The first guitar tube amp I ever purchased was a Marshall JCM 800 head and 4×12 cab. I was taking my first guitar lessons from a classmate of my dad’s, and my instructor had just bought a second JCM 800, an extremely limited release (600 total) Zakk Wylde JCM 800. I imagine it was a pretty pricey purchase so he was in a hurry to unload the older model or maybe you just don’t need two of these. Nevertheless, he offered to sell it for a deeply discounted price. The down side was that, for whatever reason, it had been spray painted it red. Once a month, I would pay off a little bit of the amp, and then for Christmas my parents paid off the remaining balance and brought it home. My dad did a little work to it. First, repainting it back to the standard Marshall black (although it was a shiny rather than matte) and replacing the cabinet grill cloth with some stretchy material he found at the local fabric store.
At the time, I had no idea what I had, and it took me many years for me to fully appreciate it. I lugged that amp all over the place and would plug anything stringed instrument into it. After all, all I knew was that it was loud and would amplify noise.
I never really took the best care of it. It sat in my garage for the larger part of high school and definitely didn’t travel with me when I moved away for college. Even for local shows, it was such a hassle to carry that I preferred to lug around a combo amp. But after college I got an opportunity to gig around the country and I felt like I finally needed to bring something along that was “road worthy,” whatever that means.
I spent my entire first paycheck to purchase a road case for the amp. I don’t believe I bought it to take as good of care as I did to prove that I was ready for the road. I had been rehearsing with the band, and my amp was the only one not in a case, so I knew that I would show them my commitment by immediately making the purchase the next day. Luckily, there was somebody local who could build me out a custom case which would hold both the head and the cab. When they asked what color I wanted, I said white because I was really digging the cleanness of Apple products at the time.
The amp ran around the country a handful of times. The band opportunity left. Strapped for cash, I immediately sold my road case on Craigslist. No more road for me.
At the time–and still to this day–I wasn’t playing a venue that warranted 50 watts of rock n roll. My wife and I had just got married and the amp sat awkwardly in the spare bedroom of our first apartment. I saw a Craigslist post where somebody was wanting to trade their Vox AC30CC2X for a JCM 800. I had been eyeing the AC30s as they were really coming back into style. The “X” in the model name means it’s loaded with Celestion Blue speakers, which are top of the line. The amp appeared to be in nearly brand new condition, so I decided to check it out.
The guy who owned it told me he was in a punk band and recording a demo with Mike Kennerty, the guitar player for the All American Rejects who lives in Edmond, Oklahoma. Mike had an 800 of his own and they seemed to both agree that an 800 would better fit the sound so he was unloading the AC30.
I helped him carry the amp down the three flights of stairs and the deed was done. In my mind, I had no need for something that big and was happy to do the deal. Also, the thing about trading instruments is that once you commit to checking out gear–or vice versa having someone come over–you are fairly. I have done more than my fair share of buying, selling, and trading on Craigslist and within local Facebook groups, and I can count on one hand how many times a deal has fallen through.
But I have to say it didn’t take long for me to immediately regret the trade. First off, Vox AC30s are quite heavy despite their appearance. And as I mentioned earlier, at the time I lived on the third story of an apartment complex. My whole thought this is was going to give my back some relief immediately went out the window. You would also think a 30 watt amp would be much quieter than a 50 watt amp, but not the case.
Next, the CC2 models are modernized versions of the AC30. The AC30 is most well-known for being a fairly plug-and-play amp. Most vintage AC30s have a volume knob and a cut knob and that’s about it. Newer models tend to have all kinds of knobs and switches: tremolo, reverb tanks, full EQ, etc. none of which I utilized. Not to mention, very shortly after having the amp, the tubes went bad. I was lucky enough to find a Vox specialist named Jeff in Norman who kindly fixed what broke.
Basically, instead of a vintage heavy, loud amp, I had a modern heavy, loud amp with occasional electronic issues. Now I don’t blame the guy who traded the amp to me. He may or may not of known that the amp was a lemon. And that’s the risk with any piece of electronic. This is going out of order, but the AC30 never worked quite right until I finally sunk a bunch of money into it to have it fully worked on. A real tragic situation.
A couple years pass and I’m really regretting the decision. I’m already a fairly sentimental person and it had became clear that I had let go of a piece of equipment that was very valuable to me. My dad and I would talk and eventually let him know this, to which he would tell me that he was surprised when I had let it go in the first place. Now I really regret it.
Per usual, I’m surfing Craigslist and I see a post for a JCM 800. Click. Even from the blurry cell phone pictures, I can tell that it’s my amp as it’s too shiny to be a stock Marshall. It’s clearly my dad’s paint job.
I immediately send my dad the post. “Dad, look what I found.” It’s August of 2013 and my birthday is coming up. My dad calls the guy up, makes him an offer, and I go to my dad’s to pick it up. The prodigal son is home.
The amp had clearly been used since I let go of it. There were more scuffs and tolex tears and one of the Marshall logos was virtually completely broken off. You could really start to see the red coming through the paint job as the black paint is starting to wear thin. Maybe it was just that I was finally seeing it’s flaws but it felt a bit like finding a lost dog who had been underfed.
For years, my dad and I would talk about restoring the amp. It’s no small task to tear all of the tolex off and do it over. Plus there were a lot of missing pieces like corners and back plates that would to be replaced. Then, earlier this year, we finally decided to bite the bullet. I purchased some classic black elephant tolex on a site called Mojotone and my dad began to restore the head.
A few weeks later it looked brand new. Not that the head was in absolutely terrible condition, but it looks incredible now.
Next came the cab. The cab is an interesting story because for years I had assumed the head and cab were manufactured around the same time and sold as a set. Not the case. When my dad dated the speakers based off the serial numbers, it turned out that all four had been manufactured in 1976.
It also turned out that the the grill cloth wasn’t the standard black cloth but it was the weaved black and tan cloth. My dad must have replaced a cloth that had already been replaced.
Last, the speakers, which I had always referred to Celestion Greenbacks, were indeed the Celestion G12Ms but are black, which are referred to as “black backs” which seem to be highly sought after. I found this little detail doing some internet research:
From late 1975 onwards, Celestion speakers would have Kurt-Mueller cones. Also around this timeframe, the black back plastic covers replaced the cream ones. These speakers had their own character. They are said to be more aggressive, more efficient, maybe a bit shriller and colder, as well as having a sharper high end. This was the last incarnation of the old original “(Black)Greenback” G12M and G12H as we know them today, before they were replaced by the G12-65 and the G12-80 in 1978-1979.
So, as best as we know, it’s a 1976 Marshall 1960AX cabinet. We decided we would do our best to restore it to original spec so we went with the original black and tan grill cloth. My dad also fixed one of the speaker cones that had a significant tear in it.
Now I’ve been saying “we” a lot but it should be stated that my dad did all of the manual labor. Most the most part, I offered support. But that’s the theme in this whole story. Time after time, this amp has been something that we’ve been able to bond over, both with our love for music and the stories behind it. We both would try to research to figure out what the exact year and model we had in efforts to piece together the full history. Now we’ve got the guts and wood of pure, vintage rock ‘n roll with the outward appearance of a brand new piece of equipment.
Do I have need today for high wattage half stack? Not in the slightest. Would I ever sell it? Never in a million years. I only get to play it a few times a year when I happen to be home by myself (which only happens by accident these days) and want to plug in a Les Paul and crank it up. To me, there’s no more pure rock ‘n roll sound than an LP directly into a Marshall. It gives me a feeling of a joy that I truly can’t explain.
But the amp is also a piece of history and now a piece of my history. Maybe it’s always been a piece of my history, but it’s no longer just “the first amp” I owned and learned to play guitar on. It’s also a representation of the bond between a father and a son, both of whom are more likely to express their affection through acts of service rather than words of affirmation.
Today is my birthday. This is the third time I’ve been gifted the same gift. Best regift ever.