Not Just an Amp: The Continuing Legacy of VOX Guitars | FEATURE

Published 3 months ago on December 7, 2023

By Jonathan Graham

Having been used by the very biggest names in music, such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Dave Clark Five, The Yardbirds, Brian May, Tom Petty, Rory Gallagher, The Edge...the list goes on—it's no understatement to describe VOX amplifiers as legendary. However, the British brand's guitars (not to mention, that classic Wah pedal) share an equally rich history and one that, with its current 2021 line-up, shows no signs of slowing down. In this special Gi feature, we take a closer look at the past, present and future of one of electric guitars' most iconic brands.

VOX Amplification's legendary sound begins with Dick Denney—a young amplifier designer who began working for England's JMI Corporation in 1957. Dick, a guitarist himself, had his finger on the pulse of the rapidly evolving world of the electric guitar in the late 1950s and worked tirelessly with the JMI staff to design an amplifier that could offer the volume and sustain that guitarists of the time were craving. The result of their work was introduced to the world in January of 1958. This amplifier, dubbed the AC1/15, marked the very first appearance of the VOX name on a guitar amplifier and thus began an institution that has thrived for over six decades. Later shortened to the AC15, this amplifier quickly became the choice of London's top guitarists, including Vic Flick, who used an AC15 on his iconic recording of the "James Bond Theme."

With Rock' n' Roll on the rise in the spring of 1960, Dick Denney and the VOX crew quickly recognized that London's up and coming bands were craving more power from their amplifiers. Rather than designing an entirely new amplifier from scratch, Denney decided to stick with what he knew was a winning design and doubled the power of his beloved AC15. To accommodate the increased power of this amplifier, Denney saw it fit to expand the dimensions of the amplifier's cabinet and add an additional speaker. The resulting amplifier was dubbed the AC30/4 Twin. Boasting 30-watts, two 12″ Celestion speakers, four inputs, and two channels – Normal and Vibrato, the AC30/4 Twin was a hit amongst Rock' n' Rollers in London and quickly established VOX as the most desired amplifier in all of Britain.

In July of 1962, two young lads from Liverpool named John Lennon and Paul McCartney would acquire their very first VOX amplifiers, an AC15 Twin and a Top Boost equipped AC30 Twin. Later that year, the group would emerge from the studio with a song called "Love Me Do" and change the world of popular music forever. The unforgettable sound of The Beatles jangling guitars would become the standard for great guitar tones for decades. This song, and the frenzy that was to follow this young group in the months to come, would result in VOX becoming the most sought after guitar amplifier in the world.

Taking no time to stop and smell the roses, the British brand quickly branched off into the guitar-making business. At this point in the early '60s, the electric guitar was still largely in its infancy, and although there was already some heavy hitters in the game, there was only a limited number available in the UK.

Initially built by a cabinet making company in Shoeburyness, Essex in the UK, the first guitars and basses produced by VOX included the Shadow, Ace, Stroller, Clubman and a handful more that were somewhat similar in design to other solid-body, bolt-on neck guitars of the era. The company recognized early on that its guitars needed to have a distinctive appearance to help stand out in a marketplace that was becoming largely dominated by American brands. To this end, VOX's Tom Jennings enlisted the assistance of the London Design Centre in 1962 to suggest unique body shapes for future guitar models. Through these efforts, the iconic shapes of the original VOX Teardrop, Phantom I and Phantom II guitars were developed. These instruments featured a satin black polyester finish and were assembled in the UK using bodies, necks and hardware purchased from various outside suppliers. The Phantom I and II had three single-coil pickups, a three-position pickup selector, a vibrato arm, a bolt-on neck and a contoured back.

Like most of the other models in the 1962 VOX range, the Phantom I and Phantom II guitars were equipped with VOX V.1. single-coil pickups with "bar type" magnets and chrome covers.

While the Phantom I guitar was equipped with a three-position rotary pickup selector, the Phantom II featured three on/off slide switches, one for each pickup. Even though VOX claimed these individual switches enhanced the frequency response of the Phantom II, it was the three-position rotary pickup selector switch from the Phantom I that was incorporated into all later Phantom guitar production. These guitars were equipped with the VOX "Standard" Tremolo unit with a roller bearing for a smooth action.

Within a year, Jennings had another unique instrument on his hands called the Mark VI. Featuring a somewhat lute-shaped body with two single-coil pickups and a Bigsby style bridge unit, the new model quickly became a favourite of Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, playing the guitar on many live performances, including an Ed Sullivan Show appearance.

A major revision to the guitar line came in 1963, largely made possible by their development of vastly improved pickups, bridges and tremolo units. VOX replaced both the Phantom I and II with one new six-string Phantom model that would take advantage of these new components. The upgraded Phantom was now equipped with three VOX V.2. single-coil pickups, as well as the new "Hank Marvin Tremolo Unit." The highly regarded lead guitarist with The Shadows was famous for his tasteful use of the tremolo arm while soloing. The "Hank" tremolo unit was a two-piece system that included a Bigsby like roller action tailpiece and a micro-adjustable bridge. The tailpiece casting featured the inscribed signature of Hank Marvin.

By 1965, the popularity and worldwide demand for VOX instruments caused Jennings to enter into a contract with Eko in Italy to supplement UK guitar production, including the Phantom. Most of the VOX Phantoms sold in America were made by Eko in Italy. These Italian made Phantoms included a snap-on, padded cloth back pad.

The mid-1960s would also usher in four Italian made thin-line semi-hollow guitars from VOX. Named the Bobcat, the New Orleans, the Super Lynx, and the Super Lynx Deluxe. The 1966 US VOX catalogue described the V219 Bobcat Guitar as follows: "The professional electro-acoustic; three six-pole extended range pickups; hinged true vibrato tailpiece; 2-position string damper; vibrato; hand-bound throughout; double T-bar and adjustable truss rod; sunburst finish."

The Bobcat guitar was produced for VOX by both Eko and Crucianelli in Italy. The Crucianelli version of the Bobcat had a "batwing" shaped pickguard and was pictured in the 1966 "VOX; It's What's Happening - Beatles Cover" catalogue of the time. The Eko version of the Bobcat sports the more traditional pickguard shown at left.

The semi-acoustic, double-bound body of the 1960's era V219 VOX Bobcat by Eko had a thick poly finish. The original Bobcat had three single-coil pickups with black rectangular plastic covers and a kidney-shaped pickguard with an engraved "VOX Bobcat" inscription. It also featured a hinged vibrato tailpiece, a three-position pickup selector switch and four rotary controls with knurled aluminium control knobs. The bolt-on, removable neck featured Eko open-gear tuning machines. The neck included the Eko exclusive "Double T" aluminium extrusion plus an adjustable truss rod with the classic vertical VOX logo was engraved into the headstock. The Bobcat retailed for $330 in 1966, or about $2600 adjusted for 50+ years of inflation.

By 1982 all guitar production was moved to Japan and done by what had to be the biggest guitar manufacturer in the country, Matsumoku. Music instrument giant Korg acquired VOX in 1992 and began building VOX amplifiers by '94. The following year saw VOX producing a series of S-Type inspired guitars and basses known as the White Shadow and White Shadow M series. Surprisingly Korg/VOX did not make the Phantom and Droplet guitars from 1998 to 2012. However, limited edition runs such as the 50th Anniversary Mark III Brian Jones model would surface.

By 2013, VOX re-introduced the guitars under the names Mark III and Mark V. The Mark III being the "Teardrop" shape, and the Mark V the "coffin shape."

Fast forward to today, and VOX currently has one of its most impressive guitar line-ups to date. Combining many classic elements from the company's legendary designs, the revamped range effortlessly walks the fine line of mixing past successes with some modern-day improvements. Take, for example, the new Bobcat semi-hollow models. VOX has given them a makeover in offering a new single-coil pickup version, and following on from the two models launched last year; we now have the Bobcat V90 and S66 Bigsby models to add to the collection in 2021.

Like the original Bobcat, the 2021 VOX Bobcat S66 Bigsby reissue features a poly finished double bound semi-acoustic body. Available in two new finishes: Jet Black and Sapphire Blue. Both VOX Bobcat models share the same basic construction method; a maple plywood body with a weight-relieved spruce centre block, plus a 25.5″ scale length mahogany neck and an Indonesian ebony fretboard.

The 2021 VOX guitars range also includes two new Giulietta models, as well as the Avena-1 and the Mark III mini guitars. The Avena-1 is a modern-day take on some classic VOX designs, like the VOX Apache. It even has a built-in amplifier with effects and a 'rhythm machine' that can replicate 11 genres.

The VOX Mark III Mini Guitar models are dinky versions of the very famous VOX Teardrop shape we all know and love—and, in spite of being teeny, they can actually be used in standard tuning (or whatever tuning you like. See our first look video for more on that). They come with two single-coil pickups and are available in three colours: Aqua Green, Lipstick Red and Marble. Trust us when we tell you that the VOX Mark III Minis are a lot of fun to play.

The VOX Giulietta VGA-5TD is an archtop acoustic-electric design with onboard digital modelling via VOX's AREOS-D system, which gives you access to synth sounds, reverb and overdrive, as well as more acoustic and electric guitar sounds. This modelling system was used before on the Starstream-1 models back in 2016; however, this tech, combined with the traditional look of the new Giuletta models, is a winning formula.

VOX has also added the Giuletta VGA-5TPS model, which, again, brings classic looks in just the right amount. It has an onboard Super Capacity Preamp System with a piezo pickup and a low-cut control and features a patent-pending hybrid wood/aluminium bridge. This model will be available in Pearl Rose and Pearl White finishes.

So, with it's most impressive and comprehensive guitar line out to date, what could we see next from VOX? A reissue of the Escort? A limited run of the Scorpion model? Or even just something entirely brand new? Either way, this once small brand that grew to be a giant of the industry seems like it's listening to what guitar players and long-time fans want, and with that mindset, it will be in safe hands for decades to come.





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