Denbigh Road, Bletchley
Marshall has been the "sound of rock" for over 40 years, used by countless musicians worldwide.
Marshall Amplification plc manufactures one of the most recognized product lines in rock music. Since the early 1960s, Marshall amplifiers have produced what many musicians believe to be the sound that defines rock guitar. Succeeding generations of rock, blues, and heavy metal musicians have discovered and embraced Marshall equipment. Marshall produces a line of 120 products that include amp heads, speaker cabinets, combo amps, and stacks at prices that range from under $100 to about $2000. Over 70 percent of Marshall's sales are made to the low price end of the market. A workforce of more than 400 produces thousands of amplifiers every week at Marshall's state-of-the-art factory in Milton Keynes, England, for sale in more than 65 countries.
Jack of All Musical Trades
James Charles Marshall, the founder of Marshall Amplification, was born on July 29, 1923 in the English working-class town of North Kensington. At the age of five, he was diagnosed with tubercular bones, a condition that can leave the bones fragile and hypersensitive to pressure. As a result, he was confined to a full body cast in a local hospital for all of his childhood. When he emerged from the cast nine years later at age 14, Marshall rejected the idea of working in his father's fish-and-chips shop, opting instead for better paying jobs in local factories. At the same time, he took up tap dancing and singing and was soon performing in local music halls almost every night of the week. He later told Rick Maloof, "I was earning as much money at 14 as any adult." Ineligible for military service during World War II, Marshall sang with a jazz septet. When the group's drummer went off to the war, Marshall was persuaded to take his place.
It was a fateful decision. By the end of the 1940s, he had become one of the United Kingdom's top singers and drummers. During the 1950s, he began to teach drumming, in particular drumming for the upstart rock and roll music that was beginning to capture the imagination of young people in England. His lessons attracted so many students that Marshall was soon making more money as a teacher than from all his other work combined. By the end of the 1950s, Marshall had given up performing altogether to concentrate on teaching. In July 1960, he opened a drum shop, Jim Marshall & Son, in suburban London. The shop was an immediate success. He already had a loyal clientele composed of his drum students, some of whom would soon play a critical role in sixties rock. His drum students soon began to introduce him to guitarists. Drummer Keith Moon, for example, brought in Pete Townsend and bass player John Entwhistle, the three of whom, along with singer Roger Daltrey, would soon form The Who. Townsend began to badger Marshall to add guitars and amplifiers to his stock. "We'd prefer to come to you than go to West End where we're treated like absolute idiots," Townsend told Marshall. Marshall added guitars and basses to his stock and was soon catering to the burgeoning London rock scene.
Developing the Marshall Sound
Players like Townsend and Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore wanted more than mere amplifiers--they wanted a new sound. They were looking for amplifiers that were louder than others on the market, and they wanted a dirtier, more aggressive sound from these amps. For this, they turned to Jim Marshall. For one thing, Marshall had experience with amplification. He had built his own PA system while he was still singing, and during the war he had worked as an engineer. "These players got onto me about building them an amplifier," Marshall told Rick Maloof, "so I went to [service manager] Ken Bran, and said, 'Let's have a go at it.'" Bran was willing but felt he did not have the specialized know-how that amplifier design required. However, he had heard of a young man working at the record label EMI, Dudley Craven, who had a reputation as an electronic whiz kid. Jim hired Craven immediately and the three men set to work creating a new guitar amp.
The bulk of the design of the amp was not original with Marshall's crew. Its starting point was the Fender Bassman amp, a popular model at the time. Craven and Bran tinkered with the Bassman's electronics. They experimented with various components purchased from cut-rate electronics surplus stores. Marshall's ears determined the course of what his team produced. "The players had told me what they wanted quite specifically, such that I could hear it in my mind what it should sound like," he told Guitar Player. Between July and September 1960, Marshall's team produced a series of prototypes. After each prototype was created, Marshall had rock guitarists--the musicians for whom he was designing the amp--put it through its paces. The first five models failed to reproduce the sound Marshall heard in his head. The sixth, however, was exactly what he had been hoping for and was christened the JTM45. It had a modest 45-watts of peak power, but after the first day in the window of Marshall's store he had 23 orders. This occurred at a time when it took nearly a week to build a single amplifier.
Business boomed. Six months after the first amp hit the market, Marshall's store moved to a larger space. For almost two years, Marshall amps were manufactured in a large empty room separate from the store. It was only in June 1964 that the firm moved its 15-man production staff into a Marshall-owned factory, a 30,00-square-foot facility in Hayes, Middlesex. Marshall's amps evolved rapidly. The original JTM45 consisted of two parts: the head, or electronic amplifier component, included an instrument input, tone and volume controls, and a power switch; the speaker cabinet housed two 12-inch speakers. Those two speakers were blown out repeatedly by the powerful 45-watt head. Worse still, they did not consistently produce the sound Marshall wanted. He modified the cabinet, stocking it with four 12-inch speakers that more efficiently used the amp's wattage and at the same time better projected the sound.
The next innovation came in 1964 when Eric Clapton, another guitarist on the cusp of superstardom, asked Marshall to build him a special amp. Clapton wanted the Marshall sound but in a smaller, more compact combo amp--an amp with the head and speakers in a single unit--that could be easily transported in the trunk of his car. Marshall responded with the Bluesbreaker. Its portability, its warm-yet-rough sound, and its price--the Bluesbreaker was half the price of comparable Fender amps--made the amp arguably the most important in the company's history.
Bigger and Louder Amps
In 1965, Pete Townsend came to Marshall with a new request. The Who were driving the volume of rock to previously unheard levels. Townsend asked Marshall for a 100-watt amplifier capable of producing sounds louder than anything Marshall and his team had ever considered building. With it, Townsend asked for a cabinet with eight 12-inch speakers. Marshall said such a cabinet would be too heavy to move and offered to construct two four-speaker cabinets instead. Townsend insisted on the larger model. That was what roadies were for, he told Marshall. The Who's roadies, however, were anything but pleased with the monstrously heavy piece of equipment. Just weeks after he took delivery, Marshall recalled, Townsend returned the cabinet, asking if it could be cut in half. "'I told him look, Pete, I can't do that because the bloody things will fall apart.' So I ended up doing what I wanted to do in the first place, which was the straight fronted cab with the angled one sitting on top." It was the birth of the stack, two 4x12 speaker cabinets, one on top of the other. It may be Marshall's most famous contribution to rock.
If Townsend and Clapton were the driving forces behind Marshall's innovations in amplifier technology, it was another icon--Jim Marshall's namesake--who put the Marshall name on the map in the United States and the rest of the world. Around 1966, Mitch Mitchell, another of Marshall's drum students, brought a young guitarist named James Marshall Hendrix--Jimi Hendrix--to the shop. Although he was still unknown at the time, Hendrix told Marshall that one day he would be the greatest name in the music world. Marshall thought it was a con. "I thought 'Cor, another Yank who wants something for nothing,'" Marshall told The Australian. In fact, Hendrix wanted to pay full list price for all his Marshall amps. What he insisted on was service whenever he needed it, wherever he was. Marshall responded by giving Hendrix's road crew a course in amp maintenance and repair at the Marshall factory. Throughout Hendrix's too-brief career, his roadies were able to deal with any problem with his amps. Hendrix was so committed to Marshall that he bought full rigs for North America, Europe, and Asia, so he would not have to transport a sound system overseas when he toured. Hendrix's use of Marshall equipment would soon make the brand legendary around the world.
Booming Business in the 1960s
By 1966, rock and roll was booming and so was Marshall's amplifier business. The company continued to develop new and improved products, such as a series of new amp heads that drove the Marshall sound harder than ever before. To cope with increased orders, a new factory was opened that doubled the firm's production capacity. That same year, Marshall's son Terry left to pursue a career as a musician, and the company was renamed Marshall Amplification. Business was so good that in 1996 the Rose Morris Agency approached Marshall about becoming the exclusive distributor of the company's goods. Marshall agreed to a 15-year pact. The contract barred the company from distributing amplifiers under the Marshall name. To continue to provide products to one of its loyal former distributors, Marshall launched a new brand--Park. Park amps, which were identical to the Marshall brand, except for the nameplate and price, remained in production until 1982. The company later developed another side brand, Kitchen-Marshall, for Kitchen's, a retail chain in the English city of Leed's. Kitchen's, who provided sound and lighting rigs for clubs and other venues in Leeds, asked Marshall to produce a Kitchen-brand PA system. Marshall offered a compromise, putting both firms' names on the system. The brand was on the market until about 1969.
Jim Marshall soon regretted his alliance with Rose Morris. The distributor boosted the price of Marshall equipment so high--by approximately 55 percent--that it became prohibitively expensive for most musicians, especially in export markets like the United States. Over time, those artificially high process substantially depressed Marshall's amp business. To supplement the lost income Jim Marshall expanded into other areas, including the establishment of non-music shops and department stores in London. Even in this area, Marshall proved to be an able businessperson. In the late 1970s when the Rose Morris contract was about to expire, he sold the shop leases. "When I sold them in 1979," he told Rich Maloof, "I made far more money selling leases than I ever did from amplifiers."
A Growth Surge in the 1980s
The 1980s were a period of renewed growth for Marshall Amplification. With the expiration of the distribution contract with the Rose Morris Agency in 1981, Marshall was able to lower the retail prices of his amps to levels that made them affordable not only for headline acts but also for garage bands and hobby musicians. The company's sales surged. In the United States, in particular, sales increased 360 percent in a three-year period. The remarkable upswing earned Marshall the Queen's Award for Export in 1984. So successful was the firm during the 1980s that it was only natural it would be targeted for a takeover. In 1989, Harmon Instruments, a manufacturer of musical instruments, offered £100 million in cash for the company together with a fifteen-year personal contract for Jim Marshall at £1 million a year. Marshall, who owned 100 percent of the business, refused the offer, and the company remained in Marshall's hands.
In the late 1980s, to meet growing international economic uncertainties, Marshall introduced a new emphasis on research and development. One result was a series of new amps for players of more modest means. Particularly noteworthy was the Valvestate line, a collection of hybrid amps that enabled Marshall to lower costs--and prices--by replacing the tubes in the power section with solid state circuitry while at the same time retaining much of the trademark Marshall sound. Other new products around that time included the JCM900 series and the JMP-1 MIDI pre-amp.
In the early 1990s, the company refurbished its factories with state-of-the art manufacturing systems that replaced hand-soldering and individual testing of products with a fully automated production system that also enabled Marshall to make all of its chassis in-house for the first time. The new equipment led to a quantum leap in the quality of finished goods and cut returns of defective merchandise to next to nothing. The changes made an impact. Between 1987 and 1994, sales increased by a remarkable 400 percent, winning Marshall a second Queen's Award for Export in 1992. In 1994, the company expanded its production once again, investing over $8 million in a new 60,000-square-foot factory next to its existing facility. Although the United States was the firm's largest market, Marshall told Music Trades he would never consider producing his amps there. "I've always wanted total control of manufacturing ... under one roof ... under my direction. ... Rest assured, you will never see a Marshall product come from anywhere other than our plants in Milton Keynes." By 1995, Marshall's 350 employees were producing about 4000 cabinets every week with annual sales in more than 85 nations over $50 million.
As the years passed, Marshall amps have acquired a reputation that is legendary. The amps it built in the 1960s now sell for thousands of dollars. In the mid-1990s, to obtain three old models for the company museum, Jim Marshall had to spend approximately $20,000 for amps that originally sold for about $250 each. Marshall continued to refine its products in the 2000s. In 2002, the year Marshall celebrated its 40th anniversary, the company introduced a reissue series of its classic amps from the past, including the 2203ZW Zakk Wylde Signature model based on Marshall's JCM800 head. It also refined older technologies. The AVT series, introduced in 2000, represented the latest stage of the solid state power amp technology begun with Marshall's Valvestate amps. The company released a variety of new amps as well, most notably the MODE FOUR series, which combined tube, solid state, and digital technologies. It was a hit from the outset, winning high praise from guitar publications on both sides of the Atlantic.
Jim Marshall celebrated his 80th birthday in 2003. Despite his advanced age, he continued to be deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the business and remained committed to maintaining full ownership of the company he built. "What would I do with the millions? You can only live in one house, drive one car, and eat one good meal a day. Anyway, I'm happy working. I'm a workaholic--been that way since the age of 14." he told the Queensland Sunday Mail. Marshall is actively involved in several charities, including Variety Club and the London Federation of Boys Clubs. Looking ahead to the future, Jim Marshall indicates that he intends to keep the firm growing as he moves through his eighties and nineties. As 2004 began, he was looking for ways to penetrate the African market.
Principal Competitors: Peavey Electronics Corporation; Fender Musical Instrument Corporation; Crate Amplifiers; Randall Amplifiers; Hughes & Kettner GmbH; Line 6, Inc.