"Article reprinted courtesy of Andy Babiuk"
When musicians talk about Vox guitars, images of the wild-shaped Vox Phantom and Teardrop guitars from the mid ’60s come to mind. But the story of Vox guitars actually dates back to the late ’50s.
Jennings Musical Instruments Ltd. had distributed a variety of musical instruments—including European-made guitars—since the early ’50s, but by late 1959, JMI (which by this time was called Jennings Musical Idustries) had decided to phase in their own line of Vox electric guitars built in the U.K. A series of budget model electrics were outsourced by company founder Tom Jennings to Stuart Darkins & Co. of Shoeburyness—a woodworking factory that produced furniture and “fancy goods.”
The result was a series of primitive Vox electric guitars with model names such as the Ace, Duotone, Shadow, and Stroller. These crude, basic instruments were built for beginners and amateur musicians, and were intended to compete with inexpensive electrics made by rival British distributors like Rosetti, Dallas, Selmer, and Watkins.
By early 1961, Jennings hired a team of guitar builders including Bob Pearson, Ken Wilson, and Mick Bennett to make Vox guitars at the Jennings factory in Dartford, Kent. The first new high-end Vox models were the Escort and Consort. This was the first in a series of serious steps made by Jennings to produce high-quality electric guitars.
In an effort to carve out his own identity in the guitar market, Jennings had visions of a new guitar design like no other. According to writer Martin Kelly, whose painstaking research has uncovered a great deal of new information for his upcoming book on Vox guitars, Jennings commissioned a self-employed graphic artist to design a unique looking guitar. The result was the asymmetrical, coffin-shaped Vox Phantom that was first launched in October of 1961, and not in 1963, as is commonly believed.
For the first two years of production, Phantom guitars were hand built in the Dartford factory. The original Phantom guitars featured metal pickup covers, a larger headstock, and a different vibrato system than the ones that were later produced. This guitar is referred to as the Phantom Mark I. It is estimated that only 150 of these original Phantom Mark I guitars were ever made. Vox redesigned the Phantom in 1963, and set up for mass production of the Phantom Mark II. Jennings had all the guitar parts outsourced, and then brought back in to the Dartford factory where the final Vox guitars were assembled.
By 1964, the British music scene was exploding with bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Dave Clark Five, and the Hollies—all of whom used Vox amplifiers. Jennings started to pitch Vox guitars to all the major acts, which made them immensely popular, and resulted in a huge demand for the instruments. To keep up with the request for more Vox guitars, Jennings contacted Welson, a small Italian manufacturer who began building a limited number of inexpensive single-cutaway jazz box guitars that were added to the Vox line. Later, a larger Italian guitar manufacturer called Crucianelli was hired by Jennings to build semi-hollow electric guitar models bearing the Vox name.
The Beatles’ first visit to the states in February of 1964 changed everything for Vox, and the demand for its amps and guitars was overwhelming. Jennings struck up a U.S. distribution deal with the Thomas Organ Company of California, and it quickly became clear that the British factory could not produce enough guitars for the American market, let alone the world. To keep up with the ever-increasing demand, Jennings contracted with EKO, the largest guitar manufacturer in Italy. When EKO took over, they started reproducing the Crucianelli models for Vox, as well as many of the British models. The bulk of these Italian-made Vox guitars were shipped to Thomas Organ for the U.S. market.
British production of Vox guitars continued simultaneously, and it was common to have the same models built in both factories. British-made Vox guitars have sequential serial numbers stamped on the back of the headstock (and later on the neck plates), while the Italian-made guitars have a different set of serial numbers that is always stamped onto the neck plates.
As Vox grew, Jennings continued to experiment with new guitar models. One of the most famous is the Vox Teardrop, which Jennings said was inspired by a lute. This new Vox model was the third in the Phantom series, and was appropriately named the Vox Phantom Mark III, although, to this day, it is more commonly referred to as the Teardrop. The very first Teardrops had two pickups, and were hand made by Bennett and Wilson at the Dartford factory. According to Kelly, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones did not receive the first Vox Teardrop guitar built. A pair of Vox Teardrop instruments—a guitar and bass—debuted in January of 1964, and Jones didn’t receive his famous white Teardrop until mid 1964. Soon after, he was given a 12-string version. Jones’ use of the Teardrop with the Rolling Stones made the guitar one of the most sought after and recognizable of all Vox guitars.
Vox surged forward with almost limitless bounds in guitar design. A slew of unique new models were introduced, and innovative instruments such as the Vox Scorpion, an X shaped 9-string guitar (with three pairs of strings and three single strings) soon appeared. The interesting Mando Guitar—a cross between a mandolin and a short-scale 12-string—was launched in late 1965. The most advanced guitar Jennings ever produced was the Vox Phantom Guitar-Organ, which was the brainchild of Vox ace Dick Denney and Vox chief engineer Derek Underdown. The Guitar-Organ was actually a Phantom guitar with miniaturized electronics from the Vox Continental organ. The appropriate organ notes were activated when the strings made contact with the frets. Fusing a guitar with a keyboard was a concept well before its time, and did not surface again until more then a decade later with advent of the guitar synthesizer.
Unusual Vox instruments were not uncommon for Jennings. Brian Jones commissioned Vox to build him an electric Appalachian dulcimer. The instrument was made for him at the Dartford factory by a woodworker named Tony Diamond, and Jones used his Vox Bijou dulcimer on the Stones’ hit “Lady Jane.” Jones’ first Bijou dulcimer was stolen at the beginning of the Stones’ U.S. tour in the summer of 1966, and a second was quickly made for him. Another Stone with a Vox instrument was Bill Wyman. Vox introduced the semi-hollow teardrop Bill Wyman Signature Model bass in 1966. Various versions of the Vox Wyman bass were produced in both the U.K. and in Italy.
Vox also built a large number of prototype guitars. A one-off guitar called the Kensington was hand built by Bennett at the Dartford factory for the Beatles. Denney, inspired by the wood scrolls on an old piano, sketched the idea on paper and gave it to Bennett. The creation of the Kensington is a good example of how Vox product ideas and design were very often a team effort. The Vox Kensington prototype was displayed at a British trade show in 1966, then went back to the factory, where it was fitted with a set of custom electronics. The guitar was then given to the Beatles in 1967. John Lennon used the guitar during the filming of the “Hello Goodbye” video, and, later, George Harrison used the same guitar during the filming of “I Am the Walrus” in an outtake for the Magical Mystery Tour film.
Despite the popularity of Vox guitars, Jennings’ business dealings were not always the best, as evidenced by his decision to sell a controlling interest in JMI to Royston Industries. Because of bad business decisions, production of Vox guitars stopped in the U.K. by late 1967. Italian guitar production, which was controlled by Thomas Organ, continued until late 1969. By the early ’70s, Vox was no longer making guitars, and the remainder of dealer inventories was sold off. As the Vox name was sold many times, various short-lived Vox guitar models would pop up through the years. In 1993, Jack Charles introduced a line of Phantom guitars under the name Phantom Guitar Works that included the Teardrop and the Mando Guitar. The original Vox instruments are still treasured by British Invasion fans and command high prices on the vintage market.
Special thanks to Martin Kelly (voxguitars.info) and Jim Elyea (voxguidebook.com). Andy Babiuk is the author of Beatles Gear—The Fab Four’s Instruments from Stage to Studio, and has been working on a follow-up book titled Stones Gear. He is currently finishing a book for Fred Gretsch on the history of Paul Bigsby. Contact Andy at firstname.lastname@example.org.