In early 2009, VG columnist Peter Stuart Kohman turned his focus on Burns, the pioneering British guitar builder. We’ve compiled installments 7 and 8 for this special edition of VG Overdrive. Watch for the complete history in the upcoming weeks.
By 1965, Ormston-Burns Ltd. had become the major guitarmaker in the U.K. and, to a lesser extent, in Europe. Jim Burns’ guitars were in the hands of prominent British artists, and were being exported and used in ever greater numbers all over the world. Still, it’s no surprise that in the U.S. – homeland of Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker, and Gretsch – players showed little interest in his creations.
The deal that led to small numbers of Burns models being issued here, branded as Ampegs, had run out of steam… and no better offers seemed likely. The constant expansion to meet demand had also strained the company’s financing, and despite (or in many ways because of) his considerable success, Jim Burns’ future was shakier than it might have appeared!
One product line, in particular, had a negative affect on the company, and may well have forced Burns to seek financial support. To see how this developed, we’ll need to backtrack a few years.
In the early ’60s, English makers had prospered with amplifiers even more than guitars; Vox became a worldwide name thanks to the incredible level of success their amps had with the top echelon of British beat musicians, starting with the Shadows. When the Beatles became a household name in early ’64, Vox amps were along for the ride. Watkins and Selmer also found much success with the Beat boom; each built full lines of tube amps that, while not as well-remembered, were quite successful and highly regarded in their day. Many are collector’s items now, as well. Most were designed with proven components; after all “valve” guitar amplifiers were hardly new technology at the time!
The story of the Burns amplifier line is less happy – a small, neglected, but important sideline of the company’s history. Jim Burns himself was no stranger to amps. After all, as one of the earliest builders of solidbody instruments in England, he was more dependent on the “little box on the floor” than most; Burns himself actually built a few simple amps in the ’50s to sell with his earliest guitars. But his personal interest seemingly laid in areas other than electronics. The Supersound and Burns-Weill instrument lines used pickups supplied by Jim Burns’ partners. Early-’60s attempts to offer Burns-branded amplification were spotty; the company built a number of amps in 1961 and ’62, using surplus television cabinets. These early “Tele Amps” reportedly sometimes feature a grillecloth intended to simulate a TV test pattern! For a more professional-looking rig, the company briefly imported American-made Supro amps, re-branded Bison with an added logo plate and offered in guitar and bass models.
These were only stop-gaps until the rollout of product that probably did the most damage to Ormston Burns’ long-term future – the all-transistor Orbit Amplifier line. Orbit was a radical departure from anything available in the U.K., with truly original design work. They constituted a full-blown (and, as it turned out, rather blind) leap into the space-age future. JMI/Vox had a fling with early transistor designs in 1962-’63 with the T50 and outrageously wacky Transonic 60. But after that dismal, if colorful, failure, backed out for a couple of years (see the interview with Pete “Buzz” Miller, VG, July ’08, for a first-hand account of the “joys” of the Transonic 60). Deciding that the existing transistors were not reliable enough, in late 1965/early ’66, Vox experimented with hybrid amps using transistor preamp sections and “Valve” output stages. This created some interesting (and now collectible) amplifiers, but nothing that would compete long-term with the AC30. Vox continued in 1966-’67 with a line of all-transistor amps, but by then many other troubles were brewing for the company – another story entirely! Back in 1962-’63, the boffins at Burns had apparent faith in available technology (and perhaps no one with Vox designer Dick Denney’s ears) so Burns jumped in whole hog and by mid ’63 committed itself to a transistor-only amp line.
By ’63, transistors had been around for some time; the team at Bell Labs that developed the earliest version (in 1948) had won a Nobel prize for their efforts. More modern Silicon transistors followed in ’54. Still, throughout the ’50s, the vaccum tube (“valve” in U.K. parlance) reigned supreme in most home electronics and musical amplification. By the late ’50s, the transistor had been accepted into mass commercial electronics at the low end, with the small transistor radio (often “Made in Japan”) providing the soundtrack to teen life… albeit playing music recorded with tube amps and tape machines! Sony had introduced the first of these in 1952, but musical instrument amplification continued along tried-and-true lines for years beyond. Still, by the early ’60s, the transistor was considered the wave of the future. Burns was not alone in predicting that transistors would replace tubes as the basis of guitar amplification; nearly all the big names would jump on the bandwagon eventually – and most would jump off after dismal failures! CMI/Gibson and CBS/Fender had similar experiences in the mid ’60s, but Burns in ’63 was a very early adaptor, and unlike most competitors, had no traditional tube-amp operation – or experience – on which to fall back.
The flyer that introduced the Orbit line is one of Burns’ most detailed pieces of promotion, surprisingly candid in spots and full of chatty philosophizing. It’s worth quoting at length, as it offers an interesting insight into the overall Burns psychology and development process. “Built With the Musician In Mind” was the operating slogan… meaningless really; suggesting that somehow Vox, Watkins, or Selmer were not thinking of musicians when designing their extensive (and highly successful!) lines of amps but yet somehow endearing, in a typically Burnsian way!
“‘You’re not business people,’ one of our American business visitors laughingly told us recently… and we took it as a compliment,” began the Orbit’s introduction. “Of course, we’re not business men… we’re musicians… who like countless other musicians throughout the ages have given thought to the production of more sensitive instruments that would give that elusive extra, something extra in the split second of transmission from brain to keyboard (sic). We decided to do something about it, and the result was the Burns guitar range. We made a few mistakes… but we made a lot of guitars and a host of friends throughout the world. The truth is that we just drifted into this development business… and we say development because ‘manufacturing’ has a commercial tang which doesn’t fit our way of life. Electric guitars were, in the main, sub-standard in relation to their potential. We set out to develop instruments that would be easier to finger, give more sensitive response, and have a wider range of tonal colour. The first models were by no means our ultimate aim but the boys said they were an improvement on existing instruments and we found ourselves with many more orders than we could execute. During this period we learned a great deal, not only about guitars but about electronics and strings. We talked with experts in wood, metal and electronics technology. We accepted their experience with an open mind but we kept on developing. Then came a point when the boys asked us to develop an amplifier in the same way… with the musician in mind. Again we met up with the experts in hi-fi who freely admitted that amplification of the guitar had some ‘Special Problems.’ What an understatement! Some of these electronic experts became so interested in our ideas they joined the Burns team and began to work our way.
“With the musician in mind we started out on this idea of building a better amp. Basic requirements were a machine that would be light enough in weight to carry conveniently; have enough power for any class of work; give that power without distortion, and give trouble free service. In nine months of experiment, working thirteen hours a day the Burns team of dedicated enthusiasts consumed 50,000 cigarettes, 7,000 black coffees and an unrecorded amount of aspirin. The final design was not evolved on hi-fi lines by electronic engineers. It was developed with their cooperation and their original specifications were married to the requirements of the musician. ‘Throw away the book’ we told our electronic bods. ‘Forget the specifications…let’s have some new thinking with the musician in mind. The new sound of the Orbit will convince you more than words.”
In the same circular Burns touts “Printed Circuts” as well and listed these apparent advantages of the “Mighty Atoms” of the “Tiny transistors which eliminate all valve troubles”: “1) Your amplifier is half the weight of the conventional valve type. 2) Total absense makes ‘microphony’ (noisiness) a thing of the past. 3) One light compact unit uncluttered with components or cables eliminates danger of ‘baking’ the speaker cones. 4) No warm-up time as in valve amps. Full performance immediately when you switch on! 5) No aging… or falling off in performance as with valves… and much less maintenance. 6) Transistors… unlike valves… cannot fall out in transit. Transistors are soldered direct into the circuit and are not prone to mechanical damage.”
The amps themselves looked good – sleek, rounded-edge cabinets with gleaming inset-metal speaker grilles and angled/back-mounted control panels proudly emblazoned “All Transistor.” The cabinetry was described as “Aircraft resin bonded kiln dried ply.” Components were claimed to be the finest available. The Orbit amps used the same elaborate double-stage knobs as the 1963-’64 Bison guitars.
The first production models, from mid/late ’63, were the Orbit III and Orbit VI, also offered with onboard reverb as the Orbit III-R and VI-R. The Orbit III claimed 60 watts output and three 10″ speakers… all at 37 pounds in weight and at a price of 100 Guineas. The big brother Orbit VI boasted 120 watts and six 10″ speakers, weighing in at a whopping 75 pounds and costing 132 Guineas, then quickly up to 150 Guineas. This amp was modified soon after being introduced to a more manageable unit with 100 watts output and three 12″ speakers. The reverb versions ran an extra £18. The next addition was the smaller Orbit II with 40 watts and one 12″ speaker, at 75 Guineas and finally by mid ’64 came the Orbit Double 12, an obvious attempt at an AC30 beater with (you guessed it) two 12s at 131 Guineas. The Orbit 12 was described as having “Tone-shaped bass-coloured sounds with a buoyant musical beat to eliminate that dead tub-thumping sound.” Uhhhh… okay! This amp also soon featured the “Studio Switch – Two amps in one!” This was essentially a dual-position power selector, intended to cut output to enable quieter operation in the sterile recording studio. This model soon replaced the more unwieldy Orbit VI as the standard bearer of the line, and appears to have been built in the largest numbers, if survivors are any indication. Sadly, survivors of any model are few. The prices generally were competitive with tube Vox amps; most were actually a bit cheaper than the roughly equivalent Vox.
These professional amps were soon supplemented by the Sonic series, a cheaper line without the curved-corner cabs, fancy knobs, or deluxe touches (like “hand-stiched (sic) English leather handle”). “Sonic” was Burns code for budget; this lower-end line included the Sonic 20, 30, and 50 models with those name specs represent their output ratings. These amps mounted single 10″, 12″, or double 12″ speakers. Oddly, these were described as having the “American sound,” assumedly a reference to more Fender-like treble response compared to the typically warm Vox output. “Building Burns standard gear at a lower price was not so easy,” the company noted. “But we overcame this by using a simple functional case design without ornate trimmings.” The Sonics came in plain rectangular boxes with top-mounted controls and minimal styling.
To complement the line, Burns offered a full-sized bass rig of similar styling. The Double B bass amp was a boxy-looking 80-watt head with simple controls mated to an elaborate ported double 18″ speaker cab. This imposing (and very heavy) 52″-high rig was initially priced at a hefty 195 Guineas. While transistor amplification would eventually prove more popular for bass than guitar, the Double B does not seem to have made many friends and is rarely seen, either in old footage or in actuality today. Burns also produced several models of “Orbital Stage One” transistor PA rigs that look to have been fairly well-thought-out; again few seem to have survived long. These various equipments are rarely seen today, and almost never in the U.S., where they were sold minimally (if at all). Reliability was not great by the few accounts available, and the line achieved little success with professional musicians. It’s rare to find a fully functional example of any Burns amp today; most were likely abandoned as not worth repairing when they failed.
Burns was extremely proud of these amps and promoted them avidly. The most amusing ad – at least in retrospect – is from a 1965 Beat Instrumental featuring a graffiti “Transistors” emblazoned on a brick wall and the slogan “Valves Are Vintage.” That was certainly proved correct, but not in the way anticipated! Ironically, this was published not long before the storied “Clapton is God” graffiti started appearing on London walls, enshrining not only Slowhand, but his searingly overdriven tube-amp tone, another factor in spelling the ultimate end of the trend toward “clean and efficient” transistor amplification! As most guitarists know, when transistor amps are pushed to distortion, the sound tends to be a harsh, grating edge that few musicians find attractive. Still, Burns carefully warned against investing in “Obsolete” equipment!
In a way, it’s too bad the Orbit saga didn’t turn out better. Taken on their own terms they are well-conceived, strongly built, attractive amps with a distinctive style. Unfortunately, the electronic developments required to make transistor amplification reliable were still in the teething stage in 1963… and guitarists were just beginning to figure out that they liked, even loved the sonic inefficiencies of tube amp tone far better than the clean “Hi-Fi” sound offered by transistors!
These amps were by no means an instant failure; some appear to have sold well for a time but the huge expense of getting the full line into production, coupled with their relatively limited success, played havoc with the company’s receivables. The production (from scratch) of an extensive and unique line of amplifiers represented a huge investment of both capital and resources… the operation “bled the guitar side dry” in the words of ex-employee Norman Houlder, as interviewed by Per Gjorde. “We entered into frantic negotiation for a second factory,” said Burns’ own publicity. This is not an uncommon problem with fast-expanding businesses; the money needed to keep ramping up production is supposed to come from the increased sales, but the time lag involved often means the funds needed to build the product already on order are not available. JMI/Vox suffered these problems well before Burns, when Tom Jennings was forced to look for outside financing by mid ’63 and sold controlling interest in JMI to the Royston Group in September. The move eventually cost him his company.
The financial mess at Burns was not apparent to the casual observer, however; with a full line of guitars, amps, strings, and accessories and a large retail store in London Burns appeared to have truly “made it” in the beat-happy Britain of 1965. Most likely only Jim and his close associates knew how precarious the company’s situation was. At the same time, Baldwin, the American piano and organ giant, was looking enviously at the booming guitar market. They approached Fender, but the CBS corporation had deeper pockets and won the company with a bid of 13 million… reportedly 12 million more than Baldwin’s offer! It seems likely Jim Burns approached Baldwin to distribute his products in the U.S., but the deal turned into an outright sale. The purchase was finalized September 30; less than a year after failing to buy Fender, Baldwin had its guitar division, at a bargain. Reportedly, little cash was involved – Baldwin simply assumed the company’s outstanding debts. The news seems to have been taken rather glumly in England; a simple, almost obituary-like notice in Beat Instrumental #31 from November of ’65 read, “Burns taken over.” We’ll take a look at what happened next… next time.
This article originally appeared in VG September 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.