'Something Bigger And Louder': The Legacy Of Jim Marshall And His Amp

Apr 5, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 9:53 am

Jim Marshall helped make rock 'n' roll loud. The British electrical engineer, musician and owner of Marshall Amplification produced one of the most iconic pieces of equipment in popular music. Marshall died today in England after battling cancer and suffering multiple strokes in recent years. He was 88.

In the 1960s, when guitar players like Pete Townsend and Jimi Hendrix sought to make a louder and more distorted noise than the jazz and country players whose place in pop culture they would soon usurp, they turned to the amplifiers bearing Marshall's name. Marshall began making the amplifiers from a small shop in West London in the early part of the decade.

Marshall amps became a key part of the rock 'n' roll sound. Hendrix grinded his guitar into one before setting it on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Lemmy Kilmister, the bassist and singer for the heavy metal band Motorhead, plays in front of a giant wall of them and name-drops the amps in the song "Dr. Rock." Pete Townsend, known for destroying his instruments, made them a trademark part of his assault.

In a 1993 interview on Fresh Air, Townsend said that he went into Marshall's shop because he was unsatisfied with the two American-made amps he had been using. " 'The trouble is that I can hear the audience,' " Townsend said he told Marshall. " 'I can hear what they're saying. I don't want to hear them, OK?' And I said, 'So I need something bigger and louder.' And his eyes lit up."

For Townsend, Marshall amplifiers were a signal of more than just volume.

"I realized at that moment that what was actually happening was that I was demanding a more powerful machine gun, and Jim Marshall was going to build it for me and then we were going to go out and blow people away all around the world. And the generation we were going to blow away was the generation immediately preceding us, the ones who had the gall to tell us that we were wimps because we had long hair, wimps because we didn't have wars to fight in, wimps because we couldn't prove ourselves in military service, because we didn't have it," Townsend said. "Everybody wanted it to be bigger, louder. I wanted it to be as big as the atomic bomb had been."

Marshall amps became known not just for their ability to blow away all other sound, but also for their visual impact. Guitarists looking for an imposing, minimalist prop were able to paint a picture of the very noise their gear created by stacking the large black boxes one on top of another. The number of Marshall amps a guitarist has behind him, and the accordant noise he can create, has become something of a shorthand for his power.

Speaking with All Things Considered, guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen offered his own tribute. "People say there are two man-made things you can see from outer space," Malmsteen said. "One is the Great Wall of China. The other is Yngwie Malmsteen's Marshall stacks."

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Finally this hour, the man known as the Father of Loud died this morning in Britain. Jim Marshall was the man behind the Marshall amp, the guitar amplifier that helped shape the sound of rock 'n' roll and channel the anger of a generation.



After World War II, Marshall learned to play drums, and he opened a music shop. Aspiring musicians of all kinds, including guitarists, began hanging out and inspired him to create the Marshall amp. They wanted it to be affordable, more accessible, more aggressive than the American-made Fender.

CORNISH: In a 1993 interview with WHYY's FRESH AIR, Marshall's regular customer Pete Townsend of The Who remembered how it all began.



SIEGEL: Legend has it that Townsend was the first to play with the prototype amp when it was being designed. Here's Nick Bowcott of Marshall Amplifiers.

NICK BOWCOTT: They all basically heard three chords and went that's it. That's the Marshall sound.

CORNISH: In 1962, they began selling the amps in Marshall's shop. And soon, they stood behind nearly every great rock guitarist you can think of, from the 1960s and '70s - Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Pete Townsend, as well as some from the next generation - Yngwie Malmsteen.


SIEGEL: Malmsteen is famous for his playing, as well as for the wall of Marshall amps he uses on stage.

YNGWIE MALMSTEEN: Here's the thing with the Marshall. I mean, it is - even - no matter what you do with it, you know, it's magical, you know? It was magical.

SIEGEL: In one of rock's iconic moments, Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire in front of Marshall stacks in the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967.


CORNISH: Hendrix picked up the flaming guitar and started to swing it. He hit a mic stand, bashed the guitar against the floor, smashing it to pieces. The only thing Hendrix appears keen not to destroy - his Marshall amp. Jim Marshall died this morning in England. He was 88 years old.



CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.