The History and Features of the Marshall JCM800

When it comes to amplification, fewer names can command the respect, authority and history as the Marshall brand of amplifiers. These amps pretty much defined that overdriven sound that made ‘60s what it is and kept that tradition going by becoming the absolute go-to amplifier for most genres of hard rock. To name the artists associated with Marshall Amplifiers would look like a variable who’s who of rock music. Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Angus Young, Dave Mustain… and it goes on and on and on. But what made those old Marshall amps so great? Was it their emphasis on high gain performance or their approach in making amplifiers as powerful and loud as possible? Maybe that signature sound? All that and more.  The tone of the Marshall brand is so prized, several musicians forgo the use of effects altogether – such as Angus Young and Lars Frederiksen – in order to keep that sound as true as possible. Today, we will be looking at the popular Marshall JCM800 2203 amplifier head, a popular choice for many of today’s guitarists. If the price tag is any indication, this amp head was specifically built for professionals looking for a classic time-tested design, or at least those with some serious cash to burn on a bit of nostalgia! But when you actually take a look at this bad boy, you know where at that money went. Once you start messing around with the JCM800 2203, you will have no doubt why Marshall decided to re-release this legendary amp with as little change from the original as possible. So, if you want to take a closer look at a great piece of reissued rock history, read on and check out what the Marshall JCM800 2203 Vintage Series amplifier is all about.


The History of the JCM800 Line of Marshall Amplifiers

In case you’re unfamiliar with the long line of products Marshall has released over the years, the JCM 800 line of amps was first released way back in 1981 at the end of Marshall’s 15-year distribution contract with Rose-Morris.  Because Rose-Morris added a 55% surcharge on the sticker price of exported products, Marshall’s ability to sell comparatively priced amplifiers outside of Britain was severely limited as the prince range for a Marshall here in the States was pretty much outrageous. Soon after the contract expired, Marshall released the JCM800 line of amp heads and cabinets which quickly became staples in the burgeoning metal scene of the early eighties due to their unique high gain sound and much better price tag.  The JCM800 originally came in two flavors – the 100 watt 2203 and the 50 watt 2204 – along with matching cabinets or as part of a combo. The acronym JCM came from Jim Marshall’s initials while the 800 numbering was simply randomly added from the license plate of his car. Before the JCM800 came around, Marshall’s previous money-maker was its ‘Master Volume’ line of amplifiers which got its name from being the first set of amps with a master volume knob. This added feature of a volume knob allowed for distortion at much lower output levels and was the basis of what became the JCM800. In fact, the first releases of JCM800 amplifiers were actually ‘Master Volume’ models that were simply repackaged in new boxes with new panels, along with a few extras such as the ability for them to be linked to other amplifiers.

The reason the JCM800 became so synonymous with heavy metal of the eighties was due to its “hot rock sound,” as many put it.  Unlike most amplifiers of the day, the JCM800 had more gain stages as well as a ‘lead mode’ which activated an extra triode that provided even more gain to the pre-amplifier, giving it that “hot” characteristic. This made the JCM800 line of amps the choice for several notable rockers such as AC/DC, Bad Company, Dino Cazares, Jeff Beck, Billy Corgan, Jeff Hanneman, Kerry King, Tom Morello and Zakk Wylde, just to name a few.


The Features of the JCM800 2203

Alright, now the JCM800 is back as a vintage reissue along with a not so vintage price. So, is simple nostalgia worth the extra cash or should you simply save your dough on a similar but less expensive model? Well, it all depends on if you just have to have that signature sound. I mean, in the bigger scheme of things, it’s not absurdly priced or anything in case that’s how it sounds. Just think about it in the same context as a high end guitar because the JCM800 is not your average amp. In case you’re wondering if the 2203 is an exact replica of the original, it’s pretty close but does add a bit of the extras found on the JCM800 2210, which appeared soon after the original JCM800s with the addition of the effects loop and reverb along with an extra channel that allowed for both rhythm and lead sounds. No, the 2203 doesn’t have an extra channel but it does have the effects loop of the 2210, making it much more effects-friendly than the original. In case you didn’t catch it, the 2203 is a completely valve amplifier which means that you get all of the benefits that it entails along with all of its cons. Essentially, valve amplifiers have a much more natural and warm sound over a solid state, which many complain sound a bit empty and too consistent (which makes it sound a bit ‘digital’) but are much cheaper to purchase and are by far much easier to maintain over a valve. Luckily for those interested in the 2203, Marshall has added a few features to ensure that this JCM will have a pretty long lifespan – as long as you follow directions. The addition of a standby switch along with the power switch allows you to disengage the sound in between breaks which in turn negates one of the culprits of valve damage – switching the amp on and off too much. Also, you can choose the output impedance of the amp head in order to match the correct impedance needed for the cabinet or cabinets being used. Let’s say you’re using a 16 Ohm cabinet, the Ohm on the amp should be set to 16 as well. If you are using two 16 Ohm cabs, the Ohm on the amp should be at 8. And if you are using two 8 Ohm cabs – you got it – set the amp at 4 Ohms. This, again, is important if you want to prolong the life of a valve amp. So all in all, not really a beginner’s friendly amp but those familiar with the proper care of valve amps and already know exactly what to expect can take full advantage of the features Marshall added to extend life expectancy.

As far as controls go, this is what you get: Presence Control is used to operate the power amp section of the amplifier which lets you add high frequencies to your tone which creates a feel of crispness and bite. Bass, Mid and Treble Controls are all self explanatory; Bass lets you control the low end frequencies of your tone, Middle delegates the mid frequencies (add more for a fuller sound, take away for that aggressive ‘scooped’ tone popular in metal and thrash),  and treble, which pretty much controls the brightness of a guitar’s tone.  Along with those come the Pre-Amp and the Master Volume controls; the preamp knob controls the drive of the valves. Turning up the control will give you warm, harmonically rich distortion that can be sustained even if the Master Volume itself is set on low – something that can’t be said with other amps that lack this option. And speaking of the Master Volume, it controls the volume of the amplifier which is exactly what we want it to do.


The Verdict

All in all, you can see that the JCM800 2203 is most definitely a vintage amplifier that doesn’t look to add a whole lot of extras but simply the things that made it the legend that it is today. While it’s a bit more expensive than your average valve amplifier, those willing to splurge on the 2203 will definitely not be disappointed as there are simply not many amps out there that have such a signature, sought after sound. If you’re looking for the amp that defined eighties hard rock just as the Marshall “Bluesbreaker” did with the sixties, look no further than the 2203.


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