I love the look of a proper vintage Marshall stack. After playing various combo amps in the 1960s, graduating to a blackface Fender Bassman and then to a Vox AC 50, I was staggered by the sheer presence of the 100 watt full stack when it arrived upon the scene in 1965. Equal parts audio device, stage backdrop and weapon of youthful enthusiasm, it was a statement which stood alone from all that had come before. I bought my first one in 1968 and added a second in 1969. You haven't really lived until you've stood on stage in front of two wide-open full stacks. Since then I've collected quite a few more—a number of which are in need of some repair.
So, while I was down in Nashville Jim took it upon himself to finish a project I'd started in 1985—I guess he figured it was about time. Many moons ago I'd rescued an original "plexi" 100 watt stack from the rehearsal room of a '80 era metal band where it sat forlorn and neglected. Its owner had "graduated" to a nice little fifteen space rack full of solid-state gizmos and no longer wanted the towering relic. "It's too clean, and doesn't sustain" he'd told me. "My new rig sounds more like a record anyway." To prove his point he danced on the rack's pedal board and then fired off eight bars of 64th notes at about 120 bpm—holding the last one for ten seconds of whammy-bar gymnastics. For $300 the Marshall was mine, I didn't even bother to turn it on.
When I got it home, I inspected it, cleaned some corrosion, checked some voltages and then plugged in my guitar. Score! The amp was fine but the cabinets had seen better days. They started life as a matched pair of metal-handle, salt-and-pepper grille 100 watt cabinets; and as good as they sounded they now needed cosmetic help. Somewhere along the line someone decided that they'd sound better without the original grillecloth and they had added period incorrect white logos. The straight cabinet had indeed been re-grilled with a low-budget fabric better suited for sheer curtains. From ten feet away it looked OK. An added bonus was the screaming highs that were now free to stab your ears without impediment—awesome, dude!
If you've never taken an old Marshall cabinet completely apart and re-assembled it before, you'll soon find your first attempt can be a struggle on par with splitting an atom. The second cabinet showed that the previous owner had learned quickly from his experience with the first. Apparently, after Einstein finished the first grille cloth conversion he had a better idea for the slant cab. Out came the carpet knife, and in about three minutes that ugly old vintage grille was gone without even having to look at a screwdriver. They say genius comes in threes (or is that bad luck?) so Mr. Brainiac's next step was to staple some hardware cloth (chicken wire) over the speakers. A little flat black spray paint and the whole heavy metal universe was in balance again. (Cue devil horns here).
So, while I was away, Jim methodically disassembled each cabinet and removed every stitch of cloth and every staple—the man has patience. The whole affair took the better part of three days, which is why I'd put it off so long.
Here's the front baffle with the remnants of the original grille. Note the vertical orientation of the white stripes.
Inside, greenback 25 watt Celestions with original wiring. Some people like the even lower wattage Celestions, but when they get this old I'm happy for the small bit of extra headroom when only using one cabinet. Age will provide plenty of sag and the dense woven grille is an effective high frequency filter.
The first order of business is to lay out the grille in the proper direction—the North-South orientation determined by the white threads. If you get it wrong the finished job will look weird when placed next to a correctly placed one.
Using one of the bold white threads as a guide, Jim starts the folding over and stapling in one upper corner, continuing down and across being careful to keep the thread aligned on the edge. He's got to stretch the material as he goes to get the proper tension. I've heard some people say that if the cloth isn't tight enough when you're done it can be wetted to make it shrink, but we'd previously tested this with a scrap of the new cloth and found it didn't do a thing.
After finishing the top and side edges, Jim stretched the cloth and tacked it down using the vertical threads to align it as he went. The next step was to replace the damaged white piping and then slide the baffle into the cabinet. Jim made sure to tap it home with a dead blow hammer before replacing the screws.
The last touch was scrounging up some NOS gold logos from my box of parts. The originals were brittle plastic that broke easily—you'll often see period photos of bands with mangled logos. After a while, Marshall got wise and started making them out of a more durable nylon type material that flexed rather than broke. My NOS are the brittle kind with gold on the front. While he was at it, Jim replaced some sketchy knobs on the head.
Original wheels are almost impossible to find in decent shape, but I have a stash of suitable impostors that are tall and thin like the real ones, so they'll have to do until we unearth some originals.
Restored to their former glory, it was time to roll 'em into the "Tone Pit" next to the other amps in my office arsenal. This is the place where I evaluate every nuance of the instruments I build so I've got a wide variety of amps in there.