1) The Idea: In February 2006, I was working hard to finish a pair of demanding, cost-no-object, JTM 45 Replica Chassis. Day after day, I was wiring, playing and tone testing. Day after Day, I was thinking long and hard about "THE SOUND" :
- Why, in this age of Cloned transformers, New-Production KT66 & Mullard style ECC83 tubes, Replica "Mustard Caps," and even $400 Reissue Alnico Blue speakers, had no one (MARSHALL included) really found a way to reproduce the Attitude, Character, Strut & Snarl that is CRITICAL to authentic JTM tone?
- Could the long extinct "Bluesbreaker-Pinstripe" Grill Cloth (with its unique effect on tone), really be the MISSING LINK in the true JTM tonechain?
- Would it be possible to precisely reverse engineer this "Holy Grail" of Grill Cloth, which had been lost to time for nearly 40 YEARS?
- Could such a product be accurately and consistently produced in quantity, and yield absolutely AUTHENTIC RESULTS?
Obviously, this grill cloth could provide so much joy to MARSHALL Players, Collectors and "Tone Disciples," across the world, but why hadn't anyone done this before? Throughout four decades of extinction, this MOST COVETED product had NEVER reappeared. After months of research, I realized that quite a few people had actually thought about it and some had even tried valiantly to bring it to fruition, yet nobody had ever accurately reintroduced this product. Either through lack of perseverance or skill, no previous attempt had been successful.
That fact, correctly predicted that this was going to be an exceedingly difficult and challenging project. The only way to succeed would be to work tirelessly, without losing focus or accepting defeat. I would need to painstakingly reproduce even the most trivial details, in order to achieve "absolute accuracy," both in terms of looks and sound. Despite the inevitable pitfalls, my enthusiasm got the best of me and I couldn't wait to get started.
2) The "REAL THING": It would be absolutely necessary to locate and meticulously examine a large-sized original piece, in hopefully "near mint" condition. That is very much "easier said than done," but I am very fortunate that a friend of mine owns some of the most rare and collectible electric guitars and amplifiers in world. At the time, he owned a REAL 1966 MARSHALL, Series I (2x12) "Bluesbreaker," and I thought it might be perfect for examination.
He was very excited about my project and suggested that I get in touch with a close friend of his, who unbelievably owned a larger and even more pristine piece. This original 1967 Marshall 4x12 "Straight Cab" is completely original (20 watt "Greenbacks") and the "Pinstripe" is incredibly clean: No fade, No discoloration, No rips, No tears, No wear, and No "Slant Cab" horizontal crease. A perfect "near mint" condition specimen within 20 minutes driving distance of my house! A very lucky and promising start, indeed.
3) Virtual Grill Cloth: I spent about eight hours examining and photographing this perfect cabinet. I set up my tripod, adjusted the lighting and mapped the 26"x26 1/2" area into over a hundred equal sections, which I individually photographed at the highest possible digital resolution. I returned home and brought all of the high-res digital photographs to a 1:1 scale on my computer. I cataloged and precisely assembled them, almost like the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle, and then hung them on a virtual wireframe that I constructed. This took many weeks to accomplish, but when it was done I had an incredibly realistic, photo-accurate, life-sized and complete 26"x26 1/2" piece of authentic "Bluesbreaker-Pinstripe" Grill Cloth on my computer screen, ready for manipulation.
4) Stripes: I drew a line over one of the digitally photographed stripes and adjusted its width until it matched perfectly. I then moved and overlaid that same line over at least a dozen additional stripes, until I was absolutely convinced that this "master" line was the exact width as the photographed stripes. I then copied that original line and pasted identical lines over each one of the 100+ stripes on the virtual wireframe. Next, I minutely tweaked each individual photograph until it precisely synchronized with each line and "locked in" to every surrounding photo. Everything was now in perfect alignment, with the properly sized and spaced lines. I then isolated these lines that were now a perfect representation of the stripes, and created my first digital layer.
5) Cracking "The Code": The visual heart and soul of "Bluesbreaker-Pinstripe" Grill Cloth is its one-of-a-kind "Snakeskin" like pattern, which is printed in fine detail on the surface of the light gray stripes. In addition to the 100+ high resolution, close-up photos, I also took 12 additional, more distant shots that would cover the entire 26"x26 1/2" piece. From these "orientation" photos, I assembled a life-sized, black and white composite "poster," which I had laminated. For three months straight, I studied this high contrast representation for many hours every evening (literally until my eyesight was blurred). I needed to "crack the code" behind of the elusive, but obviously repeating pattern. With colored dry erase markers I began to delineate every repeated nuance. This was essential because I had to know precisely, where, when and how the pattern repeated (vertically and horizontally), so that I could accurately reproduce the pattern infinitely, in both directions. Only in this way could I reproduce pieces large enough to cover the hidden wraparound widths of the 4x12 cabinets, and the incredible length required by the 8x10 cabinets.
I was extremely fortunate to have studied a perfect 4x12 cabinet, as they utilized the widest pieces of original "Bluesbreaker-Pinstripe" Grill Cloth ever used in production. A smaller/ narrower example would have made the "authenticity" of this project impossible, because the pattern is as complex as it is large (it only repeats itself "width-wise," after more than 100+ stripes have "played out").
After many months of study, I finally recognized the logic behind the pattern, which then became very obvious and therefore predictable! Once I understood the "Rules of Repetition," I copied, cropped and relocated only "The Key" photos and precisely reoriented them to extend the pattern width a few inches on either side. I also properly extended the pattern length from 26" to 52" (in order to accommodate the 8x10s and "Tall Bottom" 4x12s). Next was the overwhelming task of precisely isolating the photographed pattern and converting it into the second digital layer. Under high magnification, I isolated the pattern and erased all of the extraneous "gray stripe/ base fabric" imagery, one pixel at a time! This giant-sized 36"x52" representation had Millions of pixels that needed to be evaluated individually, and this process took three months of full-time work to complete, but it gave me an unbelievably precise Image of the isolated pattern. I finally had the perfect second digital layer. The pattern I have isolated and utilized is ABSOLUTELTY PHOTO-ACCURATE & IDENTICAL to the 1960s Original, in every way possible!
6) The Painfully Elusive Base Fabric: I soon realized that in order to accurately reproduce the fabric, color and construction, I would need to track down an authentic sample for myself. I was fortunate enough to locate a late-1965 2x12 PA cabinet (Silverdale Road Alnicos), which I dissembled so that I could conveniently carry the baffle and grill cloth around " under my arm" as I continued the quest.
It took nearly a year to find an appropriate base fabric. I drove hundreds of miles, visiting nearly every fabric store from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia. After months of fruitless searching, I came across a promising store in Oregon and purchased a half-dozen "contender cloths" for prototyping and evaluation. After some small-scale test runs, I found that one was quite close to the original base fabric. Unfortunately, when I returned to purchase a larger quantity, I was informed that it had been discontinued, and that I had actually bought the last few yards they had in stock on my previous visit.
Fortunately, I had a small amount of the fabric left from my original purchase. I scoured nationwide phone books, the Internet and "word of mouth" contacts to find a match. In the end, I located an "old world" manufacturer with a product that was absolutely perfect in every way. Unfortunately, this fine company was also selling me their very last pieces from a production run they actually discontinued over 12 YEARS AGO! Thankfully, after pleading my case they granted me an exclusive limited production of this essential fabric. I am now the only person in the world who has commercial access to this original 1960s Spec Base Fabric:
* The only improvement over the "Original" cloth that I made was that 1960s examples were manufactured with industrial grade fibers woven into the base fabric. Unfortunately, this produces a structurally weak cloth and most original pieces of "Bluesbreaker-Pinstripe" suffer from considerable rips and tears. Fortunately, the manufacturer of this identical fabric allowed me the choice of cloth QUALITY. The highest available grade is produced from fibers that are two-to-three times longer than the types chosen for industrial use. When woven to identical specifications, this quite logically produces a cloth that is 2-3 times as strong. This fabric is very expensive, but it looks the same, it feels the same, it certainly sounds the same, and this time around it promises to hold up much better and not "split" like 1960s Originals.
There is also a significant feature of the original base fabric, as it was utilized in the manufacturing process. Original "Bluesbreaker-Pinstripe" base fabric was oriented at a slight parallelogram. When viewed horizontally, the stripes run parallel to the east-west threads of the cloth, but the north-south threads are not perfectly perpendicular, and are slanted at roughly 83-87 degrees to the stripes. This "bias weave" construction method was undoubtedly intentional, as it was also a notable feature of the original "white" grill cloth. Typically, this manufacturing technique is utilized to increase a fabric's strength. The forced cross tension effectively tightens the weave evenly throughout the cloth, as the stripes are embedded. In my quest for absolute accuracy, I have precisely reproduced this "bias weave" detail.
7) "Critical Mass" and Age: In terms of "Tone," the heavy rubberized stripes would be the most critical feature. I spent months analyzing the original material and method of embedment. At long last, I have sucessfully recreated a Handmade manufacturing process that produces identical results. It takes over two hours just to create, embed and cure the authentic stripes that form the "sonic backbone" of each and every piece of TRUE "BLUESBREAKER-PINSTRIPE" Grill Cloth . The stripes I now produce are of the same width & weight, have the same edge treatment, and possess "THE SOUND," as the original grill cloth (Original 1965-66 pieces typically feature slightly thicker stripes and the later 1967-1968 peices feature noticably thinner stripes. I have chosen to replicate the 1966-67 "medium-style" stripes, which can be considered to be the Classic "Bluesbreaker-Pinstripe" look and sound) .
I also consulted multiple experts, who examined my 1965 piece of "Bluesbreaker-Pinstripe" Grill Cloth and gave me their advice on how to proceed in accurately reproducing the "feel" of the stripes. Primarily, the area in question was the fact that the original 1965 stripes feel quite hard and brittle. In fact, much of the "cross-wise" tearing found in many original pieces is largely caused by these exceedingly stiff stripes, which after 40 years of "drying out," would much rather crack than flex. However, this was not always the case, as you can clearly observe no cracking whatsoever, where the cloth was originally folded at a hard 90 degree angle and stapled at the baffle's edge. Every expert I consulted agreed that the 1965 stripes were much softer and more flexible when they were new. As plastics age, the chemicals and solvents that are utilized to make the product pliable (plasticizers) slowly evaporate over time. After 40 years this becomes very apparent, as similar conditions can be also witnessed in the "hardness" of vintage Tolex, the cracking of "Blonde/ Brown" FENDER "Dogbone" handles, and even once soft automotive vinyls that are now hopelessly cracking to pieces.
After considering the use of catalyzed hardeners, I decided to reproduce this product as it was when NEW! If you are a collector who has a 1960s piece of "Bluesbreaker-Pinstripe," you will find the stripes of my TRUE "BLUESBREAKER-PINSTRIPE" slightly softer and more rubbery when compared to your original example. This is EXACTLY how the original cloth felt in the 1960s, when it was new! Forty years from now (for better or worse), a piece that I make today will feel just as hard and dry as the originals do now.
8) "True Color" and Discoloration: The large surface area of the rubberized stripes, makes "Bluesbreaker-Pinstripe" Grill Cloth very susceptible to environmental discoloration. Decades of UV exposure, use on stages and in smoky clubs, leaves the original color in question on even the best-preserved 1960s pieces (see Page 111 of Michael Doyle's History of MARSHALL, for a visual example of "Browning"). My 1965 piece looked quite good until I disassembled the cabinet and examined the hidden, wrapped-around areas that had not seen the light of day since "Rubber Soul" was at the top of the charts! This " tired old cloth" now looked dingy when compared to its " virgin perimeter," which was undoubtably the original color, as it looked when new, on stage with Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
It was my intention to run a spectrograph color analysis of the "as new" original color. Unfortunately, this was not possible because of the small stripe width and pattern overlay, which dictated that I would have to match the color by eye. Next, I examined a palette of over 10,000 color chips and none of them was precisely correct, so I purchased the closest color plus five additional "tints" to be mixed in by eye. After a few weeks, I was sure that I had come across a formula that reproduced the original color perfectly. I utilized it on a small-scale prototype and compared the results. I brought it back to the experts and we compared my prototype color to the 1965 example under natural light (both in direct sunlight and overcast conditions). We also compared the samples under incandescent, florescent and "color corrected" lighting before verifying that this was indeed the authentic hue. Finally, I was able to computer analyze this one-of-a-kind, unique color and derive a proprietary formula. TRUE "BLUESBREAKER-PINSTRIPE" is absolutely the authentic color of Original "Bluesbreaker-Pinstripe," when it was new, in the 1960s.
9) "Splitting Hairs": On original 1960s examples of "Bluesbreaker-Pinstripe" Grill Cloth, there is an exceedingly detailed cosmetic feature that is actually no larger than the head of a pin - so small that you really need a magnifying glass to see it with any clarity.
The "Snakeskin" like pattern, which appears to be inked on top of the stripes in a solid charcoal gray color, is really an illusion. When examined closely, you can clearly see that this pattern is printed in extremely small black dots. This pixelated type of printing is called a halftone and the apparent "color" is created through a combination of the black "dots" overlaying the stripes, but likewise letting a small amount of the lighter stripe color to show through from between the pixels. From a distance, this composite coloration appears to be charcoal gray, but it definitively is not.
However, this seemingly unimportant feature does have direct bearing on the surface finish of the original cloth. From a distance, the finish appears to be a semi-gloss, but when examined closely it becomes obvious that the light gray stripes have an almost dead level surface that is quite glossy. In contrast, the halftone pattern appears to have almost a matte finish (due to how the light plays off its irregular pixelated surface). It is the combination of these two different surface treatments that creates this unique, matte-on-gloss composite (semi-gloss effect). Without duplicating the halftone pattern technique, any replica cloth would appear as gloss-on-gloss - Far too shiny and totally unacceptable!
Now, reproducing such a minuscule cosmetic feature (one that has no bearing whatsoever on "THE SOUND" ) might be considered by some to be overkill. I can understand that perspective, but I went into this project with the goal of 100% accuracy. If there was a way to reproduce this halftone detail, I was going to explore it before accepting a compromise. I again consulted a respected expert and he worked closely with me to achieve this goal. I am proud to say that we were successful in reproducing this most demanding of details. TRUE "BLUESBREAKER-PINSTRIPE" Grill Cloth is ABSOLUTELY ACCURATE to the SMALLEST DETAIL!
10) Process and Machinery: With the digital layers recorded, processed and mechanized, the final step prior to production was in many ways the most challenging. I had to design and construct unique stretchers, a one-of-a-kind 400lb press, and the other equipment necessary to produce authentic results. I also had to purchase the specialized tools and expensive curing machinery that would be necessary in producing this TRUE "BLUESBEAKER-PINSTRIPE" Grill Cloth .
Only after this had been done, could I begin full-sized, full-scale, trial-and-error prototyping. It is always this last phase that tests your patience and determination the most. It's really all you can do to keep your spirits up, as you fail & adjust, fail & adjust, and yet STILL FAIL AGAIN! - Time after time after time! - Week after week after week! After THIRTEEN MONTHS, which rendered over 100 "very close" examples, yet each not quite right for one reason or another, I finally discovered the 18 precise steps, that consistently "deliver the goods" EVERY TIME!
So there you have it!
Hopefully, this information has answered any questions you may have had and given you some insight into just how dedicated I am, in ensuring that this product is as accurately authentic, as is humanly possible. THREE YEARS of research and development has truly been a "labor of love" - but now it is on to the "Main Event" - It is finally time to make TRUE "BLUESBREAKER-PINSTRIPE" available to YOU, for the first time in over 40 YEARS!
If you've always wanted "THE SOUND," then I'm proud and very pleased to say that your decades long wait is FINALLY over - Enjoy!