Legendary Marshall and Vox amp designer Steve Grindrod’s lifelong quest to craft the perfect tone
We talk to one of the industry’s most experienced engineers to find out what life was like at the cutting edge of British valve amplification – and what he plans to do next.
In a perfect world, you might expect the man who designed Marshall’s amps for 30 years and then spearheaded the amazing revival of the Vox brand to be one of the most in-demand designers in the amp business. But, as we all know, this is a far from perfect world.
Steve Grindrod’s design skills brought us the JCM800, the Silver Jubilee, countless other Marshalls and the Marshall-produced Vox amps of the 1990s. Later, he helped Korg get Vox’s Valvetronix line off the ground and indeed became Vox’s Managing Director for several years. Currently, however, he finds himself between projects.
Grindrod initially left Vox to work with the Chinese-owned IAG Group, designing the Albion Amplification amp range for the company. But despite a positive reception for the products themselves, Albion’s amps failed to make the international impact many expected.
Furthermore, having moved to China to help build a factory to produce Albion amps, Steve had a serious falling out with AIG that resulted in him leaving the project, followed by recriminations about money, production, distribution and just about everything except the amplifiers themselves.
But where others might have thrown in the towel, Grindrod dusted himself down from the wreckage of his involvement with Albion and his next move was to head up his own company – Steve Grindrod Amplification.
This new company was created to launch what he feels might be his crowning achievement in amp design – Pendragon amps. Sadly, Pendragon has also been beset with problems – the amps are ready but the money needed to make them isn’t, even though those who have tried them suggest they are possibly his finest designs to date. As we said, it’s a far from perfect world.
How Steve Grindrod got into the business of designing amps is very much a story of his time. Having become an accomplished childhood pianist, he caught the rock ’n’ roll bug, as many of his generation did, through listening to Radio Luxembourg, the one station in the UK during the 1950s where you stood a chance of hearing contemporary music.
The infection having taken hold, the young Grindrod hot-footed it to the Bexleyheath Vox store, where he purchased his first electric guitar – a Vox, naturally – which cost him a princely nine guineas (nine pounds and nine shillings, which would roughly equate to just under £200 in today’s money). After applying extended pressure to his father, he was eventually able to pair his Vox with a Watkins Westminster amplifier, but not before he had tried to build his own, using parts cannibalised from his father’s radio. Not only had Steve started to play electric guitar but he had begun trying to build amplifiers, too.
The two disciplines, technology and music, were fostered by playing keyboards and guitar in a succession of bands during the 1970s, while simultaneously studying technology and earning a degree in mechanical and electrical engineering. The latter resulted in a job with giant electronics and record company EMI.
During the 1960s, and for reasons that have never been quite clear, EMI had bought the small British amplifier maker, Simms-Watts. Originally a challenger to Jim Marshall’s fledgling amplifier brand, they were made by rival Ealing music-shop owner, Dave Simms and his designer, Richard Watts. Though well regarded for its guitar and bass amps (Mick Ronson and John Entwistle were among the users) Simms-Watts was particularly noted for its PA equipment and it was on the PA side (though mostly for installation use in conference centres and the like) that Steve was hired as a designer.
Unfortunately, Simms-Watts fell victim to both the curse of EMI’s corporate inertia and a recession. It closed in 1973. Finding himself with no job and a young family to keep, Steve applied for the post of test engineer at the nearby Marshall factory in Milton Keynes. It was to prove a turning point, not just for him but for Marshall, too.
It wasn’t long before Marshall’s new test engineer had begun to make his mark. Faced with the task of trying to make Marshall’s early transistorised amplifiers work reliably (like most early solid-state amps, they had a miserable reliability record) Steve found himself on familiar ground, as he explains:
“EMI had wanted to move Simms-Watts more towards transistor amplifiers and actually they had one that wasn’t too bad. I’d built a modified version of one for a guitarist friend of mine and it sounded okay. How much of that is wishful thinking 40 years later, I can’t say. But they weren’t all bad. Primarily, I was test engineer when I started with Marshall – a product-testing guitar player trying to make things work, mostly repairing a lot of blowing-up solid-state amps.”
Steve’s evident ability saw him promoted quickly to R&D duties, but he reflects that it was possibly the ultimate backroom job at Marshall. “I was hidden – out of the way, so that people didn’t find out that nobody else there knew what they were doing,” he says with a wry laugh.
If that sounds a little bitter, it’s not entirely undeserved. Jim Marshall is remembered as the ‘father of loud’ and a guitar-amplification pioneer, but whatever his skills as a businessman and a leader who could spot an opportunity, he was not – and never pretended to be – an amp designer. In fact, he knew relatively little about them, or how they worked. For that he relied on engineers, originally Dudley Craven and Ken Bran, with Steve Grindrod the man behind much of what the company produced during its later successes in the 1970s and 80s.
How did Steve find Jim to work with? He pauses, then says: “Interesting. Yes, very interesting. He didn’t understand where I was coming from because there was nobody else there who knew anything either, so I was the only one saying what needed to be done.”
Personal tensions were a constant factor, not least among Jim’s own family, so it wasn’t a particularly harmonious environment in which to work. But what of the groundbreaking products?
“The first products they got me to design were the 100-watt solid-state heads, which needed a lot of work to get out of the door. I had to redesign the PCBs and the circuits just to get them to work. The problem was people not knowing anything about solid-state at the time, or how the printed circuit boards should be designed to work in that sort of product. That’s people generally, by the way, not just Marshall. There was a lot of bad information around, even coming from the semiconductor manufacturers themselves – even Motorola, who were supplying our transistors.”
Steve says that the desire to make solid-state amps came not from Marshall but from its main distributor, Rose-Morris, and the company’s distributor in the USA. “There were a lot of very unclever people feeding bad information to Jim,” he bluntly reflects.
“The first valve products I was involved with were the 40- and 100-watt 1987 and 1959 models, which needed a lot of work and rework. They had to be transferred from being hand-worked products to using printed circuit boards and they had a lot of problems. People were starting to say: ‘We don’t want Marshall because they blow up’ and that was true – they did.
“PCB problems were compounded with transformer issues and quite a lot of my time was also spent getting to work with Celestion on speakers for what I wanted in terms of sound and reliability. Really, a lot of my time was spent sorting out reliability issues. That and the occasional modding of amps for bands who wanted Marshall products, but giving them the sound they wanted.”
He cites as an example an early encounter with Iron Maiden, which has distinct Spinal Tap overtones. “The record company sent them up to us saying they had ideas and could we make the amps to deliver them? I came up with the designs, they sounded beautiful and the band was really pleased with them.
“Off they went on tour with these amps and a few months later, they came back saying they’re wrong. I asked why. They said the record company had told them they needed 100-watt amps instead, not 50-watt amps. I told them they were 50-watt amps because that was the sound they wanted, but okay, if that’s what they wanted… but why use 100-watt amps if the sound you want is better from 50s? It was a crazy time,” he sighs.
Steve’s first big hit for Marshall was the early Master Volume series which he worked on with Mike Hill. “But I suppose the first big personal hit was the 250-watt guitar amp – the model 2000, I think it was called – that and the accompanying 375-watt bass amp.”
These monsters were powered by KT88/6550 valves – six in the lead version, eight in the bass model. “AC/DC took them out on a world tour and they were still working when they came back,” Steve recalls. “Mind you, all the plastic was melted… we went on to do a production version of them, which were not exactly reliable, I have to say.
“The prototypes I’d made for AC/DC were the last ones I saw before they went into production and that’s not really the best thing in the world to do. The prototypes worked okay, but the production versions needed some redesign work because they had heat problems. I know people who still have them and run them quite happily, though. Don’t rush things is the moral there!”
The JCM800, revered by so many Marshall fans, appeared on the scene in 1981. “We did the master volumes around ’76 or ’77 and the JCM800s came around because we had to do something quickly, having just broken away from Rose-Morris. That move had Jim panicking that we needed something doing in a hurry.
“It came down to, ‘Can you just do some cosmetic changes?’ We were sitting around the boardroom trying to find a name and Jim said: ‘Call it after my car’ – he meant the number plate, not Nissan! – so that was what it was called: the JCM800, for James Charles Marshall. We were running out of time, so I quickly got the cabinet and cosmetics sorted. I did the artwork and took it down to the panel printers.
“I’d got Jim to handwrite his signature, which we photographed and I printed into the artwork. However, when I picked them I realised that Jim’s signature hadn’t taken very well. The printer wanted us to get Jim to rewrite it but he was away at the time, so we just scrubbed Jim’s signature off and I personally rewrote it onto the artwork – so it’s a forgery! I’ve never told anyone that before.
“Essentially, the JCM800 inside isn’t any different – I’d already done all that design work in the years running up to ’81. I made a few tweaks afterwards but they were just general little tweaks for reliability. It is a much-loved sound, I realise, but personally I’ve never liked it, though I know a lot of other people do. I didn’t like the scratchiness. I was heavily into Telecasters and country at the time. The JCM800 improved, for me, when I plugged in my Les Paul, but then Les Pauls are never my favourite guitars.”
Does Steve have fond memories of working with some of the guitar gods who visited the factory? “Actually, I can’t really remember who we had coming in, to be honest! But I did get tied up heavily with Thin Lizzy when they were getting everything set up for Live And Dangerous and I got to know the guys well, doing a lot of work with Scott Gorham, in particular. I really got on well with him and did a lot of prototyping to get his sound. Gary Moore, too. I did a lot of work with AC/DC as well.”
Does that mean the Marshalls in the shops were very different from those on stage? “No, in most respects they were just relatively small changes to standard amps,” he says. “There are a few people I did quite heavy modifications for, but you could count the number on one hand. The Iron Maiden one in their early days was probably the heaviest modified amp I ever did, but most times, rather than modifying an existing amp, I would take one we weren’t producing yet and tweak that before it went into production.
“My favourite amp of all was one of my Parks – the 1210. There was a Marshall version [the 2150 – Ed] and a Park version and I loved the Park one. We sent America a couple of prototypes of the Marshall version and they came back saying they couldn’t sell it because it had ‘too much gain’. Really? Isn’t that what the world wants? No, they wanted it with less gain, so that was the Marshall version, which was relatively low gain and sounded horrible. But I built the Park version with more gain, as I knew that was what people were really looking for.”
During Steve’s time with Marshall, a slowly gathering cloud was forming in the amp world, as makers realised they were almost the last electronics manufacturers on the planet using vacuum tubes in any quantity. Big-name brand owners, including Jim Marshall and Hartley Peavey, went on record saying they couldn’t see a long-term future for tube amps, not because they didn’t want to carry on making them but because the tube manufacturers were dropping like flies.
In the UK, the closure of GEC’s West London M-O Valve Co. factory, which had given birth to such stalwarts as the KT66, 77 and 88 output tubes, came as a major shock (Mullard had long since gone) and for a few years, it really did look as if the game was up. The market for guitar amplifiers was simply too small to justify keeping tube factories open. History shows that it didn’t quite turn out that way, but just how much of a problem had it been for Marshall during Steve’s time there?
“My first dealings were with M-O, because Mullard had gone by then and M-O had said: ‘Come and talk to us and we’ll produce what you want.’ We went through it all to get a reliable valve, how it needed to be tested and as a result, we resurrected the KT77.”
Part of Steve’s ‘educational process’ for the valve maker, however, was a little on the unorthodox side: “I told them they needed to do live testing on the valves. They asked how and I told them ‘you hit them with a hammer’. They were a bit more scientific about it and went ahead to make a test rig, but that was what it needed to ensure reliability. The first KT77s went into the Marshall Club & Country, because I didn’t particularly like the EL34 sound for a country amp.
“After M-O closed, the next thing that came along were the companies dealing with the tube manufacturers – early Chinese factories, or Tesla, or the Russians. It was a case of, ‘This is what you’ve got, now let’s make them work. We did a lot with [EHX founder] Mike Matthews, who was getting supplies from Russia, which was a workable situation, but variable.”
The situation, however, was fundamentally unstable, with supplies suddenly drying up without warning. “One Monday morning in around 1993, supplies from Tesla just stopped dead. With no warning, the factory had closed down overnight. It was a state of complete histrionic panic – there were no EL34s anywhere. I just got on the phone to see what we could get.
“We talked to Mike Matthews in New York and he said he didn’t have any EL34s or 6L6s, but he had got Russian 5881s. He sent over some samples and I said: ‘I can work with these – they can sound a bit different, but I can work with them.’ They were the only valve available at the time, but they were fine.”
Eventually, Chinese manufacturers stepped into the breach (with the help of Steve’s test hammer along the way). Now he feels supplies of valves are pretty secure. Chinese and Russian makers will continue to produce them as long as there is a demand from sufficient guitarists to keep the factories in business.
Obtaining valves was just one of the challenges Steve recalls from his time with Marshall. On another occasion, Jim Marshall told him to get a Vox AC30 into production inside two weeks, having been asked by Korg to start making the venerable combo on its behalf.
Vox had had a rough time since its 1960s heyday, when it was the mainstay of the ‘British Invasion’ forming the backline behind just about every British band from The Beatles to The Yardbirds. However, management issues in the late 60s had led to Vox’s collapse, leading to a series of takeovers, none of them very successful.
Eventually, Vox had been acquired by Rose-Morris and when that company was taken over by Korg, a Japanese manufacturer then best known for its keyboards, it suddenly found itself in possession of a vintage amp brand. Luckily for them, it was just at the time when AC30 devotee Brian May was at his peak and when all things retro and combo were on the way back. All Korg had to do was get some made – and who better to turn to than Jim Marshall?
“Jim gave me two weeks to design the AC30 for production and basically that was how we went at it. Korg USA, who were now in charge of the brand, said they wanted it to be the same as a ’63, which I completely agreed with, but it was going to be difficult, as the parts just weren’t available in some cases. The biggest problem was designing a suitable pair of transformers, but one of Marshall’s suppliers had been a supplier of Vox and we managed to get there – it worked. Early 60s capacitors and modern-day capacitors are different, but not that different. You’ve got to experiment, measure, but you can do it.
“As for speakers, when I was doing the Marshall Studio 15, I’d really wanted an alnico-sounding speaker for it. So the guys at Celestion looked into it and we came up with the Marshall Vintage and that was very much an alnico Blue-sounding speaker, so with a bit of trial and error we had a speaker – a very expensive speaker, but we had a speaker.
“The Marshall-produced AC30 was different to the original, but a lot of people like the Marshall version – it was more aggressive. The Voxes that are made in China have lost some of that aggression and are maybe a bit more vintage-sounding. The Custom Classics sounded really nice, I thought.”
Work for Marshall carried on, meanwhile, with the Dual Super Leads and what Steve thinks was his best amp during his time with Marshall – the Offset JTM45. “I put that together on the principle that this is how it should have been in the first place, as opposed to being built in a shed. Everyone I spoke with said it was the best Marshall ever. It’s still a much-loved amp and many people’s favourite Marshall.”
As the 1990s drew to a close, Steve decided that it was finally time to leave. “I’d done the designs for the third generation of Valvestate and other people in the company were saying they wanted to do it their way,” Steve recalls. “It had been an uneasy relationship all along and I’d done a lot for the company that I wasn’t really there to do.”
Grindrod left Marshall in March 2000 and soon found himself recruited to get Korg’s Valvetronix project working. “In the middle of winter, I padded the doors on my garage and started doing design work on the Vox Valvetronix amps – the 60 and the 120 – and it was a very cold winter.”
So successful was Steve’s work with Valvetronix that Korg asked him to join Vox full-time as managing director – and there he remained until 2008, steering the company’s designs for Valvetronix, coming up with various incarnations of early vintage Vox amps such as the AC15 and AC30 Custom and working on tweaks with the likes of Brian May. He also reveals that Vox had a line of bass amps at the prototype stage, but decided not to go ahead.
Although the gig with Vox had come at the right time, Steve didn’t find it a lot more comfortable. “I needed to move on to something after Marshall, but it was wrong for me. I’m too rock ’n’ roll. I’m a hippy, a country picker… and Vox and Korg are very corporate, which I am not.”
During his time at Vox in the UK, Steve made the long trip to China almost every month to oversee production. Often, his trips would entail a detour on the way home via Korea and Japan and then to New York – a gruelling schedule. More than once, he had told Korg that it would make more sense if he moved to China full-time, but this didn’t transpire. When IAG Group, the Chinese company that was manufacturing the amps, asked Steve if he wanted to join them to launch a new range of amps, he jumped at the chance.
For all that Steve enjoyed his time in China – and at the time of writing, he’s hoping to move back there – it was to prove an ill-starred venture. After a promising start with prototypes shown at NAMM and Frankfurt and the order books filling, Albion Amplification, as the venture was to be known, ran into big trouble.
The factory took too long to complete, resulting in frustrated distributors, and then financial problems set in. Though happily living in China with a Chinese wife and a thriving part-time career as a guitarist, Steve’s time with Albion was over before it really got started. Though Albion amps can be found in guitar shops, Steve Grindrod now has nothing to do with the company making them.
A spell of consultancy followed, then a move back to the UK, where he has been trying to raise funds to launch Steve Grindrod Amplification. Prototype products are ready – Pendragon guitar amps and Gypsy Boy acoustic amps – but the money needed has been, to date, hard to find.
So is Pendragon Steve’s ultimate guitar amp? He says that friends who have tried them rave over them, but it he isn’t complacent. “There’s never been a time when I’ve felt that’s it, I’ve made the perfect amp and I’m not doing any more. My brain always says, ‘No, I haven’t, let’s do better next time’.”
If everything works out, if Steve Grindrod Amplification manages to raise the money to get into production, if Steve gets to move back to China to rejoin his wife and his band, we may yet see Pendragon achieve what Albion set out to do. And if it doesn’t, it won’t be for the want of trying on Steve’s part.
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