Marshall JTM-45 Reissue Modification -- Part II

Reissue JTM-45 with SoZo cap installation and Mercury Magnetics O45JT-C Output Transformer goes head-to-head with an original!

By Mike Mullen and David Szabados

In part I of our Marshall JTM-45 transformation process, we installed a point-to-point board from Metropoulos Amplification (www.metroamp.com) and began to hear the positive results of our test Marshall as it came to new life.

Now, in Part II of our continued Marshall JTM-45 transformation, we move forward with two additional changes in addition to having the opportunity to compare the final results to an original 1964 badge-logo Marshall JTM-45.  The two changes that we decided to perform were to swap out the stock output transformer to a Mercury Magnetics (www.MercuryMagnetics.com) Axiom® O45JT-C model as well as to upgrade the board’s capacitors to those made by SoZo Amplification. To say that we were excited as well as just plain curious about the final results, especially when we could now compare it to an original JTM-45 -- is an understatement.

We contacted Paul Patronete at Mercury Magnetics and he hooked us up with the Axiom® output transformer. Paul added that the Axiom® O45JT-C is a custom version output using Teflon wire instead of the normal UL1015 vinyl wire. The Axiom® O45JT-C output offers 8 & 16 ohm secondary taps. When it comes to output transformers for the JTM45 amp, Mercury Magnetics offers a plethora of options beyond the stock, cloned, vintage replacement. Options available in the Axiom® line of output transformers are primaries optimized for KT66/6L6/5881 tubes or EL34/KT77 tubes. Secondaries with just about any output impedance combination that one could want. Many of these custom Axiom® models feature “mil-spec” Teflon wire leads with silver tinned, nineteen strands of high purity copper. All of the Axiom® transformers are hand wound from period correct specimen, vintage blueprints. One of the more popular Axiom® pieces that Mercury Magnetics offers is an exact clone of the highly coveted Radio Spares output transformer. The Radio Spares output is from the early original, first run Marshall JTM-45 production amplifiers. Mercury Magnetics offers several versions of the Radio Spares output. One of the most popular versions is a Teflon wire leaded version. The Radio Spares transformer is well-known for its association with the earliest Marshalls and according to Paul is what you'd find in the famous Eric Clapton "Bluesbreaker"-era amp.

Those that have listened to or played through a properly running Marshall JTM-45 know the sound. It’s a smooth and naturally compressed distorted tone that when pushed will provide just enough crunch to know it’s characteristically a Marshall, but without any of the “buzzing bees” preamp tones characteristic in high-gain preamp-gain emphasized amplifiers. As you push the volume controls up higher on a the best JTM-45s, it’s clearly the sound of rock with its fat bottom end, lovely harmonic overtones, and sustain that sits well with the best blues and classic rock tones heard. All of this packaged in an amp that really is one of the most dynamic and player-responsive amps ever built.

The reissue JTM-45, while certainly not a “bad” amplifier on its own, really does lack much of the detail and smoothness that is really much easier to grasp and identify when heard. For example, the reissue JTM-45 in stock form would thicken up appropriately with the expected tube compression when turned up, but it clearly was not as smooth. There are definitely some tones that sound a bit “grainy” and edgy that a properly running original JTM-45 doesn’t have.

A project such as this JTM-45 reissue transformation offers an exciting opportunity for those serious about maximizing their tone, but either don’t have or don’t want to shell out the prices for the originals. As of this writing in early 2004, script-logo JTM-45s are commanding a minimum of $4,000 and the better examples are going for more than that. Our badge logo JTM-45 featured here generously on loan for the story has a value that may well be approaching $10,000 by today’s estimates.

With that aside, we should start out by saying that this is not a thorough “apples-to-apples” comparison between the two amps. To be 100% fair, ALL the components would have to be altered to the exact specifications of our 1964 badge-logo Marshall JTM-45 and that really wasn’t the point. The point of these transformations was to get the stock reissue JTM-45 sounding more like the “real thing” as described above with regards to the powerful, smooth and dynamic Marshall tone.

Another issue beyond the component values is that we’ve opted to keep the power transformer in stock form for the time being in the JTM-45. As a result the transformers will supply a different amount of B+ current to the plates and so it will not respond in exactly the same way as the original Badge logo model.

One final, and perhaps most important point, which Mercury Magnetics vice-president Sergio Hamernik added: “The transformer in a 30-year old amplifier will sound characteristically different as it ages compared to a new replacement, even if the replacement is built with the same materials.” And while the component materials and manufacturing methods used by Mercury Magnetics are made to the exact same standards as the originals (Sergio also added “Every turn, every layer, is copied and blueprinted exactly, including any original manufacturing anomalies found during our rewinding process of the original, vintage specimen, Sergio emphasized that the ToneClone series transformer will still sound different, but “like the original did in the amp when it was new” and not like the tone of the aged 30-year-old transformer. Since much of our favorite tones were recorded at least 20 years ago, perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing?

Sergio did suggest breaking in the new Axiom® transformer with 20 to 40 hours of hard playing time. He also said that this break-in period will get the transformer about halfway there to that 30 year seasoned tonality. Thermal cycling and running magnetizing currents through the transformer (playing the amp) will definitely sweeten things up in that period of time.

We could and may still make further changes to the reissue JTM-45 in the future and report back. However, with the point-to-point board, reduced “vintage” filtering, and tube swap that we performed last time around, along with the planned replacement of the on-board capacitors and output transformer for this second round, we thought that we’d be in really good shape with the final tonal results of this amp. And for those that missed it previously, we had previously written about Mercury Magnetics output transformers used in a 50 watt Marshall and were very pleased with the results. We anticipated nothing but the same results with the change in the reissue JTM-45 this time as well.

So far our project amp has KT-66 power tubes, 32x32uf and 16x16uf filter caps and a Metro Amps point-to-point circuit board.  At this stage, we were very satisfied with the results.  We could have stopped here and had a real tone machine, but we wanted to see if we could get even closer with a few more changes. Sonically, the reissue at this point prior to the SoZo caps and output transformer change, did exhibit more of the growl and gain of the original, but it still wasn’t nearly as smooth or as dynamically punchy as the badge logo JTM-45 was.

Mike Mullen on testing the SoZo Caps

While waiting for our Mercury Magnetics output transformer, I read about some capacitors that created quite a buzz on the Plexi Palace vintage amp forum.  We found that SoZo Amplification was offering custom made capacitors aptly named “mustard caps”.  They are obviously mustard yellow but apparently these caps are also made to the same specifications as the yellow mustard capacitors which were originally found in tube amps from the 1960s and 1970s.  These little yellow jewels keep the foil thickness, polyester film dielectric and voltage ratings the same as the originals.  In addition to the material makeup of the capacitors they also share the same physical dimensions.  According to the SoZo Amplification website, the physical shape has a lot to do with the sound because it changes the slew rate.

The SoZo Mustard Cap is longer and thinner as compared to most high production caps readily available today.  The additional length results in a different signal delivery time, changing the harmonics of the capacitor and yields smooth, clear, thick lower-mids.  Polyester film was chosen because of its deeper tonal character and aluminum foil was chosen to exactly recreate the capacitor’s original sound and performance.  SoZo also chooses to use tin-coated pure copper leads, which SoZo claims aids in the retro mustard cap sound.

I promptly received the package containing five .022uF and three .1uF SoZo Mustard Caps and soldered them in.  In about thirty minutes all the caps were installed and I was ready to hear the results. 

I flipped on the power, plugged in a Seth Lover-loaded Gibson Les Paul and let the KT-66’s warm for a few minutes.  Turning off standby, I decided to start with my best impression of Angus Young from AC/DC to entertain my neighbors. What I heard from my Celestion loaded 2x12 cabinet was clear, warm guitar tones that sounded ALIVE!  The tone of the amp was basically the same, but it was much clearer, richer and more complex than what I heard before.  I was very pleased with the improvement.

Anyone that is due for a cap job on his or her favorite amp should really give the SoZo “mustards” a try and change those along with the electrolytics while you’re already there.  I think the results are very satisfying and the cost runs about the same as a decent guitar cable.  The caps can be ordered direct from SoZoAmplification.com or from MetroAmp.com.  MetroAmp.com is offering these SoZo caps individually or they can be ordered with one of their point-to-point boards.

A final point is that SoZo amplification states that there is a break-in period for the capacitors and that the tone will actually improve and be at best form sonically sometime between 40 and 70 hours of use. While I’m not there yet as far as hours of use, I definitely like what I’m hearing so far!

Installation and listening to the Mercury Magnetics O45JT-C Output Transformer

The Axiom® 045JT-C output transformer is part of the Mercury Magnetics Axiom® ToneClone series, and is 100% hand wound in the USA by Mercury Magnetics at their factory in Southern California. Mercury Magnetics offers a number of transformer clones for JTM-45 amplifiers as Marshall used a few different suppliers during different times with its own JTM-45s originally. Some people may have a preference for the earliest transformer equipped in JTM-45s, which were those built by the Radio Spares company. According to Mercury Magnetics, the Radio Spares output transformer has more “high-fidelity” characteristics in its tone. According to Paul at Mercury Magnetics, their Radio Spares clone is a special, intricate transformer that produces a subsequently wider frequency response and in some ways mirrors other transformers in design such as the early famous Partridge units in the Hiwatts.

However with that said, there aren’t comparatively as many JTM-45s equipped with original Radio Spares output transformers so we went with the more commonly found transformers as found in later JTM-45s. When speaking with Paul, he also noted that the original, vintage “Radio Spares” equipped JTM45 amplifiers are highly sought after and can command big dollars in the musical marketplace. Perhaps we’ll experiment with one in the future to hear the differences for ourselves.

The installation of any output transformer, while seemingly “simple” (“hey there’s only a few wires right?”) should actually only be performed by either a professional technician or by an enthusiast with a minimum of Electronics 101 knowledge, including the ability to read schematic diagrams, an understanding voltages and polarity, etc. This is the advice directly from Mercury Magnetics.

The transformer includes a wiring diagram sheet listing the color-coded primary and secondary wires, and these may not necessarily match the wiring in your amp. Mercury Magnetics also warns that installers put safety first, as there are literally hundreds of AC volts that can come off of the primary. A typical technician will charge 30 to 90 minutes of labor for the installation, which can average anywhere from $50 to $150.00. Prices and the time required to install an output transformer can vary from technician to technician.

*Installation tip: anyone planning to replace both the output transformer and circuit board may want to remove the old circuit board and output transformer first and then mount the new transformer.  Then you can install the point-to-point board and not have to mess with it later to get at the output transformer mounts. 

After some time and with the transformer installed, it was time to play! But first, a few minutes with the badge-logo JTM-45….

Taking a Classic for a Test Drive

The original badge-logo Marshall JTM-45 is truly an example of a wonderfully responsive guitar amplifier.  In its best state, it can provide a range of tones that vary between the liquid and thicker lead tones of early Clapton, to the warmer side of the Marshall crunch a la AC/DC that we all know and love. The vintage badge-logo JTM-45, that we have the good fortune of borrowing courtesy of our good friend Woody (thank you!), had recently gone through a full check-up through southern California's own Plexi Palace, so we knew that it was in fine form.

And it certainly sounds like it. No other Marshall seems to be as well suited to provide such a wide tonal range as well as being able to provide a feel with beautiful harmonics and compression as a JTM-45 circuit. The sense of dynamics that can be controlled with one's technique was right on the money. This JTM-45 plain and simply is THE ultimate blues and rock amplifier.

It stings and bites as musically as one could imagine with a Fender Stratocaster using the bridge position pickup with the Marshall's channels bridged and the volumes set at about 7. With the neck pickup, the tones are fluid and with a bit of a gain boost from a floor box could easily capture the full sustain similar to what a player like Eric Johnson would get. The power output on the amp is moderately high, but at the JTM’s power range, it really is a nice match against any solid-hitting drummer and the perfect club amp for small and mid-sized venues.

With a Gibson Les Paul in hand loaded with LegendaryTones.com’s current favorite Seymour Duncan Antiquities and running the badge-logo JTM-45 through a basket weave Marshall cabinet (NOT the cabinet photographed here which is an earlier pinstripe) with original 25 watt greenbacks, the tone of the bridge pickup was pure AC/DC circa "Powerage" when running the volumes at about 6. With the volumes set at 7, the added gain and thickness moved into "Highway to Hell" territory. Switching to the neck pickup provided a wallop of a fat tone that seemed like it could sustain for days. Think early Cream here.

Listening in on the reissue JTM-45

After that experience with the 1964 badge-logo JTM-45, part of me didn’t want to turn the amp off, but alas it was time to move to our modified reissue. Running the same controls (and in fact the same tubes were used and setup in both amps) and equipment, I started playing the reissue with the Strat first. The immediate first impression: the reissue JTM-45 felt great – the same feel of compression and control of the dynamics was there. And there was also a noticeable improvement between the circuit since the change of both the output transformer and SoZo caps. Besides having a bit more power and punch in the signal, these changes really seemed to smooth out the reissue JTM-45's tone and were definitely much more pleasing to the ear.

But specifically what were the differences between the reissue and the original? Well, the modded reissue stood out with a bit more attack in the high frequencies. It's definitely a bit of a brighter amp than the 1964 badge-logo, but not by a great deal and not bright in such a way as to be “piercing.”  The reissue JTM-45 could definitely mimic the original with a simple reduction of presence and treble controls and it did very well. Also, both SoZo Amplification and
Mercury Magnetics told us that there is a break-in period for the parts to obtain their final adjusted tone. Again, for the SoZo caps, its 40-70 hours, and Mercury Magnetics stated the average break-in period should be a minimum of 20 hours of hard playing time with its transformers.

All said, we couldn’t wait that long nor did we have the time to play continuously to then report on the changes, but maybe we’ll add a brief report in the future after the break-in period.

When switching to the Les Paul with the newly transformed JTM-45, the same characteristic bold crunch with a warm full bottom end was evident. The modified reissue JTM-45 is definitely smooth when overdriven and power chords are a thrill to bash out in AC/DC style. Leads in both pickup positions of the Paul sang nicely. The neck position is always powerful with the JTM-45.

Final Thoughts....

In both amps, the feel, sustain, and tone was tremendous. The reissue in its current form has a little bit more of a faster attack, while the original badge has a bit more of a relaxed sag to it characteristically. It’s also a little bit darker. That said, we expected differences especially considering that each amp’s circuits are not identical. But what they do both share together is the original Marshall tone that we grew up on and know and love. And the fact that this tone can be captured without the need to hunt down a costly original is a nice thing for players indeed. There is something to having an original -- it’s a testament to a wonderful period of musical history that NO reissue would ever be able to capture from that perspective. But at the same time, one thing that the reissue has going for it in its favor is the fact that most players would feel much more comfortable taking it out to a gig or the all-night jam. I would be a bit paranoid taking out the original personally.

It’s a shame that some of our greatest musical instruments, whether we’re talking about a ’59 Les Paul or an original Marshall amp, are so highly-valued in this day and age that it’s difficult to “enjoy” playing them. However, isn’t it a nice thing that companies such as those featured in this article are so passionate about their products and in finding ways to empower musicians with great tonal solutions today? I’ve said it before -- we’re definitely living in times of a tonal renaissance with the options we have and the number of great instruments, effects, and amps that we have available to us.

And though some people may say that, "they don’t build them like they used to," I would actually agree. In the case of these dedicated companies and people, I believe they’re in fact building them better than they used to with care and meticulous detail that may not have always been present back in the day.