March 4, 2019
The last few years have seen a shift in the type of amplifiers guitarists have been seeking. No longer wanting to lug big and bulky gear around between playing at home, band practice and smaller clubs, guitar players have seen a multitude of new, smaller amps more suited for playing in these types of situations. These compact amps have been designed as twelve to twenty watt units; usually in all-tube configurations. The more popular ones are Eddie Van Halen’s EVH LBX line of amps, the Orange Tiny Terror, the Peavey 6505 Mini and so on. They are mostly two channel amps (the EVH has three) with added gain stages, effects loops, headphone and DI Out jacks etc. and weigh between ten and twenty pounds. Marshall has just introduced its Studio line of amps. They are scaled down versions of the 1959 Plexi, the JCM800 Master Volume and Silver Jubilee amps. All feature power reduction circuitry that let you dial the output power down to as little as one watt. These are excellent choices for a guitarist who wants the features of the larger amps in a compact size but did you know that these small amps are actually descendants of those first released in the 80s?
Way back in 1985 Marshall introduced The JCM 800 Lead 12 series of amps. These were single-channel, twelve watt amps that came in a single-speaker combo or a mini-stack complete with one straight and one angled cabinet. Based on the highly popular JCM 800 series of tube amps, they borrowed the preamp section from the tube-based 800s albeit using semiconductors (op-amps) instead of preamp tubes. The output section used two Motorola output transistors instead of power tubes. Prior to this, transistor amps were not well thought of by musicians even though they first appeared in the late sixties. Guitarists complained that transistor amps had none of the “warmth” of tube amps, especially when overdriven and were primarily sold to beginning players in inexpensive, low wattage forms. As transistor amps evolved over the years, engineers developed new components and got closer to making solid state amps that had the warmth of tube amps. Peavey’s Transtube series of amps also took advantage of these new developments; however it was Marshall who set the bar. The Marshall amps were marketed as a practice amp but quickly became popular because they packed the larger 800 model’s tone in a smaller size. These new, smaller Marshalls had a good sound; whether played clean (with the guitar volume turned down) or distorted. They also took pedals well, as did their 800 big brothers. The tone stack was responsive, even more so than the big 800s, to my ears. Inputs were the same as the larger 800s of the mid eighties – two horizontal inputs (high and low) but also a Line Out jack. The rear of the mini-stack head had two speaker outputs, enabling you to plug into the mini-stack extension cabinets or you could plug it into one 8-ohm cabinet or two 16-ohm full size cabs, just like the big boys. This made it a great grab-and-go head for taking to band practices. Later models also had the rare reverb option. There was also a headphone jack in the rear, which made them ideal for bedroom practicing.
As the Eighties progressed the mini-stack became available in white, red and green along with the standard black and in 1987 – Marshall’s Silver Jubilee, the amps came in silver tolex with a chrome faceplate instead of the usual gold. While popular, these amps (especially the mini-stack) were not cheap. Most young players opted for the combo as it was less expensive and easier to carry around but a considerable number of the mini-stacks were sold. Today these amps are sought after because of the compact size and tone, so much so in fact that they have become more and more collectible over the years. It didn’t hurt that ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons used them on several recordings in the 80s. Typical combos in good condition can sell for between $150 and $200 dollars (U.S.) the mini-stacks usually sell for between $250 and $350 dollars depending on condition. I’ve seen the heads alone sell for $250-$300 (U.S.) Some sellers on Ebay and Reverb.com ask for upwards of $500 dollars (U.S.)
Jim Marshall became famous and his amps popular because he listened to what guitar players wanted – tone. These small solid state amps bring the goods so if you’re in the market for a smaller amp, consider them as well as the new models. New models can go for between $599 to $749 for the EVH, Peavey and Orange units (the Tiny Terror has been replaced by the Rocket Terror 15.) The Marshall Vintage Series amps are $1299 (head only) but if you want portability on a budget, look for one of these vintage Lead 12 amps. You’ll be surprised how good they sound, especially through an extension cabinet. If you are in the market for one look for one with the Tolex in good condition and ask if the pots have been cleaned and lubricated as models this old have usually been sitting around in seller’s garages or storage units and haven’t been serviced in a while.
I’ll be posting a video with some brief examples of how the Lead 12 sounds through a 2×12 cabinet so check back in a few days.