A Timeline of High–Gain Amplifiers in Heavy Music

For nearly as long as rock music has existed, guitarists have been searching for more.

The quest for louder, more aggressive guitar sounds got its start in Britain in the middle of the 1960s. Guitarists like Pete Townshend of The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath used a little bit of fresh technology and whole lot of wiles to get gnarled, distorted tones that would usher in the first wave of hard rock.

Using the first high–wattage amps, massive speaker stacks, and effect pedals to launch that early wave of hard rock, British rockers would set off a tsunami of high–gain amp manufacturing that’s still drenching us today.

This is the story of the evolution of the high–gain amps that shaped the sound of those hard rock and heavy metal bands.

1960s

The history of high–gain amplification starts with Jim Marshall.

Jim guided the development of the JTM–45, the debut product and first masterpiece from Marshall Amplification released in 1962. This is considered the first Plexi, a term used to refer to early Marshall amps made with plexiglass faceplates. The JTM–45 would single–handedly define the sound of hard rock in the 1960s and influence much of what followed in the 1970s.

The reason why was simple: while Fender had blazed a trail for early rock ‘n' roll during the 1950s and Vox had provided the British Invasion with its signature jangle, the circuit that Jim Marshall pioneered (in conjunction with his shop's service tech, Ken Bran and intern Dudley Craven) took tube–drive distortion to the next level.

Musicians were almost immediately inspired to maximize the loudness and distortion they could get from Marshall’s designs.

Pete Townshend’s infatuation with the JTM–45’s power led to the development of the first Marshall stack speaker cabinets, which led to him eventually asking Jim Marshall to build an 8x12 speaker cabinet for a 100–watt amp he commissioned. Jimi Hendrix jumpered the inputs of his trusty Plexi and ran a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face into it to take push his amp even further.

Marshall's most classic and sought–after models may not qualify as high–gain by today's standards. But the iconic Marshall stack became the stage set–up of choice for hard rock’s pioneers — from Hendrix and Zeppelin to Deep Purple and Blue Cheer, whose Leigh Stevens ran four to six full stacks on stage simultaneously.

As the ‘60s went on, Marshall would continue tweaking its Plexi models, resulting in the first amp in the JMP line. In 1968, Marshall released the JMP 100 Superlead, considered by many to house the definitive Plexi tone. It would be favored by guitarists from Jimi Hendrix through Eddie Van Halen.

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1970s

Marshall began to reach new levels of popularity during the 1970s and continued to influence developments in British hard rock.

Marshall would develop its JMP series with the flagship JMP 2203, providing the driving force behind the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal.” Those aggressively voiced amplifiers would immediately become a favorite among the likes of Judas Priest's Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, Iron Maiden's Dave Murray, and German guitarist Rudolf Schenker of Scorpions fame.

But with that fame came some competition. Fellow British builder Laney saw massive popularity after Tony Iommi used its LA100BL on Black Sabbath's Paranoid. Iommi would push even that harder with a Dallas Rangemaster treble booster, which would inspire Laney to later build treble boosters into its own circuits.

Across the pond, two major players opened shops in California.

In 1970, ex–Vice President of Fender, Don Randall, opened his own amp company in Irvine, California called Randall Amplifiers. While it would take time for Randall amps to gain prominence in the heavy music world, its 667 and 120–watt Kirk Hammett signature models would prove massively successful for their searing distortion and wealth of features. Dimebag Darrell would proudly play Randalls throughout his career.

Up in northern California, Randall Smith started Mesa/Boogie in the Bay Area and spent the 1970s developing a unique approach to high–gain amplification.

Like Marshall Amplification, Mesa/Boogie's beginnings can be traced to Smith's business modifying Fender amps out of his repair shop. But while Marshall started big with 45–watt amps and quickly transitioned to the world's first 100–watt amplifiers and 4x12 stacks, Smith's first notable high–gain models were housed inside the pint–sized Fender Princeton combo.

As the story goes, Smith's first original design started as somewhat of a practical joke. When Barry Melton from Country Joe and the Fish brought his Fender Princeton into Smith’s shop, the engineer hot–rodded it with a full Fender Bassman circuit and a 1x12 speaker. This mutated the diminutive 12–watt amp into something that sounded much bigger.

The “Boogie” in Mesa/Boogie’s name has similar happenstance origins, with Carlos Santana exclaiming “This thing really boogies!” after plugging into a modified Princeton — allegedly the same model built for Country Joe. Mesa/Boogie would make its name early on with small format combo amps boasting lots of gain, launching its Mark I model in 1971.

Then in 1978, Mesa/Boogie changed the trajectory of tube amps, releasing the feature–rich and influential Mark II (later referred to as the Mark IIA).

Smith restructured the circuit to tighten definition and offer higher gain, placing the preamp gain after the tone controls. The Mark II also introduced a number of features that modern–day guitarists may take for granted: channel switching, independent volume control for the lead channel, and push–pull potentiometers to boost gain or treble on both channels.

However, the model was also plagued by issues like its noisy reverb circuit and “popping” noise when switching channels.

1980s

The Marshall JMP line's popularity would only increase once the manufacturer’s distribution deal with Rose–Morris ended in 1981. The deal struck in 1966 marked up exports from English by 55%, severely limiting the company's global reach.

Once that deal expired, Marshall repackaged the JMP2203 as the profoundly successful JCM800. Marshall would release several variations of the JCM800, introducing the 50–watt 2204 and, eventually, the two–channel 2210 model, which featured a distinctly different, heavily distorted sound.

To this day, the JMP2203 and JCM800 2203 remain Marshall’s most enduring models, defining the signature sound of guitarists ranging from Randy Rhoads and Zakk Wylde to Slash.

Back in California, Mesa/Boogie was hard at work making improvements to its Mark line. In 1983, Mesa perfected the Mark II series with what’s now its most sought–after model: the Mark II C+.

The Mark II C+ featured a dual cascading gain stage that defined the amp's heavily oversaturated “liquid lead” mode, reliable channel switching, and a wealth of tones ranging from warm and clean to highly distorted.

In the marketplace, the Mark II C+ remains sought–after. It had a very limited production run but quickly earned a legacy by way of Metallica’s James Hetfield, an early champion of the amp. The Mark II C+ stood as one of the signature guitar tones on Metallica's Master of Puppets and And Justice for All albums.

The 1980s also saw the rise of yet another amp builder who got his start modifying Fender amps. Michael Soldano came along late enough, though, that he also offered services modifying Mesa/Boogie’s Mark II series for customers.

The modified Mark II would then rapidly evolve into the Soldano SLO–100, offering a very different high–gain tone than the Marshall and Mesa amps of the time. Soldano made the SLO–100 plenty versatile with channel–switching capabilities that put the amp ahead of its time.

Upon the SLO–100’s official release in 1987, Soldano immediately attracted a who’s who of rock guitarists from both within and outside of the heavy music community. Early customers included Eric Clapton, Dire Straits's Mark Knopfler, Ratt's Warren DeMartini, and Dio's Vivian Campbell. Soldanos remain popular with such a mix, including Muse's Matt Bellamy to Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes.

The 1980s would also see the launch of some fast favorites of the metal world. In 1984, Hughes & Kettner opened shop in Germany. It's Triamp MK II EL–34 design would put it in the realm of Marshall tones. 1984 was the same year another German company would debut its first amp. Engl hit the scene that year with the digitally programmable E101 Digitalamp tube amp, launching a trend that would grip the amp world in short order.

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1990s

The ‘90s kicked off with two important amps from Mesa/Boogie.

In 1990, Mesa/Boogie released its longest produced model, the Mark IV, which was even more rich with features such as two independent rhythm channels, a lead channel, and effect loop, and, standard on the Mark series, a graphic EQ. Its punchy gain response would be earn favor with Dream Theater’s John Petrucci and metal guitarists including Lamb of God’s Mark Morton and Willie Adler.

Then in 1992, the company debuted its Dual Rectifier line. These amps featured two stages of rectification (a process of converting the external AC power to DC power within the circuit), with a silicon–based solid state rectification circuit lending itself well to high–gain styles of music requiring a tight, focused bottom end. The same year, Mesa/Boogie released its Triple Rectifier model.

The Dual and Triple Rec provided some of the most recognizable sounds of the 1990s and early 2000s. They appeared on stage and in videos with nu metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit during the late 1990s, radio rock staples like Disturbed or Tool, and death metal acts including Gojira.

And the 1990s is when high–gain options really multiplied.

Graduating from running a variac into a dimed 100–watt Marshall Plexi, Eddie Van Halen saw the release of his first signature amplifier in 1992: the Peavey 5150. Featuring six preamp tubes and a quartet of 6L6 power tubes, the 5150's “cold bias” allowed users to run high–gain at high volume to achieve a new level of clarity among heavy distortion.

Quickly, the 5150 became a favorite among influential death metal bands such as In Flames, Arch Enemy, and Dimmu Borgir throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. Van Halen cut ties with Peavey in 2004, and the 5150 line was rebranded as the Peavey 6505, 6505+ and 6534+, with each successive amp pushing the gain just a bit higher.

1992 would be the year some important smaller manufacturers entered the fray. Bogner debuted its Ecstasy in 1992 after engineer Reinhold Bogner spent a few years modifying Fender Dual Showman models after moving from Germany to LA. Bogner amps became part of Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s amp cocktail on the band’s smash hit, Dirt (alongside a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier and a Rockman).

Another German, Peter Diezel would found Diezel Amplification. Diezel released its four–channel VH4 in 1992 followed by the 160–watt, three–channel Herbert. Featuring a tight and punchy sonic profile perfect for palm mutes and tremolo picking, along with a mid–cut/volume boost combination, Diezel amplifiers have often been favored by guitarists who extensively employ down–tuning. They proved key to Killswitch Engage's articulate metalcore style and Staind's radio–friendly riffs.

2000s

And then the British were coming, again.

Whereas during the 1960s, Jim Marshall stood head–and–shoulders above others as a true pioneer of tube amplification, the 2000s saw a different breed coming from Britain.

Orange Music Electronic Company disappeared in the '80s and '90s. But when the company relaunched with its Rockerverb amps in 2004, it quickly gained favor with stoner rock guitarists and Black Sabbath–loving, old school metal purists.

Declared by Orange themselves as its first high–gain amplifier, the Rockerverb featured a signature mix of clarity and cut on one hand with earth–shattering tones perfect for doom metal. It was well–received almost immediately by guitarists across a wide spectrum of heavy, aggressive music.

Refusing to rest on its laurels, Orange capitalized on the Rockerverb’s with a number of amplifiers. The Thunderverb featured an attenuator to achieve high–gain at low volume. This begat the Tiny Terror in 2006, a fire–breathing, lunchbox–sized head at a friendly price. Its success would lead to higher distortion models including the Dark terror and Jim Root Signature Terror models.

Blackstar Amplification was founded in the British city of Northampton in 2007 and gained a following in the states shortly thereafter. Claiming to employ several former Marshall employees, the company picked up the torch of Marshall’s classic EL34 distortion with its Artisan, Series One and HT lines of heads and combo amplifiers.

The HT Metal series would prove especially popular, as amps that were high on gain and easy on the wallet geared specifically toward extreme music styles. Metal and hardcore musicians from across the world adopted the amp, including Gus G (of Firewind and Ozzy Osbourne fame) and Opeth's Kurt Viehdorfer.

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2010s

Make no mistake about it: the guitar gear community has been slow to warm to digital technology. And that's in spite of the fact that some of metal's most influential artists, such as Meshuggah or Fear Factory, commonly employed the Line 6 Vetta II to achieve overwhelmingly clear and articulate high–gain tones both live and in the studio.

But that attitude has recently begun to shift, thanks to the Fractal Axe–FX and Kemper Profiler modeling amplifiers. While tube purists may still scoff, both companies have stated made a solid case for digital modeling technology with versatile systems that give guitarists access to reams of high quality amp and pedal tones without the need to build an expensive, space–hungry collection.

Fractal’s Axe–FX II has proven especially popular for the metal genre known as djent, but found a following across metal despite its price tag eclipsing several of the amps previously mentioned. Adoptees include newly popular bands like Animals as Leaders and Periphery as well as stalwarts like Deftones and Between the Buried and Me.

Digital technology has come far enough that the Axe–FX II and Profiler can both offer amazing emulations of tube tones that help studio and live musicians capture a variety of the coveted tones across the decades of heavy music.

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