Jim Marshall: The Legend Who Shaped Heavy Music
Band Photo: Metallica (?)
When light hits the stage even before the band does, theres only one thing that signifies you are about to have your face ripped off by a literal wall of sound. You see it in almost every huge rock and metal arena show. Its a vision pursued by any musician who dreams of playing live, and playing loud. As a kid I gazed at the stage in wonder, mesmerized at these giant black boxes stacked on top of one another. As soon as the band started playing, you could swear everything you heard was coming from these giant stacks of sound. They stood out almost as a member of the band themselves. All thats is left after the show ends, is a snapshot taken by your memory. The image of the band on stage, and the image of a giant stack of amplifiers with one name draped across the front, Marshall.
Jim Marshall is the man behind the above mentioned wall of sound we are all so familiar with. He started his company in 1962 after a request from The Who guitarist Pete Townshend, who wanted a “bigger, louder” amplifier. Soon after, artists like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Hendrix would proudly showcase their love for Marshall amps all over the stage by stacking them up on one another. This continued to evolve into the 80s, and became a staple for heavy metal bands across the globe.
Everyone from Metallica to Slayer was seen on stage with a giant wall of Marshall amps behind them. Heavy music was becoming louder and more distorted. All thanks to the pioneer Jim Marshall, who solidified his own sound as a sonic template for all heavy bands to craft their music with.
In the 1980s, Jim used his initials “JCM” coupled with the plate number “800” from his car, to name one of heavy musics most distinguishable amplifiers, the JCM800. It was a valve driven amplifier with more gain stages than any other amp on the market. A decade later in the 90s, he updated the product line with the JCM900. The 900 was revered by many heavy players for having more gain/distortion than the 800. These two amps alone would shape the sound we have all grown to love as metal heads.
From my own personal experience as a guitar player, something inside you changes when you hear a Marshall for the first time. When I started playing, I used a cheap tiny amp that was no louder than the television. It wasn’t until I started High School in 1995, when I ventured into a fellow band mates basement, and laid eyes upon what would soon become the only amp Id ever use, the Marshall JCM900 Half Stack. It was gigantic in comparison to my cheap little low watt amp. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and soon after, my ears. I will never forget the chest shattering feeling I got when I first plugged in and played it. The room shook, and my eyes vibrated from the sheer power and guttural attack on my senses in which this amp projected. From there on out, I stuck with Marshall, and never looked back.
With the recent passing of the legend himself, Jim Marshall, we move forward into somewhat unknown territory. The rise of digitally modeled guitar amps looms over the beloved valve amplifier like a shadow of uncomfortable progression. Its inevitable that digital amplifiers will become more widely used as the future approaches, but they will never replace the original. After all, digital amps are only trying their hardest to emulate a real amplifier. A science that may come close, but never perfectly duplicated. Players will always reach for a real amp they can plug in to.
Jim Marshall didn’t leave his legacy behind when he passed, he laid it out ahead of us, continuing to shape the sonic landscape of music for years and years to come. Sadly, he is gone, but the sound he created will live on forever.
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