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Vox (musical equipment)

Vox is a musical equipment manufacturer which is most famous for making the Vox AC30 guitar amplifier, the Vox electric organ, and a series of innovative but commercially unsuccessful electric guitars and bass guitars. Founded in Kent, England, Vox is owned by the Japanese electronics firm Korg since 1992.

History

Beginnings

The Jennings Organ Company was founded by Thomas Walter Jennings in Dartford Kent, England after World War II. Jennings' first successful product was the Univox, an early self-powered electronic keyboard similar to the Clavioline.

In 1956 Jennings was shown a prototype guitar amplifier made by Dick Denney, a big band guitarist and an old workmate from World War II. The company was renamed Jennings Musical Instruments, or JMI, and in 1958 the 15-watt Vox AC15 amplifier was launched. It was successful, popularized by The Shadows and other British rock 'n' roll musicians.

The AC30

In 1959, with sales under pressure from the more powerful Fender Twin and from The Shadows, who requested amplifiers with more power, Vox produced what was essentially a double-powered AC15 and named it the AC30. The AC30, fitted with alnico magnet-equipped Celestion "blue" loudspeakers and later Vox's special "Top Boost" circuitry, helped to produce the distinctive sound of the British Invasion, being used by The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks and the Yardbirds, among others. The Monkees also used Vox amps and would conceal themselves in two large empty Vox cabinets that they would emerge from at the beginning of their concerts. AC30s were later used by Brian May of Queen (who is well known for having a wall of AC30s on stage), Kurt Cobain, Paul Weller of The Jam (who also assembled a wall of AC30s), Rory Gallagher, The Edge of U2, and Radiohead guitarists Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and Ed O'Brien. The Vox amplifiers were also put into evidence in the 2001 video of Crystal by New Order.

Other Amplifiers

Once The Beatles became tied to Vox amplifiers (a deal was struck early in their recording career whereby they would be provided Vox equipment for exclusive stage use), the quest for more power began. John Lennon's first Vox was a fawn-colored twin-speaker AC15, while George Harrison's was a fawn AC30 with a top boost unit installed in the rear panel. They were later provided with twin black-covered AC30s with the rear panel top boost units. Paul McCartney was provided with one of the first transistorized amplifiers, the infamous T60, which featured an unusual separate cabinet outfitted with a 12" and a 15" speaker. The T60 head had an unnerving tendency to overheat and McCartney's was no exception, so he was then provided with an AC30 head which powered the T60's separate speaker cabinet. As the crowds at Beatles shows got louder, they needed louder amps to keep up. Jennings provided Lennon and Harrison with the first AC50 piggyback units, and McCartney's AC30/T60 rig was replaced with an AC100 head and a customized T60 2x15" cabinet. Lennon and Harrison eventually got their own AC100 rigs, with 4x12"/2-horn configurations. From 1963 through 1966, The Beatles had several prototype or specially-built Vox amplifiers, including hybrid tube/solid-state units from the short-lived 4- and 7-series.

In the early 1960’s the Brothers Grim became the first American group to be featured with Vox Amplifiers. Joe Banaron, CEO of Warwick Electronics Inc. / Thomas Organ, the United States distributor of Vox, along with Bernard Stockly (London) importer of Challenge pianos to the United States, arranged for the boys to have full use of the tall super AC 100 Vox amps (4x12" speakers). The solid-state version of this amp (known in the USA as the "Super Beatle") was produced to cash in on the Beatles-Vox affiliation, but was not nearly as successful as the tube AC30 and AC15 models. A modern popular rock artist known for use of the Super Beatle is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, although in the April 2008 issue of Premier Guitar, lead guitarist Mike Campbell revealed that the Super Beatle "backline" was, on their thirtieth anniversary tour at least, primarily used only as a stage prop, though Petty used his "on a couple of songs." A photograph included in the article showed Campbell's actual guitar sound was coming from other amplifiers hidden behind the large Super Beatles, which Campbell stated were "a tweed Fender Deluxe and a blackface Fender Princeton together behind the Super Beatle, and an isolated Vox AC30 that I have backstage in a box."

Instruments

Guitars

Vox's first electric guitars, the Clubman and Stroller were modeled after the Fender Stratocaster, which at the time, was not available in the U.K. These first guitars were low-price, low-quality models made by a cabinet maker in Shoeburyness, Essex. In 1962 Vox introduced the pentagonal Phantom guitar, originally made in England but soon after made by EKO of Italy. Phil "Fang" Volk of Paul Revere & the Raiders played a Phantom IV bass (which for some reason was eventually retrofitted with a Fender neck). It was followed a year later by the teardrop-shaped Mark VI, the prototype of which was made specifically for Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, using a Fender Stratocaster bridge. By the end of the decade, Stones bassist Bill Wyman was himself playing a teardrop-bodied bass, made for him by the company, and subsequently marketed as the Wyman Bass. Vox experimented with built-in effects and electronics, with guitars such as the Cheetah and Ultrasonic offering numerous built-in effects. Amongst many truly unique innovations were the Guitar Organ, which featured miniaturized VOX organ circuitry activated by the contact of strings with fret contacts, producing organ tones in key with guitar chords. . This instrument was heavy and cumbersome with its steel neck and external circuit boxes, and rarely worked correctly, but was certainly a hallmark of the ingenuity of this company.

In the mid 1960s, as the sound of electric 12-string guitars became popular, Vox introduced the Phantom XII, which has been used by Tony Hicks of The Hollies, Captain Sensible of early English punk band The Damned and Hilton Valentine of The Animals; and Mark XII electric 12-string guitars as well as the Tempest XII, also made in Italy, which featured a more conventional body style. The Phantom XII and Mark XII both featured a unique Bigsby style 12-string vibrato tailpiece, the only 12 string electric guitar to feature such a vibrato. There was something called the Stereo Phantom XII, which had split pickups resembling the Fender precision bass, each half of which could be sent to a separate amplifier using an onboard mix control. Vox produced a number of other models of 6 and 12 string electric guitars in both England and Italy. Guitar effects pedals, including an early version of the wah-wah pedal, used by Jimi Hendrix, and the Tone Bender fuzzbox pedal, used by Jimmy Page of the Yardbirds, were also manufactured. In 1967 VOX even introduced a series of guitars, among them the Delta phantom style guitar and bass, the Starstream teardrop 6-string, and Constellation teardrop bass, which featured built in effects such as fuzz tone, "repeater" tremolo, and even a wah-wah operated by the heel of the picking hand pushing on a spring loaded lever over the bridge.

Vox had experimented with Japanese manufacturers at the end of the sixties with the Les Paul style VG2, and in 1982 all guitar production was moved to Japan, where the Standard & Custom 24 & 25 guitars and basses were built by Matsumoku, the makers of Aria guitars. These are generally regarded as the best quality guitars ever built under the Vox name. However, they were discontinued in '85 when production was moved to Korea and they were replaced by the White Shadow models, although a number of White Shadow M Series guitars are clearly marked as made in Japan, suggesting a phased production hand-over.

Organs

The Vox brand was also applied to Jennings' electronic organs, most notably the Vox Continental of 1962, which was immortalized by Alan Price on the Animals' track "House of the Rising Sun", and later used by Paul Revere of Paul Revere & the Raiders, as well as Ray Manzarek on most songs recorded by The Doors. Doug Ingle of Iron Butterfly used it on "In A Gadda Da Vida" and other songs of the group. Mike Smith of The Dave Clark Five and Rod Argent of The Zombies were also made frequent use of the instrument.Peter Tork of the Monkees can be seen playing the unusual looking Vox organs several times during the Monkees TV series (1966-1968). In newer popular music, the organist Spider Webb of the UK garage band The Horrors can be seen using a Vox Continental. A famous Vox organ riff can be heard on "96 Tears" by Question Mark & the Mysterians.

The Continental and other Vox organs (such as the Jaguar and Continental II, Super Continental, and the Continental 300) share characteristic visual features including orange and black vinyl coverings, stands made of chromed steel tubing, and reversed black and white keys on the keyboards. The English wood key single manual continental (V301J) has become increasingly collectible, although the wood key American-built (V301H) and plastic key Italian-built models (V301E, V301E/2 and V302E) are also commanding premium prices. Jennings sold production rights for the Vox Continental organ to an Italian subsidiary of Thomas Organ in 1967. Under the new production agreement, the Continental was gradually and subtly altered in quality and sound, and reliability became questionable. For example, Ray Manzarek of The Doors had been using a Vox since 1966, but could no longer trust it during performances because of the problems in quality after 1967, and thus was forced to look elsewhere for an organ. He settled on the Gibson Kalamazoo, because it had a flat top like the Vox Continental, so it could accommodate the physical requirements of the Fender Rhodes Bass Piano, which was the bass instrument for The Doors in concert.

GuitarOrgan

In 1966, Vox introduced the revolutionary but problematic GuitarOrgan, a Phantom VI guitar with internal organ electronics. John Lennon was given one in a bid to secure an endorsement, though this never panned out. According to Up-Tight: the Velvet Underground Story, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones also tried one; when asked by the Velvets if it "worked", his answer was negative.

The instrument never became popular, but it was a precursor to the modern guitar synthesizer. Ian Curtis of Joy Division is sometimes believed to have used a GuitarOrgan, but he actually used a Phantom VII special with onboard effects.

Decline

Vox grew very big very fast. In 1964 Tom Jennings, in order to raise capital for JMI's expansion, sold controlling interest in JMI to the Royston Group, a British holding company, and sold American rights to the California-based Thomas Organ Company. Displeased with the direction his old company was taking, he left the company in 1967, roughly the same time that Marshall overtook Vox as the dominant force in the British guitar amplifier market. While Royston's Vox Sound Equipment division set up new operations in the Kent town of Erith, Tom Jennings set up a new company in his old Dartford location, joined later by Dick Denney. Jennings Electronic Industries operated for several years, making an updated and rebadged version of the AC30 along with other amplifiers, as well as a new range of organs.

Meanwhile Royston, due to the loss of a lucrative government contract in one of its other companies, went into liquidation in 1969. As a result, Vox went through a series of owners including a British bank and Dallas-Arbiter. The AC30 continued to be built alongside newer solid-state amps, but in a series of cost-cutting moves different loudspeakers with ceramic magnets began to be used, as were printed circuit boards and solid-state rectification. Particleboard replaced some plywood parts in cabinet construction, and at one point an all-solid-state version was introduced alongside the classic tube-powered model. Rose-Morris, Marshall Amplification's British distributor, bought Vox in the 1980s when their deal with Marshall ended. They tried to reinvigorate the Vox brand, continuing to build the AC30 along with a few other decent modern designs. In 1990 they sold the company to Korg.

Meanwhile in Sepulveda, Thomas Organ, after importing JMI's British-made amps for a short period in 1964-65, began to produce a line of mostly solid state amplifiers in the United States that carried the Vox name and cosmetic stylings. With some assistance from Dick Denney, these amps basically paralleled JMI's own transistorized amplifiers but were different from the British and Italian made Voxes in sound and reliability. To promote their equipment, Thomas Organ built the Voxmobile, a Ford roadster dressed up to look like a Phantom guitar, complete with a Continental organ and several "Beatle" amplifiers. Despite the huge marketing effort, Thomas Organ's Vox products did much to damage the reputation of Vox in the North American market for many years. By 1968, the company had also marketed a line of Vox drum sets (actually made by a German drum company, known as Trixon), which included a kit that featured a conical-shaped bass (kick) drum, that looked more like a wastepaper basket left on its side, and another with a bass (kick) drum, that looked like a flat tire. Gimmicks like this certainly didn't help matters, at all. By the early 1970s Vox's American presence was virtually nonexistent.

Renewal

Vox Amplification Ltd. has been owned by Korg since 1992. Korg revived the tube rectifier and alnico speakers for their version of the AC30 in what is considered the most faithful version of the amp produced for many years. Korg have also used the Vox name for a new range of digital modelling amps. In 2003 manufacturing was moved to China, including a yet-newer redesign of the venerable AC30, now designated the AC30CC.

Valvetronix

Recently Vox has emerged as a leader in the digital amp modelling market with the release of its Valvetronix line of digital amplifier modelers. Utilizing Korg's REMS modeling software, the Valvetronix are driven via a low-power tube power amp stage. The latest line, the AD15VT / AD30VT / AD50VT / AD100VT, has received many awards and much praise for its faithful recreation of eleven classic guitar amplifiers at a price that most guitarists can easily afford. The company did not reveal in the product manual which non-Vox amplifiers were modeled, although experienced guitarists would be able to deduce these from their descriptions, and the full list of amplifiers has been posted on the unofficial Valvetronix users' forum The eleven amplifier types as named on the dial are:

  • Boutique CL
  • Black 2x12
  • Tweed 4x10
  • AC15 (original Vox amp)
  • AC30TB (original Vox amp)
  • UK '70s
  • UK '80s
  • UK Modern
  • US NuMetal
  • US HiGain
  • Boutique O.D

Cooltron

In addition to the Valvetronix, Vox has developed a line of analog effects pedals. Dubbed Cooltron, the line provides guitarists with vintage sounding overdrive, compression, boost, distortion, and tremolo. The pedals utilize low-power 12AU7 tubes to create vintage soft-clipping preamplification. Two of the Cooltron pedals, the Big Ben Overdrive, and the Bulldog Distortion, won the Guitar World Magazine Platinum Award. Cooltron pedals:

  • Bulldog Distortion
  • Brit Boost
  • Big Ben Overdrive
  • Duel Overdrive
  • Over the Top Boost
  • Snake Charmer Compressor
  • VibraVOX

Notes

See also

Jennings Musical Instruments

External links

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