Classic Rock Corner

Life Out Loud: Remembering Jim Marshall's Amplifier Legacy

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.

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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke