Burns Guitars article

Weird Science

From Guitar Magazine, April 2002

Split pickups, wacky shapes, novel truss-rod systems… Burns guitars were packed with innovations. Per Gjorde celebrates 50 years of Burns with a look back at the early ground-breaking years.

So many innovations first appeared on Burns guitars that it’s almost impossible to cover them all in a single article. True, during the Burns UK and Jim Burns Ltd eras – the 1970s and 1980s respectively – the makers’ developments were mostly visual, but during the Burns London period in the ‘60s, Jim Burns’ many breakthroughs affected every aspect of the guitar. In fact, many other manufacturers have since laid claim to features that appeared on Burns guitars a good deal earlier.

Burns pioneered several interesting pickups, the most famous and unique being the Tri-Sonic (you can hear it, of course, on any Queen record). However, Burns used at least eight different kinds of pickups between 1960 and ’66. The Split Sound pickup, where bass notes are picked up from the neck pickup and the treble notes from the bridge pickup, is particularly interesting: the Rezo-Matic pickup of the Marvin guitars is known for its own distinct sound, as is the remarkable Bar-o-Matic pickup with two stacked coils mixable by a density control. Burns was far more innovative than most of the American competition when it came to circuitry.

Another unique feature of many Burns guitars was the truss rod which used a special gearbox – an system which was later borrowed by Gretsch. Burns guitars are also known for their fine vibrato systems: the famous Rezo-tube system, introduced by Jim Burns in 1964, has been called ‘the Rolls Royce of vibratos’.

In truth, it’s the unique combination of innovation, design, quality and playability that makes Burns so special. Many would say that Burns made the finest electric guitars ever produced in England – and, in the ’60s, probably in all of Europe.

Central to Burns’ philosophy was the concept of ‘mass produced one-offs’, with high standards of craftsmanship and quality. If you look at Burns guitars from the early ’60s like the Vibra Artist, you’ll find that no two guitars of the same model are exactly the same. According to Les Andrews, who was in charge of the handcrafting, the slimness of the neck depended on how the man who did that particular operation was feeling that particular day. On more expensive guitars like the Burns Bison, even greater proportions of the guitars were handcrafted, adding to the uniqueness of each instrument.

Born in County Durham, James Ormston Burns (1925-1998) learned to play the guitar in his teens. He built his first electric guitar during the war, using nothing but sheer ingenuity and RAF materials. His first six-string sale occurred in 1952 while he was earning his living as a waiter and a paint sprayer. In 1958, Burns released his first line of guitars under the Supersound trademark.

In 1959 he joined Henry Weill to manufacture guitars under the Burns-Weill banner. One very great peculiar guitar dating from this time is the Super Streamline, nicknamed ‘the Martian Cricket Bat’. It is one of the ugliest guitars you’ll ever see, but it’s nevertheless a surprisingly good player. However, the Burns-Weill name did not last long and after only a year, in 1960, Jim went solo and started Ormston Burns London Ltd.

Jim Burns was a very unusual character, His collaborators remember him as not particularly technically-minded. but as a man of great ideas. The team behind him then, was very important. They included, among others, Les Andrews (in charge of the handwork), Norman Houlder (in charge of the machine shop), Jack Golder (factory manager), Edward Cross (supplier of plastic parts and hardware), Derek Adams (pioneer of the original renowned Burns polyester finish), and Ike lsaacs (the jazz player, who added a professional player’s opinion to guitar development).

Often, when developing a new guitar, Jim Burns would just draw out a design on a scrap of paper, a piece of wood or even a cigarette packet. According to Les Andrews, who was in charge of the handwork, ‘When we started developing a new guitar, it was from a blank piece of timber, cut roughly in the shape of the body. Jim would then cover it with pencil lines, notes, shading and so on to convey to me what he had in mind. I was to work away on this blank until he was satisfied. He would tell me “more of this and less of that” – even gluing pieces back on at times. It took a few days of trial and error before we got a new model – but it worked!’

Jim Burns was a peculiar man in other ways, too. He slept all day and worked late into the night. He would appear in the workshop around three o’clock in the afternoon for a chat and to see how things were progressing, often boasting about his whiter-than-white ‘nightclub tan’. Unfortunately, while he was an inventive guitar maker, he was no businessman. Despite the ’60s being good times for guitar sales, by 1965 the company was so heavily indebted to its suppliers that it had to be sold. The buyer was the Baldwin Piano and Organ Company, a Cincinnati-based company that had just been beaten by CBS in a bidding war for Fender.

According to Les Andrews and Norman Houlder, who knew him in the early ’60s, Jim was never into much forward planning, but with his undoubted personality and persuasive manner he was one of life’s great survivors and a true optimist. Paul Day remembers him from the late ’70s as an eccentric and quite complex individual. He could be on an ‘up’, chock full of hope about his future and brimming with ideas, but at other times he would be moody, morose and miserable.

Barry Gibson, Managing Director of Burns London Ltd, remembers Jim Burns as a complex man who concealed a volatile and depressive temperament behind a cheerful, extrovert mask. He would constantly reflect on past mistakes, but was still highly enthusiastic about the new Burns guitars.

Jim Burns passed away in 1998. We will remember him as a great entrepreneur and innovator who gave the music industry far more than he ever received credit for while he was alive.

Famous Players

For many people, the name of Burns will always be connected with The Shadows. The group started working with Jim Burns as early as 1962. At the end of 1963, when Cliff and The Shadows promoted their single Don’t Talk To Him, Marvin used a prototype Double Six. Between 1964-69, the Shadows used their Burns Marvin guitars – and Burns had to make at least 30 prototypes of that guitar until Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch were finally satisfied.

It was Burns who refinished John Lennon’s 1958 natural Rickenbacker 325 to black, and also co-operated with Lennon in efforts to make a guitar organ – a project which never reached the market. George Harrison used a Burns Nu-Sonic Bass on Paperback Writer.

Zillions of British guitarists have at some point played a Burns guitar or bass. To mention a few: Billy Bragg, Cast, T-Rex, Eric Clapton, James, Yes, Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, Mark Knopfler, Oasis and Supergrass, Jeff Lynne, The Small Faces, Brian May, John Mayall, The New Seekers, Jimmy Page, Slade, Status Quo, Texas, The Troggs and Bert Weedon. They’ve also been seen in the hands of umpteen cool Americans including Beck, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson.

The Artist Range: The Breakthrough

The Artist (1960)

This first, basic ‘all Burns’ design was followed by the Vibra-Artist (1960-‘62), the first guitar produced by Burns London Ltd The top-of-the-line model was the rare Vibra-Artist De Luxe (1961-’62), the forerunner of the Bison range.

The Marvin Range: The Most famous Burns

The Marvin (1964-’65)

Without a doubt the most sought-after Burns ever, this guitar was designed to meet the demands of Hank Marvin of The Shadows. It was fitted with the new Rezo-tube system and Rezo-Matic pickups, which gave the guitar a warmer, richer sound. Marvins are really good players while the Double Six (1964-’65) is perhaps one of the best 12-strings ever made. Double Sixes were played by The Troggs, The Searchers and The King himself – Elvis.

The Bison Range: Horns of Plenty

According to Eddie Cross, Jim Burns showed a prototype guitar with curved horns to Ike Isaacs, one of Britain’s foremost guitarists of the day. Upon seeing it, Ike exclaimed ‘It looks like a bloody bison!’ Jim, who hadn’t thought of a name yet, christened it exactly that. The four-pickup Black Bison (1960-’61) is possibly the finest British guitar ever made and proved to be the breakthrough for Burns in terms of quality design. Only 49 were made, with number 50 allegedly ending up as a coffee table.

The following years saw the Black Bison Model 2, 3 and 4 (1962-’63), a guitar better suited for mass production, with the number of pickups lowered to three. The last Bison was the Bison Guitar (1964-’65), which showed the clear influence of the Marvin model. Despite this, the Bison Guitar was never produced in large quantities. The Baby Bison (1965), essentially the forerunner to the Baldwin model, was made only for export.

The Basses

Burns was almost as famous for its basses as its guitars. The most well-known Burns four-strings from the 60s are the huge Black Bison Bass (1962-64) and the Bison Bass (1964-65), easily recognised with their long horns and pickup selectors labeled Tenor, Treble, Bass and – infamously -Wild Dog. The other bass was the Shadows Bass (1964-65), a companion to the Marvin guitar.

The Artist Bass (1960-62) was the first all-Burns bass, followed by the top-of-the-range Artist de Luxe (1961-62). The more mundane models were the Sonic Bass (1960-64), the Vista Sonic Bass (1962-64) and the Jazz Bass (1964-65).

One of the rarest Burns birds is the Split Sound Six String Bass (1962-64), the only six-string bass ever made by the company. The company also developed three semi-acoustic basses: the TR2 (1963-64), with pre-amped tone circuitry; the Vibraslim bass (1964-65), based on the TR2 bass; and the GB66 bass (1965).

The Sonic Range: Sounds like A Bargain

One of the longest running Burns production models was the Sonic (1960-64), a funny little guitar with a distinct character and a great sound that made it popular with lead guitarists. The Sonic was soon followed by the Split Sonic (1962-64), a down-market version of the Black Bison, and the Vista Sonic (1962-64), a less expensive version of the Split Sonic with Tri-Sonic pickups. The Nu-Sonic (1964-65) was a totally fresh, modernistic design that boasted an excellent acoustic sound.

The Jazz Range: Not for jazzers

Burns’ jazz guitars comprised two instruments with Fender-influenced styling but with their own character and a different sound, while the Short Scale jazz Guitar (1962-65) Was a decent and affordable item with the famous Tri-Sonic pickups. It was followed by the more popular Jazz Split Sound (1962-65), with its famous ‘Wild Dog’ setting. This was one of the most popular Burns guitars of its time and tends to generate strong nostalgia among English guitarists who were there in the ’60s.

Semi-Acoustics: The Oddballs

Burns is not as well-known for semi-acoustics, but nevertheless they developed some really nice guitars of this type. The TR2 (1963-64), the first ever electric guitar with a battery-powered preamp, was followed by the Vibraslim (1964-65), which added new circuitry. The GB65 (1965) was the first fully acoustic/electric Burns. The GB66 (1965) and the GB66 de Luxe (1965) were more aimed at the jazz field. Finally came the Virginian (1965), probably the best and most popular Burns semi-acoustic.

The Ampeg Guitars

During 1963-64, guitars were sold in the US under the name of Ampeg, the well-known amplifier manufacturer. Four guitars and one bass model were chosen to form the new line, including the Sonic Six (a Nu-Sonic with another name), the Wild Dog (Jazz Split Sound), the De Luxe Wild Dog (Split Sonic), the Thinline (TR 2) and the Wild Dog Bass (Vista Sonic Bass). Only about 100 were produced, many suffering finish problems.

Prototypes never developed

As Jim Burns was primarily a man of ideas, a lot of prototypes were developed during the early ’60s but not all of them ever made it into full production.

Some of the brilliant schemes that never made it far from the drawing board include the Marvin ‘S’ (1966), a prototype made for the Shadows featuring acoustic chambers. It was used by the Shadows on their Australian tour, and although it was a great guitar, it was never further developed by Baldwin. Only three were made, two in green and one in white. The white one was later sent back to the factory and probably destroyed.

The Super 18 was a very special double-neck guitar, but very little is known about it. Only one prototype was made. Then there was the guitar-organ (1964) that John Lennon was very interested in. The Elizabethan Guitar (1965), was Jim Burns’ attempt at solving the problem of amplifying a classical guitar – an attempt predating Gibson’s successful Chet Atkins by about 15 years.

Then there was the Electrical Upright Mini-Bass – a ‘white elephant’ for the company – and the top secret Touch Sensitive bass, of which, unfortunately very little is known. Other prototypes include the Damp-A-Matic Bass, recently discovered under a bed, and even an electric violin.

Burning Ambition

How dedicated do you need to be to revive your favourite lost guitar maker? Barry Gibson, the man behind Burns UK, explains how he got the Company going, and looks ahead…

The Burns name is not consigned to the history books. In 1992, Barry Gibson revived it and the brand has risen again with new versions of such Burns classics as the Bison, the Steer, the Marvin and the Bison bass. ‘We’ve far exceeded the output of the original Burns London, which was from 1960-’65,’ Barry notes with pride. ‘This is our tenth year, as well as the 50th year of Jim Burns production.’

What was it about Burns that made Barry Gibson determined to bring it back to life? ‘Right from an early age, I lived in Central London,’ he explains, ‘and I used to walk along Charing Cross Road, Denmark Street and through St Giles Square at the weekends. One day when I was 12 or 13,1 discovered the Burns shop and I just fell in love with them. I found them more exciting than anything else that was available at the time.

‘Back then, my older brother was playing in a covers band, doing Shadows material. I ended up playing a Burns from an early age and I got to know all the features. I liked the variation of sounds they could achieve, they were eye-catching and they looked good on stage. I went onto play them in various bands for the next 12 or 15 years.’

It’s a long leap, though, from loving a brand to producing it. ‘In the early ’70s I was studying cabinet making at the London College of Furniture. One of my lecturers said “You know they do guitar-making courses here in the evenings”. Well, I was already travelling across London to get there and the thought of staying later wasn’t appealing… but I got drawn in. I learned all about guitar-making theory, acoustics, all sorts of sound technology. I decided to do it as a hobby so I was building and renovating guitars in my spare time while doing my college course, my cabinetmaking apprenticeship and playing in weekend bands. It all fitted together symbiotically

‘I carried on pretty much like that, doing furniture making and musical-instrument renovating, right up until 1990. That was when I decided I’d like to go into musical instrument manufacturing full-time, rather than just doing odd oneoffs for people. I then decided to try to get some funding and to take it seriously.’

But why revive the Burns brand and the old Burns designs, rather than launching a fresh range his own instruments? ‘Why reinvent the wheel, when I think Burns made the best wheels?’ parries Barry. ‘Back then, they just didn’t have the marketing power or the facilities to exploit their ideas.

‘A commercial reason was that, at that time, there was definitely a retro boom,’ he adds. ‘A lot of the older Burns guitars, the sought-after models, were selling for big money. A lot of people said to me, “If you’re going to do this, do it properly, because there’s a real opportunity to get a foothold in the market again.” I mean, Baldwin had already tried – badly – to do it, so there was a lot of work to do in terms of convincing people that these were good guitars again.

‘When I’d decided to take it seriously I set out to find Jim Burns – he hadn’t been seen or heard of in years. I didn’t even know whether he was alive, but eventually I managed to track him down in Chatham. I said I’d like him to be involved as a consultant and he said “Well, produce some prototypes first and then show them to me. I’ll see what I think of them.”

‘So between 1990 and ’92 I produced prototype guitars and showed them to Jim. The second time I showed him one he said “If they’re going to be this quality, you have my blessing.” I registered the company and got it going. We incorporated in January1992, in the middle of the recession, and basically it’s gone on in leaps and bounds.’

Demand has increased to the point that general manufacture has now moved to Korea. ‘We held off for seven or eight years. It’s only in the last two or 50 years that we’ve gone abroad, and I think we did it right,’ Barry explains. ‘The UK custom shop is growing on the strength of it. Putting out 6000 less expensive guitars is like having 6000 tools of advertising out there. I’m also trying to get Burns USA off the ground at the moment, hopefully launching a company to manufacture out there, because some Americans will only buy American-made goods.’

As well as expanding the production base, will we see further extensions to the product range? Having just launched the Zodiac and the limited-edition Marvin Anniversary and Apache Anniversary models at the NAMM show, Barry Gibson reveals he already has plans. ‘You may laugh at this, but we’re going to bring hack the Flyte,’ he confides. ‘We’re going to redo it with a cutaway, as it was never really too useable above the 12th fret, and give it some major surgery to make it much more playable.

‘There’s going to be a lot of updating of old models that never really made it past the prototype stage. They were made as prototypes and released in limited numbers, but never really developed. We’re also going to develop new models for the heavy rock market and we’ve got a Steer Special planned, which is in progress at the moment.

‘Up to now we’ve been using the back-catalogue for familiarity as well as the fact that we think that the style of some of them is unbeatable,’ concludes Barry ‘but we’re also starting to look at developing completely new models and introducing some advanced technology to our guitars. We’re also looking at a range of pedals and possibly at amplifiers as well – high-quality amps on a level with Matchless, not cheapo stuff.’