VOX: THE SOUND THAT FUELED THE "BRITISH INVASION"
May 17, 2006
We separate myth and mystery, hype and history
When I was in high school, the dream of owning a real Vox amplifier was probably the only thing that kept me sane. I'd come home after school and listen to our local "teen-oriented" AM radio station, WQAM in Miami. Each afternoon, from 3 to 4 PM, they played nothing but the newest recordings by British recording artists like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Gerry and the Pacemakers and yes, even Herman and the Hermits. I'd open a bottle of Coca-Cola and grab a handful of Oreo cookies and for the next hour, I was whisked away to London and Liverpool.
|Vintage Vox amps: Super Beatle, AC50, AC30
My guitar teacher at the time, the late Buddy Ryan, played through a Magnatone amp and really believed they were the best, but at 15, the last thing I wanted to do was show up at band practice toting a Magnatone. For me, it had to be a Vox - nothing else would do. The reason is simple: All the cool bands played through Vox amps. Today, Vox amps are hot again, and for darn good reason. But the Vox story, which actually began in the 1950s, isn't widely known. Hopefully, besides a healthy dose of nostalgia, I'll be able to give you a first hand account of why Vox amps are so historically significant.
In 1958, Tom Jennings and Dick Denney formed a company called Jennings Musical Instruments (JMI). Together they designed and built the first Vox amp, the AC-15. Back then, American amps, like those from Fender, Gibson and Ampeg, were very difficult to get in England, essentially making Vox "the only game in town." By the early 1960s, the hottest band in the UK, The Shadows, were using Vox amps.
A FATEFUL VISIT
In July of 1962, The Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, made a visit to the Vox factory at Dartford, Kent, just southeast of London. Epstein proposed that his new group, which he claimed were "going to grow very big," get a set of Vox amps. In exchange, Vox (or more precisely, JMI) could use publicity photos of the group in any manner the company might choose and that the band would never use any other brand of amplifier as long as Epstein was their manager. The endorsement deal was actually struck by shop manager, Reg Clarke, but it proved to be a brilliant decision.
The Vox amps The Beatles got were tan AC-30s with that trademark diamond pattern grille cloth. The Vox sound was very clean and clear - "chimey" is the word most often used to describe the tone - and it was a perfect fit for The Beatles' signature sound. In fact, Dick Denney designed a special treble booster that mounted on the back of the amplifiers. Later, that circuit was built right into the amps and became known as "top boost," though The Beatles always used AC30s with the rear-mounted circuit. Another key design feature of the '60s Vox amps was the chrome stand, which lifted the amp off the floor and giving it much better projection in larger venues. Remember that 30 watts through two 12-inch speakers was cutting edge at the time.
Oddly enough, in early 1963, Epstein took the AC-30s into a music shop in Manchester and had the tan vinyl coverings replaced by black vinyl. This was another stroke of genius. It was also a time where a lot of things started happening very fast. From unknowns in 1962, The Beatles skyrocketed in popularity in 1963, thanks in part to several hit singles, but also because their distinctive sound was absolutely right for the times. Seeing how successful the band was becoming, Jennings Musical Instruments began running ads in the British trades showing the group playing through Vox amps. With a new album, hit singles, lots of television appearances and sold-out concerts, Vox quickly became synonymous with The Beatles. This made Vox the amplifier of choice for all the up and coming British bands, of which there were a lot.
By the time 1964 rolled around, The Beatles - and Vox - were becoming more than just a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. John and George were now playing AC-50s and Paul had a new AC-100 head feeding a separate bass cabinet. The group's landmark appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show marked the beginning of a world-wide music revolution, at the center of which were The Beatles and Vox. Suddenly, nobody could get enough British music and it seemed that new bands were popping up overnight. But it was because of The Beatles' sold-out concerts in huge venues in the U.S. that Vox began building their 100-watt amps, later renamed the "Super Beatle" amps. But we'll get to that shortly.
Now's the part where things get murky. Vox suddenly found itself in the position where it could not build and ship amplifiers fast enough to meet the demand, so they actively sought out an American company that could help handle the load. That turned out to be the Thomas Organ company. Meanwhile, to help fund the cost of larger manufacturing facilities and the development of other instruments, like guitars and organs, Tom Jennings sold the controlling interest in his company to the Royston Group of London. In hindsight, it's easy to see that both decisions were bad. Thomas Organs couldn't get enough product to fill the U.S. demand, so by 1966, they began building Vox amps themselves and giving them new "British-themed" names, like Royal Guardsman, Viscount, Essex, Westminster and Buckingham. For the 100-watt flagship amp, they decided on the name, "Super Beatle."
THE MOVE TO SOLID-STATE
As costs began to rise and as high power tube amps got heavier, there was a growing trend among all amp manufacturers to turn to new transistorized or solid-state components. In the U.S., Standel was already building them and Fender was toying with the idea. Thomas Organs wasted no time and completely revamped the Vox line with a series of solid-state amps that just didn't sound like their tube-based predecessors, which quickly led to customer disappointment. It also didn't help that Vox amps were being sold by Thomas Organ retailers rather than traditional music stores, and thus hard to come by if your city didn't have a Thomas Organ franchise.
By the early 1970's, Vox amps had had totally fallen out of favor in the U.S. market. The company had been sold a number of times by then, and Tom Jennings and Dick Denney who had originally built the Vox empire were no longer even employed by the company. Looking back, it's amazing to think of how fast things happened back then. In a span of about four years, Vox went from market domination to total ruin.
THE LEGEND LIVES ON
While new Vox amps were not selling in the 1970s and '80s, there were still enough of the older tube-based amps around. Brian May of Queen took up half the stage with his wall of AC-30s and session players who appreciated the distinctive Vox sound kept theirs in running order. Older players like me remembered when the very sight of a real Vox amp got the heart pumping just a little bit faster. Aside from being closely identified with The Beatles and the whole British Invasion, the AC-30 also holds the distinction of having the most configurations of any Vox model. Along with the usual brown and black diamond-pattern grille cloth, red and grey control panel colors and vinyl coverings that ran the gamut from tan to black to purple variations, the AC-30 had no fewer than six officially produced variations.
Today, collectors actively continue to search for AC-30s, including the Top Boost Twin, though it's the AC-30 with the factory added Top Boost control with a candy apple red control panel, two blue Vox Celestion Alnico 12-inch speakers and brown grille cloth that commands top dollar. But any genuine '60s Vox amps with all the original circuitry intact are rare these days, which is why it's so cool that Korg has purchased all the rights to produce Vox amps again.
WHICH BRINGS US UP-TO-DATE
From the 15-watt Pathfinder to the digitally modeled Valvetronix amps, there are plenty of Vox guitar amplifiers available at surprisingly affordable prices. If you're after the classic Vox sound that drove Beatlemania and the whole British Invasion, there are a number of all-tube Custom Classic models that start with the AC15. It's basically the same amp that started the whole revolution, but with a few features that today's players will really appreciate, like a master volume control and switchable speaker impedance. The Vox Brian May Signature Limited Edition hadBrian's treble booster pedal built right into the amp. There were only 500 of these manufactured, so you can bet that 20 or 30 years from now, they will be collector's items.
For me, the 1960s Vox amps will always hold a special place in my heart. In 1967, I managed to find a used 100-watt, British-made Super Beatle head, which I used with a modified Standel speaker enclosure with a retrofitted 15-inch Lansing speaker. I played my 1964 Gretsch Tennessean through that rig for several years before I "settled down" with a regular job. But to tell you the truth, the Vox Custom Classics are better built. My Super Beatle blew so many fuses, I eventually put a piece of aluminum foil in there, which was clearly an accident waiting to happen. After about a year, the power transformer suffered a total meltdown.
I've played the Custom Classics and they sound just as "chimey" as I remember them. But I also have tried out several of the Valvetronix combos and if I were gigging today, I'd probably opt for one of those simply because they can produce almost any sound you can think of, not just that signature Vox chime. I also had a chance to try out Vox ToneLab LE, which would be a great choice for the studio, since it includes digital models of almost any speaker cabinet you can think of, all perfectly miked up and ready to go.
I hope you enjoyed this little stroll down memory lane. The 1960s were amazing. It was a highly volatile time in our country's history with spectacular highs and devastating lows. I have memories of great gigs played with a wonderful group of musicians that include my good friends Pete Bartels and Craig Cherry. Thanks for the memories, guys! For the rest of you, it's a great time to play guitar. Getting the perfect tone today is as simple as plugging into one of these great new Vox amps!
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