In 1992 the flat on the North Peckham Estate I was living in was burgled and my Westone Thunder Jet was stolen along with a Session 90 amplifier. Of course, I’ve regretted their loss but the theft of the guitar and the fact that I was insured allowed me to seek out a replacement. The new instrument I found in a guitar shop in Brixton, London was a Vox Custom 24. It is, quite simply, a bit special. When I was lucky enough recently to spend some time learning with Crimson Guitars, I based my new build on the shape of the Custom 24.
I knew next to nothing about this guitar for the first decade I had it. It was a Vox, but where was it made, what was it made of, who designed it? A partial answer was supplied by a friend of a friend who had an original Bell catalogue advert for the 1982 Vox production series.
Although it does contain an error regarding the electronics of the Custom 24, the advert filled in a lot of the gaps. The Custom 24 is part of a set of six guitars that Vox brought out that year which were in the catalogue until 1985: four electric tenor guitars and two basses. Of the four tenor guitars, the Custom 24 is the top of the range. It has a through neck construction, which, allied with a brass nut, provides long sustain. The guitars were well-received by the press but didn’t sell as many as they should have because their release coincided with the boom of electronic music and the commonly held misconception at the time that ‘rock was dead’.
The Custom 24 has an comfortable ebony fretboard on a 24 3/4″ neck. According to the advert the body/neck is made entirely of hard rock maple. I am not so sure – to me it looks like there is some mahogany involved because there are woods of different shades laminated in the construction and some thin slices of walnut or something similar between the large slabs. On the other hand it is seriously heavy, so it could well that the slabs are entirely hard rock maple of varying shades. On the subject of weight, I was proudly showing it to a friend recently who remarked on how heavy it was. He couldn’t believe that I had rehearsed and gigged it for years. Well, it was the only guitar I at at the time and I just loved playing it. It’s also a tough old axe. When it was my workhorse guitar it got some abuse and it emerged with very little to show for it.
The shape of the Custom 24 is somewhere between a Gibson SG and a Yamaha SG, although it has more of an offset at the neck. The body has a beautifully swept belly carving and the through neck carving allows very comfortable access at the high end. The control cavity covers on the back of the neck are brass – no expense spared with this guitar, which was clearly intended as what was called in those days a ‘Les Paul killer’. To be honest, I’ve played a few Gibson Les Pauls and nearly all of them are no better (and sometimes not so good).
In recent years, I found out that this guitar and its colleagues were designed and built by Matsumoku in Japan (which explains some of the high quality detail). It’s never been properly confirmed but the body design is thought to be one of Nobuaki Hayashi‘s creations. Nobuaki (who worked under the name H. Noble) was responsible for many innovative designs coming out of the Matsumoku factory in the 80s, especially under the Aria brand. Nobuaki is still producing some very strange designs under his own Atlansia brand.
The pickups in this guitar are beasts. Vox fitted twin blade Di Marzio X2N Power Plus humbuckers and even Di Marzio rate these as their loudest pickups. That said, you can dial in a nice warm clean sound if that’s your cup of tea. In the 90s I wanted loud (what’s changed?) and these suited me fine. One thing I did do with the guitar more recently, which is the only modification I have had to make, is change the tone capacitors for paper-in-oils, which seem to really suit the X2Ns. Like most factory guitars (even the high end ones) not much attention is paid to the quality of the tone capacitors and this had the usual green film caps in it, which is the only area where I can see any skimping on quality. I don’t know why manufacturers pay so little attention to this as they are saving, literally, pennies and compromising the final sound of the guitar.
While the guitar boasts the usual two tones, two volumes control arrangement, this guitar also has unusually delivered electronic extras, designed by renowned master luthier Adrian Legg, who was working for Rose Morris (who owned Vox at the time). Along with the three-way selector switch, there is a series parallel switch for each pickup and also a phase in/out switch. Most people are unable to make head or tail of the unusual layout of the electronics in the Custom 24 and I have yet to see a schematic. Out of the range of guitars produced that year, this is the only one with this sort of arrangement and it gives the guitar a wide variety of tonal possibility.
I have also owned a Standard 25 from this Vox range and it wasn’t anywhere near the Custom 24 in terms of quality. I have never seen a Standard 24 in the flesh but it looks like a lower end Custom with its set neck, plastic nut and simpler electronics as well as a strat-style tremolo bridge.
I was glad to see recently that Vox themselves have finally got around to acknowledging their early 80s guitars and there is now a page on them on their website. In their official history book, the otherwise excellent The Vox Story, their lack of knowledge about their company history was such that they said the Custom 25 was the higher end guitar (it isn’t, it is the 24).
If you see a Vox Custom 24 for sale and you have the cash, don’t hesitate – buy it (before I do). It’s a great example of the best of Japanese luthiery in the 80s.