This model of amp has an extensive history with eminent stars of rock, pop and other modern music. Many guitarists say they first learned of its existence through The Beatles or Queen, but I first saw the Vox AC30 mentioned in a Paul Weller interview. I was a fan of The Jam as a school kid, and whilst I didn’t specifically take note of guitar amps at that age, I suppose the distinctive look did subconsciously register with me – enough for me to have a mental picture of the amp when I saw the model name in print. But it wasn’t until 1983 – after The Jam had split – that I saw and heard an AC30 in use, live. It was a battered specimen on a pub stage in Birmingham, dishing serious dirt on behalf of a punk band. For anyone who knew the Birmingham live scene at that time, I think it was PP and the Pungent Smells, but I could be wrong.
Later the same year I found myself in the market for my first valve amp. I was buying secondhand, and had decided upon a Peavey Deuce, which was more versatile than the AC30 and also gave a very good account of itself with live bands in the local pubs. However, when I bought the Peavey I was careful to check out prices on the AC30s too. Most of them were dirt cheap, with the average somewhere around £110. Fairly well-worn for that price, admittedly, but that was the most common condition, and the secondhand shops always had a handful of them in stock.
I recall so many local guitarists over the next few years speaking highly of the AC30s, and by the close of the ‘eighties I’d made up my mind that when I found a good one, I’d buy it. It wasn’t until summer 1992 that I finally ran into the amp in this retrospective. A JMI-branded mid ‘60s example, refurbished cosmetically, but otherwise completely original with its old Celestion G12s – the grey ones, not the blue ones, but they’re technically the same speaker. AC30s had started to catch on as fashion statements by this time, but prices were still quite moderate. I thought that £425 for what was in all probability a 1965 model, re-valved and working/looking like a brand new amp, was pretty damn good.
This amp has no separate Bass or Treble controls, let alone a Middle. There’s just a single Tone knob, which is effectively a treble roll-off, and that’s quite worrying at first. But once you power the thing up you immediately realise that any other tone controls would be a waste of space. Turn the Tone up full and set the Volume to around half way, and you get a perfect clean sound with firm bass, balanced mids and beautifully defined highs. It’s not a cold or clinical sound – it’s the complete opposite. The feel is really sympathetic to the guitarist and the amp pays back with interest everything you put in. If you want even more treble you can use the Brilliant channel. Take the Volume higher and the sound gets thicker as the characteristic valve overdrive kicks in. With a stock Strat you don’t get roaring, heavy distortion. It’s just a crunchy edge. A Les Paul drives the amp harder and you do end up in vintage rock territory with everything on full. But there’s no separate gain stage. You have to take the power amp up loud to get natural overdrive, and you won’t get high-saturation distortion unless you enlist outboard help.
The mid '60s Vox AC30 has no reverb, which might bother some guitarists. I’m actually not a great fan of reverb on guitar amps anyway, but even if it’s something you normally use, you may find the quality of sound from an old AC30 so inspiring that you don’t want to mess with it at all. You could employ an outboard reverb of course, but I definitely wouldn’t do so. The AC30 sound is detailed and in-ya-face, and adding reverb can seriously detract from that.
The amp’s final feature is the Vib-Trem channel. There’s only so much you can do with this effect, and the majority of it will almost by default have a ‘60s personality. Intricate playing doesn’t work because the cyclic drops in volume result in the loss of content. You’re pretty much tied to sustained chords, and I personally get fed up pretty quickly with the restrictions the effect imposes. But if you do have a sudden Austin Powers moment, the effect is there.
If you stick to the Normal channel, it’s very difficult indeed, if not completely impossible, to get a bad sound from this amplifier. It’s undeniably a ‘one-sound’ amp, in that you’ll always be aware you’re using an AC30, whether clean or driven hard. But if that ‘one sound’ is the epitome of electric guitar tone (which for many guitarists it is), then why add anything inferior? As the model name infers, this is a 30 watt amp, but it’s a very big 30 watts. You can go out and play pub gigs with one of these, without any miking, and it will be plenty loud enough. In fact some would argue that any more than 30 watts would be too much, since the power amp would not overdrive so easily and that natural valve raunch would be harder to attain at local venue levels. With amps this old, there will always be discrepancies from one example to the next, but get a nice one, and if you don't sound good, it ain't the amp - it's definitely you!
Posted by: Bob Leggitt