In today’s digitally dominated world of music gear, one way to tell how highly a guitar amp is regarded is whether it’s been emulated in major amp-modeling software packages. One of the amps you'll find in virtually all modeling applications or plug-ins is the Vox AC30.
In the beginning
The Vox AC30 was originally developed by Jennings Musical Industries, a company from Dartford, England, started by Thomas Jennings. The company’s first electronic musical product had been the Univox keyboard, which contained an amplifier in it. When guitar bands started becoming hugely popular in Britain in the late ’50s, Jennings put out a guitar amp called the G10, which was based on the circuitry of the Univox’s amplifier. As a guitar amp, it was less than successful, and Jennings brought in old friend Dick Denney, a guitarist and electronics expert to help him design a better amp. The result was the AC-15. It used AC current (hence the name) and put out 15W of power.
The Shadows, a very popular British group at the time, began using the AC15 but found that its output wasn’t sufficient to be heard over the screaming of British music fans and asked Vox for something louder. Although Jennings was initially against the idea, Denney developed what was essentially a doubled version of the AC-15, with two 12” 8-ohm speakers, EL84 output tubes and 30W of power. The AC30 was born.
“The AC30 is the first time it all came together,” says Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues in a BBC documentary about Vox. “It made all the molecules of the whole amplifier and the guitar of line in the most beautiful kind of order.”
The amp, originally a two-channel unit, was redesigned with three channels, and released in 1960 as the AC30/6. Soon after, in response to complaints that the amp’s output and high-end were diminished somewhat from the previous version, Denney designed an additional gain stage along with bass and treble controls (the amp previously had only a single tone control) that would be referred to as the “Top Boost,” which compensated, and more, for the reduced output and gave more tone control. According to the website voxshowroom.com, the Beatles used AC30/6 with the Top Boost circuit when recording their early albums.
Vox amps were on prominent display with many of the bands from the British Invasion. Not only were the Beatles using them, but another new group called the Rolling Stones were Vox users, too. Coincidentally, both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been born in Dartford.
By 1964, Jennings Musical Instruments was so overwhelmed with amp orders that it sold controlling interest to a larger company, the Royston Group, in order to get a cash infusion to expand its manufacturing to keep up with the increased demand. Unfortunately, the Royston Group, which was involved in making the original black boxes for airplanes, ended up going belly up, and eventually, Jennings was fired.
After the golden age
Vox went through a series of corporate owners after that, and one of them, Dallas Arbiter, which was owned at the time (the early 70s) by CBS, even put out a solid state version, the AC30 SS.
In 1992, Korg bought Vox and released numerous versions of the AC30, including the custom color models like the AC30C2-CM, and hand wired models like the AC30HW2 and AC30HW2X, and even remakes of the AC-15. It also makes the Vox Valvetronix series of modeling amps, which feature (surprise!) models of the AC30 and AC15.
With all the various owners Vox has had, and all the versions of the AC30, the vintage versions from the JMI era are still the ones most sought after, and that fetch the highest resale prices.
Besides players like George Harrison, Brian Jones, and other early adopters, the AC30, with its warm glassy tone and ability to go from clean to crunchy to distorted has attracted many well-known guitarists over the years. Brian May of Queen is probably the player most identified with the AC30, and his searing solos, such as the one in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” show the amp’s tone off at its very best. “The AC30 really is kind of a gift from God,” said May in that BBC Vox documentary, describing the amp as having a “lovely, rich, kind of throaty sound.”
More contemporary artists who use the AC30 include Andrew Stockdale of Wolfmother, Brandon Urie from Panic! At the Disco, Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes, Dave Stewart, and the Kings of Leon.