Thursday, April 5, 2012

Jim Marshall - A Brief Remembrance

I'll never forget the first chord I played through a Marshall amplifier. I was working in an industrial plating factory just after graduating from high school in 1977. A friend was buying the amp, and it had been delivered to this small factory by its owner. This was not just any Marshall, it was the half stack that had been used for Ram Jam's huge hit, Black Betty. It still had the Ram Jam logo stenciled upon it, and that amp was magic. I turned the amp up to five, and hit an open A chord, and it ricocheted through that brick cracker box of a building in a way that still gives me goose bumps when I recall it. It was a wide, broad, and brawny tone - thick and rich, but with a singing high end. When you muted your strings and chunked away on an open E, the walls trembled with fear. I was hooked.

Mind you, I had heard many Marshall amps before I actually experienced playing through one. The first I saw and heard belonged to Robin Trower, on tour with a hit record, Bridge of Sighs, opening for Frank Zappa and The Mothers at Dayton's Hara Arena back on November 20, 1974. Trower's tone was huge, sounding like a wild jungle cat, drenched in Univibe and fuzz. Then a year later, KISS annihilated The Palace Theater in Dayton with a whole wall of blaring Marshalls. I heard Tommy Bolin fail miserably through his Marshall stacks in February of '76 as he succumbed to his chemical demons.

1978 was a tremendous year to hear thunderous Marshall tones as Eddie Van Halen stopped in Dayton on March 11 to show exactly how he was going to change the guitar world. Later in the year, UFO opened for Aerosmith at University of Dayton Arena, and Michael Schenker handily stole the show from the stoned remnants of Perry and Whitford's vintage Fenders, and MusicMan stacks. Van Halen had stolen the show earlier that year with a signature Marshall tone that became not only known as the 'brown sound,' it became the most sought after tone of a generation of guitarists. That March night, Van Halen ran rough shod over the top of two great, great players, Neal Schon of Journey, and Ronnie Montrose. Surely, Eddie's licks were at the fore, but it was also the huge slabs of tone being generated from his variac'd Marshalls that paved the way.

It was about this time that I decided that a Marshall amp was the way to go. Not being an incredibly savvy buyer at the time, I opted for the first Marshall I came across. A friend had come upon a used Marshall, but he needed something he could play at home, so he traded me straight across for my MusicMan HD 130 212 combo. It turns out that what I had unwittingly acquired may have been a bit much, the loudest guitar amplifier ever built, the 200 watt Marshall Major.

I found a used Marshall 412, and I plugged it all in - good Lord. I had never heard anything like it. It was louder on two than had been the earlier Ram Jam Marshall, even at its full volume. And, no matter how I tried, I could not get it to distort, not a bit. No matter how loud I turned it up, it retained the same sound. Now, mind you, the sound it delivered was glorious. Its tone was not terribly unlike that of a Fender Twin Reverb, except that it had a much thicker midrange, and the low end was almost beyond description. This was many, many years before guitarists starting tuning their instruments down to get fatter tones, but this a vastly superior low end to what I have ever heard from dropped tunings. It was unbelievable. It was also too loud.

I played two shows with my monster rig, and even with the volume on two, I was unbearably loud. It was the greatest sound I had ever heard, but it was simply too much. Marshall's worst mistake was still a brilliant piece of equipment. I have not heard better tone from an amp since I sadly traded away the beast, and it may have been my biggest gear mistake ever. It was a sound that I have never stopped looking for, and have never found.

The list of great rock guitarists who have used Marshall amps at one time or another is basically the list of great rock guitarists, period. There are very few who did not at some point plug into a Marshall. Many of the greatest tonemeisters, such as Eddie Van Halen, Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Ace Frehely, bands such as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, and many, many others owe much of their signature tones to their Marshall amps. I heard Gary Moore play incredible hard rock, and wonderfully emotive blues through his career and his constant relationship with Marshall - there was even a signature Moore model in development at the time of his death, and no sooner are we past a year since his death that we are now saddened by the passing of the amp's father, builder Jim Marshall.

I first met Jim Marshall in the mid '80s at various Guitar Center functions. He was a true gentleman - he had never met a stranger, had never heard a dumb question, and seemingly never tired of talking about his company, his amps, and their legacy. His passing marks the end of an era, he was one of the last living of the original manufacturers of the instruments that forged the sound of rock and roll. You can be assured that Leo, Les, and the boys appointed a new member to the big board of directors up above today. God bless, and thank you, Jim - you will be missed, loved, and remembered.

Rest In Peace, Jim Marshall.

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