Travis Bean Interview

Metal Machine Music - The Next Phase
Metal Machine Music - The Next Phase

“Bean is Back!” proclaimed the signs at a recent California guitar show. Indeed, Travis Bean, builder of the short-lived-but-legendary ’70s instruments that bear his name, has reentered the guitar-manufacturing arena with an even more innovative approach to instrument construction.

His guitars and basses of yore were primarily known for their unique aluminum necks and figured koa bodies, and perhaps not surprisingly, the huge increase in the application of technology to manufacturing techniques has allowed him to design and build instruments that are perhaps more revolutionary than those he marketed from 1974 to ’79.

In a recent phone conversation with the affable and self-deprecating guitarmaker, VG afforded Bean the opportunity to detail his credentials – past, present, and future:

Vintage Guitar: Like Paul Bigsby, you were into motorcycle racing some years ago. What made you take up guitar building the first time around?

Travis Bean: The reason I always mention racing is because it’s such a different discipline from music. Bringing that racing mentality to music means you’ve got to have the right stuff from the get go.

When I was racing, I got injured and I took a job at a big music store in Burbank; I would find the accounts for the rental equipment. I’d always loved music but never played it, and as soon as I got that job, I met Marc McElwee, who would pick up things to repair. I struck up an instant friendship with him, and he went on to become my business partner. Back then it took me about two weeks to learn everything about guitars.

Doing guitar repairs over the years, Marc built a couple of guitars himself and at the same time my interest in playing was starting. I had a natural tendency to tinker (chuckles), so I decided to build a guitar; I got a couple of Gibson pickups from the store where I was working.

Was it your plan, at the outset, to build an aluminum-neck instrument?

Well, I’d spent hours watching Marc fiddling with necks and adjusting them, and in my simple and naive way of looking at things I said, “I can solve that.” I had very little experience in metalworking, but I knew wood backward and forward, and I didn’t want to implant a truss rod into a piece of wood, so I literally whittled the neck out of a piece of aluminum. That’s how it started: I was trying to fix some problems in a completely naive way, but once we got down the road a ways and the thing worked, the lesson of not knowing enough not to do it wasn’t lost on me (laughs). Being hung up by convention is really stifling for me.

Then unlike a lot of other folks, you didn’t have a bunch of guitars growing up, and you didn’t run out and buy a guitar after seeing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” right?

I remember seeing Elvis on Ed Sullivan, and I started taking guitar lessons immediately, but during the third lesson, I made the mistake of mentioning to the instructor, who was an older fellow, that I wanted to be like Elvis, then l got to listen to an hour-long diatribe, and I never touched a guitar again until I was 22 years old. In some ways, that’s a cop-out, but that was actually my experience.

On the other hand, I stayed addicted to that music, and it was around me all the time. I knew some child prodigies in this area; a guy named Larry Brown, who played country piano, and a good singer named Steven Adler, and I would get these pangs inside when I’d go see them, but I never took up the physical act of playing until I was in my 20s.

Some people might think your interest in some aspects of motorcycling racing – precision parts, tolerances, etc., would have figured into guitar making.

It certainly did, and that was part of my thinking when I really got into it. But in the beginning it was, “I know a way to fix that,” when I was considering how to solve twisting, bending, and breakage of necks. I remember watching Marc stringing up the first guitar we built, and when he plucked the D string, he turned around, and his eyes were as big as saucers. He said, “Did you hear that?” He had strung up thousands of guitars over the years, so we knew we were on to something. The reason we decided to make them in quantity was because they worked really well; we had our necks tested regarding rigidity, and they had a distinct mechanical advantage. It reproduced the sound of the string well, and that’s where I think the sound really is.

I really like what’s going on out in the market now – not that I think the old stuff is bad, that’s why I wanted to build guitars – from listening to the old stuff! And that’s why we’re excited about this new effort.

When did Marc string up the first guitar?

That would have been in mid-to-late ’72. We both still had regular jobs. We opened our shop in January of ’74.

The main players I recall using Travis Bean instruments back then would have been Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman.

Yeah, but it’s funny; we became aware of a lot of other musicians using them. We did have a relationship with Garcia and Wyman, but they had contacted us. We were struggling back then. I can remember really pushing the envelope at retail; our highest-priced instrument was $1,395. But those two guys did a lot for us. To me, that’s really the joy of this business – to see a guy playing your instrument because he wants to; that really makes me tick.

Are you saying that back then you couldn’t afford official endorsers?

Oh, absolutely not. In the beginning, we ran several ads, but that was pretty much the extent of it. Later, when Garcia joined us, we didn’t do much promotion with him, but I think he had more impact than the Rolling Stones. There are a lot of photographs of him playing one of our guitars that are still in circulation. In fact, the whole band came to our shop a couple of times, and to a person they were very kind to us.

Did you premier your instruments at an Anaheim NAMM show? What was the reaction to them?

Actually, it was in Chicago. We wrote $150,000 worth of business in three days, by displaying three handmade guitars. On the flight back, we thought, “We’re in seventh heaven; here we go!” But by the time we landed at Burbank, we’d started to realize that we didn’t have a clue how to make that many guitars (laughs). It took about a year and a half to figure it out. Without a history, banks wouldn’t lend us money, but they would lend us money to buy machinery. We were able to put together a wood shop, a paint shop, and a metal shop. I had a tremendous bunch of folks working with me, not for me, and we managed to make about 3,000 instruments. I try to give credit where credit was due; my machinist really figured all of the tooling out. We looked into casting and forging, but it was so outrageously expensive for the dies that we ended up doing it the old-fashioned way.

We had 21 people working during those five years. Only one person left; we knew we were working on a good product.

What was the difference between the T-1000 Standard and Artist models?

The Standard had different fretboard inlay from the Artist, and a flat top; the Artist had a carved top.

You also did some nontraditional-shaped instruments, like the Wedge.

The Wedge guitar was a wonderful piece for the stage, but the Wedge bass was a flop. It didn’t balance; it was my lemon (chuckles).

Your use of koa wood on the natural-finished instruments was also a bit off the beaten path.

Koa wood had been used for ukuleles, but it was hardly in fashion for guitars. I went to a local art wood store, and chose koa because it was the only wood that would look decent if I made the body in one piece. That was all of the science that went into that decision (laughs), but it turned out to be a wonderful wood for us.

What was the scale of the basses? Wyman usually played short-scale models.

Thirty-four inch, but we did make some 30″ models for Wyman and one retail store; probably no more than half a dozen total.

The story about your first venture in Tom Wheeler’s American Guitar says you left the business when you felt you were being pressured to compromise on quality. Comment?

Well, we didn’t want that to be the case, and I’ve said in print before that I think the last guitar we ever made was as good as any we ever made. There are very few ways you can cut corners on that sort of a machining process; to this day, it’s still very costly. Looking back, I never thought I’d go back into the business, but it hasn’t hurt me; I wasn’t one of these guys who has to sit and watch the quality of their products go downhill. I’ve been very lucky in that regard; we stopped clean, and the reputation of the instruments has remained very strong.

You’ve been out of the business for nearly two decades. What did you do in the interim?

I started working in the studios. I got into the scenery-building business at first, so I could still work with my hands. I established a rapport with various shops around town, building special effects and mechanical animation pieces. I got to spend the whole day being creative.

But things come full circle, and that’s not such a swell job anymore. I’d enjoyed 20 years of being congratulated about my guitars, for which I was deeply appreciative, and that’s why this new effort couldn’t have happened at a better time. And to be perfectly honest with you, I was a little bit burned out. I may be personally responsible for who knows how many acres of rain forest being in the dumpster (interviewer laughs). It’s true; they use a tremendous amount of stuff, and it usually goes right out the back door.

What stimulated your interest in getting back into guitar building?

The interest in the older instruments was gratifying and amazing to me, particularly on the internet – Bill Kaman included – and it’s been about 20 months since I started trying to bring myself back up to speed. I hadn’t been to a NAMM show since the last one we exhibited at. Kaman sent me a copy of your magazine that contained an article he’d done on my guitars, (VG, June ’95) and I was flabbergasted about what’s going on out there. It’s been a tremendously interesting reeducation.

Let me back up to the mid ’80s for a second and ask if you were aware of Stanley Jordan’s use of your instruments? Unique player, unique guitar.

Absolutely. I hadn’t left music; I’ve had a studio to play in, and believe it or not, I’m really more of a drummer, but I’m getting to the point where I can entertain myself on guitar. When we had our shop, everybody who came to the door was a guitar player, so I’d play drums if someone was checking out our instruments. And I’m pretty good at it, but I’ve always had to have a place to do that.

Did someone urge you to get back into the business or was that your decision?

In the years after we stopped, I continued to play and I continued to have Travis Beans around here, and I’ve done a considerable amount of experimenting because in my mind it wasn’t quite complete. And the backlash of failing at a money-making effort can always be a burden here in America, but that really didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that we couldn’t continue back then.

The spark came from a dear friend, a wonderful English fellow named Paul Hone. He’s a computer guy and a wonderful guitar player. He knew I had a good job, but he convinced me to get back out there with the guitars.

It was like somebody who’s been divorced and is getting married again – I never said I wouldn’t make guitars again; it just never occurred to me that I’d be able to. I wouldn’t trade the experience from the first time around for anything, but for me it wasn’t very pleasant at times. I was only building guitars – standing there whittling – for about the first year, and the rest of the time we were in business I was talking to lawyers and banks, etc.

This time around, we’re starting with a clean slate. I was able to get backing from a fellow who I worked for named Paul Griemann. He’s a guy with the business acumen I don’t have. I didn’t want to go back to the bootstrap existence we had before, to be honest with you. But I wasn’t frightened. I knew they could be built, and of course the technology nowadays is tremendous, so that figures into it, as well. This time around, everything is falling into place.

What are you doing differently construction-wise, this time?

I had the design in my mind way back when. This time, instead of the neck sliding into a wood body, as was the case on the original guitar, the metal forms the entire back of the guitar, much like a pan, for lack of a better word. I’ve wanted to build a hollow model because we got this beef from some players about the original guitars being heavy. So I re-sawed and hollowed out the wood part to work on the weight factor; the truth is, it wasn’t the aluminum neck that made those guitars heavy; it was the wood. The neck weighed a little over three pounds, and this whole new assembly weighs about the same. The neck is even hollow under the fingerboard.

I reduced the size of the peghead to about 87 percent of what it was, and we’re using lightweight locking gears, which weigh about a fifth of the old-style tuners. We’re using 7075 aluminum now, which is way stronger than the 6061/T-6 aluminum on the originals. 7075 is commonly used for the skins of airplanes. The guitar has a longer scale this time, as well. A longer string creates more energy.

And the big deal this time around is the technology, and I had another stroke of good fortune. A young man named Kelly Condon, from Cordell Industries, programs and runs a CNC machine for us. And he is a magician with that thing – an artist in every respect. We start with 108 pounds of aluminum, and when the machine gets through with it, the assembly weighs about three pounds, as I said. This guy works that machine like a video game (chuckles)! I never heard one complaint about our neck shape on our originals, but the turnings weren’t always the same. This time around we’ve got a more conventional neck shape. The best comment I’ve gotten about the new neck came from someone who said, “It feels like you’ve felt it before.”

VG: Are you using CNC machines to make the wooden tops?

We’re probably going to be using a panograph on the carved tops. The fastest way to do that is with an old pin router. We’ll have a CNC machine in our Custom Shop. Things have changed; back in the ’70s, Todd Rundgren tried to order a guitar shaped sort of like the thing Prince now uses, and we had to refuse because in those days we were trying to emulate Fender and Gibson. Now, of course, everybody can do anything they want. And some of the other people responsible for our being able to go back into this are the ones making all the neat guitars out there.

Hartley Peavey told me his company will build a guitar in a computer first, then program their CNC machines to build the parts, which come out consistent.

Hartley’s a stone genius if there ever was one. Way back when, we understood he had a machine you could throw wood into one end of and a guitar would come out the other end (chuckles). So I can only imagine what he’s got now!

How far along are you with instrument production?

As of now, I have a prototype done; I call it the Marc McElwee Signature model, and it’s shaped sort of like model 500 we produced toward the end of the first time we were making guitars. I’m thrilled with the way it looks and sounds, and we’ve answered the weight problem. It really kicks butt. The assembly for the basses is also complete. The cutaways on the bass will be more comfortable, and we’re going to be getting into five-string and six-string basses.

I also need to mention Greg Rich, whom I met through Drew Berlin at the Guitar Center. He’s a world-renowned inlay artist. We’re in discussions right now with Stanley Mouse, who was associated with the Grateful Dead, about including some Grateful Dead artwork in our inlay offerings.

When do you anticipate premiering the new line?

We’ll have guitars ready to show to dealers soon, but we anticipate we’ll have a complete display ready for the NAMM show [in January].

Sounds like you’ve got all of the facets of your new effort lined up in a logical manner.

(chuckles) Like everything, you’re always spending more than you thought you would, but the prospects are just too compelling. You never know until you’ve got that first piece in your hands, and we’re awful excited and proud of what we’re doing.

As it turned out, Bean displayed his new prototype and pan assemblies at the Pomona guitar show in late August. His enthusiasm for his new products is contagious, and he looks forward to another venture in the guitar manufacturing industry, especially since he’s reentering the market with yet another cutting-edge instrument design.

Vintage Guitar would like to thank Bill Kaman, Drew Berlin, and Dave Belzer (Guitar Center, Hollywood) for their help.

Travis Bean shows off the prototype of his new series.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’99 issue.

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