With its bevy of hip features, Vox’s new AC30 Custom Classic is light years beyond the original AC30 conceived by Vox founders Tom Jennings and Dick Denney. But it’s likely the two would have approved of how the current Vox team has updated their original design to suit modern tastes—especially considering their own efforts to create a revolutionary guitar amplifier so many years ago.
Ironically, Jennings started in the manufacturing business with an electronic organ he’d designed called the Univox, which sold well enough to warrant forming the Jennings Organ Company in 1951. However, Jennings was soon drawn to Britain’s emerging rock scene, where he saw an opportunity to develop a line of guitar amplifiers. In a bit of good fortune, a friend and one-time co-worker named Dick Denney just happened to be developing a two-channel, 15-watt combo with tremolo. After hearing the amp, Jennings offered Denney a job as chief designer for his new company, which was to be called Jennings Musical Industries. Jennings envisioned producing amplifiers under a name taken from his earlier creation, and hence the Vox brand was born.
Introduced in 1958 as the AC15, the amp’s combination of EL84 tubes, a Celestion alnico speaker, and Denney’s savvy circuit-voicing gave players the ability to go from chiming clean tones to a harmonics-laden distortion sound with a sweep of their guitar’s volume control. The introduction of the more powerful AC30 series combos helped spearhead the British Invasion, and as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones shot to the top of the charts, their classy looking AC30s went right along. The styling genius of Vox, which was reflected in its amplifiers with such timeless British elegance, also emerged on other Vox products that hit the scene in the 1960s—in particular, the Phantom and Mark series guitars, which, with their radical angled and teardrop shapes, looked as mod as the fashions from London’s posh boutiques, and the Vox Continental organ, which saw extensive use by British Invasion bands such as the Animals and the Dave Clark 5.
In 1967, Jennings entered into a relationship with the Thomas Organ Company, a move that led to some less-than-spectacular solid-state amps, but also resulted in the invention of the wah-wah, which became one of Vox’s biggest hits of the late ’60s and has remained an essential guitar effect to this day. Vox experienced myriad ups and downs in its subsequent ownerships, and after regaining some of its former glory following its takeover by Korg Incorporated in 1995 (which resulted in the best AC30 reissue available in decades), Vox was able to break new ground again in 2001 with the introduction of its Valvetronix series modeling amplifiers. A project of two countries and two technologies, the Valvetronix’s Resonant structure and Electronic circuit Modeling System (REMS for short) was courtesy of Korg, while its Valve Reactor and VariAmp circuits were developed by a British engineering team headed by renowned amp designer Steve Grinrod. The REMS system allowed the AD120VT to model the input stages and tone controls of a variety of classic tube amps, while Grinrod’s ingenious analog circuits worked hand-in-hand in the power stage to deliver tube-style dynamics and playing feel.
Having established itself in the modeling game, Vox turned its attention back to the venerable AC30, first by creating a handwired version that featured a number of welcome updates, including reverb and tremolo, then embarking in 2004 on the project that would culminate in the sophisticated AC30 Custom Classic, which sports blendable channels, a tube-driven reverb (with Tone and Level controls and a Dwell switch), a true-bypass effects loop, and a switchable cathode resistor for low-power operation. There’s no doubt that the spirit of innovation lives on at Vox, and the Custom Classic (which, for the first time is available in head and combo versions with matching speaker cabinets) is evidence of how even one of its earliest designs has evolved to give guitarists as much “wow” factor today as they got from the original AC30 over 40 years ago. I was certainly impressed by the Classic Combos I heard at last summer’s NAMM show, so stay tuned for an upcoming review.