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.
James Ormston Burns’ solo foray into the electric-guitar market began at the start of 1960; he had briefly partnered with builders Henry Weil and Alan Wooten beforehand, but from this point on, the instruments would bear only his name.
Sales of the early Artist and Sonic models enabled the small company to move out of the basement of a Victorian house into something resembling a factory, listed in 1961 as 300 Mace Street, Hackney, London E8. Many entrepreneurs would have been content with this level of success, but Burns had just begun, and his next project would be a milestone in the history of British guitars.
By the middle of 1961, the line had proved commercially viable and Jim Burns, no stranger to gambling, must have felt ready to up the ante. The models in production were good instruments with many innovative, if quirky, design features, but not really in league with the Fender and Gibson guitars being imported at the time. The next Burns guitar would be a major creative departure, intended as the equal of these American imports – at least! Alongside the original Vox Phantom, it would rank as one of the most visually striking electrics of the ’60s, but unlike JMI’s trapezoidal favorite, which was little beyond a hacked-up Stratocaster, the Burns would have a wealth of original concepts.
The anecdotal story has Jim’s old cohort, Ike Isaacs, naming the new model when, upon seeing the swooping cutaway curves of the prototype, remarked “Looks like a bloody bison,” Burns must have been taken by the idea… the finished guitar carried not only the name Black Bison, but a tiny cartoon bison head on the vibrato handle and cover plate! Later Bison models still sported this enigmatic if amusing decoration, even when all else changed beyond recognition.
The guitar appears to have been developed in 1961 by Jim and several collaborators who helped with the technical aspects. The U.K. patent filing for the ornamental design of the body was made in August; from the look of it, the instrument’s layout was pretty well formalized by then. The neck was seamlessly fitted into the body like the earlier Artist model, but the body styling was far more dramatic. The trademark cutaway horns curve not only inward toward the neck, but outward from the face of the guitar – an elegant touch that must have made sculpting the body not only more work, but required a larger block of wood, as well. Interestingly, this is a roughly contemporary design to the Gibson SG, following the first SG/Les Paul guitars into production by less than a year. Few of those actually made it to England, so whether Burns himself was aware of the new Gibson design or was simply following a similar thought process is likely unknowable. The Bison’s headstock was not Gibson-influenced, but quite Fender-like, albeit more sculpted, an elaboration on the Artist model’s quasi-Telecaster shape. The Bison was also the first Burns guitar with a full-scale neck (well, Gibson scale anyway – 24 3/4") giving it a more professional feel than the short-scale Artist.
These first Black Bisons were laden with innovations; nearly every part of the guitar was a new design, and different from any existing instrument. Burns publicity materials were often overrun with hyperbolic prose, but this actually merited much of the self-praise seen in the sales sheet, which appears to date from soon after distribution commenced, around December of ’61. This trade advert is a masterpiece of semi-scientific ad prose: “…the distortion free ‘cushioned impact’ of the unique Burns circuitry in which the initial signal from the string is controlled and subsequently fed through a powerful boosting network” is just the beginning. Also touted is “The Miracle of Split Sound” and the “Tremolo arm, which is hyper-sensitive – The ball-bearing spindle, working in sweet harmony with the floating cradle… really backs you up on spontaneous expression… brings a new relaxed feeling to your work.” You get the idea.
The Black Bison’s elegantly carved body was made of English Sycamore; Jim always wanted to use native materials if possible. Obviously, the bound ebony fingerboard had to be imported timber, however! All metal hardware, including a decorative inset pickguard section, was gold-plated, which contrasted nicely with the ebony finish. One neat feature was a gold-plated machine head cover, concealing those nasty string ends! The machines were Dutch-made Van Ghents, probably the best in Europe. The headstock was adorned with a snazzy “OB” (Ormston Burns) lightning bolt logo… the Burns name was not large on these instruments, as it would soon be on following designs. Another eccentric feature was the oversize multilayered pickguard (“scratchplate” in U.K. terminology) that covered most of the face of the guitar – even the upper horn, where little “scratching” could be expected. This abundance of plastic would become a Burns trademark. One hidden but well engineered feature was the Burns geared truss rod, which was first used on this model. The patent filing date for “final specification” version of this was September 25, 1962 so it may have been reworked more than once, as by then it had been in use for some time. Earlier models had employed a simple and rather generic truss rod adjusting at the headstock, but this hidden (under a backplate) rod was a real practical advance and actually quite efficient in use, though so discreetly hidden, some Burns users are unaware of its existence!
The heart of the Black Bison is the four (yes, four) Burns Ultrasonic low-impedence pickups coupled to internal transformer coils in one of the most complicated wiring setups the guitar world has ever seen! Two selector knobs allowed eight pickup combinations including “Split Sound,” essentially a mono adaptation of Gretch’s Project-O-Sonic stereo using different half-pickups to mix bass and treble string tonalities. This would become another Burns trademark, used on several subsequent models. The pre-set sound designations were numeric on this first model, but would soon gain names; the very thin out-of-phase rear-pickup selection would become infamous when labeled “Wild Dog” sound on the next generation of guitars! This system was developed by Jim with Gordon Chandler, and would be the subject of one of the densest guitar patents (filed October 20, 1961) ever issued.
The actual pickups, Burns’ first with adjustable pole pieces, are most striking looking with the “Ormston Burns Ultra-Sonic” logo etched in silver on the underside of their clear plastic covers. They are less powerful than the earlier Tri-Sonics, even with that “powerful boosting network,” but with a higher-fidelity response. They are also quite oddly made, with no coil, as such, but an internal donut of wire wrapped around the magnet structure. Burns was well ahead of the game with this low-impedance experiment. The Ultra-Sonics’ tone is generally clean and hi-fi in most settings, though like anything else cranked through an AC15 they can really sing! Still, the guitar’s basic sound leans toward clear and distinct – perfect for the clean instrumental styles of 1962-’64, but not particularly well-suited to the raunchier sounds popular from ’65 onward. By the late ’60s, when overdrive crunch and distortion ruled the roost the elaborately wired Bison would seem far too clever for its own good!
One of the most interesting features of all Bisons was their elaborate vibrato tailpieces. The first model Black Bison marked the appearance of the perfected “floating cradle” bridge/vibrato system, the bridge had appeared on the last Vibra Artist Deluxe. It would be progressively developed over the next several years, as the simplified Series 1 and 2 vibratos used on many Burns models. The long, integral tailpiece/bridge structure occupies a lot of real estate on the face of the guitar. This would be another Burns trademark. The patent filing for this unit was December 6, 1961, by which time the guitar was just being introduced into production. Actually, “production” may be a misleading term, as according to some recollections of folks involved, the Burns shop was essentially a cottage industry at the time, and the original Black Bisons were each handbuilt under arduous circumstances! These carry the earliest Burns serial numbers – many have only two digits. Burns’ master woodworker/right hand man Jack Golder recalls that only 49 original four-pickup Black Bisons were built. These retailed at £157, an unheard-of sum for a solidbody English guitar. A real American could be had for that, including the Hank-Marvin-approved Fiesta Red Stratocaster, a scant £3 more from Selmer in 1962… or an ES-335 – for two quid less! Still, they seem to have sold out soon enough. Of the 50 or so built, a small number survive in Burns collections, while several more are known to have been destroyed or modified beyond retrieval. One of the very few in the U.S. is in the collection of the Hard Rock Cafe in New York, coming from dedicated Burns fan Chris Stein, of Blondie.
Few successful period players appear to have used an original Black Bison professionally. One was Nicky Crouch, a fixture on the pre-Beatle Merseybeat scene with both Faron’s Falmingos and The Mojos, briefly a top 10 act in the spring of ’64. Crouch is pictured with his guitar in both bands before apparently switching to an ES-330 by ’65. It seems likely that Faron’s Flamingos raucous ’63 Oriole recordings including “Do You Love Me” and “Shake Sherry” and “Let’s Stomp” as well as the Mojos U.K. hit “Everything’s Alright” feature this guitar; perhaps not the way Jim Burns would have preferred his masterpiece to be heard for posterity, but still great listening for Merseybeat fans! More recently, renowned English avant-gardist Fred Frith still often uses a highly modified four-pickup Black Bison, but it is so little original it may not exactly count! Still, it’s a testament to the adaptability of the design.
The elaborately handmade four-pickup Black Bison proved simply too fussy to mass-produce, so success spurred its own innovation. Taking a leaf from the Fender book Burns’ upper end guitars shifted to a bolt-on neck, three-pickup configuration. The Black Bison thus mutated into a more practical, if subtly less elegant, creation. One far easier to build in quantity. This second version of the Bison appears to have been phased in circa mid/late 1962, as the earlier Artist series was replaced by a less-elaborate set of guitars – the Vista-Sonic, Split-Sonic, and Jazz – that share hardware and construction features with the new Bisons. Apparently, even maverick Jim Burns was beginning to appreciate the production benefits of standardization!
At this time, a new branch of the Bison family was introduced. Burns seems to have been sensitive to the needs of bass guitarists, and most Burns guitars had a “big brother.” Thus the second generation Bison guitar was paired with the new Bison Bass, easily the most versatile and impressive bass guitar yet built in Europe in 1962! The bass, which is gigantic and striking in terms of looks and sound, went on to be arguably more successful than the guitar – certainly a milestone in electric bass history, with a long-scale (331/2") neck and low-impedence Ultra-Sonic circuitry, though without Split Sound settings. A Rose-Morris catalog sheet showing the 1962-’63 guitar and bass, has the latter strangely illustrated in sunburst instead of the usual black! Both were, in fact, available in a range of colors, but black appears to have been the overwhelming favorite – a Bison in any other color is a serious rarity! White examples exist with a matching white pickguard, and are called “albino” among collectors. A ca. ’63 Burns flyer shows the second version of the bass, this time in the expected ebony finish!
These second-generation Bisons – both bass and guitar – went through some evolutionary changes during a production run of approximately two and a half years. With their solid sycamore bodies, they tend to be quite heavy, and feel far more solid than many later Burns and Baldwin guitars. The thick black polyester finish bonds to this wood fairly well, and they usually have less finish issues than ’65 and later models. Most Bisons feature a bound ebony fingerboard with a zero-fret and plastic dot inlay. The notable differences in these models come down to the control layout on both and the vibrato tailpiece on the guitar. Earlier examples show four plain alloy knobs, with the control indications engraved on the scratchplate (in squint-worthy small print!). This changes to more elegant “clear skirt” knobs, also used on the “Orbit” series amplifiers. These are a minor work of art in themselves, with a transparent outer section carrying a painted dot attached to the small center knob and travels over a separate little number plate affixed to the pickguard… surely the most elaborate knob ever conceived! The Series 2 vibrato introduced by ’64 features a more massive bridge section than the Series 1, with more elegant saddles and strings fed through the block, along with a different internal spring layout. It is also more reliable in operation… some consider it one of the best whammys ever designed.
This timeline, as dedicated Burns followers will have already noted, contradicts most previously published information… it’s based on detailed observation and a photo/serial number database built over 20-plus years. Still, I’m sure there’s some lively discussion ahead. There is absolutely an overlap of the evolving features; the earliest guitars with serial numbers under 3,000 generally feature the Series 1 bridge and solid alloy knobs, with the control markings on the pickguard. The “skirt” knobs appear by the 3,000s and finally, the most commonly seen version of the guitar appears in the higher 3,000s range with the new Series 2 bridge mated to the two-stage knobs. This version is built up through the summer of ’64 in the largest numbers. It must also be noted that, like Fenders, most Burns guitars carry their serial numbers (a single series for all models) on a neckplate that is easily lost, changed, and certainly never originally installed in proper sequence, so, all number and dating information must be seen as approximate. Still, like Fender instruments, the patterns tend to be fairly consistent. Burns numbers usually run in batches with the occasional “ringer’ that just doesn’t want to fit in!
This new Black Bison guitar was priced 140 to 150 Guineas, the bass slightly less. While it seems to have sold fairly well, the second-generation Black Bison saw relatively few top professional users. For the most part, English guitarists who had reached that level still wanted a “real American” guitar, not an English one; no matter how distinctive it might be! Burns instruments seemingly ended up being endorsed by pop groups, not “musicians’ bands,” and the influential players of the day rarely were seen with them – until Hank Marvin, of course. One slight exception was Wout Steenhuis, a studio player who had a specialty in re-recording instrumental versions of hits of the day, much as the Ventures and others did in the U.S. While not a “rock” player per se, he was well regarded as a musician, but wasn’t showing off his Black Bison on “Top Of The Pops” regularly! A player who did was Allan Ward of the Honeycombs, who usually played an early three-pickup Bison. Perhaps because of this, the band emerged as a fully-equipped Burns showcase (we’ll meet them in a future installment). Whether their lively Joe-Meek-produced records were actually cut with Burns gear is hard to say, but their bright twangy sound on discs suggests it. Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs were a well-known Australian band that similarly featured the striking Black Bison guitars to good effect. Indeed, older Burns guitars were sent to the antipodes in fairly large numbers, and can still sometimes be found there more easily than in the rest of the world.
The later Bison Bass would score some high-profile U.K. endorsements, but the 1962-’64 model was often seen in the London clubs in the hands of Paul Williams of Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, a jazzy, hard-swinging outfit much loved by hip music fans and trendy mods in 1964-’65. Williams may well have been the most respected musician to have played any Bison!
There is no evidence that early Bisons were ever distributed in the U.S., despite efforts on Burns’ part to tap into the American market. With freight and duties, the already-expensive Bisons would have been astronomically priced by the time they reached the U.S. On this side of the Atlantic, they remain an extremely rare sight. Most American players have never seen an original! Ironically, they are often thought of as a cheap or cheesy guitar here. Still, to this day, any Burns Bison will help you stand out from the crowd! One place the Bison was definitely noticed was Japan… quite a few mid-’60s Japanese guitars carry a strong whiff of this Burns design. The inward-curving horns and general layout of the ’62-’64 Black Bisons proved to be a very influential stylistic starting point for a number of Japanese instruments – at least until the Ventures arrived with their Mosrites and started a new design trend!
Despite their relative success, the second-generation models were fairly short-lived, with a production span of probably just over two years. In the wake of the introduction of the Burns “Hank Marvin” signature model in mid 1964, the Bison series would mutate yet again, becoming essentially a curvier Marvin and shedding most of its original character. Burns U.K. recently offered several versions of Bison reissues, including an especially nice limited-edition scroll-head 1965 version. But the original four-pickup model has never been revived in any form. Still, it remains an unmistakable guitar, and a testament to the vision of its brilliantly eccentric designer.
This article originally appeared in VG March 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.