In early 2009, VG columnist Peter Stuart Kohman turned his focus on Burns, the pioneering British guitar builder. We’ve compiled the first three installments for a special edition of VG Overdrive. Watch for the complete history in the upcoming weeks.
Before American guitars became obtainable, most guitars supplied to the ’60s “Beat” era players in the U.K. were brought in from Europe or Japan. Seeing a void, a few venturesome spirits pursued the goal of creating original English-made guitars.
There was a small but solid tradition of lutherie in the British Isles; high-quality banjos had been built in the U.K. from the 19th century and a few makers like Grimshaw and Clifford Essex/Paragon had produced professional-grade instruments – including guitars – in limited numbers. Still, compared to the U.S. or Germany, Great Britain had no fretted-instrument industry to speak of, and apparently few ready to take up the challenge.
One who did became an enigmatic electric guitar legend – James Ormston Burns – often described as “The English Leo Fender.” While both men’s lives and the product lines they created do lend some creedence to this comparison, Burns instruments remain an obscurantist’s delight instead of a world standard. Still, buoyed by renewed collector interest and the efforts of a U.K.-based company carrying on his heritage, the Burns name is perhaps more familiar today in the U.S. than ever before – even during his mid-’60s heyday. Ironically, this is the one “Burns” company that has had long-lasting success – the one Burns himself (who died in 1998) had the least involvement with. Burns U.K., run by longtime enthusiast Barry Gibson (we’ll ignore the irony there!) created a variety of instruments ranging from carefully crafted reproductions of ’60s classics to a selection of Asian-made guitars that draw inspiration from the original line.
Still, it is the original ’60s Burns creations we’ll be looking at here. From 1960 to ’65, James Ormston Burns’ relatively small company produced an astounding array of distinctive, original designs. Even those obviously derivative of existing guitars always had an original look and distinctive design twist. Everything for these instruments except the tuners (Dutch-made Van Ghents) was designed and produced either in-house or by dedicated contractors; pickups, electronics, hardware, vibratos, etc. were always unique, and the sheer volume of original ideas they encompass is most impressive. If you watch the evolution of Burns’ designs, you can follow the trains of thought that must have occupied his restless mind. Nearest competitor JMI/Vox was supported by the stream of revenue from a highly successful amplifier line, but the Ormston-Burns company was dependent on the success of each new generation of guitars to survive… and in this period the generations came at blinding speed! Despite this, the one thing Jim Burns never had was an English equivalent to Fender Sales maestro Don Randall, the man who could consistently sell his ideas. He did have an ever-growing dedicated staff of specialists, and many little-known employees were major contributors to the company, but unfortunately business acumen was never his (or the organization’s) strong suit.
There are two print references on Burns history. Paul Day’s The Burns Book, first published in the U.K. in ’79 and reprinted by The Bold Strummer in the U.S. in 1990, remains one of the earliest and most comprehensive surveys of any guitar maker. The trim paperback, written with love, also sports a spiffy green sunburst cover! The second is Pearls and Crazy Diamonds, published in 2001 in Sweden by Burns collector Per Gjorde. Gjorde’s book is more a visual feast, with lush color photographs of many Burns models… though quite a few are unfortunately only shown at smaller squint-worthy size. The book also details Burns instruments until recent times, including a wealth of visual material on all eras. Despite much new research and very illuminating interviews with many of the personalities involved much of the actual guitar descriptions are little changed from Day’s work… in some cases reappearing virtually verbatim. Still, both volumes are essential for the budding Burns fan, and they complement each other well. There are also several collectors websites of note, which are invaluable in documenting some of the more perfect – and unusual – extant examples of the company’s 1960s output.
A good deal of the following information is deeply indebted to these sources, especially Day, though in examining hundreds of instruments over the past 30 years I can “agree to disagree” with previously published information on certain points! Also, in this series I’ll attempt to cover details and raise questions little discussed in these two tomes, and leave it to the interested reader to seek out the above mentioned reference works for more detail on the basics of Burns history. This is more a personal stroll through the Burns saga, and as those who love them know, it’s an often quizzical world, filled with split sounds, Ultra Sonics, Rezo Tubes, and Martian sunbursts!
Burns guitars are for the most part little-known to American enthusiasts, and often dismissed as cheap, shoddy, or just plain strange. While some halting attempts were made in the 1960s at American distribution, cost and tariff issues made it uneconomical to market high-grade British-made instruments to the US. Vox faced the same sort of challenges, and the result was the Thomas Organ licensing deal that eventually subsumed that company. As we shall see, Ormston Burns Ltd. would meet a somewhat similar fate at the hands of American piano/organ giant Baldwin after 1965… but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The few Burns-made guitars most American players ever see are almost always labeled as Ampeg and Baldwin, and often are not the best examples of the U.K. company’s offerings.
Like Leo Fender, Jim Burns was by all accounts something of an eccentric, and there are many stories from the people who knew and worked with him. He was generally reticent about his personal history. In a Beat Instrumental profile in 1964, he is described as “wanting to work in peace, he is generally known to dislike publicity – personal publicity, that is – he’ll tell you all you want to know about his staff and equipment but won’t talk about himself.” This dislike of celebrity was one trait shared with Fender. Unlike Leo however, Burns was actually a guitar player, primarily Hawaiian-style, and built his first instrument for himself in 1944 while a fitter for the RAF stationed in Africa. In the profile, he was noted as having “his own private collection of Hawaiian makes, the pride of which is a fine koa model.” Burns was originally from the Newcastle area in the northeast, but settled in London fairly soon on after his airforce stint. He worked variously as a professional Hawaiian guitarist, guitar teacher, cabinet maker, joiner and paint sprayer… developing a “perfect storm” of skills for a budding guitar maker!
Burns seems to have been determined to establish himself as a builder, and made gradual progress getting into the guitar business. He built a few electric Spanish and Hawaiian guitars and amps by hand starting around 1952, eventually interesting highly regarded U.K. jazz guitarist Ike Isaacs in an amplifier. By ’58, Isaacs was testing Jim’s creations and advising on the design, and the result was the “Ike Isaacs Shortcale Model,” a vaguely Les-Paul-esque creation built (by hand!) and sold one at a time. The electric pickup rig was supplied by Alan Wooton, and the “Supersound” brand name Wooten was to subsequently continue using was applied to this instrument. With perhaps 20 or so built, these guitars had little commercial impact and are so rare few collectors have ever seen one.
In 1959, Burns’ next project in the guitar-making business was a short-lived in partnership with Henry Weill, who was an electronics “boffin” in British parlance. With his pickups married to Jim’s design sensibilities and woodworking skills, the Burns-Weill line was born. These were also hand-made instruments, but produced in somewhat greater numbers. Still, the surviving examples are very rare and show quirky individual differences. At the lower end of the line were the fairly conventional “Fenton” Guitar and Bass models, which owed something to the popular Guyatone branded Japanese made electrics, with small single-cutaway bodies, two pickups and an elongated headstock. Of considerably more interest – at least aesthetically – were the RP2G guitar and RP2B Bass, a rather bizarrely styled set affectionately known as the “Martian Cricket Bat.” These were designed with input from Roy Plummer, a well-known British jazz guitarist responsible for the asymmetrical neck design inspired by the 1930s Gretsch Synchromatic. Just who designed the slightly demented-looking sloping boxy body is unrecorded, but it certainly is original! The “RP” series were different and distinctive, love it or hate it, and must have helped draw attention to the Burns-Weill brand. Despite some success the partners split around the turn of 1960, and Henry Weill continued with the re-named “Fenton-Weill” range, in fact the first instruments sold after the split simply had the “Burns” part of the nameplate cut away! Weill continued to produce the RP-2 line in a somewhat smoothed-out version with the cutaways given a subtle curve, renamed for some reason the “American Range.” It’s hard to imagine a less “American” looking guitar! The early-’60s catalog page shown here gives an idea of their appearance. While little-associated with Jim Burns, these guitars remained essentially his earliest successful design.
After splitting from Weill, Burns established his own factory located at 131 Queens Road, Buckhurst Hill. This was actually the private residence of a Mrs. Farrell, who was Burns first major investor, so the term “factory” is perhaps optimistic! Jim’s few workers toiled in the large basement, filling it with sawdust while building the instruments that would set the Burns brand on a successful track. Jim Burns individual ideas about electric guitars were fully encapsulated for the first time in the “Artist” and “Sonic” instruments created there. Interestingly, Burns seems to have always been concerned with the needs of bass guitarists, and most Burns guitars from the beginning had a “big brother” four-string issued alongside. These models – the Sonic, Artist, and Vibra Artists – were basically the same design from a construction standpoint, and are a more original creation than often credited.
The first of these, the Artist, was built in very small numbers. This was a three-pickup/double-cutaway guitar with fairly advanced controls including individual volumes and tones for each pickup. The most radical feature is an elegant and comfortable heel-less dovetail neck joint which made the guitar look as if it was fashioned from a single piece of wood. The Artist was fitted with a truss rod adjusted at the headstock and a 24-fret double-octave fingerboard, quite unusual at the time. With a fairly short scale of 233/8", this led to some cramped fingering up the neck!
The Artist was quickly succeeded by the Vibra Artist – the same guitar with (surprise!) a vibrato added. This first unit was called the Vibra (Burns product naming would soon get much more creative!) and the simple flat-plate mounting would be developed into the Mark IX vibrato unit, the subject of several distinct patent applications in 1961. This particular hump-backed piece of hardware is a bit more advanced with a tension adjustment built into the housing, and will be familiar to many Gretsch fans as it somehow found its way onto that company’s Jet guitars in ’62. How this initial Burns-Gretsch connection was made remains a mystery. It’s tempting to speculate that Jim Burns and Gretsch promoter Jimmy Webster might have met at a trade show somewhere… certainly both men were brimming with creative, if sometimes impractical, ideas for the development of the electric guitar! The Vibra Artist bridge used with this tailpiece was an elaborately engineered if somewhat Heath-Robinson-looking concoction of stamped metal saddles and protruding screws; the final patent application for this engineering marvel was filed in March, 1961.
The cheaper companion to the Artist was the Sonic Model, a simpler guitar with two pickups, a solid floating bridge, and a smaller, slightly squashed-looking body. The Sonic guitar and bass were good-quality instruments offered at a reasonable price and respected for their surprisingly gutsy sound. Sonic bodies were mostly built by an outside contractor, helping keep the small company from getting overwhelmed.
One of the major factors in the success of all these instruments were their distinctive pickups, which were much more powerful and better-sounding than the typical European units of the day. Burns (learning the value of a catchy moniker) called them “Tri-Sonic.” These little wonders look fairly unassuming, housed in a round-edged chrome metal cover with six polepiece holes punched in the top and a donut of wire wrapped around the magnets without a coil form. All early Burns guitars mount their Tri-Sonics above the pickguard’s surface, supported by little springs with the wires meandering down into the body, giving a slightly precarious appearance!
The success of this line led to a more upscale model being introduced – the Vibra Artist DeLuxe. A flashier version of the Artist with more flexible controls (including an on/off switch for each pickup), its hardware was gold plated, fingerboard was bound, and the guitar had a classier appearance. The Deluxe bore a small “OB” (Ormston Burns) logo plate with a lightning bolt on the headstock in place of a prosaic “Burns London” engraved plastic piece. By this time, the Burns company had moved out of Mrs. Farrell’s Victorian house to an actual factory at 300 Mace Street, Hackney, London, E.8. But it quickly outgrew this location, as well. While these guitars were not cheap, they were still priced below the American instruments lately available. Catalog pages shown here from Rose-Morris (Burns’ first major distributor) and Bell’s of Surbiton show the Sonics offered at around 50 Guineas and the Vibra-Artist closer to 80 in 1961-’62. The Vibra Artist Deluxe was priced at over one hundred pounds… quite a lofty sum for a homemade guitar in ’61! These prices are on par with the best continental imports, but Burns line were arguably the best solidbodies being built in Europe in 1960-’61.
These early Burns instruments did attract numerous professional users, albeit mostly those just able to afford them. “Before Fenders or Gibsons, we had something called a Burns,” noted Ron Wood once in an interview. The Searchers’ Mike Pender (still being noted as “Pendergast” at the time of this picture!) was a long-time user of an early Vibra-Artist model when his group shot to fame in late ’63. “We’re still using our original battered guitars stuck together with tape” noted bassist Tony Jackson in the notes to their first LP; if anyone thinks this was a hyperbolic comment, look very closely – you may note clear tape on the upper pickup selector! The Searchers would go on to be one of the most visible Burns endorsers of the company’s “golden” year 1964-’65. Many up-and-coming U.K. bands had at least one Sonic or Vibra Artist in the lineup.
None of the Artist or Sonic models bore serial numbers, so surviving examples can only be roughly dated by features. The Vibra Artist was already phased out by late 1962, succeeded by the next generation of bolt-neck solidbodies, but the lowly Sonic – the longest-running of these primal designs was still being offered in the summer of ’64. The construction and hardware on earlier models are a bit cruder and they feature a lacquered maple fingerboard; later ones sport a rosewood board and Mk IX vibrato in place of the flat-plate “Vibra” unit.
Surviving Sonic models outnumber Vibra Artists by a wide margin, and not only due to the lower cost and longer production run. Since the mid ’70s, old Burns Artists have suffered greatly under the predations very dangerous guitar carnivore – the dedicated Brian May fanatic! The Queen guitarist’s original Red Special, hand-built with his father, used three Burns Tri-Sonic pickups and for many years, the only way to obtain a set was to sacrifice a guitar! Although in the early ’60s, Burns freely sold the pickups separately, by the time May rose to fame they were long out of production. An unsuspecting Artist – or one and a half Sonics – were often stripped of their rig to provide the raw material to re-create this one-off guitar, or at least its sound. The cheaper Sonic pickups, built without individual polepieces, will work, but are technically wrong for accurate “May-Hem!” Happily, the modern Burns organization offer both the pickups and a full re-creation of May’s guitar, so the original Artists are less at risk today!
By the middle of 1961, with the Burns line proving seriously viable, economically, Jim Burns was ready to up the ante and create an instrument priced to compete with American solidbodies. The guitar, dubbed the Black Bison, was a major stylistic and creative departure, and, along with the contemporary Vox Phantom, would rank as one of the most visually striking electrics of the 1960s. It was the ultimate expression of the early Burns aesthetic, and will serve as the next chapter in “As the Burns Turns!” here at “The Way Back Beat!”
This article originally appeared in VG February 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.