Ever see a hard rock group with an impressive backline of Marshall amps, and wonder how the Marshall stack was invented? Pete Townshend of The Who played a huge role, when in 1965, the guitarist was looking for shock and awe, almost 40 years before the actual term was invented.
I was in this mode where the guitar was a weapon. And, wonderful though my Fender Pro amp sounded, it wasn’t loud enough. So I went out and bought a Fender Bassman as well and plugged into both. And, wonderful though that was, it wasn’t loud enough either. So I went to Jim Marshall’s [then a music store in London], threw down my Fender Bassman and said, “I want that, twice as loud.” And, almost like Krups, the military manufacturer, Jim Marshall’s eyes sort of lit up and he said, “I will supply this man with the weapon he requires.” And from that came the Marshall stack and the big amplifiers of the Sixties.
Of course, Townshend has long been a teller of tall tales, and I doubt that’s exactly how it went down in Marshall’s store. But the basic facts are correct: Marshall once said that:
We made the first three 100-watt heads for him. I asked him what sort of cabinet he wanted, and he said he wanted eight 12s in one cabinet. I said that a big square cabinet with a little amplifier on top would look ridiculous, so I told him to let me design something. I built what turned out to be an 8 X 12 stack. Pete tried to carry it out of the workshop and it was so heavy. I told him his roadies were going to kill him, but he said, ‘They get paid.’ Two weeks later he came back and told me I was right, and he asked if I could cut it in half. I told him to leave it to me, and that I would redesign something that would do the job. I went back to the straight 100 4 X 12, which is now the bottom cabinet, and put the angled one on top, and the amplifier on top of that. The stack was born.
Of course, Marshall had been building fine amps prior to that, beginning with their classic 45 watt JTM45 head. While Marshall continued to offer the JTM45 head through 1966 (it’s since been reissued, beginning in 1989), he also offered it as part of a combo amp, with a pair of built-in 12-inch speakers, and dubbed the model 1962. “I put it in a combo originally for Eric Clapton”, Marshall recently told me. “Eric used to practice in my shop and one day he asked me if I could build him a combo version of the JTM45 so it’d be easy for him to get into the boot [trunk] of his car…so, I did and that’s how the Bluesbreaker combo came about.”
Its sound of course, would be heard on the landmark 1966 John Mayall album, Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton, as Clapton created the definitive electric blues guitar sound, mating a 1960 Les Paul with a Marshall model number 1962 combo amp. Eventually, the album would make the guitar (at the time, out of production of course), the guitarist, and his amplifier legends. Indeed, the Marshall 1962 would come to be known simply as “The Bluesbreaker” amp. While the distorted sound of the Les Paul with humbucking pickups played through a Marshall disturbed some purists in the mid-1960s, ironically enough, the man the guitar is named for was firmly nonplussed. “That fuzzy sound didn’t surprise me at all”, Les Paul told Guitar World in March of 1983. “I’ve always been one to spread out and go where angels fear to tread…so if Eric Clapton came along, used one of my instruments to get a big fat sound, I’ve got nothing but admiration for him. In some cases it didn’t sound too pleasing, but in most cases it was very interesting.”
For the definitive history of Marshall amps, and how Jim Marshall transformed himself from a regularly gigging drummer, to a music store owner, to one of the most influential amplifer builders in the world, check out Michael Doyle’s The History of Marshall. For some of the music made on Marshall amps, check out the CDs below.