1966 Vox V251 Guitar Organ, as made famous by John Lennon
A rare piece of space-age technical genius, the Vox V251 Guitar Organ, a prototype handed to John Lennon, and famous more for its 2014 $305K auction price than him ever playing it. Makes the $87.5K that David Gilmour's sold for in 2019 seem like a snip at the price...
This one didn't belong to either John Lennon or David Gilmour. But that's the only restriction on any fascination with this unique hybrid. The brainchild of Vox designer/engineer Dick Denney, who knows what darkened Frankenstein lab he was working in when he hit upon the idea of putting the circuits of a Vox Continental organ into the body of a Vox Phantom guitar? And whether this should drop into the folly or masterpiece bucket? Probably a bit of both. It's an ingenious piece of work - and, what's more, IT LIVES!!! A bewildering range of options, which I've barely scratched the surface of.
First and foremost, it is a guitar. Six strings, a couple of perfectly matched single-coils, a 3-way pick-up switch, and a lovely smooth tremolo for some beautiful shimmer. Sounds great. And yet, it's not the easiest of guitars to play just as a guitar. It's heavy for a start - nearly 6kg. That's an extra kilo on top of the heaviest of Les Pauls. Unusually, it also has a neck that gets narrower the closer you get to the body. You can get used to that, but it feels weird at first. But most of all, it's the fret design needed to support the organ functions that hits your playing style, particularly if you like a bit of vibrato. Each fret is embedded with 6 separate sensor strips, which act as the contact points for the organ pitch on each string. Engineering-wise, it makes sense - you've got to retain separation between the contact points. But you do have to hold yourself back If you like your finger-bends, for fear of slipping off the sensor into the dip next to the adjacent sensor.
To be fair, you're not picking one of these up because you want a guitar, however good it sounds. It's the organ that makes this unique, and unlocks the fun. The strings become the "keys", activating the correct pitch when pressed to the fretboard. The open-string push-buttons allow you to bring in the open notes when needed. You can change the pitch of the guitar across four octaves, and go from church organ to space-age oboe or flute at the flick of a switch. And you can add a more percussive delay effect to your chords, just by holding them down. It needs a manual. And, fortunately it comes with one, 7 pages - short by modern standards, but just what you need to get you started on your sonic journey.
This isn't a gigging guitar. It's an absolute beauty though, so perfect for a very unique photo or video shoot. Better than that, if you're a studio- or home-based sonic explorer, this is just brilliant. Of course, it takes a little time to get used to it, but you'd have to expect that given what a ground-breaking piece of technology it is.
Thinking about it, there's a line to the current day here. For anyone that's at ease with today's touch technologies like Pad Controllers, this is just an early analogue version of that interface. Yes, it looks like a guitar and you have to hold it like a guitar. The hurdle to get over is that it's a guitar at all. But once you get used to the feel of the strings on those fret sensors, and the open position push buttons, it's just a question of touch. Which is no more than you need to play a guitar, or an organ, or something in-between. A fantastic journey awaits!
It's completely impossible to do justice to the features and sounds of this V251 in words. Check out the videos below to give yourself a better sense of the possibilities.
But just to highlight some of the sounds and options available with the organ settings, you can dial in a Church Organ, Harmonium, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, and even Bagpipes (you know you want to!). And, with the Percussion section engaged, you open up the Harpsichord, Chimes, Banjo, and Zither range! Not just that, but the Percussion section gives you varying delay options, to create a choppy rhythm using only your left hand.
Of course, these are not audio-perfect matches. But this is the height of 60s-perfect analogue synthesis - sounds that today even the most sophisticated of digital devices find hard to replicate with perfection. Just a fantastic playground for modern sonic explorers!
The guitar's over 50 years old. Yet it's in almost perfect physical condition - an indication of how little use it's had over the years. The only really notable signs of wear are some lacquer cracks at the body/neck join. But with such a complicated electronic set-up, there was bound to be some deterioration, dry joints and crackles. Some of the fretboard sensor chains needed resoldering to restore unique connection and pitch, the pitch oscillators needed some work beyond normal adjustment to tune the organ, and the plectrum needed a new jack-plug to get it back and operational. I'm hugely grateful to Adam at Putney Amps for taking on the project. The percussion feature remains a little temperamental, but, honestly, Adam has worked absolute marvels!
As one final improvement, I've added back in a set of dot fret-markers, replacing the originals that had been lost (an easy thing to do, given that access to the electrics in the neck requires access to the fretboard holding screws underneath the fret-markers).
And there you have it. A beauty for sure. Genius or folly, well that's over to you. Suffice to say, having started with folly, I'm now a confirmed convert to the genius camp!
See & Hear It In Action
Sources & Links
The Vox Sales Catalogue (1967): I'm not so sure about the claim you could play the Guitar Organ "using normal guitar playing techniques", but thanks once again to the brilliant researchers at Vintage Guitar & Bass for unearthing this contemporary catalogue.
A Simple Introduction, Courtesy Of The Vox Showroom: The Vox Showroom continues to hold the position for the most comprehensive insights into all things Vox. Here a simple explanation of the way the 21 contact points below each string on the fretboard alter the organ pitch. Magic!
And For A Complementary View, Rob O'Reilly's Midi Guitars Review:: Not just the Vox Guitar Organ, but check out the reviews for other guitars that crossed the boundary into organ/midi exploration, including the ground-breaking, if utterly ugly, SynthAxe.
How To Use It: Fortunately, it's not all experimentation. This service manual, again courtesy of The Vox Showroom, is a perfect place to get started with the sonic options of the guitar and organ.
The John Lennon Vox V251 Guitar Organ Auction: The original prototype - with far less features - that Dick Denney presented to John Lennon in 1964. Sadly, John never found a particular use for the guitar, but handed it onto Mal Evans - sold by Sothebys for $305K in 2014. Contrast the feature-rich version owned by David Gilmour, sold by Christies in 2019.
The 9 Rarest Electric Guitars In The World: Including not just the one of two prototype handed to John Lennon by Dick Denney, but eight other beauties to dream about on the extraordinarily eclectic rarest.org.
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