Last Thursday, the world of rock n' roll mourned the passing of one histories true musical innovators. Like Steve Jobs, he was a inventor of tools for musicians and artists alike to realise their potential and find a unique voice - these kind of creators leave a legacy as vast and inspiring as any rock star or designer.
Shortly before his death last week, Jim Marshall, creator of the famous amplifier, gave his last interview to Alfred Hickling. He talked about his debt to Hendrix and Spinal Tap - and his final invention, the one-watt amp
This article is taken from the guardian.co.uk website
At the Marshall amplifier factory in Milton Keynes, there's a small museum piled high with musty, well-used equipment. There are original models of the 100-watt amps favoured by Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. There's a white leather model made for Paul Weller with a mod target emblazoned across its front. There is a replica of Lemmy's amp, which the Motörhead bassist customised with Soviet army insignia and christened Murder One. But it is the tributes that various stars have scrawled on to their gear that are most striking. An amp belonging to Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist Zakk Wylde is inscribed: "Dad Rules." A 50-watt model donated by Jeff Beck states: "Thanks, Dad, for everything."
Last Thursday saw the passing, at the age of 88, of the man the rock guitar community simply knew as "Dad". The timing was particularly poignant, as the company was due to celebrate, in September this year, the 50th anniversary of the first amplifier Jim Marshall built - a design reckoned to be so perfect, and so loud, that it has remained fundamentally unaltered ever since.
Until recently, Jim Marshall had always been first into the office, arriving at 6.30am so that he could open the mail. "If there was ever a complaint," he would say, "I wanted to be first to know about it." But a series of strokes had weakened him and, when I visited his factory earlier this year, he was too frail to talk to in person. But, still determined to celebrate his half-century in the business, he agreed to a correspondence by email. It was to be his last interview.
Just a short step away from Marshall's office is the original prototype amp, created in 1962. It looks like a poorly welded combination of old, cobbled-together military components - and that's precisely what it is. The amplifier that shaped the sound of modern rock came about as much by accident as by design - as Marshall and his engineering colleagues Dudley Craven and Ken Bran were basically attempting to replicate an American-made Fender amplifier with what limited components they could find in postwar Britain.
"We started out in my shed," he told me, "making an amplifier from Monday to Friday that we could sell in my shop on Saturday. This gave us the money to go out the following week and get more parts. I would have been delighted if we could have built and sold just 50 amps. I didn't dream that the endeavour would last 50 years."
What is even more surprising is that the original design has barely been altered. The key to the sound of a Marshall amp is the continued use of practically obsolete electronic components known as vacuum tubes, or valves. Remember the days when you would turn on the TV and wait a couple of minutes for the set to warm up? Well, Marshall amps still do that - yet guitarists would not have it any other way. As Jeff Beck put it in an interview with Guitar Player magazine: "If you want to get a little bit rude and loud, you've got to have a Marshall. The Marshall sound is the balls. It's the big daddy - it has that growl that no other amp has."
Marshall played in swing bands, but was a drummer, and drum-teacher, rather than a guitarist. Initially, he set up a music shop in Hanwell, west London, to sell drumkits to his students. But it soon became the unofficial labour exchange for the emerging rock scene. "I was certainly the first to cater for rock'n'rollers in the London area," said Marshall. "I had so many top drummers as pupils that they started bringing their guitarists into the shop with them - chaps like Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend. Anyway, all the guitar players would say to me, 'Jim, if you sold guitars and amplifiers, we'd much prefer to buy them from you because all the music shops in the West End treat us like absolute idiots because we play rock'n'roll. Because we don't play jazz, they just don't take us seriously.' So I did - and they kept their promise!"
Although the first amplifier was a three-way collaboration between Marshall, Craven and Bran, it was Marshall alone who devised the concept of the imposing tower of speakers now recognised throughout the world as the Marshall stack. Such a wall of Marshalls became the ultimate statement of rock-star machismo: the Swedish heavy-metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen once boasted that there were two structures visible from space: "the great wall of China and my Marshall amplifiers". However, even in the mid-1970s, arguably the days of peak rock indulgence when Kiss were touring with up to 18 stacks, it was a closely guarded secret as to how many of them were actually switched on.
Marshall explained that the idea for the stack came about as a result of a volume war being raged within the Who. "Pete Townshend wanted a cabinet containing eight 12in speakers. I told him it would be impossible to lift - and I was right. So we tried cutting the cabinet in half and putting one on top of the other."
Jimi Hendrix paid the stack a back-handed compliment, claiming that it looked like "a bunch of refrigerators strung together". Marshall was initially suspicious when his former drum pupil Mitch Mitchell introduced him to the then unknown guitarist he had begun playing with. "I thought, 'Hello, here's another American who wants something for nothing.' But Jimi offered to pay for his gear if I would provide service and support for him anywhere in the world. And Jimi was, of course, brilliant for the brand - not only because of his groundbreaking playing, but also because of his tremendous showmanship. As a result, I've often referred to him as Marshall's greatest ambassador."
Yet, if Hendrix was the brand's greatest ambassador, the second greatest may have been a guitarist who didn't really exist. Even rock fans who care little about how all the sounds are produced are familiar with the scene from the spoof 1984 rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap in which guitarist Nigel Tufnel, played by Christopher Guest, shows off an amp specially modified so that the volume controls go up to 11. "That's one louder, innit?" he says.
"The 'one louder' catchphrase proved very popular," said Marshall. "Christopher Guest was just fantastic when we did the launch for the JCM900 series in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. We drove there together and, as soon as he stepped out of the limo, he instantly became Nigel Tufnel - and he didn't go out of character for a second. But then I've been very fortunate with the people who supported me over the years."
These have included Paul Kossoff of 1970s legends Free (big hit: All Right Now); Kerry King of thrash metallists Slayer; and the former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, who testifies to the special bond that developed when Marshall helped him out of a spot of bother. "He took great care of me personally, ever since we first met in the early 1990s. At that time, he did the unprecedented - he had a brand new amp designed for me when my Marshall amps were destroyed in a Guns N' Roses concert riot in St Louis in 1991. We were friends ever since."
Today, Marshall is a global brand producing up to 200 amps a day. The white handwritten logo has begun to spread to other products, though: it's now possible to buy Marshall headphones, Marshall DAB radios, even a Marshall fridge. But having spent 50 years serving the often contrary needs of guitarists, Marshall's last act as an amp manufacturer was to create a range of amplifiers that are - whisper it - not very loud at all.
The centrepiece of Marshall's 50th-anniversary range is a series of mini amps that replicate five of its most famous models - one from each decade - and are rated at only a single watt each. That's good news for the neighbours of budding rock guitarists, but it's also a reflection of the fact that musicians are now asking for amps that still have the classic Marshall sound (raw and distorted, yet warm and rich) but come without the eardrum-piercing oomph, since modern systems mean you no longer need a stack of amps to blow the back row away. A lion's roar at pussycat levels, if you like. But does this mean the days of the mighty Marshall stack are numbered?
"The little amps are only a part of our anniversary celebration," said Marshall. "The reason we decided to do them is simple: it's what a lot of guitarists want today. Every amp I made came from me chatting to guitarists and trying to produce the sound they heard in their heads. There will be some bigger amps too, though. After all, I have been nicknamed The Father of Loud!"
As I passed his empty office on my way out of the factory, I remembered my first Marshall amp. Shortly after I bought it, I received a personalised letter, signed Jim Marshall, thanking me for my purchase and welcoming me to the Marshall family. I don't have the amp any more. But I'll always keep the letter.