by Ryan Wasoba
Marshall Amplification founder Jim Marshall passed away yesterday at the age of 88. He had been diagnosed with cancer late last year after suffering from a series of strokes. His name may not be familiar to the average music lover, but his amplifiers provided the massive, crunchy guitar sound that shaped rock and roll from the late 1960s onward.
Distortion was an undesirable sound before the 1960s, but as technologies improved and recordings became "cleaner," musicians likely missed the rawness that was once unavoidable. The Beatles reportedly achieved distortion on guitar solos from "Taxman" and "Revolution" by cranking the preamps on the recording studio boards. Yet achieving the desired sound was difficult even out of a cranked Vox or Fender amp.
Music store owner Jim Marshall saw a void in the amplifier marketplace in London after hearing complaints from his guitarist friends - Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, and Ritchie Blackmore - who sought after a more aggressive tone. As a member of the Yardbirds, Clapton drove his Fender amp hard, but his sound on a song like "I Ain't Got You" from 1965 is tinny and lacking meat: Around the time he recorded Blues Breakers with John Mayall in 1966, Jim Marshall built Clapton a portable amp called, fittingly "The Bluesbreaker." His sound on the album opener "All Your Love" is somehow smoother and crunchier at the same time, thanks to the tasteful overdrive of Marshall's design:
Pete Townsend was another early adopter of the Marshall, which explains the eventual shift from "The Kids Are Alright" jangle to the monstrous chords of "Baba O'Riley." Townsend wanted something louder than Clapton's "Bluesbreaker," so Jim Marshall built a separate head and cabinet, or "The Marshall Stack." Perhaps nobody made the stack more famous than Jimi Hendrix, who bowed before the wall of amps in his legendary Woodstock performance.
Jim Marshall led the evolution of guitar sounds for decades to follow. His amplifiers produced Eddie Van Halen's famous "brown sound" and gave the biting tone to shred pioneer Randy Rhoads on Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train." Sonic Youth may or may not have used Marshall, but Thurston Moore immortalized the amp when he sang "You come running in on platform shoes / With Marshall stacks to at least just give us a clue" on "Teen Age Riot."
Marshall no longer hold the exclusive market on rock guitar amplifiers, but its competitors - Mesa Boogie, Orange, Peavey, etc. - have big footsteps to follow. Just ask any kid who plugs a guitar into a Marshall JCM800 for the first time and plays a big open E. It's the sound that made you love the guitar, rebellion in aural form.
R.I.P. Jim Marshall. Nobody has contributed more to making rock and roll loud.