Beat Portraits: Burns Volume 4

Shadows and Light
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In early 2009, VG columnist Peter Stuart Kohman turned his focus on Burns, the pioneering British guitar builder. We’ve compiled installments 4, 5, and 6 for this special edition of VG Overdrive. Watch for the complete history in the upcoming weeks.

John Rostill, dapper Shadow.

In Beat-era England, before The Beatles, one band reigned supreme – The Shadows. Starting as Cliff Richard’s backing group, this foursome launched an incredibly successful string of guitar instrumental hits with “Apache” in 1960.

Far and away the most influential musical act in Britain, their trademark sound was achieved with Fender Guitars and Vox amplifiers. This iconic image was the apex of desire for thousands of aspiring guitarists who especially fixated on bespectacled lead guitarist Hank B. Marvin and his red Fender Stratocaster.

The Mersey explosion of 1963 broadened the U.K. music scene tremendously; though the Shadows were no longer the phenomenon they had been, they were still highly successful and (above all) respected musicians. When the group appeared in early ’64 with a new lineup of signature guitars built by Burns of Romford, Essex, the shock was felt in every guitar enclave in Blighty! At roughly the same time in the U.S., the Ventures made similar waves by switching from Fender to tiny upstart Mosrite (Fender survived the twin blows well enough, apparently!) but even that West Coast combo never had the concentrated influence of the Shadows.

The linkup with the Shadows cemented Burns’ position as the U.K.’s top guitar maker. The band was already well acquainted with the benefits of a relationship with the builders of their gear – since 1959 they had been collaborating with JMI as the premier artists endorsing the Vox amplifier (those interested in the history of this era should check out Jim Elyea’s Vox Amplifiers, The JMI Years, reviewed in VG’s March issue). Indeed, the classic Vox AC30 Twin owes its existence to the interaction of the Shadows and JMI. Fender guitars were also supplied by (at the time) U.K. distributor Jennings and Marvin’s signature had been inscribed on the Vox guitar’s “Hank B. Marvin” tremolo unit, rather a Bigsby knockoff and no real relation to anything he actually used! A “Shadows Supermatic” string set had appeared as well. Although they had their pick of Fenders through JMI, the Shadows had no real contact with or influence on the maker’s operation in California.

The Shadows step out.

Marvin and rhythm guitarist Bruce Welch, perhaps amazingly, in retrospect, felt the Strats they were using were not precisely tunable – the infamous “magnet suck” which causes low strings to note flat up the neck if the bass pickup is too high may have been a problem. Also, Hank’s trademark constant whammy bar use probably taxed his Strat’s capabilities. Welch had become increasingly obsessive about maintaining the band’s instruments in perfect tuning. Toward the end of 1963, Bruce was so consumed by this he announced that he was leaving the band – though he soon reconsidered. Both felt the white Strats with tortoiseshell plastic pickguards they had recently been using were somewhat deficient in this regard. Jim Burns was approached through Ike Isaacs, his “technical director” and Hank’s onetime teacher, and agreed to collaborate on a design. Why JMI-Vox was not the first choice is an interesting question; the quality of guitar Vox was capable of building in 1963 may simply have been beneath consideration!

Marvin makes the catalog.

The length of the design/prototype process is variously remembered; Hank originally reported that it took nearly two years before he – and Welch – felt they had a winner. “The fellows up at Romford must have loved me!” he wrote in ’64. “Over 30 models were completed before the final job appeared. I just had to keep sending them back, because if I didn’t find something wrong, a certain rhythm guitarist would!”

This timetable would set the initial approach well back into ’62, around the time the second-generation Bisons were being introduced. In other reminiscences, Hank mentions mid ’63 as a starting point, which seems more likely. Prototypes were definitely in use by late ’63 – a Marvin without the upper pickguard can be clearly seen in studio pictures from early November. Hank also used a prototype Burns Double Six 12-string in studio prior to finalization of the Marvin design… showing that instrument in development well before George Harrison’s Rickenbacker made the electric 12 the “flavor of the day” in ’64.

The first complete set of “signature” Burns guitars was in full use by early ’64, and widely seen on that spring’s European tour. Strangely, the Marvin guitar was not introduced in a huge blaze of publicity (by Burns, anyway); in fact the instrument seems to have been in use for some time as details “leaked” out!

Marvin was “player of the month” in a June, 1964, Beat Instrumental article that says, “…he has now at last achieved one of his ambitions, that of having a guitar named after him… He perfected the guitar with the help of Jim Burns and has produced a really great sounding, good looking guitar. If you have seen the Shadows in action recently you will know what I mean.” The next month’s “Talking Guitars” feature also mentions the model in passing; “Another new model has been designed By Hank B. Marvin and is naturally called the Marvin… it has the typical Burns shape, plus a new sound.”

The Shadows meet the Thunderbirds.

Oddly, BI’s October ’64 cover features Hank in what is quite obviously a seriously outdated photo, holding the red Stratocaster that was his trademark two years before… so much for being up-to-date! The issue introduces (without much fanfare) “Hank’s Column” where the veteran Shadow talks directly to fans about his life at the “Top Of the Pops.” Musing on his career, he does see fit to mention “…now here I am playing a Burns solid costing £163!” The guitar appears in Burns literature by July ’64. Finally, Beat Instrumental #21 (issued in December of ’64) is a virtual Burns/Shadows bonanza, featuring a full-page Marvin advertisement, Hank’s column dedicated to the instrument, and the “Instrumental News” section mentions the Shadow’s service arrangement and special green Marvins. Finally, Burns was featured in “Men Behind The Instruments,” which also partially explained the workings of the mysterious Rezo-tube!

The Burns-slinging half of Unit 4+2.

Later references are few – Mike Read’s amusing The Story Of The Shadows (1983) completely bypasses this crucial (to guitar fans!) development, and lists Hank’s guitars in ’65 as “…a battered old Zenith… a Ramirez… a Gretsch Country Gentleman, Gibson Jumbo, six-string Fender bass, Burns 12-string electric, a Burns Double Six… and two Burns Marvin guitars, one in green and one in white.” Fortunately, a nifty little booklet published by (apparently!) Burns in 2007 entitled, “The Shadows – The Burns Years” tells the story in exacting detail. Some of this material also appears in Per Gjorde’s Pearls and Crazy Diamonds, published in 2001.

The Marvin is generally seen as Burns’ defining design. Burns U.K.’s Legend, Marquee, and similar contemporary models are its direct descendants. In many ways, the Marvin is the least original of Burns designs, but being built to Hank’s specifications, much is obviously derived from the Stratocaster. The Marvin is very striking, visually, with its Strat-ish body showing a curvier upper horn. The eye-catching (especially on black-and-white TV) scheme of brilliant white with a red tortoise pickguard was borrowed from the band’s final set of Fenders. The three-and-three scroll head was Hank’s idea, and if nothing else, gave the production team an extra headache laying out carving procedures! Another welcome lift from the Stratocaster was the 25 ½" scale length, albeit with an extra fret; the Marvin was the first Burns guitar with this feature. The bolt-on neck was finished in natural, usually with an unbound rosewood fingerboard. The Marvin was the first Burns to use a new, fancier “Handcrafted by Burns London” pickguard markings.

Shouldn’t that be “Hank with his ‘Marvin’?”

Patents were filed August 14, 1964, for the Marvin’s overall design and the new Rezo Tube Tailpiece; production was seemingly well underway by then. The Rezo-Tube is often considered the instrument’s defining feature, sometimes termed the “Rolls-Royce of vibrato units.” Burns touted this feature highly, though in the ad they call it “Rez-O-Matic,” which according to actual markings was the designation for the pickups! The unit works on a completely different principle from the earlier Series I and II vibratos, which employ a laterally moving bridge. The Rezo-Tube’s long aluminum plate has a knife-edge-bearing front edge which pivots on a block screwed to the body. The entire assembly raises and lowers, sprung from beneath with sensitive adjustment possibilities. In place of the Strat vibrato block, the strings pass through individual tubes (hence the name) inside the recess in the body, isolated from the wood completely! This “gives the string tone a new degree of resonance and sostenuto,” according to the catalog blurb. It also required a strange-looking “cage” armrest over the long plate to avoid having the player’s arm interfere. The unit was engraved, “Designed and handcrafted for Hank B. Marvin by Burns.”

The Shadows Bass.

The actual Rez-O-Matic Pickups are very much Stratocaster-influenced, built unlike earlier Burns units and a move away from elaborate switching and low-impedance experiments. With a simple three-way lever, the guitar is far less versatile, sonically, than the Black Bison, though more powerful-sounding.

A further development was the Marvin “S” prototype; a semi-acoustic version with a bound flat-top body incorporating tone chambers. Hank and Bruce received samples, but the idea was not developed at the time. Indeed, after September of ’65 the new Baldwin regime showed little interest in developing anything except ways to speed production and cheapen existing products.

In later interviews, Marvin professed less than total satisfaction with the guitars, but continued to use up them through the early ’70s, after the Shadows initial dissolution. He thought they looked “cluttered” with “the profusion of plastic” and said his first one was very heavy. Early on, he encountered an inexplicable problem – the Rezo-Tube would occasionally lock in an out-of-tune position. After much headscratching, he and Burns discovered that his jacket button was getting caught in the string-feed slot on the guitar’s backside!

Subtle variations can be seen on the personal instruments Marvin and Welch played in the ’60s, and the nameplates changed from Burns to Baldwin – then back again! A special set of green-sunburst Marvins were used to promote Rhythm & Greens, both on TV and in a short film of the same title, and used sparingly thereafter. A more amusing cinematic appearance was the Mini Marvins built for the puppet Shadows in the 1966 film Thunderbirds Are Go. Oddly enough, Marvin guitars have a distinctively English “space age” aesthetic which visually fits very well in the Thunderbirds’ fantasy universe! The marionette Cliff “Jr” and the Shadows perform “Shooting Star” at a rather bizarre nightmare nightclub setting with the “Alan Tracy” character, fraught with Freudian sexual anxiety over his desire for Lady Penelope… surely one of the stranger scenes ever filmed with puppets! Apparently, Burns provided the mini-guitars and Vox the amps, assuring an authentic “performance!”

Exactly which records the Shadows’ Burns guitars were first used on is a much-debated fan topic – at the latest the early-1964 single “The Rise And Fall Of Flingel Bunt” was definitely cut with the new lineup. This jaunty, chunky neo-12-bar number charted higher than other recent offerings and seemed to mark a return to confidence for the group… though its number five placing in the U.K. charts would be the last time they would rank that high. The market success of the Marvin Guitar is harder to gauge… it was reported as a good seller but informed estimates put the number built at around 300 to 350. Considering that between early ’64 and late ’65, Burns ran through something like 6,000 serial numbers that represents a very small percentage of the company’s output. The Marvin’s list price in June ’65 was over £173, almost exactly the same price as the Stratocaster with which it was obviously competing. A Gibson ES-335 could also be had for about that, so the Marvin was absolutely priced as a professional-grade guitar. The nearest UK-built competitor, the Vox Phantom, listed at only £84!

Original Burns-labeled Marvins have long been collected and played worldwide, especially in Europe and Japan. Many Continental fans revere the later-’60s Shadows; a Burns Marvin is an essential part of that mystique. Although sold as far afield as Canada, Australia and New Zealand they remain a rarity nearly everywhere. For the US, the Shadows’ name didn’t mean much and Hank Marvin’s even less; in 1965 Burns had virtually no distribution stateside for these guitars anyway. The Marvin is rarely seen here, and nearly always in the later Baldwin version. Collectors beware: re-worked, re-badged or re-numbered Baldwin Marvins have sometimes been sold as “True Burns” guitars!

Like most Burns guitars, the Marvin had a matching four-string issued alongside: The Shadows Bass. While less dramatic than the Bison Bass this is still an imposing piece of machinery. By this time the Shadows had changed bassists twice – the new bass arrived around the same time as the new player, John Rostill, who replaced Brian “Licorice” Locking as 1963 ended. Rostill’s prototype had certain differences from production models: The pickups were mounted at a straighter angle, switching was more complicated and the head badge read “Marvin.” These quirks were lovingly re-created in the recent 2006 Burns U.K. reissue. The original seems to have followed the guitar into production by some months; only first cataloged in September, 1964.

The bass’s salient feature was also the Rezo-tube bridge/tailpiece…without the vibrato, but still sprung floating on a knife edge! This unit included the rather backwards step of a straight bar bridge in place of Burns’ previous micro-intonatable bass saddles. Suspending bass strings inside the body in hollow tubes has unsurprisingly never been followed up – the idea is still as lavish and unusual (and counter-intuitive!) as in 1964. The three Rez-O-Matic bass pickups are quite different from the guitar versions: with no pole pieces and a much different coil, they look suspiciously like budget Nu-Sonic units with differently-marked covers! The three-way switch was not intended to allow multi-pickup combinations… another retrograde step compared to the sonically versatile Bison Bass. Burns mutated Fender’s concept of a handrest into a rather bizarre metal “cage” assembly covering the center of the body (similar to the fitting used on the guitar’s Rezo-Tube, but more complex with three individual bars). It’s a distinctively odd-looking feature, almost seeming plucked from one of the Thunderbirds’ puppet spaceships! The bass sported plastic button Van Ghent tuners on a massive scroll headstock looking large enough to use as a weapon!

A 1965 picture shows pop group Unit 4+2 (well, the Burns-endorsing half, anyway!) with a Shadows Bass, but the instrument was rarely seen in bands other than its namesake. It was a fine instrument, but very expensive at £162, more than any other Burns four-string. A custom-color Fender Precision retailed in mid ’65 at just under £145, with a sunburst Jazz Bass at £165. With such competition, the Shadows Bass does not appear to have sold in the quantities of the Marvin, and an original is a rare find. Despite this, 1964 into ’65 was truly the high water mark for the original Burns company, with the endorsement of Britain’s top instrumental band and a range of instruments second to none, at least in Europe.

We’ll meet more of these sometimes dazzling, sometimes baffling creations in next month’s “Way Back Beat.”

This article originally appeared in VG May 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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