The oddest part of the Queen guitarist’s tonal arsenal finally gets a mainstream release. Should you believe the hype?
by Simon Bradley
Brian May’s legendary Deacy amp remains something of an enigma and most Queen fans have been pulling what remains of their hair out attempting to recreate the thin, harsh sound prevalent within almost all of May’s orchestrations and many of his classic solos.
Queen 4-stringer John Deacon built the original in the early seventies from various bits and pieces he found in a skip, and it remains almost unbelievable that a small ‘bookshelf’ hi-fi cabinet containing a simple circuit board, no controls, and a tiny woofer and speaker array could capture the imagination like it has.
With an external EQ and huge amount of drive, it is possible to arrive within the Deacy tone ballpark with most amps, and you can even go a step further by obtaining a Greg Fryer Mayhem pedal and setting it up with an AC30’s Normal channel.
But, in the words of the TV ad, ‘get the right thing for the right job’, and after a pretty intensive R&D process (“It lasted a year or so,” Brian tells us) that saw Fryer help out in an advisory role, Vox had finally introduced the Brian May Special: a Deacy amp for the masses.
Speaking exclusively to Guitarist for the purposes of this review, Brian illustrates a few tonal examples of the Deacy amp.
“I’m pretty sure I used it for making a demo of the multitracked Procession at home, probably because it wouldn’t piss off the neighbours like a fully cranked-up AC30! I loved the sound it made so much that I eventually made the ‘proper’ version in the studio the exact same way.
“John actually used it himself, multitracked, on his song Misfire on Sheer Heart Attack, and it features heavily in much of the more intricate arrangements I did for the Queen albums. Let’s see… The Fairy Fellers Masterstroke [from Queen II] was all tripletracked and gated by hand using the old push-push buttons in the now defunct Wessex studios; God Save The Queen, Dreamers Ball, all those trumpet, trombone and clarinet sounds from Good Company… the solo on A Winter’s Tale; I love this sounds – no electronic box can make this noise!”
But did the Deacy amp ever see any live use? “Never, except a brief experiment when I was touring solo – kind of unplugged soon after Cozy’s death [in 1998]. It was not easily manageable – perhaps my mind was on other things – but basically I was trying to do too much!”
And what does he think of the finished Vox version? “It’s excellent. I wish I could get hold of one!”
Brian does use a treble booster to overdrive the original and the Vox version also includes a switchable booster. What’s more, the front panel – resplendent with chicken-head controls – offers a Booster Output, the idea being that you can use the booster section of the Vox as a remote effect to drive and colour another amp in an authentic manner. Simply connect your guitar to the Vox and run another lead from the booster output into the input of the second amp – it really works too.
An emulated recording output allows for easy connection to a console and, as it hopefully apparent from the demo on this month’s CD, works very well indeed; a stand-alone external speaker socked completes the nicely arranged control section.
Things are just as simple inside too, with a 6.5-inch speaker residing in a closed-back cab. In fact, to get as close to the speaker/woofer arrangement of the original as possible, Vox has spent a great deal of time tweaking with the design of this coil to get things just right. As a further indication of the company’s attention to detail, the VBM1 also includes two battery simulation circuits to mimic the effect the 9V cell has on the tone of the original; one for the amp section and one solely for the booster too.
SOUNDS: Here is where this review will differ from probably every other you’ve ever read in Guitarist, and the reason is that if we were to apply our usual objective and comparative mind to the VBM1, we’d be forced to absolutely slash it in this area. When compared to, for example, a Marshall MG30DFX, an amp at the same price as the Vox that bristles with a digital FX array, a decent reverb and a host of excellent tones, the VBM1 would come off very poorly indeed.
However, to generalise about a product such as this, one that has been aimed at a specific section of the market with laser-guided precision, is missing the point. In short, if you’re a fan of Queen in general and May in particular, the tone of the Vox will blow your socks off.
The basic tone with the gain switch set to high is as thin and scratchy as you’d expect from a tiny speaker driven to blowing point. But, as hopefully our CD demo shows, when guitar tracks are layered up the combination of tones take on that indefatigably regal quality that is unerringly familiar from Queen’s back catalogue. What’s more, if you use the Booster output and connect it to a bigger amp, the latter takes on some – although certainly not all – of the VBM1’s hollow quality. It works well and it a great option.
The tone is nothing like as full or forthcoming as that resulting from a treble booster driving an all-valve AC30. But if you wish to use the VBM1 in a live setting, linking it through an external speaker via the relevant output works fine; it’s the same sounds but, well, louder.
What’s more, it has to be said that the most authentic tonal results come from using a Burns Brian May guitar too. We tried s US Fender Strat, a Gibson Les Paul Custom and an Ibanez RG570 during out testing of the Vox and although some semblance of the bona fide sound was occasionally apparent, it’s something about the semi-acoustic nature of the Burns, plus two or more TriSonic pickups in series, that gives the amp just the right tonal basis.
After that somewhat ambiguous section of prose above, the conclusion of this review is far simpler to put succinctly. If you’re a guitar-playing fan of Brian May who finds it difficult to sleep without listening to Dead On Time before retiring, the Vox VBM1 will absolutely blow you away. When used with a Burns BM – which, of course, you’ll already own – the tone the two produce together is 100 per cent Queen… almost frighteningly so. For experimentation with guitar orchestrations or Queen-style songs in a home recording set-up, £139 for exactly the right tone is cheap at half the price.
The scores we’ve given the amp are from this reviewer’s objective point of view, as a renowned and well-versed Queen buff. If you’re in any way unsure of the unit’s usefulness in more general terms, a few strums through it at your local stockist will make up your mind for you.
For more general uses the Vox is a long way behind the smaller units from Marshall, Laney, Peavey et al but, as we’ve pointed out, that’s missing the point here. Unlike the Burns BM guitar, which has many uses outside the Brian May realm, only genuine fans of the man will get anything out of the VBM1. However, if you’re of the opinion that his tone is the greatest thing ever, you have no excuse whatsoever to not buy this Vox: in fact, you absolutely must own this amp.
Vox VBM1 Test Results
Build Quality 3/5
Value for money 4/5
Overall rating 4/5
We liked: The Queen tone is absolutely spot-on and it’s open-ended to
We disliked: It’s a long way behind others in its price range