The Real Story Behind the Black Marshall Stack

March 1, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More

Pete vs. John, Hecklers, Feedback

Here's an early shot with early Marshalls.

Here's an early shot with early Marshalls.

You probably know that Pete Townshend had an important role in Marshall Amplification becoming what it is today. You probably have heard that Pete is responsible for the Marshall stack.

That’s all true, but you may not know the details (I didn’t). So here goes.

In a Premier Guitar-filmed video tour of the Marshall factory (below), Paul Marshall (son of founder Jim), had this to say about the history of the 100-watt stack:

“The company’s history goes back to 1962, when Mr. Marshall, my father, had a music shop in London. He used to play [in bands] with Pete Townshend’s father, so Pete Townshend used to go into the shop to have his guitars repaired…and buy his own musical instruments from there.

“When he was in there, he obviously asked about the amplifiers. He wasn’t happy with the amplifier he was using, and so Mr. Marshall built an amplifier for Pete Townshend with [engineers Ken Bran and Dudley Craven] at the back of the shop.”

Actually, Marshall built Pete several prototypes and still has the one Pete okayed. Starting from about 20:11 in the video: “Right here we’ve got what is referred to as the ‘number-one’ amp. Back in 1962, Pete Townshend plugged into that amplifier – that was the prototype – and said, ‘Yep, that’s the sound we want.’ So the first amplifiers were built to that specification….”

In the August 1996 issue of Guitar magazine, Pete said he told Jim Marshall, “‘I want to be louder, but I want my sound,’ which was at that time a Fender Pro amp, with I believe a 15-inch speaker, and a tweed Fender Bassman [combo], which was another 15-inch speaker cabinet. The two were linked together with a split cable. I said I wanted that sound, exactly that sound, but just a bit louder, a bit bigger. [Marshall] managed to achieve that.

“And then I went back and said, ‘No, I want it even louder, even bigger. What’s happening is very, very interesting.’ There were harmonics happening that were very interesting. And I got very angry, very frustrated — I kept pushing them. I said, ‘You’d better f***ing do this, there’s something happening here which is really interesting.’

“The guitar kind of starts to sound like a symphony orchestra. You get up to a certain pitch, and something happens between the pickup and the amp. I knew that in distortion there was music of a much higher harmonic order than anything that I could play, so I started that whole trip off.”

Why So Loud, Pete?

Two answers. The first, five words: John Entwhistle and Keith Moon.

In the October 1994 Guitar World, John Entwistle was asked whether he was the first one to introduce the Marshall 4×12 to The Who, and he said: “Yeah, but I didn’t buy the very first one. It was a guy in a band called the Flintstones who got that. I bought the second one…and the fourth and the seventh and the eighth. Pete bought the ones in between. It was great. I’d buy one, he’d buy one, I’d buy one, then he’d buy another. And I went, “Is it loud enough? F**k, I’ll buy two more.” And I started using the two-amp system — bi-amping.”

Here’s the second answer. In the August 1994 issue of Guitarist magazine, Pete said: “Before John, Keith and I got into personal volume competitions, one of the first reasons I went to Jim Marshall to say ‘build me a big Marshall amp’ was because I wanted to shut the f***ing audience up. I was sick of standing playing in the Oldfield Hotel only to get Reggie Kray-types in suits coming up during numbers to say…’It’s my girlfriend’s birthday, play the Tennessee Waltz.’

“So we’d be…looking at one another thinking, F*** this…. We had to do something. Johnny McLaughlin [yes, him] had sold me my first Fender amp – a Pro – when he worked at Selmers, and it was a really great buy. I eventually took the Fender Pro and a Bassman head to Jim Marshall and said, ‘I want this sound but I want it 10 times louder.’ When he asked why, I said, ‘Because I don’t want to hear any heckling, I don’t want to hear any requests. All we want to hear when we’re in a hall is The Who — that’s all.’

Jim Marshall was amazingly inspired…. He built a big, powerful amp, but I kept going back and saying, ‘Bigger, bigger,’ and Jim would turn to his backroom bloke and say, ‘Bigger, Pete wants it bigger,’ and so the amps would come back with yet another couple of big valves in the back.”

The Stack

Here’s how Marshall remembers the development of the stack – which is different than how Pete and John remember it.

Paul Marshall, starting at about 8:20 in the video: “In those early days, bands were playing larger and larger venues, and you didn’t have the PA systems that you now have so they had to create their own sound and send that sound across the vast audiences. So they wanted bigger amplifiers, larger speaker cabinets and many more of them.

“So in 1965 we built the 100-watt amplifier with initially an 8×12 [cab], which Pete Townshend thought would be a good idea but his roadies obviously didn’t like carting that around and soon complained. So he brought it back, and that is when the first stack was born. Mr. Marshall cut that in half [into] two cabinets and fixed them together. hence the 100-watt stack was born….”

Pete, from an October 1989 Guitar Player magazine interview: “John was the first person to use a Marshall stack on its side [in 1964]. He used two 4×12 cabinets, and I bought a single 4×12 and used it on a waist-high stand so my Rickenbacker would feed back. Then it seemed a logical extension to stand a top 4×12 on another 4×12 that was actually a dummy, and then eventually to do what John was doing and have two amplifiers.” [John agrees with this version.]

Why the Black Stack?

It was just John’s preference – from a November 1975 Guitar Player interview:

“When we first started calling ourselves The Who I used a Marshall 50-watt amp with a 4-12 cabinet. I had the first 4-12 cabinet that Marshall made. We more or less forced them to make 100-watt amps by changing to Vox, who already had one out. Marshall decided that if they were going to keep us, they’d have to make a 100-watt amp.

“They used to make their amps with speaker material [? not sure what he means] on the front, and they looked completely different. I said, ‘I don’t like that – I want it all black,’ so they changed them.”

And there you go.


> Pete, from the October 1989 Guitar Player interview: “I never, ever used a stack with one amplifier until I got into Hiwatts, and I didn’t use Marshalls very long. In fact, I never used Marshall in the beginning at all. I used to use Fenders. I had a Fender Pro and a Fender Vibrasonic and a Fender Bassman top, and I used to drive Marshall 4x12s with those amplifiers. I thought Marshalls were awful, and I’m afraid I still do [!!], although that’s just a personal opinion. I don’t mean it’s bad stuff: I just mean I didn’t like the sound. And when I heard Hiwatt I was over the moon because they sounded to me much more like a really good, top-line mid-’60s Fender amp. I still think it’s hard to beat Fender amps – they’re astonishing.” [I guess that’s why Pete is all Fender these days.]

> Jim Marshall (from “The Father of Loud” book) on Pete’s switch to Hiwatts: “It was unfortunate, but simply a misunderstanding. The group used to come in my shop, and at one time we were waiting for a check. The check was put in, but my son sent them another bill, thinking they still had a balance due. Pete said they had paid, but Terry swore, ‘No, you haven’t paid, you haven’t paid.’ So Pete was upset and went to Hiwatt. And Hiwatt was one of the first copies of us! It was a complete misunderstanding.”

> Jim Marshall from the same book: “We made a prototype first then we made three heads just for [Pete]. We were so proud of them when they were finished. They were sitting on a bench in the workshop with us thinking they looked wonderful, and then Pete’s roadie came along and just threw them into the bloody truck! I remember thinking, Oh my God! I can’t believe he just did that.”

> The first Marshall stacks had four KT66 power tubes, not the EL34s Marshalls are known for. Hendrix also used KT66-powered Marshalls, as have the Young brothers (Malcolm and Angus).

> Some of these quotes came from this AWESOME site on The Who gear:

Category: Hiwatt, Marshall, Pete Townshend

Comments (1)

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  1. WoodyTone says:

    A reader emailed:

    “They used to make their amps with speaker material [? not sure what he means] on the front.”

    I’m guessing he means the JTM Offset? Had a material on the front much like speaker cloth at the time:

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