Jim Marshall, innovator and developer of some of the most iconic (and powerful) amplification equipment in the history of modern music, died April 5 at the age of 88. Born in 1923, Mr. Marshall grew up in London of modest means (his parents sold fish and chips) and early in his life worked variously in a scrap-metal yard, a jam factory and a shoe shop. But, having failed his draft physical during World War II, he took a job that would change his life – at an engineering firm – while he simultaneously devoured engineering texts on his own. An accomplished drummer himself, Marshall supplemented his engineering income by teaching drumming to students – which at one point numbered sixty-five.
The profits from his teaching permitted him to buy a music shop in Hanwell, London, where one of his first employees was Ken Bran, whom Marshall hired as an engineer. Bran suggested that they build their own amplifiers, and brought in another engineer, Dudley Craven, to help them. They issued their first amplifier in 1962, and its sound became known as the “Marshall Crunch.”
Marshall had always been complimentary of the Fender amplifier, which at the time he created his own brand in 1960 was the prevailing amplification device for country/western and jazz artists – and which produced a “clean” and warm but quiet sound. However, Marshall, for his part, sought to cater to a new generation of musicians who played rock-n-roll and who were looking for a bigger, louder, rougher and more “fuzzy” sound. His success in this sense has made Marshall the amplifier of choice for world-class rock-n-roll artists to this day.
The Who’s Pete Townshend, another Marshall evangelist, told Marshall he wanted a system “as big as an atom bomb” which would be as “powerful as a machine gun.” As he recalled in one interview, “Pretty soon, by accident, I discovered the Gibson SG (guitar) … and because I was using a mix of Sound City (later Hiwatt) and Marshall amplifier stacks, I landed the Live at Leeds sound that stayed with me almost all the way on from there—at least onstage.”
Though Marshall had worked closely over the years with musicians such as Townshend, Roy Orbison, Elton John, Eric Clapton, and Guns and Roses guitarist Slash to name only a few, he reserved his most affectionate praise for Jimi Hendrix, whom he considered “our greatest ambassador, without a doubt,” as well as the greatest guitarist ever. There was a story Marshall often told about Hendrix coming into his shop in 1967 just prior to the release of his smash album Are You Experienced. At the time, Marshall just considered him “another American chap wanting things for free.” But Hendrix was adamant that he wanted to pay full retail price and proceeded to buy four stage setups – the so-called Marshall “stacks.”