What have players like Ritchie Blackmore, Joe Perry, John Frusciante, Paul Kossof and Mick Ronson have in common? All used the Marshall Major in their backline. We will explore some history of this relatively rare and not widely used Marshall amplifier.
The Marshall Major was produced between ’67 and ’74 and was first called the Marshall 200 before the name Major was given in ’68. Unknown for Marshall until then, it used four KT-88 power tubes to produce the 200 watt of brain-crushing power. About 1200 Majors were produced, making it a collectible Marshall amp.
It all started when Ritchie Blackmore was playing with Deep Purple larger concert halls and demanded a more powerful amplifier. Blackmore requested Marshall to build him a 200 Watt amplifier. Marshall could, however, not fulfill the demand that quickly. What Marshall came up with was a very sensitive amplifier producing about 140 Watts (maximum output rating of a KT-88 tube is about 35Watt), it was eating tubes and didn’t take pedals, like Ritchie Blackmore’s treble booster, well.
Marshall requested General Electric, who also produced the famous Gold Lion KT-88 tubes, to re-design the amp. In order to get the 200 Watt, the b+ plate voltage had to be increased from 450 to 650 Volts. To make this work with KT-88 tubes a special ultra-linear output trafo was used. It pushed the Major more in Hi-Fi territory than guitar amplification. The Major has compared to the other Marshall less gain on the tab, making it a relatively clean amplifier.
The problems were starting when guitarist were, in search for more gain, using overdrive/distortion stomp boxes. Something General Electric had not anticipated during the re-design of the Major. With the use of a distortion box the b+ plate voltage would jump to 1800 Volts and this would arc over to the closest ground, usually between pins 2 and 3 on the output tubes and burning the tube socket. Marshall responded by installing ceramic tube sockets and using better insulation. The problem now shifted to the Dagnall output transformers. When kicking in a stomp box and hitting a power chord hard, the jump in b+ plate voltage would now arc over to the transformer and damaging it. The amp would work fine when not pushed, but would blow a fuse when it gets a loud signal.
Marshall’s warranty costs where on a step rise and at a certain point they were not able to keep up with the demand in spare parts, special for the US market. They made a deal with a guy named Otto in the US to produce locally replacements for the Dagnall transformers, which turned out were of significant better quality. In ’74 Marshall stopped the production of the Major, not only because of its history of problems, but also the high price and lack of sales played an important role.
Nowadays players like Perry and Frusicante appreciate the big clean sound of the Major and still use them in their stadium backline. Joe Perry;” A Major is not widely used for a clean sound like for example a Fender Twin, but they give a lot of brightness and have a tight bottom. When you hit a chord hard, they have this clean but full bodied sound. Playing like that is only possible when you have a lot of headroom. The Major was born for this job”.