If England has a Leo Fender, his name is James Ormston Burns.
Like Fender, Burns was a seminal influence on electric guitar design in the U.K., creating the guitars played by Hank Marvin and the Shadows, the British equivalent of the Ventures. The Ventures didn’t always play Mosrites! Like Fender’s guitars, Burns’ guitar designs would cross the pond and have some influence on the other side. And like Fender, once Burns had “retired,” he couldn’t stay out of the game. The 1973 Hayman 3030H represents one of his happy returns.
As a teenager, Burns (1925-’98) began to play lap steel. In 1943, he joined the Royal Air Force and was a mechanic assigned to duty in North Africa. Not carrying a guitar along, Burns improvised his first guitar out of scrounged materials. Following the war, he played professional lap steel and became interested in Spanish electrics. He later decided to begin manufacturing, and produced his first guitars under the Supersound name in 1958. A year later he made some Burns-Weill guitars with partner Henry Weill. In 1960, Burns went back on his own and began making Burns guitars. His first model was the Artist, followed by the Black Bison, and then the Marvin.
Over the next five years, Burns continued to expand his line, innovating with new pickups and perhaps his most famous design, the Burns vibrato – a triangular, top-mounted unit – and the so-called “gear-box” neck adjustment, a geared affair in a neck-heel pocket that required a special long T-wrench to adjust the truss rod. Other especially cool developments included the Burns Jazz Split-Sound guitar, with a rotary pickup select that included a “Wild Dog” setting, perhaps the most famous description in guitar history. Alas, it was really a fairly weak out-of-phase sound; but that isn’t what you feel when you dial it in!
Burns guitars were among the best in the U.K. at the time, and as a result they inspire feelings as strong as some of America’s revered brands do in the U.S.
Unfortunately, Burns, a colorful personality, wasn’t all that good at business. By 1965, he was deeply in debt to suppliers. That year saw the height of the ’60s guitar boom in America. The Beatles landed in New York in February, 1964, and every kid in the post-war baby boom (not an insignificant number) wanted an electric guitar. Well, a lot of them did anyway. Manufacturers and importers could sell any guitar they got their hands on. To big corporations (musical and otherwise), this smelled like money. A feeding frenzy followed.
About this time, Leo Fender fell ill and decided to retire. So, he put Fender on the block. The Baldwin Piano and Organ Company, in Cincinnati, wanted to diversify into guitars. It put in a bid on Fender but was outbid by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Not to be denied, Baldwin looked overseas and found Burns for sale. The agreement was that Jim Burns would not use his name for three years. The principal Burns guitar models began to be imported into the U.S. as Baldwin guitars, the main difference being scroll Baldwin headstocks.
Baldwin, confident of success but not satisfied with the Burns results, expanded its line by purchasing the Fred Gretsch Company in 1967. Baldwin/Burns models were phased out, but certain features were incorporated into Gretsch models, including the Burns vibrato and gear-box. Production in England was closed down and shifted to the U.S. Baldwin guitars basically took an American tack thereafter, and that’s a different story.
Like Leo Fender, who sprang back with Music Man and then G&L, Jim Burns scoffed at retirement. From 1966 to ’68, Burns marketed Ormston Steel Guitars, a line developed by Nigel Dennis and Gordon Huntley. He built at least one semi-solid prototype electric guitar with a distinctive hump on the upper shoulder (much like a Burns Vista Sonic) and an f-hole. This had a black-bound maple fingerboard, two single-coil pickups, and a string-through-body design. Controls were on a little Tele-style plate.
In 1969, Ivor Arbitor, head of Dallas Arbiter, a major British music company, asked Burns to design a line of guitars to be called Hayman with former Vox guitar man Bob Pearson. Burns and Pearson settled on a new shape that looked similar to the Ormston prototype. If you squint, a Fender Tele comes to mind. The first Haymans, the solid 1010 (three Super Flux single-coil pickups) and semi-solid 2020 (two Super Fluxes), were introduced in 1970, both with mahogany bodies and maple fingerboards. These were followed in 1971 by the twin-pickup solidbody Hayman 3030 and the 4040 Bass, both with bodies of obeche wood. Former Burns employees Jack Golder, Norman Holder, and Derek Adams worked on production.
Burns, however, got antsy and departed Dallas Arbiter in the Fall of 1971, leaving Pearson in charge. In ’73, the Hayman line added models with Re-An humbucking pickups, yielding this Hayman 3030H. Like its predecessor, the body is of obeche, which is nicely set off by the maple neck and fingerboard trimmed in black binding. The smoked plexiglass pickguard adds a touch of class. Controls are a simple three-way with one volume and one tone knob. Strings pass through the body. These pickups have a nice, clean frequency response, but a somewhat restrained personality. The feel is distinctly different from American designs. The 3030H was produced for less than a year.
There were other interesting Hayman prototypes built, including one plexiglass guitar based on John Lennon’s customized Epiphone (plans were abandoned when Dan Armstrong’s guitar appeared), but Dallas Arbiter folded in ’73. Pearson, Golder, and Holder stayed together and introduced Shergold guitars, which carried on the tradition begun by Jim Burns, but had nothing to do with him. In ’74, Burns tried to introduce guitars under his own name again, but his lack of business acumen quickly brought it to an end. From 1979 to ’83 he tried again to resurrect the Burns brand, with no luck. He returned one final time in 1992 as a consultant to Burns London, Ltd., which was reviving some of the ’60s classics. Today, the Burns name lingers on in fairly decent “replicas” produced in Asia.
Photo: Michael Wright.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.