If there just had to be one main amplifier brand that is most associated with classic and hard rock, most people will undoubtedly name Marshall. Sure, Fender is by no means a slouch in the amp department and has just as many - if not more - highly regarded models. VOX, Messa Boogie, Herkte and several other companies have also garnered their share of history and praise among the rock community. Still though, you just can’t argue with that classic Marshall sound. Everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page to Angus Young and Lemmy (of Motorhead fame in case you know of any other Lemmys) have used Marshall Amplifiers to carve out their signature sound. And among all of the outstanding products created by Jim Marshall over the years, few are as prized and storied as the classic Marshall Bluesbreaker combo amp. In fact, a 2011 article by Vintage Guitar magazine ranked the Bluesbreaker among the 25 most valuable vintage amplifiers, landing at number seven on the list with the average fetching price of originals ranking between $8,500 and $10,000! Not surprising considering its strong ties to rock and roll history. Marshall himself once said that this amp was “arguably the most important in the company’s history,” according to Tina Grant’s International Directory of Company Histories: Volume 62. Still though, a cool 8 to 10 grand might just be barely outside the reach of most players’ budgets but luckily for all of us, there is a vintage reissue! But before we take a closer look at the specs, check out how the Bluesbreaker was born.
The History of the Marshall Bluesbreaker
The album that made the Bluesbreaker Amp
Although the entire story has never been meticulously documented, the most widely accepted origin of the amplifier that would eventually become the Marshall Bluesbreaker began when Eric Clapton asked Jim Marshall to make him an amp that would not only be small enough to fit in the trunk of his car, but loud enough to use on stage. According to Robb Lawrence's The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy, Jim Marshall answered Clapton’s request by building him 4x10” combo amplifier – the first Marshall combo ever – which was simply named Model 1961. Soon after, Marshall gave Clapton an upgraded and thinner 2x12” version known as Model 1962. The amp itself soon became synonymous with ‘60s blues oriented rock when Clapton rejoined his old band John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, featuring the amp prominently while recording Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton – and set of sessions which are now pretty much legendary in the world of rock. It is due to this association with Clapton and the Bluesbreakers that gave the Model 1961/1962 its nickname.
According to tone legends, during the Bluesbreakers sessions, Clapton told the recording engineer that he should mic the amplifier from across the room since he planned on playing the amp at its max volume so as to trigger the high gain valve overdrive which Marshall amplifiers were known for. This coupled with Clapton’s 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard (along with a Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster – according to some reports) pretty much gave birth to the sound that defines ‘60s blues rock today. As an interesting little side note from Dave Hunter’s book, Guitar Rigs: Classic Guitar & Amp Combinations, compared to Marshall JTM 45 half-stacks at the time, the Bluesbreaker had a bit more crisp high-end respond along with less of a low end, perfectly suiting the Les Paul, especially when recording blues.
Specs and Features of the Marshall Bluesbreaker
When Marshall released the first Bluesbreaker for sale to the general public in 1964, it quickly became a success due to its affordable price (about one-third less than a VOX AC30 and half as much as a Fender Bassman), signature Marshall sound and it’s connection with ‘60s blues rock. But when you get down to it, the Marshall Bluesbreaker was pretty much a JTM 45 combo amp. Also, Model 1961 was essentially a lead version of the Model 1987 JTM 45, fixed up with tremolo and fitted into an open backed speaker cabinet, while the Model 1962 used the bass version of the JTM 45 (model 1986), also fitted with tremolo and a similar open back cab. To get even deeper into its roots, the Marshall JTM 45 that led to the Bluesbreaker was pretty much a Fender Bassman amp with modified circuits. Since the Bluesbreaker ultimately came from the Fender Bassman, you can actually modify a Bassman into a Bluesbreaker, but I’ll leave that for another day.
As far as the current Bluesbreaker model offered by Marshall is concerned, it has remained pretty much faithful to the 1962 version but with a few minor modern adjustments – without the current inflated price tag of the original models. Like the original, the Bluesbreaker 1962 is fitted with two re-issue Celestion 'Greenback' 25 Watt speakers – which are pretty much one of the go-to speakers for that classic ‘60s tone. A bigger reason why the original JTM 45 was such a hit with rockers was due to its unique output stage compression and sustain and yep, this baby’s got it thanks to the included GZ34 valve rectifier along with a pair of more modern 5881 tubes. What all this means for the player is simply a raw, unadulterated and unmistakable vintage sound – but therein lies the problem, at least for some. As a vintage reissue, the Marshall Bluesbreaker doesn’t exactly feature most of the bells and whistles afforded by many of today’s modern amps and although that is no problem at all for vintage tone seekers, this can be a complete deal breaker for players that just HAVE to have effects on the amp itself (I’m looking at you, noobs). Personally, I’d go with pedals for most of my heavier effects but it’s a problem for some, so it should be mentioned. Remember how I just mentioned that it doesn’t come with many effects? Well, more like it doesn’t come with any effects – save for some tremolo that can be activated by the included footswitch. Just you standard three band EQ settings, volume knob and two channel input (one lead, one bass), but that’s only a bad thing if you are more into modern equipment. Finally, coming in at over 60 lbs, this amp will break more than just the blues if it happens to fall on an unsuspecting appendage or two.
When it comes to the bottom line, the Marshall Bluesbreaker amp definitely deserving of its reputation and place in rock history, but just like the genre of the blues itself, this amp is not for everyone. For those of you out there who are more into Cream than Coheed and Cambria, or who would rather play the blues than live it (I’m looking at you Emo kids), than the Marshall Bluesbreaker amp definitely has what you’re looking for – namely, that killer signature Marshall tone without any thing getting in the way (such as pesky built in effects). Now, if you’re a player more into today’s effects heavy, feature filled rock scene, that ‘60s blues rock tone is probably not going to suit your taste all too well. Also, it should go without saying that this amp is most definitely not for newer users. Not so much that it’s hard to operate (because it’s not) but more so because its lack of versatility along with the more sensitive nature of valve amps. But even with that said, if you’re a player who knows what they are looking for and it just so happens to be some awesome blues rock guitar tone, you can’t go wrong with the amp that defined the sound of a generation.