Know Your Marshalls
Learn the Differences Between Marshall Amps.
If there’s something about the look, feel and sound of a Marshall amplifier that’s not synonymous with rock and roll, no one’s yet been able to find it. From its humble origins in a tiny London drum shop to its ubiquity today as the most recognizable and time-honored face of heavy rock, the Marshall brand is built on over 50 years of use by the players who’ve defined a genre: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, Angus Young, Slash, Tom Morello, and countless others.
The four Softube-developed Marshall amp plug-ins available exclusively for UAD hardware and UA interfaces form much of the basis for the Marshall legacy. Each of these amps remain highly coveted and costly — with the Marshall plug-ins delivering dead-on results — and they each exhibit a different flavor of classic “Marshall Tone.”
Here, we decipher what makes each of these four iconic tone machines tick, and delve into the different components that contribute to each amp’s distinct, signature voice.
The Early ’60s. Marshall Bluesbreaker 1962
Introduced in 1964, the Model 1962 combo was forever immortalized on the strength of one album — John Mayall’s Blues Breakers Featuring Eric Clapton. The alarming aggressiveness and snarling sustain Clapton conjured from his Les Paul Standard/Marshall setup was startling, and became ground zero for god-like rock guitar tone.
Essentially an early JTM 45 head — created by Ken Bran and Dudley Craven — with an added tremolo circuit, the “Bluesbreaker” as it became known, sports all of the Marshall calling cards; singing sustain, punchy and present lower mids, and biting, yet smooth treble roll off.
But the Bluesbreaker is a different beast than more modern Marshall designs. For starters, its open-backed cabinet yields a less directional sound without the low-end knock of iconic 4x12 setups, and the dual KT66 power tubes yield a slightly more bell-like top end, and a clearer, less rabid midrange bark as later EL34-equipped Marshalls. The low-wattage Celestion alnico speakers also add their own compression and breakup characteristics, especially when the amp is cranked.
Also noteworthy is the Bluesbreaker’s GZ34 tube rectifier, rather than the solid-state rectifier found on Marshalls from 1966 on. This gives the Bluesbreaker its organic, smooth output-stage compression, and lovely “bloom” on sustained notes.
The Bluesbreaker features two channels: Normal (for a darker tone) and High Treble (for a much brighter sound), with a total of four inputs. By jumping the the inputs with a patch cable, you’re able mix the darker and brighter channels together for all kinds of tonal variations. Ultimately, the Bluesbreaker thrives in any situation a rounder, more burnished brand of low-to-medium gain Marshall fury is required.
Listen to the Marshall Bluesbreaker 1962 for UAD-2 and UA interfaces and hear for yourself the range of sultry, rich tube tones.
The Late ’60s. Marshall 1959 Super Lead Plexi
Jimi Hendrix in full flow on Band of Gypsys? Plexi. Angus Young on Back in Black? Plexi. Cream-era Clapton? Plexi. Eddie Van Halen on VH’s classic first five albums? Plexi.
The petulant upper-mid roar and weighty lower-mids of the Marshall Super Lead through a Marshall 4x12 cabinet is a foundational timbre for rock rhythm guitar, as fail-safe and full of dynamics in the studio as it is on a stage.
Don’t be fooled by the model number “1959,” which does not refer to the year of manufacture. Instead, the 100-watt Marshall JMP Super Lead head was released in 1965, originally inspired by a request for a 100-watt head from The Who’s Pete Townshend.
With four EL34 power tubes, a solid-state rectifier section, and a 4x12 cabinet — or two — typically loaded with 25-watt Celestion G12H ceramic speakers, the Plexi is much more aggressive sounding than previous Marshalls. The move to EL34s added volume, punch, and by this time, the input tube featured a .68uf cathode bypass cap, enhancing the midrange drive that is synonymous with “Marshall Tone.”
What’s more, by the ’70s the Super Lead Plexi’s large filter cap arrays were used to give the solid-state rectified amps a stiff, solid low end, and the gut-punching cha-chunk we have all grown to love.
And while the EQ complement of presence, bass, mids, and treble controls allow for subtle tone shaping, the key to dialing in the Super Lead Plexi is by jumping the input channels and blending Volume 1’s bright sound with Volume 2’s bass-heavy, darker tone.
With all of the attention paid to its majestic roar, it’s easy to forget that the Plexi has rich, harmonically bountiful clean tones at the ready, if you back off your guitar’s volume control and lighten up your playing dynamics — as pretty much any live Hendrix recording illustrates.
With the Marshall 1959 Super Lead Plexi for UAD-2 and UA interfaces, you get all the and hear for yourself the range of sultry, rich tube tones.
The Mid ’70s. Marshall JMP 2203
Organic enough for vintage rock and blues, and molten enough for metal, the JMP 2203 is the clear bridge from the classic rock amps of the late-’60s and early-’70s to the school of heavy-metal-approved amplifiers that would proliferate in the quest for more gain.
At its heart, and in terms of its aesthetics and power, the JMP 2203 — which eventually became the JCM 800 — is very much in the same spirit as a 100 watt Marshall Plexi with four EL34s in its power section. But there are very distinct differences with the JMP 2203.
First, instead of two channels and four inputs, there is only one channel with two non-blendable High and Low “Sensitivity” inputs. The Low input provides fat, lower gain sounds, bypassing one gain stage in the preamp, and a popular choice as a “pedal platform” for Marshall enthusiasts. Conversely, the High Sensitivity input will make humbuckers roar with tons of raunchy gain.
But the biggest difference is the JMP 2203’s master volume and “Pre-Amp” volume controls. By adding this cascaded gain stage in the preamp, and not relying solely on the power tubes for grinding tones, Marshall introduced thick saturation that was somewhat controllable thanks to the amp’s master volume.
Pairing the 2203 with a Marshall 1960B 4x12 cab loaded with Celestion G12T-75 speakers only enhanced the amp’s cantankerous nature, accentuating the punch, as well as snarling treble and midrange.
A favorite of Randy Rhoads and Zakk Wylde, as well as a diverse range of players from Jeff Beck and Andy Summers, to Tom Morello and the Pixies’ Joey Santiago, the JMP 2203 does not immediately give away its secrets. Even with its fairly modest controls, dialing in just the right amount of preamp gain for a particular part takes a good set of ears and a bit of restraint — it’s all too easy to go overboard.
You may also notice big differences in how much gain you’ll need with, say, a Gibson Les Paul as opposed to a Strat or a Tele or even a P-90 equipped guitar. Regardless, the Marshall JMP 2203 feels vibrant and explosive at almost any setting.
Hear for yourself how the Marshall JMP 2203 plug-in emulates all of the bold punch and dense crunch of this legendary tone monster.
The Late ’80s. Marshall Silver Jubilee 2555
Released in 1987, the Marshall Silver Jubilee celebrated 25 years of Marshall amp-building prowess (and 50 years of Jim Marshall’s life in the music business) taking the basic EL34-based architecture of their popular 2203 and 2204 models, and adding some new features.
Including proper lead and rhythm channel-switching via a footswitch, an input gain control, and a “Rhythm Clip” pull-knob to engage a wonder of molten diode clipping-assisted distortion with robust lower mids and searing treble.
Perhaps its most notable departure from traditional Marshall design, however, is its Pentode/Triode half-power mode, lowering power output from 100 to 50 watts. When in half-power mode, power tube compression and grit and less clean headroom are the order of the day.
A distinctly modern sounding amp, with more gain on tap than the 2203 amps, and a bit more bass response, the SIlver Jubilee is especially lethal when paired with its matching 2551AV 4x12 cabinet. Loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s — the first Marshall cab that used these popular speakers.
With a famously responsive and dynamic EQ section, the Silver Jubilee can tackle classic bluesy Marshall tones, dark ultra-mid-scooped rhythm chunks, or searing high-octane modern metal lead tones, which is perhaps why it quickly became the live amp of choice for Slash of Guns N’ Roses. Over the years, other Jubilee users of note include John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alex Lifeson of Rush, Steve Morse, and Joe Bonamassa.
Check out the the Marshall Silver Jubilee 2555 plug-in and how it expertly emulates he original amp’s unique preamp section, powerful EQ stack, and Triode/Pentode power tube operation.
— James Rotondi
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