"BLUESBREAKER-PINSTRIPE"®

The World's Truly Legendary Grill Cloth

Over the past 20 years, seemingly every possible aspect of vintage guitar amplifiers has

been subjected to the "tonal microscope." All the virtues of NOS tubes, Alnico speakers,

point-to-point wiring, hand-wound transformers, carbon-comp resistors and even cloth

covered solid-core wire, have been exhaustively studied, discussed and analyzed. It has

all been said; It has all been done! In this context, it's interesting that vintage

grill cloth, which can be as powerful a tone shaper as any other single

component, has too-often been completely overlooked.

I believe this is a critical factor, especially for

British amplifiers. It deserves to

be acknowledged and understood.

 

In the November 1995 issue of GUITAR WORLD Magazine,

Alan Rogan, who has worked extensively with Pete (The Who),

 Keith & Ronnie (The Rolling Stones), Angus & Malcolm (AC/DC),

Eric (Slowhand), and even "George" (Mr. Hard Day's Night), said

on the topic of "Old" MARSHALL 4x12s (even with Basketweave):

"Many people ascribe the unique sound of these cabs to the wood,

but it's really all in the cloth."

 

Historically speaking, the primary purpose of grill cloth is of course to protect the fragile speaker cone from physical damage. Having an acoustically clear sound is important, but it's actually a secondary concern.

 

In the 1950s, the United States' newfound prosperity was creating exciting new products like the synthetic cloths woven from Nylon. By way of its virtues, this super-strong, lightweight plastic "miracle fabric" (as described on Page 28 of FENDER Amps, by John Teagle & John Sprung) began to be utilized by nearly all the American guitar amplifier companies. By the end of the decade, Ampeg, Fender, Gibson and even Magnatone had all adopted this new grill cloth. This structurally superior technology allowed a far more open weave, and for the first time acoustically transparent grill cloths became a reality. "THE SOUND" of grill cloth became a non-issue on most American amplifiers, as the cloth no longer altered the tone. For Leo Fender (who had previously employed a durable but rather dull sounding linen cloth), this was BIG NEWS! He actually allocated more text in the 1956-57 FENDER Catalog to this new grill cloth than to any other feature of his entire amplifier line: "The grill cloth is of the latest style plastic material, which is not only very attractive, but functional as well, inasmuch as its porosity allows considerably more sound to pass without being muffled and without the loss of high frequencies incurred with ordinary grill cloth."

 

Post-war Great Britain however, did not enjoy such "Atomic age" options. They were still recovering from the war, with a struggling economy that was highly dependent on the export market. The only thing that England had available was the natural cloths it had produced for centuries. In use as grill cloth, natural fabrics are not very strong and are quite susceptible to puncture and/ or tearing. While they could try to minimize this structural weakness by using heavier weaves and denser fabrics, that would unfortunately render such a grill cloth acoustically useless, as natural fibers, and the threads they produce, tend to absorb a significant amount of "THE SOUND" (especially in the high-frequency range). Likewise, sonically efficient "open weave" cloths that were intended for Hi-Fi home use would not be durable enough for heavy-duty professional applications.

 

For Tom Jennings' world famous line of VOX amplifiers, his grill cloth solution was to employ a multiple layer process with a fairly heavy, but loosely woven cloth, custom stitched with the "trademark" Diamond motif. This was stretched over a steel screen mesh (similar to door/ window screen) and installed directly to a "post cut," reinforced baffle board. This method looked stylish, was acoustically "bright," and actually offered moderately effective protection (at least until the reinforcing screen broke down). The significant downside was that this complex "Vox method" must have been very time consuming and costly to construct, and it was likely for this reason that nearly every other 1960s British amplifier manufacturer chose to go a different route.

 

By the mid-1960s, VOX virtually "owned" British Pop, Rock and R & B (Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, etc.),and younger, less established companies such as MARSHALL couldn't initially compete "pound for pound." They chose to offer their products as less expensive alternatives (a mid-1960s JTM 45 #1962 "Bluesbreaker" combo sold for about 80% the cost of a VOX AC30). With tighter profit margins, Jim Marshall and Ken Bran had to find cost effective solutions. They chose to utilize a more straightforward, single layer process, by sourcing a readily available grill cloth that was internally strengthened. One way to manufacture such a cloth would be to coat the surface of an "open weave" fabric with a heavy rubberized plastic treatment, segmented into narrow lines, thus reinforcing the cloth and allowing the sound to pass unimpeded through the remaining exposed areas of fabric (between the lines of coating). This accurately describes the original "White" grill cloth that MARSHALL employed from 1962 through late-1965 (as detailed on the back cover photograph from The History of MARSHALL, by Michael Doyle). The manufacturer of this cloth must have soon realized that even this solution was too fragile for the rigors of professional use and that a stronger, more heavy-duty version would be needed to serve the burgeoning British Guitar Amplifier Industry. But how could you make the same natural cloth base fabric stronger still, without completely killing the tone?

 

Since the rubberized lines of the original cloth effectively served the purpose of reinforcement, it would be logical to simply make them much wider and thicker, penetrating deeper into the fabric and producing a grill cloth much heavier in weight, yet one that continued to let some air pass unimpeded, between the stripes. These wider stripes were literally plastic "rebar," and they formed the structural core of this new heavy-duty cloth (which unfortunately was still quite susceptible to splitting between the stripes). Considering that even the fine-lined "White" cloth featured a subtle, top printed pattern, these especially wide stripes were now a much larger cosmetic concern, as indicated by the manufacturer's use of a complex, large scale repeating pattern, which was printed on the surface of the stripes to provide some much needed visual interest.

 

Samples

So was born "Bluesbreaker-Pinstripe" Grill Cloth! It was by no means structurally perfect, but it truly was the strongest reinforced natural cloth that Great Britain could produce in 1965. Certainly, they could not have predicted that this cloth would possess a "Tone" so thick and menacing, so musical and yet so mean, that it would become "Legendary"in its own right, having contributed mightily to very establishment of the definitive"Rock Guitar Sound!"

 

-Both for Clapton's Humbuckers

and Hendrix's Single-Coils! 

 

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