Life Out Loud: Remembering Jim Marshall's Amplifier Legacy

A wall of Marshalls at a Slayer concert.
A wall of Marshalls at a Slayer concert.
Photo by Jaakonam via Wikipedia

I was about 12 years old and in the hallway outside the gymnasium of my school when I heard it. Someone had a guitar and he was playing it LOUD.

I knocked open the double doors and a friend was wailing on a beautiful cherry sunburst Les Paul and it was so damn LOUD. I got a little closer and there it was, a Marshall amp.

I was shocked. My friend had a small Fender amp that didn't sound like this. This was obviously a loaner and my buddy, who I would go on to play in bands with throughout high school, was opening her up and taking her for a spin.

Earlier today, I learned of the death of the third member of the holy trinity of rock music inventors, Jim Marshall. He was preceded by Leo Fender in 1991 and Les Paul in 2009. All three men were instrumental (no pun intended) in changing the face of music as we know it, but rock music in particular.

Fender and Paul invented the electric guitar, forming the basis of instrumentation still in use today. Marshall invented the amplifier that would take rock from a twangy, country offshoot to the earth-shaking devastation we came to know an love.

In high school, every guitar player wanted a Marshall amp. You'd take a combo amp, but what you really wanted was a half-stack. A beefy 100-watt tube head sitting on top of a slanted cabinet filled with four Celestion speakers that would purposefully distort and feed back when the power from the amp would surge through it.

Sure, you could dream about a whole stack -- two full cabinets of raw power -- but most of us didn't have the cash, so we kept our desires reasonable.

As a bass player, I never had that singular amp that could compare to a Marshall. A lot of guys used the Ampeg SVT, but that refrigerator-sized beast was the kind of impracticality reserved only for touring musicians and gluttons for punishment. An SVT cabinet nearly killed me on the frozen metal steps of Blythe Spirits back in the day.

And for guitar, there were other choices and still are. From the clean, bluesy sweetness of the Fender Twin to jangly beauty of Vox to the souped-up balls of Mesa Boogie and HiWatt to the modern-day perfection of Bogner and techno-trickery of the Line 6. But nothing is like a Marshall, and nothing has that sound.


Rob Halford riding his motorcycle through a wall of Marshalls at the US Festival in 1983
Rob Halford riding his motorcycle through a wall of Marshalls at the US Festival in 1983

Through high school and college, I saw enough rock shows to recognize that fact. I played next to enough Marshalls to cause permanent hearing loss. I watched people record with every knob of the amp turned to 10 because it just sounded so good and Spinal Tap taking it up a notch by going to 11.

I remember standing in the crowds at concerts and gawking at the line of Marshall stacks behind guitar players thinking, "Do they turn them all on AT ONCE?" They likely didn't, but the visual impact was enough.

In 1983, I watched the US Festival on cable television. Nearly every band on hard rock day -- from the Scorpions to Quiet Riot to Judas Priest -- had a wall of those damn stacks behind them. Rob Halford roared out from between a set of swinging doors made of the amps on a Harley.

As the emphasis on guitar in rock music began to change and, as rock music itself began to take a back seat to boy bands and pop tarts, the Marshall fell out of favor. Garage hipsters began wanting ugly guitar sounds, causing a resurgence in Orange amps and Big Muff pedals. Others wanted a cleaner approach and began buying Matchless for its earthiness or Vox for its shine.

There have been the complaints that all Marshalls do is one thing, that they are one-dimensional and only sound their best when turned up as loud as possible. They are impractical and lack versatility.

But isn't that the point?

Recently, my guitar player bought his first Marshall head from a buddy. He never thought of himself as a Marshall guy. The first crank of that amp made him a convert. And, to be honest, all that crap about it not being versatile or only sounding great on 11 is just that, crap. My friend's Marshall is as smooth and powerful today as ever and we all have the Father of Loud to thank.

Don't mark his passing with a moment of silence. If you are fortunate enough to own one of his creations, celebrate the life of Jim Marshall by cranking that amp as loud as it can go and hitting an A chord with all your might. It will piss off your neighbors and, let's be honest, that's what he would have wanted.

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