Vox Custom Bass and Custom 25 Guitar
Vox amplifiers have been popular since the days of the Beatles; after all, with dozens of top players standing in front of their distinctive diamond grille cloths, how could they fail? Vox guitars, however, have not enjoyed the same level of esteem despite being used by several well known groups. Although Vox originally produced cheap beginners instruments, the early 1960s saw this company making some worthy professional guitars, notably the unusually shaped 'phantom' models.
The new Vox company, revitalised by Rose-Morris, have reintroduced the amplifiers to a new generation of musicians; rather than bring back the old guitar designs, however, they have started from scratch.
The guitars are all passive, relying on cunning pick-up switching rather than battery powered pre-amps to get a wide range of sound. The circuitry is, in fact, the responsibility of Adrian Legg (now where have I heard that name before?).
On the physical side, the six string guitars are available in two scale lengths, 24¾" and 25½". There are Standard and Custom versions of the guitars in each scale length, plus a Standard and a Custom bass, both long scale (34").
To clarify this question of scale (the length of the strings between nut and bridge) it may be helpful to note that Gibson guitars are generally 24¾" scale, whereas Fenders are 25½"; in fact, the Vox Standard 25 looks suspiciously like a Stratocaster copy to me.
It is generally thought that long scale guitars give a better sound, and have less floppy strings, due to the higher string tension; however, no manufacturer makes a guitar with a choice of scale length, so accurate comparison is difficult. Vox are no exception to this, since the long scale guitars are a completely different style to the 24s. Players will probably make their choice according to which body design they prefer, whether or not they want a 'tremolo' arm, and similar reasons unrelated to scale length.
This is a very attractive instrument, as you can see in the picture, although it's a pity it has that stripe running down the middle. The bass is made almost entirely from maple, about six pieces at a quick count; the three piece neck is laminated right through the body (hence the stripe) and has a separate fingerboard. The only non-maple bits of wood are four thin walnut slivers, two between the three slices of the neck and two between the neck and the halves of the body. The section of the neck which forms the middle of the body has been made extra wide so that the pick-ups and bridge can be mounted entirely on it; although the 'all one piece of wood' concept is foiled by the neck being in three pieces.
The neck is nice and straight, especially considering its length; it has 24 frets, all accessible thanks to the smooth heel — one of the advantages of neck-through-body construction. What's more, all these frets are useable since the intonation is excellent right up to the top G, with only the E string being out. Along with the slim neck section, this means you can play chords right up to the end of the fingerboard if you wish; which is very handy if the lead guitarist falls off the stage in the middle of a manic solo.
The length of the neck could be a slight problem. Because the body doesn't have extra deep cutaways to allow the neck to be set further in than usual, that distinctive Vox 'spear' headstock is quite a long way from the player. Not only do you have to stretch a bit more than normal to reach the machine heads and the lower frets, but as you swing around in a cramped rehearsal room you are quite liable to lay out your guitarist, who has just bought a Roland guitar synth and is suggesting that you are now redundant...
The bass has been designed to give lots of sustain, which it does; in fact it's quite difficult to stop the strings vibrating! The bridge is creditably heavy, and the strings are fed through from the back of the body, causing some strain where they bend sharply over the bridge pieces. As an example of the attention paid to this guitar, it arrived already set up to play (the bridge is adjustable for individual intonation and string height); the Schaller style machine heads all worked smoothly; there were no sharp fret ends — all in all, very well put together.
There are two pick-ups, both DiMarzios: a P-bass type at the fingerboard end and a J-bass at the bridge end. Both these pick-ups have two coils, and are humbucking; a switch gives series or parallel connection of the coils and operates on both pick-ups simultaneously. In my opinion, the parallel position simply sounded weaker and I hardly used it. There is a third position on this switch which combines a bassy sound from the E and A strings, via the P-bass pick-up, with a treble sound from the D and G strings via the J-bass pick-up. This gives a great sound for playing alternate octaves, with a different tone on the two notes; however, this only works with the pick-up selector in the middle position — if it isn't two of the strings go dead, a most embarrassing effect!
My favourite sound was with both pickups on, and the coils in series. The depth and power of the P-bass pick-up combines very convincingly with the 'bite' of the J-bass pick-up, although I would have preferred separate volume controls to allow mixing of the two sounds. There is only one overall volume control, and a tone control which doesn't have as much range as that on a Precision but is still quite adequate. One last word on the electrics: the jack socket is on the side of the body where you can't see it, and although there's a metal surround, fumbling with your lead as you leap on stage to a thunderous ovation could play havoc with the 'attractive honey polyester finish'. It also causes nasty noises to come out of your amplifier.
The bass came with round-wound Rotosound strings, a good match; clangorous on full treble, and very effective on chords and 'lead' playing. This is the area the instrument is aimed at, I think; it's very definitely a rock guitar, designed to appeal to the new breed of 'out front' bass players. Your fingers seem to fall naturally on the upper frets (a deliberate design point, I wonder?).
To sum up, then, although the bass has several fashionable features (like a brass nut, which I won't even comment on) it is very well made and the overall feel is excellent. I enjoyed myself immensely, playing things I would normally only do on lead guitar. Worth every penny!
Referring back to the picture a moment, it's obvious that the guitar is constructed along the same lines as the bass, with a 'sandwich' of maple and walnut stripes; there are 24 frets once again, with good access all the way to the top E thanks to the cut away heel which you can't see in the photograph. I won't cover these points again therefore, and all of you who skipped the bass review, thinking that basses are just guitars that are easier to play, will have to retrace your steps. This guitar also sports a vibrato arm, which screws into a hole in the bridge; unfortunately, not only do the threads start right at the top of the hole, but the hole isn't vertical as you would expect it to be. For these reasons, it is very easy to try and cross the threads on your first few attempts; you get used to it though, you have to, because the guitar won't fit in its case unless you remove the arm. A simple plug in arrangement, perhaps with a nylon bush to give a bit of friction, would be preferable. In case you think I'm struggling to find something bad to say in order to seem unbiased, you're right, because the rest of the guitar is simply perfect.
To be honest, I was going to make scathing remarks about the way the vibrato arm only drops the pitch of the strings, but I've had second thoughts. Normal string bending can only raise the pitch of a note, of course, so the arm complements this nicely; also, this arrangement means there's no chance of breaking any strings by stretching them too far.
Tuning up is also made much easier, and there are no problems if a string does break. The bridge works very well, anyway, and I found it nearly impossible to detune the guitar no matter what I did to the arm. All the normal adjustments are there; this is a Stratocaster style bridge with individual string intonation and height adjustments, and making the vibrato work both ways is simply a matter of removing one or two of the springs that counteract the pull of the strings.
After I saw the initial information on the guitar, I was all set to be rude about the lack of switches; pick-up selector, two volumes, two tone controls and just one other switch? Why, I wondered, were they going on about the versatile circuitry? Once again, actually playing the guitar has changed my opinion.
The little card provided with the Custom 25 explains everything, but this is one instrument that allows you to get a good range of sounds without knowing a thing about how the system works; I gave the guitar to two non-technical members of my band to prove this point, and neither had any complaints on this score.
The single extra switch has three positions, which work simultaneously on both pick-ups, giving normal humbucking (with the coils in series), humbucking with the coils in parallel (more treble) and single coil (even more treble). Secondly, the bridge pick-up tone control also operates a partial tap on the coil nearest the bridge when turned to maximum treble; and finally, both volume controls have small bypass capacitors. This means that when the volume is turned down a little, treble frequencies tend to go straight through and the result is a treble boost (or a bass cut depending on your point of view).
When both pick-ups are on, however, the fingerboard pick-up is un-bypassed; so this pick-up may now be used at reduced volume to add power to the bridge pick-up without contributing any extra treble of its own.
In short, the controls are cleverly designed to do just what you would intuitively expect them to; the pick-up mode switch can simply be thought of as treble boost, and the whole system is easy to use.
The pick ups themselves are DiMarzio X2Ns, which are described as 'loud and nasty'. Loud they certainly are - I measured 12 volts peak to peak when playing hard - and when this signal meets an effects box powered from a 9 volt battery, this is where the nastiness comes in. Either at least 3 volts is going to be chopped off the signal - probably more - or the poor old PP3 is going to be made redundant whilst the guitar powers the effects by itself!
Seriously though, whilst this sort of output is not going to occur during any normal playing, some poorly designed effects and amplifiers are going to be given a hard time. One advantage of such powerful pick-ups is that they may be set further from the strings than usual without severe loss of output; not only does this reduce the possibility of damage by a misplaced plectrum, but it discourages the powerful magnets used from trying to hold the strings still while you're playing. This effect can cause mis-tuning, completely spurious harmonics or just a generally 'dead' sound.
The price to be paid for such powerful pick-ups is usually lack of smoothness in the sound, and these DiMarzios couldn't compete with my 6dB quieter Gibson hum-buckers on that score. By looks alone, of course, this is a rock guitar and its sound matches its appearance.
Having said that, I did manage to get mellow jazz tones, twangy country strumming, and even some nice fingerstyle playing thanks to the wide string spacing and good string tension; but none of these styles were what the guitar was best at.
The solid construction of the body, neck and bridge means that the sustain not only goes on for a long time, but is nicely even over the whole fingerboard. I tried the guitar on several amplifiers, including a Peavey 'Classic' and, of course, the Vox AC30 reviewed elsewhere in this magazine. Each time the guitar gave of its best and sounded at least as good as any other guitar that was around to compare it with. The AC30 was a particularly favourable match; without being distorted, the sound had both power and penetration, which I found really impressive (although the rest of Essex didn't enjoy it at all).
I don't usually play a guitar with a vibrato arm, and I must admit this was the first time I've used an AC30; the combination was stunning to say the least, and playing rock music suddenly seemed much easier. So this is how they do it, I thought, wondering whether rock stars get paid more than guitar reviewers.
The Custom 25 guitar and Custom bass are identically priced at £329 inclusive of VAT. Vox products are distributed in the UK by Rose-Morris & Co. Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Peter Maydew
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