A Brief History of Vox: The Sound of the British Invasion

In the mid-1960s, young groups like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Yardbirds led the British Invasion, in which blues-rich rock ’n’ roll became the dominant mode of expression. While each group had its own idiosyncratic slant on the music, they all shared a powerful weapon: amplification courtesy of Vox.

Vox amplifiers like the AC30, a 30-watt tube combo, helped define the sound of these bands and the era that produced them. And in the decades since, Vox amps, prized for their signature chime, sparkle, and harmonic richness, have been go-to gear for everyone from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to Noel Gallagher of Oasis to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to jazz extraordinaire John Scofield.

From Electronic Organs to Guitar Amps

The Vox story starts in England during the World War II era, when the accordion was the popular instrument of choice among professional musicians, like the bandleader and soon-to-be television personality Lawrence Welk, and amateurs alike. Falling into the latter category, Tom Jennings started repairing accordions and selling used instruments in 1944 in a shop in Dartford, Kent, England.

After the war, Jennings began making keyboard instruments. He founded the Jennings Organ Company, which produced home and church consoles, in addition to instruments like the Univox—introduced in 1951, an electronic keyboard with a built-in tube amplifier and loudspeaker. The keyboard can be heard in action on The Tornados’ 1962 instrumental “Telstar.”

Around the same time, Jennings tried unsuccessfully to cannibalize the Univox’s amplifier to create a guitar amp. It happened that a former coworker at a munitions plant—Dick Denny, a guitarist with a strong interest in electronics—built an amplifier powerful enough that he could hear himself play in a big-band setting. Denny made a couple of other amps with built-in tremolo and showed these to Jennings. Impressed by these prototypes, Jennings hired the guitarist as an engineer in 1957.

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A Classic Is Born

Dick Denny designed the circuitry and Tom Jennings came up with the outward design of the first amp to bear the Vox name. Introduced in 1958, the AC1/15, a 15-watt 1x12 combo with a duo of EL84 power tubes, satisfied the need for loudness as British guitarists set aside their acoustics in favor of electrics.

Later shortened to the AC15 the AC1/15 quickly found a home onstage as well as in the studio. Guitarist Vic Flick used one in recording the “James Bond Theme” heard first on the Dr. No soundtrack (1962). The Shadows, the great instrumental group led by guitarist Hank Marvin, were early adopters of Vox as well.

In fact, the Shadows led to the development of one of Vox’s mainstay amplifiers. The AC15 provided the group with the sound it wanted, but the amp proved insufficiently loud for playing in large venues with boisterous audiences. In response to this feedback, Denny secretly designed a more muscular amp, which, as legend has it, Jennings only learned about through paperwork for parts orders.

Initially opposed to Denny’s new design, Jennings came around. The AC30, essentially a 30-watt 2x12 version of the AC15, was born in 1959. Marvin also had a special version made with a treble booster, for a clean sound at high volume, marketed commercially as the AC30 Top Boost.

In the 1960s, Vox would earn great visibility as other British groups used its amplifiers. When the manager of an unknown, cash-strapped band approached Vox for free amps, the company at first balked, then agreed on the condition that the group—the Beatles—use them exclusively. Until it disbanded in 1970, the Beatles indeed used mostly Vox, including the AC15, AC30, and AC100 guitar and bass amps.

Around the same time, two lads who met on a train in Dartford—Mick Jagger and Keith Richards—formed the Rolling Stones, which would have a close relationship with Vox. A 1965 advertisement showing the group with a variety of amps read, “VOX: Sound of the Longhairs.” Thanks to the endorsement of the Beatles and the Stones, not to mention groups like the Kinks and the Yardbirds, orders started pouring in for the flourishing company.

Vox’s early success was also based on the strength of its organs. Introduced in 1962, the Continental was an electronic model designed for touring musicians. The instrument, nicknamed the “Connie,” was used on many famous studio recordings—“House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly, and “Light My Fire” and “The Crystal Ship” by The Doors, just to name a few.

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The Guitar Organ and Other Oddities

Vox also delved into guitar design in the 1960s. At the time, it was all but impossible to score a Fender Stratocaster in the United Kingdom, and so Vox guitars like the Clubman and the Shadow, with their solid bodies and bolt-on necks, attempted to fill this void in the marketplace.

In 1964, Vox gave the Stones’ Brian Jones a prototype of one of its Mark series guitars, which came to be known as the Teardrop, on account of its unusual silhouette. This was Jones’ instrument of choice in concerts during 1964 and ’65, but the guitarist didn’t use it in the studio, as its shape made it impractical to play in a seated position.

Vox Guitar Organ

During the same period, Vox introduced the notoriously complicated Guitar Organ, with its many knobs and switches. It borrowed circuitry from the company’s solid-state organ, which was triggered when a fret was depressed. The Guitar Organ might’ve been cool in theory, but in practice it often malfunctioned.

Vox also branched out into effects pedals. Among other offerings, it made a wah pedal that Jimi Hendrix used to famous effect and the Tone Bender, a fuzz box that Jimmy Page deployed in his work with the Yardbirds. Beginning in 1967, Vox made guitars with built-in effects, like the V269 Starstream, which included onboard distortion, wah-wah, and a type of tremolo called repeat percussion.

But Vox’s original guitars never caught on like its other products. Generally, these axes were of a much lower quality than their counterparts by Fender and other makers, and those with built-in effects tended not to be the most user-friendly instruments.

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The Korg Era

Tom Jennings left Vox in 1967, and after that, its ownership changed hands a few times. Cost-cutting measures were introduced in the manufacturing of its amplifiers, and components like solid-state rectifiers, printed circuit boards, and inferior speakers caused classic models like the AC30 to lose their luster.

In the early 1990s, Korg, the electronic musical instrument company, bought Vox and has since righted some of the wrongs of its predecessors. For the current high-end Hand-Wired series of amplifiers, Korg has brought back tube rectifiers, turret board hand-wiring, and Celestion Alnico Blue speakers to classic models like the AC15 and the AC30.

At the same time, Vox has become a leading player in the modeling market. Its Valvetronix series of amps use Korg’s modeling software to conjure up not just the sound and feel of a range of Vox amps but of classics by Fender, Marshall, and others as well. And Vox offers a smart line of effects pedals, from recreations of its original wahs to the StompLab series of multi-effects units, incorporating modeling effects and expression pedals for guitar and bass.

Vox recently unveiled its Starstream Type-1 modeling guitar—an instrument that uses traditional magnetic and piezo pickups, in concert with modeling technology, to call forth the sounds of 27 different instruments. The new Starstream evokes the spirit of Vox’s late-’60s guitars, with their built-in effects, while opening up a whole new range of sonic possibilities for guitarists of all stripes.

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