Fender and Marshall are the two most famous and revered brands in the world of guitar amps.
The topic of Fender vs Marshall amps has been debated for decades now.
Each company can boast of decades of tradition, countless hit records and large, devoted followings.
Even now, most amp companies are basically making variations or combinations of Fender, and Marshall amps tweaked with their creative visions.
You’ll often see the generic terms “American” and “British” in their marketing copy, referring to Fender and Marshall sounds, respectively.
You’ll want to learn the tones they’re typically known for and the genres with which they’re associated.
These two companies are so influential that it’s a pretty good idea to understand the basic differences between them.
Today, we’ll discuss Fender vs Marshall amps and give you an overview that will impart the knowledge needed to climb a little higher on the ladder of six-string righteousness.
Off we go!
The History of Fender Amps
Fender is the only company equally famous for its amplifiers as well as its guitars.
Founder Leo Fender was originally a radio repairman and began building small tube amps and lap steel guitars with partner Doc Kauffman as the K&F Manufacturing Corporation in 1945.
Soon, Leo went solo, launched the Fender Electric Instrument Company and began making history with both his guitar and amplifier designs.
The early Fender amps were tweed-covered combos with the controls on top.
This seems unusual to modern players but makes perfect sense when you realize that, in those days, amps were small and were put in front of the guitarist rather than behind, as is now expected.
Many of these 1950s Fender amps are still highly regarded and some, including the late-50s narrow panel tweed Bassman and Deluxe models, are eternal classics and tonal benchmarks.
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The Modern Fender Amp
Fender amps went through a total reboot as the 1960s began, updating circuits and designs. Controls were now on the front in the modern style, and white or brown Tolex replaced the tweed covering of years past.
This was a transition period for Fender but still produced many influential designs such as the piggyback head/speaker cabinet concept, the brown 2×10 Super and the redone two-piece Bassman stack.
Beginning in late 1964, Fender switched to black Tolex coverings and black faceplates matched with silver grill cloth, known as “blackface” amps, and entered its most famous period and effectively invented the modern combo amp with onboard reverb.
Blackface combos like the Twin Reverb, Super Reverb, Vibrolux Reverb and Deluxe Reverb are arguably the most-used guitar amps ever, and the Fender look and sound has remained much the same into the present day.
Fender has always been known for making some of the most roadworthy amps in history, and its build quality is the stuff of legends.
The sounds Fender is known for are the warm, natural overdrive of tweed amps turned up loud and the loud clean tones of the Twin Reverb.
Twin Reverbs are still made and are still found on stages around the world.
They’re popular with players needing a loud clean tone that doesn’t get lost in the mix onstage and are also an amazing platform for pedals of all kinds.
The tweed Bassman is also still produced and is an excellent choice for club and studio work.
Lower-volume gigs are perfect for tweed Deluxes and blackface Deluxe Reverbs.
To get an idea of what these amps are like, listen to Fender players Stevie Ray Vaughan (Super Reverb), Neil Young (tweed Deluxe) and Brian Setzer (piggyback Bassman).
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The History of Marshall Amps
Marshall amps are, to put it bluntly, are the sound of rock and roll.
Artists have used them from Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend to Justin Timberlake and Lana Del Rey and define the tone of the electric guitar to many players.
The company was founded by Jim Marshall OBE, who was a sickly child who first took tap dancing lessons before becoming an accomplished drummer who played professionally for twenty years.
He came off the road in 1962 and opened a music store, Jim Marshall and Son, in Hanwell, London.
The store attracted evolving talents like Townshend and Ritchie Blackmore, who were friends of Marshall’s drum students.
Guitarists then were hungry for a new breed of amps and Marshall, along with his team, produced one of their own.
That amp was, of course, the original JTM45, now called “Number One” and proudly displayed at the Marshall factory in Bletchley, England.
In 1965, Pete Townshend needed something louder, and Jim invented the Marshall Super Lead 1959, the world’s first 100-watt amplifier with matching 8×12 speaker cabinet.
The cabinet was soon split into two 4×12 units for the sake of portability, and the Marshall Stack was born.
Marshall moved to its Bletchley facility in 1967, where it remains, and continued to grow and evolve through the 1970s.
Marshall launched the JCM800 Series in 1981.
The now-legendary amps had an aggressive and up-to-the-minute sound and came to define the sound of 1980s rock music.
The Modern Marshall Amp
Marshall is still making innovative and superb-sounding products to this day, some, like the current JVM amps, that can cover any sound needed.
Marshalls are, however, still considered to be rock amps, great big loud ones.
They own the sound and the look of the rock and roll stage and have become a major part of our audio landscape.
Though they exist in different flavors, Marshalls are not known for subtlety.
They’re loud and bold, just like the music they’ve inspired, and aren’t often seen on small club stages.
Those seeking the original Marshall mojo are advised to investigate the old school Plexi heads that launched hard rock and early metal.
Many players are surprised to find that original and reissue Super Leads don’t have as much gain on tap as modern amps.
Overdrive and distortion are achieved by turning them up loud and, even then, the sound is still clean at the center.
Listen to some 70s AC/DC to understand.
Guitarists looking for more modern levels of gain and tube saturation should try amps from the JCM800 era to the present day.
That’s where you’ll find features like master volumes, effect loops and onboard reverb.
Fender vs Marshall Amps: Which One to Use
Obtaining the right sounds and sizes of amps for the gigs you do, or amp collecting is where the fun begins to happen.
No single amp is going to fit all situations, so the savvy thing to do is to own a few amps that fit your usual styles and settings.
When to use a Fender
A small to mid-sized Fender combo is a great fit for blues, classic rock or jazz in a club.
Princetons and Deluxes rule when the volume is an issue and are also easy to move, which is always a plus.
Both also function well as recording amps.
Larger and louder gigs in those styles can be handled by Pro, Super and Twin Reverbs.
Put an overdrive pedal into the front end, and there’s not much you can’t do with one of those three.
When to use a Marshall
When it’s time to rock hard, go with your Marshalls.
The classic Marshall models aren’t ideal for smaller club gigs due to needing a good bit of volume to put out their optimal sounds.
A 1×12 Marshall combo packing 30 to 50 watts is still a beastly-loud amp fully capable of making your singer and the club manager hate your guts.
Some tricks allow you to get away with some things, however, such as turning the speakers to the wall or using a plexiglass volume shield like many drummers now do.
The funny thing is that outdoors on big stages, a 100-watt Marshall disappears pretty quickly and getting a loud, and metal-worthy stage volume can require multiple amps to achieve.
A super slick ultimate setup is to use two amps, one for each different sound, with an amp switcher between them.
Use a Fender for your clean tones and a Marshall for your dirt, and you’ll be on your way to becoming Tone Royalty.
This is how many of the big kids we all look up to get the job done, and it can be successful at both small and large levels.
It’s the best of both tones but does call for the expense and commitment of hauling around a more complex rig.
It’s still the all-pro way to roll.
If two-amp bliss is what desire, go with a more modern Marshall with plenty of available gain.
That way, your two sounds are like night and day or the best two-channel amp ever made.
All of this is why it pays huge dividends to learn all you can about gear in general and the things your influences use, in particular.
Great tone doesn’t happen by accident too often but, with a little practice, you can learn to identify the basics of the sounds you admire and how to recreate them.
I hope this discussion of Fender vs Marshall amps has been fun and informative for you.
Learning about amps and how to use them is vital because it’s very easy to make an electric guitar sound terrible.
The more you know about tones and gear, the more you’ll be able to dial in any sound needed quickly and professionally.
See you again soon with another blast of guitar knowledge!