Jim Marshall's Biography

Demeaning jokes that make drummers out to be drooling dolts are ten-a-penny, especially in guitar playing circles. This said, there's one guy that no self respecting six stringer would dare poke fun at. Why? Because without this drummer, rock as we know it, might not exist.

Jim Marshall. The Father of Loud

The Jim Marshall story is a fascinating, true life, rags to riches tale. Born in London, England, on July 29th, 1923, his childhood was anything but easy. “I never really got an education because I was in hospital all the time with tubercular bones,” Jim revealed. As a result of this unfortunate affliction, he spent most of his school years quite literally cocooned in a plaster cast. Thankfully, by his early teens he had outgrown this horrible disease and was able to start living a normal, plaster cast free life.

Without the benefit of a formal education, Jim began working at age 13. He also learned to tap dance and before long, music had become the focus of his life. “A band leader heard me sing and asked me to try out,” Jim recalled. He passed his audition with flying colours and by 14, he was performing six nights a week as the lead vocalist for a 16-piece big band. Jim became increasingly enamoured with the drums and would get on the band’s drummer’s kit whenever the chance arose.

In 1942 the band’s drummer was enlisted and Jim offered to step in. His natural talents behind the kit were quickly obvious and before long he was a much in demand performer & teacher. In fact, Jim’s weekly roster of 65 pupils included several who went on to find fame and fortune, including Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix) and Micky Waller (Little Richard, The Jeff Beck Group).

In 1960 Jim opened a drum shop which soon became a popular haunt for the up and coming rock bands of the time. “All the drummers used to bring their groups in with them, which is how I got to meet guitarists like Pete (Townsend) and Ritchie (Blackmore).”Jim recollected. “They kept pestering me to stock guitars and amps so I decided to give it a go.” He quickly became aware of the fact his guitar playing customers were all searching for a sound they just couldn’t get from the amps available at the time. “Listening to what they were saying gave me a very good idea of what they wanted,” the savvy shop owner stated. “So, I decided to put together a small team to build a valve amplifier with the specific sound the lads were after.”

To be exact, Jim’s “small team” comprised of Ken Bran, the shop’s repair man, and a young “electronics whizz-kid”, Dudley Craven, who Jim recruited from EMI at Ken’s suggestion. After five 'close but no cigar' attempts, the first Marshall head was built in September 1962. “As soon as I heard it, I said: ‘that’s it, that’s the Marshall sound.'” Jim confirmed. So, prototype six became the first Marshall and it was placed in the shop window in September 1962. It was named the JTM45 - JTM being an acronym for Jim & Terry Marshall, Terry being Jim’s son. This game changing, all-valve head produced 30 Watts of clean power (i.e. before clipping/distorting) but was capable of kicking out a good 45 Watts or more when cranked to the max – hence the '45' in its name. The JTM45 was an instant hit due to its aggressive but musical tone, in fact twenty three orders were taken on the very first day it was put out.

Hail Me a Cab: The Birth of the 4x12"

“We tried out 2x12" cabinets with the prototype but they just didn’t give us the sound or projection we were really looking for,” Jim said. “Plus we were blowing up speakers (the speakers being used were rated at 15 Watts and were the only ones available at the time) left and right because they just weren’t capable of handling the amp’s output when it was turned all the way up. So I asked myself, ‘What can I do?’ Then it came to me. ‘Hold on for a second,’ I thought. Four 12" speakers would probably do it. They’d be able to handle the power of the amp and could well give me the sound and projection I was after.” 

“I made the first 4x12" cabinet in my garage workshop,” Jim continued. “There was nothing particularly brilliant about its design. I merely made it as small as I possibly could because of the transport the groups had in those days. That’s why it’s so compact.” And so the world’s first 4x12" cabinet was born, but Jim wasn’t done designing yet.

Putting a Slant on Things

“The first 4x12" cabinet I built was straight fronted and when I put the JTM45 head on top of it I thought, ‘That looks terrible!' It just looks like a small box sitting on top of a bigger one, which is essentially all it was. Because of this I came up with the idea of putting an angle on the top half of the cabinet’s front. I did this so the top of the 4x12" matched the dimensions of the head a little better and the two looked like they were made to go together. I wanted the package to look more designed. I wanted it to look neater and it did. We were really proud when we were finished.”

In addition to looking neater, as it turns out the angle Jim added to his 4x12” cabinet also had a sonic benefit. Due to the angle that Jim found so visually pleasing, the top half of the cabinet’s baffle (the piece of wood that the speakers are mounted on) had to be angled too. As a result, the top two speakers were now pointing slightly upwards as opposed to being horizontal. “The design was purely cosmetic,” Jim grinned “I didn’t even consider what the angle did to the sound at the time.” In fact, Jim is not ashamed to admit that the only reason he realised what was going on sonically was when an artist put him on the spot.

“One of the big groups back then was Brian Poole and the Tremoloes and as they were using Marshalls they got me to go out on one or two gigs with them,” Jim recounted. “At the first sound check, Ricky, the lead guitarist, asked me, 'What’s the idea of the angle on top of the cabinet front, Jim?' I didn’t want to tell him that it was just there because I liked the way it looked so I said, ‘Well Ricky, a straight fronted cabinet just blows the sound straight into the front of the crowd, you see. But, thanks to the angle on top you can hear it at the back of the audience as well because the top two speakers are angled slightly upwards.’ And blow me down if I wasn’t telling the truth! I went to the back of the hall when the band was playing and sure enough, even though the place was packed with people, you could hear Ricky’s guitar as clear as a bell – the angle was working! I just shook my head and thought, ‘What a fool I am!’ It’s actually a pretty clever design in terms of what it does to the sound and I never even realised it!”

The Only Rock Icon Who Hasn’t Changed a Bit: The Marshall Stack!

In 1965, another important Marshall milestone was reached. “Pete Townshend asked if I could build him a 100 Watt head and an 8x12" cabinet,” Jim stated. “I agreed but warned him that his roadies wouldn’t like handling such a big cabinet and suggested stacking an angled 4x12" on top of a straight one instead. Pete was having none of it though, so we built him what he wanted and off he went.” Jim’s prediction proved correct and Townshend returned to have the 8x12" cab cut in half. The result of this logical solution was the creation of what is now one of the rock world’s most instantly recognisable icons, the 100 Watt Marshall stack!

Still Listening

From that point on, as the saying goes, the rest is history. Marshall quickly became the world’s pre-eminent rock amplifier maker. A status the company still proudly holds today, winning countless honours along the way, including the Queen’s Award for Export in 1984 and 1992. How does Jim ensure that his latest products remain every bit as cutting edge as they were when they first appeared some 50 years ago? “By listening to guitarists and finding out what they really want,” was his instant reply. “In my opinion, the most important thing in what we do is the person who’s actually going to play through the amp once we’ve made it. If you don’t bother to listen to the end user, you’ll miss the mark on certain things because no one knows everything. Because of this we’re still listening very carefully to what you want from an amp and will continue to do our utmost to not only satisfy but exceed your expectations.”

Throughout his career, Jim has devoted countless hours and millions of pounds to charities, especially those dedicated to helping disabled and underprivileged children. “It all goes back to spending so much of my young life in that wretched plaster cast,” he explained. “I decided at the age of 14 that if I ever became rich enough, I would look after young people who need help and encouragement. I’ve done well from nothing so I’m just putting something back in.” Not surprisingly, Jim was made an honorary Doctor of Music in 2002 and awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2004.

Sadly, on the morning of Thursday, April 5th, after a full and rewarding life, Jim passed away peacefully with his family at his side. He was 88. Accolades on his achievements have literally poured from not only Marshall loving artists and fans but his peers and competitors. While the global Marshall Amplification family mourns Jim’s passing and will miss him tremendously, we all feel richer for having known him and are happy in the knowledge that he is now in a much better place which has just got a whole lot louder. Yes sir, Heaven now goes to 11!

Rest in peace & thank you Jim. Your memory; the music and joy your amps have brought to countless millions for the past five decades; and that world famous, omnipresent script logo that proudly bears your name will always live on.