For this blog a short article about Marshall amps and their tone: I will go into detail about the orgins of the Marshall amp, why it became popular and what creates the sound we all seem to know as “the Marshall Sound”.
Before I go into detail about the amp just a few words about the equipment bands used at the beginning of the 1960s:
It was quite common during those days for bands to amplify the vocals through the P.A system while the sound of the guitars and bass came mainly from amps being used on stage.
Think of any concerts you will been to recently and most likely, the sound you will have heard came mainly through the P.A speakers placed at each side of the stage. In the early days of Rock ‘n’ Roll P.A systems were relatively small and mainly designed to amplify the vocals, the amps for the guitars and bass were not amplified through the P.A and therefore could often not be heard very well.
As bands started to play louder and louder guitarplayers wanted their amps to be louder as well. Most of the amps of the early 60s were not designed to be played at full volume, and a lot of rock players were dissatisfied with the volumes their amp could produce.
At some point Pete Townshend of the Who got in touch with James Marshall with the request to build him an amp that was loud enough to produce the volume and tone he wanted. In a nutshell, that moment in time was the birth of the Marshall amp and sound as we know it today.
Jim Marshall based his amp design on the Fender Bassman, which was an American amplifier and import duties made this amp more expansive in the UK. Jim Marshall felt he could produce a similar amplifier at a cheaper rate. The result was the beginning of a successstory for James Marshall.
One of the main differences between the early Marshall amp and the Fender Bassman was that the Marshall amp would break up quicker in sound to produce a smooth, distorted tone. The Marshall amp was also brighter in its overal tone. The Bassman used Jensen speakers whereas the Marshall used speakers which were produced in England under the name Celestion.
Here is a clear link about the history of the early Marshall amps:
The early Marshall amps tend to be darker in tone because the distortion is mainly produced by the poweramp, later models use a design where the distortion is produced by a mix of Pre-and Poweramp, resulting in a brighter distorted tone.
Anyone who has ever used a Marshall amp will have noticed that the tonecontrols are fairly passive: Turn up the bass and the overal sound becomes a little darker. The mid tonecontrol tends to be more active and the treble is where the secret lies: Turn this up and you will notice what it does to your sound!
Compare this to the average Fender amp and you will notice a big difference: Tonecontrols on most Fender amps are smooth and linear: Turn any of them up and you will hear your sound change accordingly.
As a rule of thumb one could say that older Marshalls —up and till about 1973— tend to be darker in sound, the ones produced after that period are brighter in sound. One of the reasons for this are changes in musical taste and habits: Guitar players wanted more from their amps: Master Volume controls to control the overal volume of the amp, Channels which could be set-up for different sounds: One for clean and one for distorted tones.
One part of the Marshall sound is the speakers you use to amplify the amp. Celestion speakers have been there since day one, and they are still the speaker of choise for Marshall amps.
The Marshall Sound Throughout Time:
It is true that early Marshalls do have a different sound compared to ones later produced, however the main characteristics of the sound, the brightness and clarity, can be found on any model of amp Marshall has ever produced. Most of the changes made to Marshall amps over time have been made because of requests of their users: Guitarplayers wanted Master volumes, spring reverbs, effect loops, just to make their amps fit into the musical trends of the day.
For next article I will have a closer look at the JCM 900 series and what kind of sounds you can get out of them.