4010 1X12 “Combo”

The 1980s ushered in the age of plenty for Marshalls in the USA. 1981 marked the end of the Marshall and Rose Morris distribution contract. Rose Morris tacked on a heavy fee for export rights, making the Marshall amp cost a lot of frogskins (more than a few quid), for players outside the UK. So as a result of the end of that relationship, 1981 became the year of the Marshall for the everyday American player.

Previously, only wealthy rock stars had access to a Marshall amp in the USA, though distorted, or let’s say at least “dirty,” sounding amps were in high demand. The advent of the Master Volume knob in the mid ’70s helped achieve distorted tone at lower-than-ear-shattering volumes—and that was one giant leap for mankind. Once people could afford them, as well as afford to play them in a context that didn’t require “disturbing the peace” level volume, it was hard to say no.

Marshall offered a few versions of the JCM800. Choices included a head and separate cab, or 1×12 and 2×12 combo setups. There was also a choice between 100 watts or 50 watts. One or two channel versions of each were also available.

Marshall made it easy to pick the one that was right for you. You could have anything from the ultimate in Rock ‘n Roll decadence—an irresponsibly loud JCM800 100-watt, dual channel head with a pair of 4×12 cabs, down to the more portable, but potent 50 watt 1×12 single-channel combo.

1982 seems to be when all the right parts came together. Unicord (now Korg) of Long Island, New York, was port of call for Marshall in the USA. Unicord helped modify the design somewhat, converting the EL84 tubes (some have ‘em, some don’t) with 6550 power tubes. No debate here, I love ‘em both.

The single-channel version 1×12 is far and away my favorite Marshall all ‘rounder. It’s a no-frills tone monster. The simple control layout merely has Pre Volume, Master Volume, Bass, Middle, Treble, and Presence (high treble) controls. There doesn’t seem to be a bad way to set this little beastie—it sounds great any way you dial it in. The simple circuit of the single channel 4010 seems to add some punch and headroom.

The solid state rectifier of the JCM800’s helps keep the low-end tight, even from a 1×12. Even with the pre-volume cranked, the 800 series does not produce over-the-top distortion. It gets good and gritty, but stays well defined. Extra grit can be added outboard with a boost pedal, overdrive, or distortion, and this amp gets along quite well with most drive pedals. If more speakers (an extension cab) are desired, there’s an additional speaker line out on the back panel.

Despite the lack of reverb, this amp has all you need, tucked away in a package small enough to fit in your trunk (or boot, if your hood is a bonnet). Great, full sounding “reach the guy in the back of the club” tone. This amp is a purebred bull dog, with plenty of bite to go along with its bark.

JCM 2000 DSL100

By the end of the century, Marshall was a world renowned company with a distinct sound all their own. The JCM800 series set the tone, being the first series of amps with a shelf life of about a decade. The 800’s ruled the 80’s, replaced by the JCM900 making up most of Marshall’s core product for the 1990s.

Marshall’s most ambitious amps to date, the JCM2000 series, arrived right on time with the new millennium. As usual, combo and head/cabinet versions were available, with 40, 50, 60, or 100 watts dominating the lineup. Nearly the entire core electric guitar amp range is a variation of the DSL or TSL (Dual Super Lead and Triple Super Lead) designs.

The two-channeled DSL is not as posh as the three-channeled TSL100, which was a bigger deal at the time than it is now. Trends towards multi-channel and multi-option amps had peaked around the early 2000s, when the DSL was first unveiled, with some manufacturers even offering 5 channel amps. Truth be told, you can get lost with 5 push buttons, 21 knobs, and a foot controller as big as the JCM800 1X12.

Trends are back to basics these days and the DSL wins in the end—if popularity and longevity are the measuring sticks. 20 years after the DSL’s introduction, versions of the JCM2000 DSL are still manufactured, viable, and vital in today’s market. The amp was ahead of its time, but thankfully, not too far ahead.

The DSL may be the Marshall with the longest shelf life as a new product. The simple fact is that this amp just sounds right. It has classic Marshall crunch and even deeper saturation levels than previous models like the JCM900 or the JCM800. In fact, no outboard distortion is needed—except for those with a taste for way-over-the-top, deeply saturated tone.

The DSL’s two channels consist of two old school Marshall sounds: Clean/Classic and over-the-top Ultra Lead Gain channel (with two gain levels). The amp boasts independent reverb for each channel, and a shared 3-band EQ with traditional Marshall Presence control. The DSL 100 is almost like a 4-channel amp, when you include the voicing switches on each channel. 10 knobs are a lot less difficult to navigate than the complex TSL’s 21 knob, 5 button front panel setup. Dialing in any tone you want is simple as can be. Go from super clean, to molten hot, and everything in the middle. Marshall’s DSL is one of the world’s most commonly found backline amps, due to its great tone, versatility, and ease of use.

The DSL may not be the vintage classic the JTM-45 is, but it wasn’t intended to be. This modern style amp is versatile enough for John Mayall or John 5. There is no trade off, loss, or compromise with this amp. Bottom line, the DSL covers a lot of ground, in tried and true Marshall style and tone.

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Mike Rock
A fixture in the Rock and Roll guitar community since 1978, Mike Rock is the “Go-To” source for Sam Ash's most intricate questions involving Guitars and related gear. A collector whose true passion is playing, Mike has performed over 2,500 gigs around the world. Mike began his musical journey studying the trumpet. While buying sheet music for a recital, Mike first heard an electric guitar through a fuzz box. Forty years later, he still maintains that the fuzz WAS germanium based (he is a bit crazy). This encounter drove Mike to his first guitar and a tube amp. Soon his guitar was heavily modified and the amp was on its 3rd replacement speaker. Mike was hunting for tone and blowing guitar speakers before there was a “boutique” or “vintage” market. It wasn’t long before Mike was buying, and validating vintage guitars and gear for some of the biggest companies in the world, finally finding a home assisting mentor and friend Sammy Ash, at the place where he heard that first Fuzz Guitar, so many years ago. Mike still performs regularly and recognizes the history and beauty of vintage and modern gear. Mike is aware not everyone is a collector and most players need a set up that works for the sound they chase, regardless of its pedigree, or vintage or status.