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This article was originally published in issue #3
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The JCM 800 is a classic amp in the history of Marshall, and has been the basis for many of the brand's leading signature models for guitarists including Zakk Wylde, Slash and Kerry King. It has also been used by countless guitar super stars and has helped to carve many of the classic tracks and solos in Rock history. I myself used a JCM 800 50 watt combo back in the 80's, and as a young teen. Of course, I didn't understand what the amp would become and I sold it - the things we do!
Although Zakk Wylde has a signature version of the head, including custom Bulls Eye graphics, we've chosen to take a look at the standard model, which is what you will find in the stores and may be more suited to the everyday needs of most guitarists, as well as being visually a little less stylised. Zakk also favours his signature EV speakers, whereas the cab we used in our video demo was loaded with stock Marshall Celestion speakers.
This is a classic British 100 watt amp using the time-honured complement of four EL34 power amp valves/tubes, and 3 ECC83s in the preamp. The construction and quality of the amp is fabulous, as you would expect; the rugged black vinyl covering and corner caps will keep this amp protected in and out of gigs and rehearsals. And of course, the classic styling is iconic: the gold front panel with the white Marshall logo. The control panel is very straightforward, including three band EQ, plus a presence control. The amp is a single channel design, so it's a real 'players' amp, which I love, making you really have to work the controls on the guitar. The JCM has a master volume and a preamp volume, which means the harder you drive it, the more the amp will crunch. There are two inputs on the front, Hi and Low sensitivity. The amp also has a series effects loop situated on the back and, because it's a single channel head, no footswitch is required.
For our video demo, I used the Zakk Wylde Les Paul we were loaned by Gibson for this issue, plus a Zakk Wyle signature MXR overdrive pedal. Using the two, you can really hear why Zakk chooses this combination. The amp itself when pushed goes from bright glassy cleans to a vintage style crunch, which is surprisingly clean when you look at the players that use it. One thing that I would have loved Marshall to have done with this head would have been to have voiced the EQ slightly differently to the originals. These amps were always a little bit bright, which is why so many top players from the '80s loved them as a basis, but would have them modified. I guess Marshall are sticking to the original spec, but I did find myself rolling-off quite a bit of top end.
As I mentioned before, this type of amp really makes you work the guitar. I set the gain pretty high and then backed of the volume on the guitar to get bright, clean tones. Go the neck pickup and you get buttery warm, vintage sounds, that make you want to play Hendrix licks all day long! Like the amp, and although I'm not reviewing the MXR Wylde overdrive here, Zakk's signature pedal pedal is also surprisingly clean, and not a gain saturated mess of a pedal. Add that pedal to the crunchy amp, set everything pretty much half way on the pedal, and the Marshall starts to sing beautifully, with plenty of gain, but also lots of definition when picking. Dig in with some palm muting for thick rock/metal power chord chunk! This combination of gear helped me pop out some real squealing Zakk-esque tones, yet switch to the Gibson's neck pickup and just listen to those warm sustaining Gary Moore like sounds - beautiful stuff!
To round things up, this amp is a classic and I wouldn't hesitate to add it to my wish list. Is it very versatile? Some may argue that's there are amps that have many more features, but to my mind this is really all you need. I personally don't want an amp that comes with a pilot's handbook and that you need a degree to get a sound out of. This amp does everything that you would expect it to do, plus it makes you work your guitar, and unlock tones that you hear the pros get. Add an overdrive in the front, and delay in the FX loop, and there you have it: the tone that so many top players have used to record and perform on their classic tracks. Don't mess about, this is serious pro gear - but watch that treble control!