It was the physical embodiment of rock’s power and majesty — a wall of black, vinyl-clad cabinets, one atop the other, crowned with a rectangular box containing the innovative circuitry that revolutionized the music.
This was the famed Marshall stack, the amplification gear that has dominated rock stages since its introduction in the early 1960s, bestowing on guitarists the ability to achieve unprecedented volume and controlled distortion.
From the Who, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s on through Peter Frampton, Van Halen, AC/DC, Motley Crue, Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana in succeeding decades, the cursive “Marshall” emblazoned on the speakers has served as an inescapable backdrop signature.
The Marshall stack was so much larger than life that it lent itself to excess as well. The famous amp in the mockumentary “Spinal Tap” with a unique setting of 11 on the dial was a Marshall, and no rock image was more over-the-top than that of KISS’ four members performing in front of some 40 Marshall cabinets.
Of course, they didn’t need that many.
“Hendrix used three 100-watt amps and three stacks,” their inventor Jim Marshall once said. “KISS go a lot further, but most of the cabinets and amps you see on stage are dummies. We once built 80 dummy cabinets for Bon Jovi. They all do it — it’s just backdrop.
“It would be stupid to use more than three 100-watt amps, wherever and whoever you are.”
Marshall died at 88 in an English hospice after suffering from cancer and several severe strokes, his son Terry Marshall told the Associated Press. Musicians, competitors and fans were quick to salute Marshall, who had retained an active role at Marshall Amplification well into his 80s.
Comments on Twitter came from Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx (“R.I.P. Jim Marshall. You were responsible for some of the greatest audio moments in music’s history and 50% of all our hearing loss”), Slash (“The news of Jim Marshall passing is deeply saddening. R & R will never be the same w/out him. But, his amps will live on FOREVER!”) and Megadeth’s David Ellefson (“You made rock n roll what it is for so many of us.”)
“RIP Jim Marshall. Such a huge loss for the music community,” was the sentiment expressed by Fullerton-based Fender Guitars, whose Bassman amplifier served as Marshall’s model when he set about to redefine the technology in 1962.
It was an unlikely undertaking, but Marshall’s life had consistently defied the odds. Born in London on July 29, 1923, he saw his youth interrupted by a case of bone tuberculosis that immobilized him in a hospital from the age of 5 to 13.
When he recovered, he took on menial jobs, began educating himself in engineering, learned to tap dance and became a big band singer and drummer. He worked as a toolmaker for aircraft manufacturers during World War II, but soon music took precedence.
He began giving drum lessons and opened a drum shop in London. One of his students was Mitch Mitchell, who would later introduce him to the leader of his new trio, Hendrix. The shop’s customers included the son of one of Marshall’s big band cohorts, a young rock musician who encouraged Marshall to add guitars and amps to his inventory.
Marshall took Pete Townshend’s advice, and business boomed. When Townshend and friends such as Ritchie Blackmore learned about his technical background, they prodded him to devise an amplifier with more power and rougher tone than the pure, clean-sounding Fenders.
Marshall took on the challenge, working with guitarist-electrician Ken Bran and hiring engineer Dudley Craven away from EMI Records to help him achieve the sound he envisioned. They adapted airplane vacuum tubes into the design, Marshall packed four 12-inch speakers into a tongue-and-groove cabinet whose top half angled slightly upward and they set a 50-watt amplifier on top of it.
They got it right on the sixth prototype, but the rock musicians were becoming intoxicated with the potential of greater volume and soon their urging led to a 100-watt amp powering eight speakers — two of the cabinets in the famed stack formation.
Marshall quickly built his enterprise into a consistently successful firm, adding midrange and low-end lines to the catalog. He twice received the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement and was appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2004. He was regularly listed among Britain’s wealthiest individuals.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the man known as “the father of loud” did suffer some hearing problems. But it’s not what you might think.
“My right ear is not very good at all,” he said in a 2005 interview with the New Zealand Herald. “And I’d always put it down to when I was playing the top cymbal, but it was probably the brass section in the orchestras I was playing in the ’50s. So it happened before I was dealing with rock ‘n’ roll.”
Jim Marshall was almost 89 years old when he died from cardiac arrest on 5 April 2012.