Jim Marshall, maker of rock-and-roll guitar amplifiers, dies at 88


Jim Marshall, builder of amplifiers, poses with one of his products in 2002. Marshall, who pioneered guitar amplifiers used by some of the greatest names in rock earning him the nickname “Lord of Loud,” died April 5 at 88. (RALPH ORLOWSKI/REUTERS)

Jim Marshall, a British music store owner who influenced the raucous sound and chest-thumping volume of rock-and-roll with his Marshall amplifiers, the stage hardware of choice for guitarists Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Slash, died April 5 at a hospice in London. He was 88.

The death, of undisclosed causes, was announced on the Marshall amplifiers Web site.

To the parents of teenage wannabe bedroom rockers, Mr. Marshall’s amps were not welcome household company. But to those young players, Mr. Marshall was the Lord of Loud, the man who gave rock its gritty, beautifully distorted, cacophonous sound.

The big, black boxes resembled refrigerators, and when arranged in formation, they emitted a wall of sound.

Many of the most popular guitarists in history used Marshall amps, including Pete Townshend of The Who, Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Slash of Guns N’ Roses and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana.

Marshall amps became such staples of the rock world that they became fodder for comedians, memorably in Rob Reiner’s 1984 satirical documentary “This is Spinal Tap.” In one scene, the fictional band’s clueless lead guitarist, Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest), explains that he uses special Marshall amps that “go to 11” as opposed to ordinary amps that only have a top volume setting of 10.

“Does that mean it’s louder?” asks the fake documentary director Marty DiBergi (played by Reiner).

“Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it?” Tufnel replies.

(In 1990, Mr. Marshall produced an amp he called JCM900 and, in homage to “This is Spinal Tap,” the volume settings went to 20. Guest reprised his role as Tufnel in advertisements for the new equipment.)

Among nonfictional guitarists, Marshall amps became popular for emitting “the most outrageously overdriven rock sounds people had ever heard,” Chris Vinnicombe, guitar editor of the Web site MusicRadar, said in an interview. “There’s a sort of aggression to the sound, a definite kind of bite to the upper-mid range that cuts through everything with an attitude that’s distinctively Marshall.”

Before he made amplifiers, Mr. Marshall was a shoe salesman, a scrap-metal yard worker, a baker in a biscuit factory and a boiler for a fruit-jam maker. He also briefly was a meat slicer for a canned-food manufacturer, until he chopped off part of a thumb.

That he even got into the music business was largely due to a debilitating illness that kept him out of school for most of his childhood.

James Charles Marshall was born July 29, 1923, in London. His father managed a fish-and-chips shop.

As a boy, Mr. Marshall contracted a form of tuberculosis that affected his bones. For treatment, he was kept in plaster casts from his ankles to his armpits until he was a teenager. To work up his leg strength, Mr. Marshall took up tap dancing.

In between jobs working at aircraft manufacturers during World War II, Mr. Marshall danced for a band. When the group’s drummer was called to the war, Mr. Marshall took over.

He became such a proficient drummer that he started a drum school, teaching youngsters such as Mitch Mitchell, who later played for Hendrix, and Micky Waller, who later played for Little Richard.

By 1960, Mr. Marshall opened a music store and sold drum kits, guitars and amplifiers. Soon, he began tinkering in the back of his shop, and with the help of engineers Dudley Craven and Ken Bran, he made his own amplifiers for bassists who had complained that guitarists were drowning them out.

His handiwork quickly caught the attention of The Who’s Townshend, whose father, a clarinetist, Mr. Marshall had jammed with years earlier.

Marshall amps were born after Townshend asked Mr. Marshall to produce an amplifier that would be louder and “dirtier” than the American-made Fender units.

The project ultimately resulted with the Marshall stack, two speaker cabinets stacked on top of one another and, above them, an amplifier “head” to control the sound. (Townshend became known for finishing his performances by swinging his guitar like a battle-ax into his Marshall amps. It was Mr. Marshall, himself, who repaired the amps’ torn fabric covering.)

The brand’s popularity took off during the mid-1960s when Clapton used them playing with the band John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and then with power trio Cream. Hendrix, whom Mr. Marshall called his brand’s “greatest ambassador,” played them at the 1969 Woodstock concert.

Marshall amps remain fixtures at concerts and are used by bands such as Sleigh Bells and the electronic dance duo Justice.

A complete list of Mr. Marshall’s survivors could not be determined.

The success of Mr. Marshall’s amps was sealed in the late 1960s when a young American guitarist was photographed kneeling in front of his flaming guitar. Behind him were Marshall amps.

In an odd twist, the image represented the work of three men named James Marshall. The guitarist was James Marshall Hendrix. The photographer was James Joseph Marshall. The amps were by James Charles Marshall.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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