As one of the founding members of the...
A Dream Fulfilled: Finding a 1967 Vox Starstream XII
posted by Michael John Simmons
[Editor's Note: Derek See, the musical director of The Bang Girl Group Revue and the proprietor of the most excellent blogs Derek's Daily 45s and Guitars-a-Go-Go, has penned this post about his his latest find, a rare 1967 Vox Starstream XII.]
As a precocious kid, I would spend my time indoors watching whatever video performances of 1960s bands were on the tube when my peers were outside playing with GI Joes, or whatever toys were hip in the kiddy set. Thanks to players like Roger McGuinn and George Harrison, I began coveting electric 12 strings at an early age. Luckily, I grew up in a musical household that supported my burgeoning guitar lust and in those pre-Internet days either my guitarist mother or the numerous musicians she played with were always there answer my questions.
Like every other budding guitar geek, I fell in love with the ubiquitous Fender, Gibson and Gretsch instruments that every musician seemed to have, but I developed a special crush on those sexy Italian imports from Vox. As a Beatles fanatic, the image of those Vox amps made a huge impression on my young eyes and ears, but seeing Brian Jones with that white teardrop-shaped Phantom Mark III guitar and finding out it too was a Vox product, well, what can I say, I was completely smitten. To ten-year-old me, Vox was officially the coolest brand in the land.
When I reached my teen years, I discovered England's Spacemen 3, who played lovely drone ballads and full blown acid guitar assaults, and showed us 1960s fanatics that it was indeed possible to keep the psychedelic spirit alive into what was shaping up to be very bland and corporate era. I saw photos of Spacemen 3 guitarist Pete Kember (aka Sonic Boom) with an incredibly beautiful, switch-laden guitar that I recognized asa Vox but in those pre-web days I couldn’t figure out what specific model it was. I think it was during one of my visits to the local library scouring microfiche files of old music magazines that I saw an ad and figured out it was called Starstream. (What a great name!) I also discovered that the first Vox guitars, including the Phantom Brian Jones played, were made in England, but by 1965 most Vox guitars were actually made in Italy by EKO. I also learned that Vox custom built an electric dulcimer for Jones!
Over the years my Vox lust began to fade as I got swept away by more easily available Fender, Gibson and Gretsch beauties. Also, I (wrongly) assumed that Vox guitars were beautiful but junky instruments that were best appreciated in photos. Luckily, a few years back, I heard Anton Newcombe’s brilliant Vox work in the Brian Jonestown Massacre, which rekindled my fire for Vox guitars. I began to accumulate a small cache of Vox guitars, but the Starstream always eluded me. It turned out that lots of other folks were also after Starstreams, and even guitars with heavy repair issues were going for big dollars.
To make matters worse, the store I work in, Gryphon Stringed Instruments, had a very nice Starstream VI in their collection of not-for-sale oddities. Richard and Frank liked having such a kinky beast around but never wanted to sell it. I finally gave up trying to buy it and a couple of weeks after that, a Starstream XII at a very affordable price turned up on eBay. With a quick mouse click, it became mine. I could hardly believe that after all of these years, my childhood desire for Vox guitars and electric 12-strings were finally fulfilled in one gorgeous package.
The one negative thing about Vox guitars is that the fretwork is usually very, very bad and this lovely 12-string Starstream was no exception. Happily, I am able to do my own repair work so after a bit of fret leveling and a neck shim (Vox necks are of the bolt on variety) this baby was ready to go. I used the next night at a gig and it sounded fantastic (and, of course, it looked great). Like many Italian beauties Vox guitars are high maintenance, but they are well worth the effort.
The Starstream was a top-of-the-line model for Vox, and like the other top models offered by the company from 1967 onwards it featured some truly righteous built-in effects. The on-board fuzz tone sounds incredible and (to my ears) it’s the same circuit employed in the Tone Bender pedal (which, according to the variation, will sell for upwards of $1000). Also on-board is a palm operated wah wah, which doesn't work on my guitar, but honestly, who need wah on a 12-string? Also included are a treble/ bass booster and the infamous repeater. The repeater circuit is a bizarre tremolo that sounds like a primitive, stuttering delay pedal with a knob on the lower bout that adjusts the speed and time. Incredible! (For those who don't wish to own a Starstream but dig the sound, Acid Fuzz makes a "Sonic Boom" pedal, which brilliantly copies the effects circuit and adds some other great features into the mix.)
The Vox pickups have a clear jangle that recalls Rickenbacker 12-strings, but the Vox has a wider neck. (Rickenbacker necks are notoriously narrow- I wouldn't be surprised if The Hollies' Tony Hicks and The Velvet Undergrounds' Sterling Morrison preferred Vox 12 strings in the 60's because of the wider neck.)
Here's what Anton Newcombe, mastermind behind the Brian Jonestown Massacre, has to say about his love of Vox guitars:
"Like many fans of 60s culture, and, more specifically music, I count the melodic wonder of the Byrds in my pantheon of influences and approaches to song craft. One thing I was to learn later in life is the sound you hear on a classic album may have little to do with classic photos of those groups, or the actual recording process behind the hits. Sometimes eye candy does not equal sound candy. So, when I started to make some money to make records I decided our group would experiment with the 12-string sound.
“I have a self-taught folk style of playing. I have average size hands and I use three fingers to play an A chord. If I hold up those three fingers boy scouts honor style, that is the width of a Rickenbacker neck. That alone pointed me into the direction on a larger fretboard. Because 12 strings mean twice as many chances to be out of tune, if you plan on recording and touring it limits you to, well, Gibson ES-335-12s, Fender Coranados and Voxs for the most part. (Baldwin, Framus, Danelectro and Hagstrom work on a case by case basis but they are not really in the same league of craftsmanship. I would never chance buy any of them on eBay)
“So, yeah, I started looking at vintage stuff and walked into a shop in LA and they had 5 or 6 Voxs so I played the Starstream XII and was blown away. I ended up buying all their Voxs at once. The warmth of the low end and clarity of the top end hands down blow the other choices away. If you want something that is easy to play like your ES-335-12 and you plan on plugging into effects and then into a Marshal then my advice to you is go for it. Also, you are a sucker and you don't care about sound, and in the end I won't be listening to your music anyway.
“But if you care about tone, invest in a Vox that you have bonded with, take care of it (their value keeps growing to ridiculous levels.), and plug it straight into a Fender twin or a Vox AC30 with some low end and if you play with any spirit and have some halfway decent ideas I swear to you that people you really respect will comment on your tone.
“It's happened more then once to me and that is worth more then praise from Pitchfork or NME. It's like gold to an artist. I play music because I love music. We were in London, at a sold out show in Shepherd’s Bush and I invited Barrie Cadogan of Little Barrie to come watch. First thing he said was, ‘Man, you have a great tone!’ He plays with Paul Weller, Primal Scream, Spiritualized and his own group. He's all about tone matched with skill. He's super down to earth and real, you know. I bumped into him in DC on tour. At our sound-check he's like, ‘I'm working on getting one of those Voxs.’ That's like the best compliment you can get from anyone, really."
Derek See putting his 1967 Vox Starstream XII through its paces:
Here's a nice clip of Brian Jones with his Vox Phantom from the T.A.M.I. Show.
Here's a Vox Cheetah that came to a sad end:
And of course, Drooper, who I believe was a lion, played a Starstream in the Banana Splits.
And finally, here's a photo of Richard Johnston (left) of Gryphon Stringed Instruments taunting Derek with the not-for-sale Vox Starstream XI.
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