Thanks for reading the Guitar Sun, Sunfield Music Store’s weekly take on gear, music history, tone tips, and more.
At Sunfield, we take pride in producing instruments that keep the spirit of the electric guitar alive. For us, that means making high-quality instruments at price accessible to actual musicians.
Our core customers want gig-quality electric guitars. You could call them “cheap electric guitars,” but Sunfields aren’t just beginner’s guitars. They’re simply priced differently—for parts and labor—in a bloated instrument market that caters to prestige and huge marketing budgets (all paid for with musicians’ dollars).
Today, we take a look at truly unique guitars from history. Some truly iconic models—like the SRV Strat and Prince Cloud—are already in our lineup. In this post, we focus on other weird and wonderful vintage tone boxes.
Bo Diddley’s Tone Box
Cigar-Box guitars have genuine roots in folk music—when cigar boxes were plentiful and instruments rare or unaffordable, a few strings slapped on a cigar box were the ultimate working man’s music machine. Bo Diddley’s classic box-shaped guitar took this design to another level. While a deliberate homage to the homebrew classic (he had made dozens himself), the most famous version of Diddley’s guitar was far from homemade—a collaboration with the Gretsch Company. And it’s a truly unique beauty:
We should note that, while Bo Diddley’s box shape guitars are particularly iconic, he clearly loved collecting, and was spotted with all sorts of guitars—many of them highly decorated:
Bo knows the guitar disease, too.
Truly an all-time great, Bo Diddley has that rarest of honors: an entire rhythm named after him. Oh, and here is Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley jamming with the Grateful Dead:
One final piece of trivia: Diddley’s namesake is intimately connected with this style of instrument. The “Diddley Bow” is another folk instrument from the American South, crafted with a single piece of bailing wire strong over a board and glass bottle. You can hear an electrified Diddley Bow here:
Queen’s Brian May is one of the few classic “Rock God” guitar heroes who didn’t home in on a Stratocaster, Les Paul, SG, or other pantheon-tier rock guitar. Instead, he built one himself. In fact, it was constructed out of the wood of a fireplace mantle being thrown out by some neighbors.
Constructed side by side with his father in 1963-5, the guitar that’s come to be known as the “Red Special’ was an impressive engineering feat. In addition to its unique appearance, it features some interesting functionality as well.
Virtually every aspect of the instrument’s construction is fairly unique. The fingerboard? Oak. The body? Blockboard (strips of softwood sandwiched between two plywood skins), somehow strengthened with oak inserts. And a mahogany veneer over all of this.
The softwood-plywood construction gives the guitar the properties of a semi-acoustic instrument, even though it appears to be a solid-body. This was a deliberate choice: after watching Jeff Beck live, May wanted some feedback as a sonic tool. In fact, he originally intended to add F-holes, but never did.
As if this beast needed more features, it had a homebrew tremolo system (built with an old knife and motorcycle springs) and an early Vox distortion pedal built into the body of the guitar itself. This final piece was soon removed, however, when May arrived at the tonal preference that would define his rock career: a cranked AC30 slammed with a Treble Booster.
What the Vox?
Thanks to classic amps like the AC15 and AC30, Vox will always have its name embedded in rock history. They were truly one of the most innovative companies of the 1960’s, also creating one of the first ever lineups of effects pedals—including the aforementioned Distortion, a Tonebender style fuzz, a tremolo pedal, and the Wah famously used by Jimmy Hendrix.
Their foray into guitar innovations isn’t as well remembered. Perhaps that’s for the best, but their efforts still resulted in some insane designs. They led with the largely forgotten trio of the Apache, Stroller and Clubman, all visually unique designs with tons of switches and gadgets. At some level, with three single-coil pickups and a tremolo system, many of Vox's guitars were simply intended to offer features associated with the Stratocaster—still unavailable in Britain at that time, due to postwar trade restrictions
But we’ll spare a detailed analysis of these guitars, and focus on the pinnacle of Vox’s tone creation weirdness. You’ve heard of the key-tar; this machine attempts to legitimately combine the musicality of a guitar and organ. Behold, the Guitorgan:
Each the frets was subdivided into six sections: contact switches that triggered an organ sound at the same note played on guitar. The organ sound could be faded in and out dynamically with an expression pedal that plugged straight into the guitar. A simple circuit ensures that only the highest organ note on any given string is played. A simple delay/percussive repeat effect could be flipped on for the organ note as well (demonstrated in the video below).
Vox was actually not the inventor of the concept: two American inventors had already come out with Guitorgans when Vox released its V251 model. But it stands as the mightiest of the Guitorgans.
Start around 2:50 in the video below, crazy sounds from this thing:
This gadget is the sort of thing that might cause a serious player to roll their eyes these days. But technology represents something different now, with digital audio processing enabling a basically unlimited array of effects. And the world of effects, of course, can become reflected as a distraction from actually playing the guitar.
But, for us, classics like the Vox Guitorgan come from a different place: a desire to innovate and offer individualized sound, offering features no one else had ever dreamed of.