Jim Marshall: Guitar amp pioneer who earned the epithet 'Father of Loud'

 

In the mid-1960s, the emergence of the powerful Marshall amplifiers enabled musicians to turn up the volume – and effectively transformed pop music into rock.

Marshall became the amplifiers of choice for guitarists as diverse and influential as Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Ramone and The Who's Pete Townshend, whose demands for a louder, more harmonically rich sound contributed to the genesis of the 100-watt model and the 4 x 12 stacks that became de rigueur for rock bands like Status Quo, AC/DC and Van Halen.

Though he founded the company, Jim Marshall always acknowledged the input the engineers Ken Bran and Dudley Craven had into the range of equipment that bore his name. "We went all out to build a lead amp," he said. "I made the chassis, while Ken and Dudley designed and built the circuitry. I had chats with Pete Townshend and the session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan. The amplifiers at the time veered more towards jazz or country and western... the guitarists wanted something thicker. Fender was too clean. Listening to what they said imparted in my mind the idea of the Marshall sound. I always call it dirty, but it's really a harmonic distortion."

Built to last and to withstand repeated attacks by Hendrix and Townshend – "they only tore the baffling cloth," stressed Marshall – eulogized in song by Motörhead, and famously lampooned and turned up to 11 in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, Marshall Amplification became one of Britain's most successful music companies.

Born in West London in 1923, Jim Marshall didn't have the easiest start. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bones and spent years in and out of the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, to which he made charitable contributions in later life. By the age of 14, he had given up on formal education and passed on the opportunity to work alongside his father in the family's fish and chip shop.

His illness meant that he failed his army medical, but he spent the Second World War working at Ceramic Engineering, and then was a toolmaker at Heston Aircraft. He also started a parallel career as featured singer and then drummer with a big band. "I was making 10 shillings a night," he recalled. "I would ride my bicycle with a trailer behind it to carry my drumkit and the public address cabinets which I had made."

In order to approximate the flamboyant playing style of his idol, the jazz band leader Gene Krupa, he started taking drum lessons and became proficient enough to teach the next generation of London drummers, including Mitch Mitchell, who went on to join the Jimi Hendrix Experience. "I used to teach about 65 pupils a week and, what with playing as well, I was earning somewhere in the region of £5000 a year. That's how I first saved enough money to go into business," said the enterprising Marshall, who opened a music store in Hanwell, West London.

Soon, he was not only selling drumkits, but also building bass cabinets. "The bass guitarists used to complain that they were being out-gunned all the time by the lead guitar... I had the idea of using two 12" speakers with the 50 watt amp head, but it didn't give us the sound we wanted... We kept blowing the speakers," explained Marshall, who had been joined by Bran and Dudley in 1962.

They developed various prototypes and eventually hit on the right combination at the sixth attempt. "We had the idea of putting four 12" speakers into the smallest enclosure we could. There was nothing brilliant about designing the first 4 x 12, it was purely the most convenient size to get into the transport that groups had in those days," he admitted. "I thought that it didn't look very nice with just the amp sitting on top, so I did the angle to match the dimensions of the amplifier and make it look a neater package."

This model proved so popular that by 1964, Marshall had opened his first factory in Hayes. The following year, he signed a distribution agreement with Rose Morris, the instrument suppliers that put Marshall in every major music retailer around the world. Marshall, Bran and Dudley also made the first 100 watt amp for Townshend, who felt he was losing the amplification battle to Who drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle.

The ensuing escalation in feedback and volume earned Marshall the nickname the Father of Loud, especially following the emergence of Hendrix, whose middle name happened to be Marshall. "He was our greatest ambassador," said Marshall.

In 1985, Marshall was invited to add his handprints to the Rock Walk Hall of Fame in Hollywood alongside the instrument pioneers Leo Fender, Robert Moog, Les Paul and Bill Ludwig. He was appointed OBE for his services to music and charity in 2003.

Equipment and instrument manufacturers can be secretive about their products, but Marshall was always happy to show visitors around his factory in Milton Keynes. Asked if his amps had damaged people's hearing, he would reply that those claims were "over-exaggerated. I've met all the top guitarists and they never say: 'Pardon? What did you say?' They always hear what I say."

James Charles Marshall, amplifier manufacturer: born London 29 July 1923; twice married (one son from first marriage, one daughter, one stepson, one stepdaughter from second marriage); died Milton Keynes 5 April 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road