After producing some of the most-iconic guitar amplifiers of the early 1960s, Vox leaned unwittingly into a failing technology – and unknowingly accelerated its own implosion. Still, some of the solid-state creations of that transitional period are classics, like this ’66 Super Beatle.
As the cliché goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall – and in the mid ’60s there was arguably no bigger amplifier name; riding high on the back of the British invasion and boosted by visibility onstage with The Beatles and others, Vox was the amp to have. Even with such massive exposure, however, parent company Jennings Musical Instruments (JMI) made choices that, in just two years, took the brand from the highest of highs to the lowest low.
We’ve told the story before in these pages, most recently in the feature on the ’65 Berkeley (July ’22), which told how JMI penned a Faustian bargain with California-based manufacturer Thomas Organ in an effort to boost the bottom line and meet demand for Vox product. It was Vox and JMI’s figurative soul that stood to be lost, in the form of depleted quality and decimated reputation, and the eventual folding of the company.
After Thomas Organ started U.S. distribution in 1964, they still failed to keep up with demand, and in less than a year the agreement became more-convoluted, allowing the Californians to manufacture Vox-branded gear on the West Coast, with JMI retaining very little control over product or profit. Some cooperation between manufacturers east and west continued for a couple of years, sharing some designs and talent. By and large, though, Thomas Organ went its own way more and more to the point where, by ’67, loud, brash, and relatively poorly-made Californian solid-state amps had a greater claim to the Vox brand than did the seminal British tube combos.
But not all early solid-state Vox amps from Thomas Organ were entirely awful, and this V-14 Super Beatle is a case in point. Initially very aware that The Beatles’ groundbreaking sound was driving its market, Thomas Organ made a sincere effort to reproduce the glories of “the Vox sound,” but in a more-efficient and bottom-line-friendly solid-state format. There was also a very conscious drive for more power, inspired by The Beatles themselves via the band’s inability to be heard over the hordes of screaming fans at live shows. In fact, where Thomas Organ’s early and brief run of all-tube Vox amps had relatively little to offer in terms of quality or tone, the solid-state designs at least tried to push the technology forward.
To be fair to both Thomas Organ and JMI, solid-state was very much seen as the way of the future in the mid ’60s, and even venerable JMI designer Dick Denney himself put considerable thought into creating great-sounding amps that dispensed with vacuum tubes. The introduction to JMI’s 1967 Solid State Product Catalog declared, “Taking a bold stride forward, Vox have successfully introduced the silicon transistor to the industry as an integral part of a large-output amplifier… Major world companies involved in amplification have for long been committed to heavy-expenditure research programmes endeavouring to produce effective solid state amplifiers. Vox have taken the lead with the production of this fine range… which cannot be copied or equalled.”
New features included Top Boost, Bass Boost, Distortion, Middle-Range-Boost, Reverb, Vibrato and Tone-X. The promotional effort concluded, “Solid State makes your Vox Amplifier more reliable than ever. Silicon Transistors ‘run cool’, and will obsolete the valve in due course.”
Though they were built differently by teams and factories several thousand miles apart, JMI and Thomas Organ had been sharing tech in the run-up to what was expected to be all-solid-state output by the end of the decade, and most of the features were boasted about on both sides of the pond. Thomas Organ had also taken some initiative in the effort to do its best impersonation of the hallowed Vox sound in a tube-less format, though arguably without fully understanding what really made the originals so dynamic and expressive in the first place. Thomas Organ designers focused first on creating multi-channel solid-state preamps that could ape the basic sonic signature of the original AC30 (or their interpretation thereof) while easily being coupled to different transistorized output stages. First used in the 35-watt Vox Viscount, it’s this modular preamp that sets the tone for the 120-watt V-14 Super Beatle seen here.
The amp’s three channels are designated Normal, Brilliant, and Bass, with Volume controls on each, Bass and Treble on the first two, and a Tone-X control on the Bass channel, which emphasized your selected band within the given frequency range. Normal also had a rocker switch to select a brighter mode dubbed Top Boost – an imitation of that active tone stage from the tube amps – while Brilliant offered a switch that engaged “Middle-Range-Boost,” or MRB, with a rotary switch on the back panel to select from three flavors. Tremolo was available on the Normal channel only, and reverb could be assigned to either the Normal or Brilliant channel, or neither. Coupled to Thomas Organ’s new 120-watt solid-state output stage, it was a powerful beast driving its matching V414 Beatle speaker cabinet, the early versions of which carried four blue Celestion G12 Alnico speakers and one Goodmans Midax horn.
This ’66 Super Beatle was purchased used in 1970 by Bill Hannapel, founder of the studio-accessories manufacturer Stedman Corporation. Hannapel used it for guitar and keyboards in various bands, preferring the Normal channel for guitar (Brilliant, he says, is brittle and anemic). At times he used it as a PA head, given its clean headroom at 120 watts.
“The amp also has great reverb,” he said. “The best spring reverb in a solid-state amp that I’ve ever heard. I referred to it as ‘Mr. Reliable’ because it was a workhorse that never let me down at a gig. Even when it wasn’t being used for PA, guitar, or keyboard, I brought it to gigs as a backup. It was loud and powerful enough to handle anything.”
The Super Beatle range had a real chance to prove it could handle anything – or just about – when its next-iteration V1141 and V1142 amps of mid ’66 arrived just in time for use on the Beatles’ last American tour, a foray once again beset by screaming fans that consistently threatened to drown out even the mighty back line of several 120-watt stacks. Soon, though, megawatt sound systems – not ever-growing guitar amps – became the way forward for large concerts. Otherwise, the Super Beatle and its brethren proved more than loud enough for mop-top wannabes playing the dance in the high-school gym – and likely left a few ears ringing.
This article originally appeared in VG’s January 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.