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Vox: Never Stops Happening!

by Glynis Ward

phantoms
(L) Vox Phantom Mark XII: V221 US made Vox Phantom 12 string guitar in white. (R) Vox Phantom Mark IV: V210 US made Vox Phantom bass guitar.

The Beatles brought the big beat to America, and with it came the biggest rock 'n roll boom the world has ever seen! Teenagers around the globe began to pick up guitars - dreaming of becoming the next big pop stars and making a number one record. But what did a 13 year old kid, whose only knowledge of rock 'n roll was from top 40 radio know about buying guitars? Not much. Playing it safe, they bought what their idols played and endorsed. Vox!

Vox Takes Over!

The humble beginnings of the Jennings Electronic Development Corporation began in the late 40s, in Dartford, Kent, England. Jennings astutely noticed that there was a shortage of musical instruments in England after the war. So he began by opening a small shop to sell used musical equipment.

By the early 50s, circulating used equipment was not enough, and the Jennings company began its many side businesses in equipment development and manufacture. They became known for their fine ingenuity, extremely progressive electronics and most importantly, incredible musical tone. The growth of the Jennings company parallels the growth of post-war popular music in England.

continental
Double-Keyboard Vox Continental Organ: V303 features the backwards key coding which is uniquely Vox.

The earliest instrument made by the company was the Univox - a small, high pitched organ which was adopted by churches. The organ was very affordable, and soon every church who needed an organ had one, so Jennings had to look for new opportunities.

The skiffle movement was on the rise in England - and Lonnie Donnegan's popularity led to England's adoration of Elvis, popularizing the electric guitar. There were very few amplifier and guitar manufacturers in England at the time, so Jennings stepped in. Partnering with his old friend and musician Dick Denny, Jennings formed JIM - Jennings Musical Industries. They began to experiment with making amplifiers, which took Denny three years to perfect.

The AC-15 became the first Vox amplifier. With only 15 watts of power, it is now considered a practice amp, but in the late 50s it was standard wattage. The earliest of these amplifiers have controls on the back panels, since skiffle musicians placed their amplifiers in front of them to get the biggest sound to the audience. Soon, AC-4s (practice amps), and AC-10s (with the addition of effects like vibrato) were introduced. They were designed to imitate more expensive and popular amplifiers like those made by Fender, and Denny perfected their inner workings to give them their own sound.

Although JMI worked hard at perfecting their equipment, it was difficult to advertise their new models, and their professional quality. They needed solid references. With a stroke of brilliance, they gave the Shadows -- then the most popular group in England -- Vox equipment. It was with Vox amplifiers that the Shadows cut their biggest hits. This gave Vox a very professional reputation. Now thousands of teenagers in England wanted to become guitar heroes like the Shadows, but imported electric guitars were expensive. So once again, with a stroke of genius, JMI stepped in to create affordable "knock off" guitars which mirrored the popular Fender models.

brian jones
Brian Jones plays his prototype Vox Phantom Mark III guitar. The body of this prototype is more elongated than the marketed model.

The first Vox guitars were also named similarly to the models they mimicked. But the UK-made Vox guitars were of minimal quality, and the company needed to find a manufacturer who could produce unique new models with superior sound. So they contracted the Italian company EKO to make guitar necks for them. These were so much better than the UK-made necks that EKO became the official manufacturer of Vox guitars, and a line of unusual and highly prized guitars became the signature of the Vox company.

In 1962, the coffin shaped Mark I, nicknamed the Phantom (a name now owned by a California company who manufactures guitars of this style) became the first original Jennings guitar. Although it took a few years to perfect, this guitar became the model on which future unusually shaped electric guitars would be fashioned. Soon, Vox also came out with the Mark III, a teardrop shape guitar made famous by Brian Jones who played the prototype. Next were hollow bodied models, and by 1964, Vox was considered an extremely experimental company.

By the mid-1960s, the Shadows popularity was waning, and Jennings had found that the Beatles could sell their equipment like no other. The Beatles brought Vox to America! By now, the demand for guitars and amplifiers outweighed the growing Jennings facility. But Jennings did not have the money to grow as large as needed. In a desperate attempt to gain expansion funds, Jennings sold the company to the Royson Group - a move which, to some, destroyed the fine reputation of the Vox name.

With the money earned by the sale of the company, Jennings -- who still operated the business -- began what he assumed was a two way contractual agreement with the Thomas Organ Company. Jennings and Thomas would effectively trade equipment: Jennings would receive organs, and Thomas would distribute Vox in the USA. But the need for Vox became greater than the need for organs, and soon the Thomas Organ Company pushed its way (with Royson's backing) into manufacturing solid state Vox amplifiers within the USA. The designs were inferior to UK Vox in both design and sound (although later modified to a better quality).

Back in the UK, Vox continued to experiment with their guitars with varying degrees of success. The spectacular but awkward Scorpion has become the rarest of all. This 9 string wonder was X shaped! Not stopping there, Vox soon released their most unusual item, the Guitar-Organ which is massively heavy and complex to play but which has been unparalleled by any other instrument.

Forum Quorum
American 60s group the Forum Quorum powered by Vox Westminster bass and Royal Guardsmen guitar amplifiers.

The Jennings company continued to perfect its amplification models, inventing the cordless transmitter, outfitting amplification units with tubular steel frames and castors, and attempting to make the most efficient equipment with the musician in mind. The tubular frames, which strengthen and protect the amplifiers and make them easier to transport, are still among the most progressive and practical designs and have never been duplicated.

By 1967, Jennings had little control over his company. Music was progressing beyond his personal interests, and the company was far too large for his management, so he resigned. The Thomas Organ Company retained use of the Vox name in the USA, continued to produce a wide variety of products, and even hired Trixon, the drum manufacturing company, to make a series of drums in 1967. But as time wore on the inevitable decline of the company and its innovations became imminent. Variety took precedence over quality, and soon the interest in Vox waned.

vox drums
(L) 1967 Vox Thunderbolt: V9140. (R) Vox Fanjet: V9034 Both sets of drums are extremely hard to come by these days.

Vox Returns!

In the late 80's the Vox name once again resurfaced. The company began to produce (and continues to make) many reproductions of its US issued transistor amps with added modern technology. Priced in a mid-range, these amps have never quite gained the popularity of the original Vox equipment, which continues to be popular both for its unusual design, and because of the history of the company's involvement with the British Invasion.




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