The Enigmatic Phantom
By Terry Carleton
Unlike the rather timeless looks of the Strat and Les Paul, the Vox Phantom seems reminiscent of a very narrow time period; namely that of the mid '60s. One can't imagine that '50s players like Chuck Berry, or '70s players like Al Di Meola would have ever played this guitar. It is just so psychedelic '60s. That being said, however, not many of the long-haired, leaping luminaries of the '60s 6-string scene actually played this far-out ax back then. OK, so why is that?
Like so many other weird-looking or odd-shaped guitars that we have written about over the years in the “Vintage Vault” and “Pawn Shop Prize” columns, we have learned that sometimes even a great guitar just goes by unnoticed. Maybe, it wasn't prominently featured on an album cover, or rumored to have been used by Hendrix or Page in some secret studio somewhere. But I think the reason is not so much a "fate of the gods" kind of story, but more along the simpler lines of it was an "all dressed up and nowhere to go-go" kind of thing....
So, as great as a lot of the Vox guitars were back then, and as awesome as the Phantom looks, it seems that it was just was not a real well made or well thought out guitar. In other words, it looked better than it played....
It would seem that the Vox company never really got to work out all the bugs with their expansive and ambitious line. They made amps, guitars, basses, P.A. systems, keyboards, FX pedals, acoustic guitars, drums, and more. Some of the line was made in England, some of it in Italy, some in Germany, and due to ownership and licensing changes, some in California and in the late '60s, even Japan as well. There were even stores called “The Vox Center” that sold Vox gear only. That little chain eventually changed their name to “Guitar Center.”
On to the guitar:
Right off the bat I would suggest that the pickups were rather nondescript sounding and that it was hard to get them adjusted close enough to the strings, which of course led to a rather wimpy output signal. So, it was a less-than-great guitar for the lead players and only slightly groovy enough for the rhythm players.
The Bigsby-style vibrato was set up in such a way that there wasn't very much tension on the strings as they came over the bridge, which stole sustain and tone from a guitar that was already struggling to find a musical identity that was on a par with its shape. Keep in mind, I actually like my Phantom, but I had to dick around with it quite a bit.
First of all, I changed out the bridge pickup with a stacked Seymour. It works nicely with the two remaining stock Vox pickups and serves to give me a more commanding tone for lead playing without having to rout out the body or pickguard. Then, in an effort to give the guitar a more solid sound, I raised the bridge, which of course raised the action. That led to a shimming of the neck, which, (you may see this coming) put the strings further away from the pickups. So, although it wasn't easy, I got there. Now, I have a guitar that plays and sounds the way it should/could have way back when.
I'm happy to report that for the fans of this guitar shape that want to get in on the Phantom mojo, you have choices. First of all, the Phantom Guitar Company makes very nice guitars in the tear-drop and Phantom shapes. They have worked out all the little aforementioned bugs and for under a G-note you can get a very cool looking and sounding guitar. The current Vox company is making great high-end guitars that are very forward thinking and super fun to play. The Eastwood Guitar Company also made a nice Phantom replica.
It is interesting to note that even though no real cats of the '60s played the Phantom VI, there were several knock-offs available. Teisco, Liban, Domino, Checkmate, and others made Phantom-looking guitars in the '60s and into the '70s, but to the best of my knowledge, none of them played much better than your average starter guitar.
Speaking of looking cool, there are promo pictures of guys ranging from the James Brown Band to the Monkees playing Vox guitars, but I was hard-pressed to find actual live pix of anyone playing a Vox Phantom on stage until the '80s.
One of the most visible rockers to use the Phantom live is Ian Curtis of Joy Division back in the early '80s. He made his white Phantom very popular to the post-punk set. It was around that time that the Vox Phantom became popular as a video guitar, i.e. Greg Kihn , Tom Petty , as with the '60s revival & "paisley underground" set. It was then that they really had their full appreciation and collectible value set, (similar to Flying Vs and Explorers) . This was around the time when we finally started to develop an appreciation of the futuristic and post-modern designs of the '50s and '60s. But by the time the Phantom became popular with actual rockstars using them live or at least in their videos, the guitar was way out of production. Vox did try to make this a popular guitar, but having been run through two or three different manufacturing plants as well as having been offered in several different models that featured cumbersome on-board effects and even the guts of a Vox Continental organ crammed into them, perhaps this iconic guitar had no actual musical identity.
My take on The Phantom is this: The guitar never really got to enjoy the year-after-year consistency of being made in the same plant. As it was gaining notoriety, it seems to have never really gone through the typical refinement processes necessary to please the needs of the actual players. Now when you see a Phantom on stage, it's perhaps more out of nostalgia than a real musical application. The sound of the guitar is a little like a cross between a thin Fender and a Rick, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but most likely, if you want to use an actual '60s Vox Phantom VI in a live situation, you'll need to address some of the issues outlined here. I did, and I love playing mine, especially through my far out and solid (state) Beatle amp!
By the way, the English ones sound better and are worth more to the collectors, the later Italian ones, made in the EKO plant, are built a little tougher and generally play better. Go figure...
Thanks to Paul Connet for the set-up, Mike Fox for installing the new trem spring from Phantom Guitars (it's trickier than you might think), and Ronnie Sargent of Dinette Guitars.