45 Degrees of Tone: The JTM45 Roundup
April 21, 2009
About the Authors
About 5 years ago, while playing a 9/11 benefit show, I had the good fortune to meet two people who would not only profoundly impact my life with tube amps, but would become lifelong friends. John Rossi and Tony Burns were there that day; Tony, a killer player and a regular on the Tempe/Phoenix music scene, and Johnny, his friend and amp tech, making sure Tony’s amps were running well in 115 degree heat at the outdoor amphitheater. When I saw Tony’s wall of Marshalls next to my backline of Marshalls, it was an instant conversation starter.
We spent time between sets that day discussing the various finer points of our amps and gawking at each other’s rigs. The show went great but my ’67 Super P.A. felt a bit stiff, and wasn’t reacting in the most flattering way. This incident proved to be the catalyst, as Johnny was an underground semi-retired tech and ultra-fanatic Marshall enthusiast, and he had some ideas that he wanted to try out. He invited me over the following Sunday to check out the amp, and to experiment with various preamp and power amp tubes while BBQ-ing and having a beer. Tony was there, and it became clear that we all had a deep respect for these amps; rather than modify them, we wanted to bring them back to their former glory. After five years, and dozens of hacked-up Marshalls coming back from the dead, here we are. Over that time we’ve learned more about these amazing amps than any of us ever anticipated, and we’ve have had a blast in the process. I have no doubt in my mind, based on my readings of the various amp forums, that there are plenty of groups just like us all over the world doing the same thing.
The lineup consisted of our own 1965 original and 1990 reissue heads, two MetroAmp JTM45s (a kit version as well as the GPM 45), a Germino Classic 45, a Wallace Amplification BKW45 and Mojave Ampworks’ new Special Edition Plexi 45 head. After searching through our collection of cabinets, we settled on both an eighties Marshall JCM800 4x12 with blackback 25s, and a Mojave 2x12 cab with 1963-era Celestion Alnico Blues. It may sound strange that there were no pinstripe or basketweave cabs used for the roundup, but that wasn’t for lack of trying. Among all the members of the amp group, we actually have a pinstripe, a basketweave and a variety of Marshall 4x12s, but for some reason we always come back to the early-eighties JCM 800 cab with blackback 25s.
That particular cab has more clarity, tone and authority than any other, and it remains our favorite in the bunch—despite the cool factor of the older cabs. The 2x12 with Blues was a natural choice, as that flavor shares similarities with the mid-sixties Marshall cabs and is also a popular speaker configuration for Bluesbreaker combos. The guitars we used were our standard array of Les Pauls from the ‘70s, ‘80s and 2000s, as well as a newer 2008 Fender Strat and two early-seventies Strats. With everything in the room (it was quite a sight!) we were ready to begin.
Original 1965 JTM45To get our ears accustomed to the JTM45 sound, we began by firing up our ’65 head with a Les Paul. Normally, this head has EL34s in it, but we borrowed the Genelex KT66s from the Mojave and biased the amp to accommodate them. It made sense to us to use KT66s, because they were what the amp was designed for. With everything looking good, we flipped it from standby and beheld the beauty of this vintage masterpiece. It’s no wonder players and collectors are paying big bucks for these amps; everything we played through it sounded incredible.
What was amazing was how much of a rock ‘n’ roll amp this really is. Considering how long it’s been since it was conceived, the amp’s sound remains surprisingly current. The distortion is organic, full-bodied and earthy, and it allowed the personality of the guitar and player to shine through. While it was very easy to play, this is an amp that still requires a level of discipline and control to fully harness its capabilities. It makes sense that players who want to be heard would play on this style of amp, because like it or not, whatever you play through the amp is… well, amplified. It just comes out better.
We played through it for a good long time, switching guitars and speaker cabinets to hear it in as many different configurations as possible. Whether it was a Strat, a Les Paul, a 2x12 or a 4x12, the sound was always remarkable— perhaps the very definition of great tone. Subjective? Yes. Brilliant? Absolutely. Rolling back the volume on the guitars exposed a beautiful clean tone that was harmonically rich and defined, never muddy or dull. Even with the guitar’s volume knob all the way up, the dynamic response of the amp, and the way it musically fed back, was awe-inspiring.
Once we had established a base tone for comparison’s sake, it was time to play and listen to the other amps. Before I break down each individual amp and builder, I must observe that each and every one of the amps had ridiculously good tone, and they all sounded like JTM45s, but each had its own unique voice. Aside from the reissue Marshall, all of the amps are hand-wired. The reissue Marshall was of PCB-construction, and used the standard parts and components that Marshall was building their amps with during that era. I spoke with Mitch Colby from Korg USA (Marshall’s US distributor), who told me that the reissues have not undergone any significant changes since their reintroduction 20 years ago. While they are using the components that Marshall builds with today, they should yield very similar tones to the earlier reissue amps.
MetroAmp JTM 45 Kit and GPM 45 Custom BuildGeorge Metropoulos is no stranger to the world of Marshall amps or to the online ampbuilding community. Having run MetroAmp for some time now, George offers everything from fully built replicas of many classic Marshalls to ready-to-build kits and hard-tofind replacement parts for vintage Marshalls. A player, George honed his amp-tech skills by adopting a DIY approach, taking care of his own amp repairs on the road. This extended into repair work at home, and then really took off when amps began coming in for restoration rather than simple re-tubing. After his ’73 Super Lead was stolen from a gig, he realized it might be best to leave the valuable amps at home, and so he embarked on a never-ending quest to replicate the tone of the old Marshalls.
Like all the builders in the roundup, George is passionate about vintage Marshalls and obsessive over the details that make these amps so coveted. We received two amps from Metro: the JTM45 kit (which can be purchased already assembled for an additional $400) and the GPM45, George’s custom-built JTM45 using NOS vintage parts. When we fired up the MetroAmp 45s, it was clear that they both came from the same camp. Both amps were meticulously built and incredibly precise in their layouts. The main physical differences between the amps came down to the caps, resistors and tubes. Both amps shared the same iron and layout, so they also shared a lot of the inherent tone in their circuits. As George is a fan of the mid-sixties JTM45s, Metro’s transformers are based on the Drakes, rather than the earlier Radio Spares iron. Still, there was no question that the GPM45, which included NOS Phillips mustard caps, Allen Bradley carbon comp resistors and a gorgeous set of Genelex KT66s, was sweeter sounding.
While those differences accounted for a tonal upgrade, what made the differences even more compelling was the way they affected the touch factor of the amp. Much like our ’65, the custom-built Metro had an ease about it that felt like a broken-in vintage head, making it a breeze to dig in, or to lay back on the strings and feel the amp act as an instrument. It was truly inspiring. Of all the amps in the roundup, this amp sounded most like our ’65—frighteningly close! I should mention that the Metro kit version was actually plugged in first, and before comparing it to the GPM45, we all agreed we’d be thrilled to have one in our collection. We may be splitting hairs here to some degree, but knowing that anyone can buy a complete kit for under a grand, and have that kind of quality and tone—that says a lot.
Wallace Amplification BKW45Brian Wallace has electronics in his DNA. His father, an electronics engineer, and his grandfather, an RCA tube repairman, were both instrumental in his early education and development in tubes and electronics. When he was young his father gave him a 75-in-1 electronic projects kit and further encouraged Brian by letting him watch as he built his own projects. Like all of the builders in the roundup, Brian is a player. He began modifying amps in 1974, when he removed the speakers and baffle in his Checkmate amp and replaced them with a baffle he created and some purchased speakers—altering the sound of the amp and thus beginning his lifelong journey. In 1995, he was approached by Guytron Amplification to help out while they were getting started. A positive experience, it propelled him to the next level and led to the creation of Wallace Amplification, which now offers several amp models as well as replacement transformers under the Marstran name.
Wallace’s first amp is the BKW45, but he is more than a clone maker. Recently he introduced the Abaddon, which is a 50-watt master volume head consisting of four gain stages in the preamp. There is much more to come, including a line of pedals and a reissue of the Fuzz Ace pedal he made back in the early 90s. The BKW45 is a unique flavor of JTM45. A hair darker in tone and possessing slightly less gain than all of the other models, including both the vintage and reissue Marshall, it yielded enormous bloom and a bold, thick, sustaining quality. Even though there was a little less gain, it didn’t affect playability, and we never struggled with the amp. It was one of the rarest qualities I’ve experienced in an amp, and certainly an unexpected bonus.
The Wallace had a magical ability to push notes through loud and clear while still being able to dish out gritty and harmonically pleasing chords that didn’t fight the non-perfect intervals they were built on. This all came out of an amp that was using tubes you can buy today without breaking the bank.
Speaking of breaking, check out the sidebar on what the BKW45 was subjected to by UPS en route to our roundup. In spite of the gorilla treatment it received, the amp arrived without shattered glass and performed flawlessly throughout the entire set of three sessions of playing and listening. That’s a testament to a solidly built and roadworthy piece of equipment. And one look inside the amp will show what a dedicated and precise builder Wallace is. In tone and build quality, the amp is a work of art.
|Ever wonder what could happen to your amp in shipping? In the case of Brian Wallace’s BKW45 amp, UPS had a field day, and decided it would be a lot of fun to throw it around. When the amp arrived, it was packed neatly in a new cardboard box with padding inside suspending the padded road case that housed the amp. That’s double-boxed and protected by a case built for heavy abuse. Sadly, it took one good slide down the end of a ramp and collided with either another box or the wall of the truck. Though the box didn’t show any signs of abuse on the outside, it was clear that something had shifted when I opened the case. Take a look at this picture of the damage and the way the entire amp was shifted to one side because of the impact. Believe it or not, the tubes didn’t shatter and the amp worked fine, but it was cosmetically damaged by a broken front Plexi panel. This isn’t the first time this has happened, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it happen with this type of road-worthy packing. Let this serve as a reminder to always insure your amps, as the shipping company can’t tell if you’ve got a bag of peanuts in a box or an amp that was lovingly built by somebody like Brian.|
Germino Amplification Classic 45Greg Germino is another lifelong guitarist who was bitten by the tube-amp bug after catching the Allman Brothers Band back in 1972. He was so inspired by that show that he switched over from acoustic to electric guitar and began taking electronics classes in high school. In 1979, he requested schematics from both Ampeg and Unicord (Marshall’s US distributor at the time) and began his hands-on education with tube amps. He spent the ‘80s at an electronics job, and by the early ‘90s he was moonlighting doing tube amp repair for a few music stores. He continued to play live with both 50W and 100W Marshalls during that time and moved to Durham, NC to work at Bull City Sound— working on tube amps from the big-name amp companies.
This led to Greg’s being commissioned by Mojo Musical, where he built their Tone Machine amplifier. The following year, 2002, he began work on the prototype of his Lead 55 amp, which debuted in May of 2002. The Classic 45 model is based on the earlier R/S-style output transformer, rather than the Drake 1202-103 used in the ‘65–’66 era, and the circuit is exactly what you would find in an earlier original. The R/S OT is supplied by none other than Chris Merren, who is highly regarded in the world of Marshalls, and known to make some of the most accurate transformer replicas out there.
The Classic 45 was the only amp in the roundup that used 6L6 power tubes. Greg’s decision to use them was a combination of staying true to the earliest tubes Marshall used on the original JTM45 amps and his belief that the current crop of 6L6s sound and perform better than newer KT66s. NOS and vintage 6L6s are also less expensive and more plentiful than NOS KT66s. Our immediate response to the Classic 45 was that it was a lively and aggressive amp, with tons of power that made the pick explode off the strings. In ways it reminded us of our favorite ‘67 Super Bass in its volume and attack, but it still retained the sound of a 45. It may very well have been the loudest amp of the bunch, and that volume translated to a feeling of excitement that made the amp extremely fun to play. It was present without being shrill and had a super-tight bottom end, no matter what guitar we played through it. While the Classic 45 had tons of natural gain on tap, it also cleaned up nicely when rolling back the volume on the guitar, revealing a bright and sparkly chime. This amp is a real beast, and it could hold its own against 100W amps without flinching.
Mojave Ampworks Special Edition Plexi 45Anyone familiar with the JTM45 would surely be jealous of Victor Mason. Not only has he seen more than his fair share of vintage Marshall, Vox, Hiwatt and other rare treasures come through his shop, but Victor recently acquired 26 of the all-time greatest JTM45s ever assembled via the Kronemyer collection, and he’s got the pictures to prove it! This is just one of the factors contributing to the obsessive nature of Mojave (and the associated Plexi Palace). Having been around for over a decade on the internet, Vic has been repairing, restoring, buying and selling vintage Marshalls for quite some time now. Stemming from his early desire to find out how EVH created the classic brown sound, Victor embarked on his journey through countless hours of digging into vintage amps and learning where their strengths and weaknesses lay. Mojave now offers an entire line of amps to serve the classic Marshall tones and well beyond with innovative features and designs. The Mojave Plexi 45 also has two very unique features over a stock JTM45. First is a simple feature to allow volume control by way of throttling the power level. Second is a line level output, which is adjustable and incorporates a ground lift.
Standing apart cosmetically from the rest of the amps, the Special Edition Plexi 45 is built on the same footprint as the Coyote and Scorpion designs, with a white-and-black color scheme and chrome hardware. The head is built with an open grille cage that allows for maximum airflow to keep the set of completely NOS glass cool. The 45 supplied for the roundup consisted of a pair of 1970 NOS Genelex KT66s, 3 Mullard 12AX7s and a Mullard GZ34. Like the Germino, the Plexi 45 is based on the R/S transformers, which are custom wound by Mercury Magnetics.
The chassis is a thing of beauty; the .09” thick aluminum, with a high tensile strength and welded edges and seams will ensure it will not flex, bend or develop fatigue, like the early, folded, softer chassis, and will prevent the heavy transformers from causing the chassis to sink in and sag. Mojave deviates from the original JTM45 by using modern, tight-tolerance parts. Custom manufactured caps and metal film resistors allow each amp to sound as close to the one built before it as the one after it. Consistency is something that Vic definitely strives for, and it shows in the build quality and attention to detail, and the desire to add convenient functionality to his amps.
We found in testing that not only did the amp have an extremely low noise floor, but that it was an authoritative and powerfully voiced amp. There was definitely something different in the tone of the Plexi 45; it was cleaner sounding, but still very bold. Having been to Vic’s shop, I was fortunate enough to play one of the 26 JTM45s he had acquired, and I’m positive that the experience with those amps had more than a little to do with the design of the custom R/S transformers made for his Special Edition model. The amp is built like a tank.
Marshall Reissue JTM45While the reissue looked very similar to the ’65 on the outside, especially due to the fact that it’s already 20 years old, the differences on the inside were quite pronounced. Assembled with more modern methods, and using a PCB rather than hand-wired turrets, you could easily be fooled into thinking that it wouldn’t perform like the others. This particular amp was the only one in the bunch to use EL34s rather than KT66s or 6L6s, so the sound was definitely different. It was incredibly loud and focused sounding, and actually had many of the characteristics of a Super Lead. The sustain and power of the amp was incredible, and for an amp that can be found used for around $1000, this is a sleeper bargain. Marshall has taken some flak for their amps sounding stiff and cold from the factory, but with a little attention–slightly hotter bias and good tubes–this amp is a monster. And just because it says it’s a 45-watt amp, don’t harbor any illusions that it would be a good bedroom amp. This is a loud and powerful beast, and a tone machine as well.
The Blindfold Test
As a final, fun test, we did a blind study, to see how accurately I could identify each of the various amps in the roundup. Johnny and Tony set up the group of amps, and I sat in a chair with my back turned away from them. With the guitar plugged in, they began to fire up the various amps, and we got rolling. Out of all the amps, I was always able to distinguish the Wallace BKW45, due to it’s slightly darker sound. The Metros were also fairly easy to spot, but I ended up guessing the kit as the custom build and vice-versa. The ’65 was also an easy amp to recognize, but as ear-fatigue set in, the lines began to blur substantially. Pretty soon, I was confusing the Germino for the reissue JTM, the Mojave Plexi for the Wallace, and the Metros for the real JTM. It just goes to show you that all of the amps performed remarkably well, and you can be fooled when you’re not seeing what you’re playing, so never discount a PCB reissue head as a second fiddle to the real thing. In the mix of a band, these differences become small, and any one of these amps would hold their own any day of the week.
To have the opportunity to play through so many variations on a classic theme was not only fun, it was educational. Each one of the builders excels in creating their own unique version of the great rock and roll amp that Ken Bran, Dudley Craven and Jim Marshall built back in 1962. While like all Marshalls, the JTM45 went through changes in tubes, components and designs over its lifetime, there is a trademark flavor and color that still can be found in all of them. Not everyone can afford a vintage 45, but with the help of these builders we have the opportunity to get into that sound and have build quality that will last for years.