The True Story of the Vox UL730: the Amp Behind Sgt. Pepper's

So much has been made of The Beatles’ musical gear over the years, thanks in large part to their television and movie appearances. Even Fab Four lovers who normally couldn’t care less about equipment know about the Rickenbacker 12–string guitar, the Hofner violin bass, and the Vox AC30 amplifiers.

The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely
Heart’s Club Band

But with the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band upon us, it’s time to look at one piece of Beatles equipment that gearheads and non–gearheads alike should know and revere but don’t.

It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s both at the heart of the Sgt. Pepper’s sound and just about totally unknown.

Is it a trumpet? A tape loop? A swardmandal? No, it’s a funky Vox amplifier with only about 100 units produced and most of them promptly destroyed: the UL730.

You’ll Never Forget It Has Transistors

The Vox UL730 was designed as a hybrid of tube and solid–state technology, and somehow it ended up present in the studio for all of the Sgt. Pepper’s recording sessions. We know this through photos and the authoritative word of Jim Elyea, who at one point owned the largest collection of pre–1970 Vox amps in the world.

Elyea has dubbed the 730 “the Sgt. Pepper amp” and describes it in exacting detail in his definitive 2012 tome Vox Amplifiers: The JMI Years. Used copies of the book commonly sell for more than $100, and its 682 pages will take some weight training to hoist onto your coffee table.

The 730 is the Sgt. Pepper amp. Think of any guitar solo from the album, and you know what this amp can do." - Jim Elyea

Here’s how Elyea describes the Vox UL730: "The 730 is the Sgt. Pepper amp. Think of any guitar solo from the album, and you know what this amp can do." He also goes on to unflinchingly state that the 730 isn’t exactly warm–sounding. "It will never let you forget it has transistors."

John Lennon, Elyea says, used the 730 throughout the recording of the album, and Paul McCartney was so fond of its sound that he played his Rickenbacker bass through it.

Were all of the Sgt. Peppers guitar solos recorded with the 730? Probably not. Research by Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn and studio photos of McCartney playing a Fender Esquire through a Selmer amp suggest he used that combo for his lead on “Good Morning, Good Morning.”

How George Harrison used the 730 isn’t entirely clear, but he definitely owned one. In fact, his supposed UL730 went up for auction a few years ago only to get mysteriously withdrawn. It may have, in fact, been a doctored–up imposter with faked chalk marks on the speakers.

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Birth of the UL730

Dick Denney, father of the AC30 amplifier, took a keen interest in voicing the 730 as part of Vox’s transition away from all–tube amplification.

But how the 730 and its hybrid family came into existence is an interesting story that owes something to corporate intrigue.

Prior to 1965, Vox exclusively build amps using all–tube designs. To keep up with the demand for its excellent circuits, Vox started working with Thomas Organ in Sepulveda, California to handle American distribution.

Vox UL730

As Thomas gained power in the Vox ranks, it started pushing the British operation to make solid–state amps, and hard. Transistor–based, solid–state amps would be quick to build, resulting in more gross sales.

But sales quantity over build quality concerned the British Vox team. Additionally, Thomas engineers cut their teeth on TV sets and home organs as opposed to world–class amps, so their personal attention for detail may have been a bit compromised. This could have been a big part of the reason why Denney stepped in to helped with the 730’s voicing.

Thus, the UL730 was built as a compromise of sorts, using a solid–state preamp with a tube power section to preserve something of the AC30’s warm tone. A quartet of the familiar EL84 tubes were used, and the cabinets held two 12–inch Celestion speakers, just like in the AC30.

Officially released as the UL730 (the “UL” stands for Underwriters’ Laboratories–certified), the 730 was one in a full line of hybrids.

In this line, 7 referred to guitar amps and 4 referred to bass amps. So the 730 was a 30–watt guitar amp, while the 430 was a 30–watt bass amp. The two were almost identical, but the 430 lacked vibrato and reverb.

McCartney turned to the 730 on “With A Little Help From My Friends” and where he did not use it, he employed the 430, as on “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” The bass tones on both songs are unmistakable.

The Beatles recording with the Vox UL730 (photo by Frank Hermann)

Either the 430 or 730 was used on “A Day in The Life,” though both amps look so much alike that it’s hard to distinguish between them in some photos.

With that said, this series of amps does have a distinctive look overall. In photos from the studio sessions, you can see that those 730 amp heads mounted on trolleys are all done up with silver knobs and a printed white diamond pattern that plays off the signature Vox fabric grill cloth.

Getting Softer

Just a year previous during the Revolver sessions, The Beatles used similar but more powerful Vox amps. The 7120 hybrid models accompanied the band on tour in 1966 and showed up in the studio.

The 7120’s built–in fuzz circuits were something special. You can hear them in full–tilt on Revolver songs such as “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “She Said, She Said.” “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” also harness the muscle of these amps and are featured in the promo videos The Beatles shot.

So why weren’t these amps used on “Pepper”? For starters, the 7120s were really loud amps. Per the numbering scheme, 7 meant the 7120 was a guitar amp using 120 watts of power.

The 730, on the other hand, sounded closer to the similarly 30–watt AC30 that The Beatles cut their teeth on. The 730s did have that same glorious fuzz circuits as the 7120, which meant they could get distorted bliss for Sgt. Pepper’s guitar tracks without the eardrum assault.

The 730 would later play a starring role on “All You Need Is Love.” You can see it alongside a solid–state Vox Conqueror in archival video footage.

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We’re Sorry But It’s Time Go

Looking back, no one should read too much into why The Beatles used the UL730. While the band was discriminating about some of its instrument choices, others were often determined by whatever was given to the four of them at the time.

Inside the Vox UL730 (photo courtesy of Jörg Berger via vox.opensure.net)

The 730 just happened to have perfect timing from a historical perspective as the lower–volume cousin of the band’s previous touring amps. By the time the new Vox solid–state amps came along in 1968, The Beatles moved on.

On top of this, Thomas Organ never intended for these hybrid amps to be a standby on its sales roster, as it was increasingly pushy for all–transistor technology.

The 730 was just a stepping stone, and it therefore had more than a few design compromises. The reverb units were cheap and unreliable, while a flimsy 1–watt resistor subbed in for a more expensive iron choke.

By 1968, many of the UL730s in circulation were returned to Vox by endorsees and customers who wanted the newer solid–state amps, which were far more desirable at the time.

Many of those returned 730s, it is said, were destroyed. The 730 was never made in huge numbers to begin with. Elyea estimates about 102 were manufactured. Only 25 or so of these amps exist today.

Vox UL730 (photo courtesy of Jörg Berger via vox.opensure.net)

My hope is that with the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s, music lovers who hear those Beatles tracks and outtakes in all their remastered glory will listen for the amp that made it possible.

The UL730’s story is one that amp enthusiasts need to embrace. It proves that solid–state is not the spawn of all amplifier evil and that, in the realm of music, the plane will always come second to the skill of the pilot who flies it.

Having owned a 730 until recently, I can attest to just how rock and roll it is. It doesn’t rock because of its perfection, but rather because of its many flaws. That’s what rock is about after all, isn’t it?

My amp tech — who works for the likes of Wilco — swore a blue streak after tuning up my 730 and said he never wanted to see it again.

Played at low volumes, my UL730 sounded wholly unremarkable, and its isn’t exactly creamy. But when you hit its sweet spot, that 730 conjured up the sound heard ‘round the world. And on this 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, that sound will be heard in all its psychedelic splendor once again.

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