Beat Portraits: Burns Volume 3

Backbone Instruments 1962-’64
Beat Portraits: Burns Volume 3

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.

The Vista Sonic makes its bow.

The striking Black Bison was Ormston Burns’ flagship instrument, but was expensive and, let’s say, “over-styled” for more conservative players! A new, more affordable series of models was offered at the end of ’62 that were simpler and plainer. Being designed by Jim Burns, though, they weren’t too generic.

The early set-neck Vibra Artist models were being phased out and the instruments that replaced them shared many features with the re-styled Bison, including modular construction suited to mass production. Jim Burns’ hand-built aesthetic had been modified by necessity, and he appears to have learned from the Fender component-assembly playbook.

Vista Sonics and short-scale jazz guitar.
Three sensational new models! Page from the Burns catalog, December ‘62.

First out of the gate were the Vista Sonic and Split Sonic guitars, two variations on a theme. Aesthetically, it was one of the less-appealing Burns designs, homely in a particularly British way. With a fluidly shaped (if slightly squat) body featuring a rounded lump top cutaway and deep contours back and front, they look somewhat like a Telecaster half-mutated into a Strat. The 243/4"-scale bolt-on neck has the same lines and headstock shape as the Bison, but with a plain rosewood fingerboard in place of bound ebony. The patented Burns gearbox truss rod was employed, and these cheaper instruments sacrifice nothing in playability. Most hardware, including tuners and vibrato units, were shared with the Bison – metal-covered Van-Ghents for the former and the Series 1 and, later, Series 2 units for the latter. This standardization helped Ormston Burns Ltd. increase output while lowering costs. Another feature allowed for more convenient production; the entire pre-wired electronics unit mounted to the underside of the pickguard allowed easier assembly (the Artists and Sonics mounted pickups above the pickguard and required threading the pickup wires through small holes in the guard prior to attachment).

The only difference between these two models was the electronics. The less expensive Vista Sonic uses three older-style Tri-Sonic pickups, while the more “advanced” Split Sonic is equipped with new low-impedence split-coil versions; both had a master Tone and rather inconveniently placed master Volume knob. This was a simplified version of the Bison’s circuitry, less versatile and without the fancy Ultra-Sonic pickups. The new “Split-Sound” version of the Tri-Sonic feature two separate coils under the small metal cover, with each half-pickup’s group of three staggered polepieces feeding a discrete signal into small transformers mounted in the body. The four-way selector offered settings labeled Jazz or Bass (neck pickup), Treble (bridge pickup), Wild Dog (bridge and middle, out of phase) and Split Sound (bass half of the neck pickup, the treble half of the bridge). The Split Sound concept was not unlike Gretsch’s Jimmy Webster-designed Project-O-Sonic stereo; the three low strings would have a bass tone character, without impacting the “sparkle” of the treble strings. Burns dispensed with the stereo aspect, running the split signal to a mono output. While the Bison included a second two-way selector allowing each of these positions to be additionally modified, the Split Sonic guitar offered only the four basic settings, which also vary widely in output volume, making in-song tone changes awkward. This Split-Sound option cost about an extra 10 pounds, but the bulk of surviving guitars seem to be Split Sonics, so it must have seemed a good value to most buyers!

A Trogg on Vista Sonic bass.

The Vista Sonic had an even more limited tone selection via a three-way flip switch giving only bridge, neck, or middle positions… and that was still the skanky Wild Dog combination! Simply naming a tone selection “Wild Dog” was an outrageous Burns conceit. Strangely, their advertising made little mention of it, preferring to concentrate on the supposed advantages of the Split Sound system. As we shall see, Ampeg’s copywriters were more taken with it!

Standard finish for both models was a red-to-black sunburst, but various custom finishes were offered, including the rare “greenburst” and a number of different solid colors. Particularly attractive are the all-white examples, called Albinos, with a matching white pickguard. An illustration from a September, 1962, Bell’s catalog introduced the new guitars alongside the older Sonic; the heavily doctored image appearing to be a prototype or mockup. This artist’s rendition carries an Ormston Burns logo on the pickguard and the “OB” headstock badge used on the original Black Bison; if any guitars were actually produced like this they are exceedingly rare. Production instruments have a layered black hard plastic pickguard with “Burns, London” engraved near the cutaway. This typical version can be seen in a Bell’s catalog from September of ’64 – right at the end of the model’s lifespan. By that point, the Vista Sonics seemed a bit long in the tooth, and were not included in the Burns catalog issued the same month.

The Four Pennies, 1964.

As usual, Jim Burns thoughtfully considered bass guitarists’ needs, and the Vista Sonic guitars had two big-brother basses issued alongside, shown in a “3 Sensational New Models from Burns” ad published in December of ’62 and showing one of the rarest Burns instruments – the Split-Sound Six-String Bass. This was nothing more than a Split Sonic guitar with an older open-topped bridge cradle fitted with bass strings. The neck profile was a bit chunkier, and the fingerboard was usually bound. Most everything else was the same as the guitar – in fact, the ad illustration introducing the new model pictures the standard guitar! Guitar-like six-string basses were very much a flavor of the day in 1962-’63, but most makers gave them at least a 30″ scale length. This instrument was not one of Burns’ greater glories, despite a much-reproduced publicity shot of future Led Zeppelin member (and respected session man) John Paul Jones playing one. The guitar scale length has never worked particularly well on bass instruments, and simply fitting extra-heavy strings to a guitar does not a bass make! If played carefully, a nice growly tone can be had, but even with the heavy tapewound strings supplied, the scale was simply too short to provide much resonance. The price of the Split Sound Bass was higher than the guitars, so few were produced and the model is almost never seen outside of collections.

Far more useful was the standard four-string Vista Sonic Bass, which was quite successful despite its rather homely appearance. A well-conceived medium-scale (311/2") instrument, it shared some fittings with the more massive Black Bison Bass. Instead of that instrument’s low-impedence Ultra-Sonic pickups, the Vista Sonic carried three Tri-Sonic bass pickups controlled via a four-way selector. Tone settings were Contra Bass, Bass, Treble, and Wild Dog – obviously “Split Sound” would be redundant on a bass, and the Tri-Sonic pickups did not feature the low-impedence multi-coil circuitry. Sometimes, Contra Bass was absent and Tenor added, but the actual settings sounded the same! The bass’ body was, if anything, less attractive than the guitar with less-defined and somewhat lumpy cutaways. Still, the instrument played well with its unusual medium scale, and the Tri-Sonic bass pickups provided a powerful tone… well, if you didn’t select Wild Dog anyway!

The Jazz Split Sound.

While the guitars were rarely seen in top level bands, some professional users were seen with this style bass in the 1960s; bassist Friz Freyer is pictured in ’64, Vista Sonic held high with his band, Four Pennies, miming their hit “Juliet.” Alan Lancaster of The Spectres (soon to be Status Quo) played one well into the Pictures of Matchstick Men era. Most interesting is a rare shot of Troggs singer Reg Presley playing the Vista Sonic Bass; the group’s usual bassist, Pete Staples, played the Vista Sonic bass’ restyled descendant – the Burns Jazz Bass – but again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves!

Also introduced in this three-for-one ad was another successful Burns model – the Shortscale Jazz Guitar. A bit of a throwback to Jim Burns’ first production instrument, the 1958 Ike Isaacs Shortscale Model, the concept of the shorter neck (233/8" scale) as convenient for jazz artist’s fingering seems to have engaged Burns’ continued interest; as evidenced by these instruments as well as the earlier Artists. “For the progressive guitarist… easy control of modern harmonies” reads the ad copy! Most players find the trade-off for easy reach in the low positions is canceled by cramped fingering high on the fingerboard. But in the early ’60s, there were still a number of “professional-grade” short-scale guitars like the Rickenbacker 325 and Gibson Byrdland. Overall, the Jazz Model follows the general design of the Vista Sonic, with a generous helping of Stratocaster thrown in. Exactly why Jim Burns chose to dub this snappy little Fenderish solidbody a “jazz” instrument is anyone’s guess, but perhaps he didn’t subscribe to the cliché that jazz players used only hollowbody guitars! The earliest ’62 Shortscale Jazz Guitars have both bodies and necks of mahogany (perhaps using timber stock leftover from the discontinued Artists), but this soon gave way to the same English hardwood construction as the rest of the range. This model used two of the cheaper blank-polepiece version of the Tri-Sonic pickup originally employed on the budget Sonic guitars, with a simple three-way switch and master tone and volume. The rest of the hardware was common to the previously discussed instruments, but as the Jazz model retailed at a lower price point, the tuner buttons were often plastic; this is sometimes seen on the Vista Sonic, as well.

Very soon after its introduction, the Shortscale Jazz Guitar gained a slightly more upscale brother that would go on to be the most common Burns instrument, and the one most familiar to American players – the Jazz Split Sound guitar. The JSS is a stylish little guitar, much sleeker than the Split Sonic. As might be expected, it is simply the Shortscale Jazz model fitted with three pickups and the full Split Sound circuitry. Perhaps proving the advantage of a well-styled instrument, the Jazz Split Sound appears to have easily outsold the rest of the range, despite the shorter neck that some players – at least now – can find a bit limiting. Like the Split Sonic, the JSS’s sound potential is also somewhat limited by its four-way selector knob, which only allows a fraction of the possible pickup combinations. It’s not unusual to find these guitars rewired, sometimes disastrously, by frustrated owners. Oddly enough, the JSS is seldom pictured in Burns promotional materials of it era; usually the two-pickup Jazz guitar is shown with the simple notation that it is additionally available with the Split Sound option. The ad is on page 76 from a supplement to Melody Maker from mid ’65, by which time the two-pickup guitar had been phased out and the JSS was the sole survivor of the ’62 line. Based on existing examples, the Jazz Split Sound seems to have started off slowly, but by ’64 was being produced in larger numbers than any other Burns. After the Baldwin takeover, the Jazz Split Sound was eventually altered to conform to general styling changes, the major difference being a new neck with a double-sided “flat scroll” headstock. It appears to have sold well through 1966 or so, then lost ground to the Baldwin hollowbody instruments.

Ampeg introduces Burns.

All of these guitars went through evolutionary changes over their production lives. The earliest examples feature the “Series 1” vibrato unit, replaced after a year or so by the more elegant “Series 2” with a much heavier reciprocating bridge unit and smoother, more positive spring operation. The later-style tailpiece cover affixed by knurled screws appears before the new bridge unit, and the transition is inexact. Like all Burns guitars, a lot of hand fitting was used in their construction; screwed-down parts like neck backplates or pickguards from one guitar often will not fit exactly on another! These elaborate bridge units require care – and understanding – to string properly… many turn up today with all sorts of mangled setups, missing or damaged parts, or the vibrato crudely disabled. This is rather a shame, as when set up properly, these Burns “adjustable tremolo tension units” are among the best of their time. Burns even dedicated an entire page in its July ’64 catalog just to the wonders of the Series 2 unit!

Many Americans are passingly familiar with at least this next small part of the Burns story – the distribution deal with U.S amplifier maker Ampeg. The contact between the companies may have been made through Rose-Morris, a U.K. distributor for both Burns and the amp maker, or simply by Jim Burns meeting Everett Hull at a trade show… both were proud men with a hands-on approach to their companies, ever concerned with making the best product possible. One imagines they would have gotten on very well! Burns and Everett were photographed together at the 1963 NAMM show, promoting the joint line. Ampeg was founded to serve bass players, and one can imagine it may have partially been Burns’ bass offerings that appealed to Hull. Certainly the quality of original design and engineering of the Burns instruments seemed compatible with Ampeg’s own high standards. Two “Ampeg by Burns of London” instruments were being promoted by mid ’63 at the latest, both in full-page magazine ads and a snazzy full-color one-sheet. This initial campaign includes only the Wild Dog Guitar EG-1s (the Split Sonic) and the Wild Dog Bass EB-1 (the Vista Sonic Bass). Strangely, the overwhelming number of instruments imported and sold by Ampeg were neither, but the Jazz Split Sound – based on the number of surviving examples the vast majority of Ampeg-branded guitars were this model.

Ampeg’s magazine advertising discreetly mentioned the obvious hurdle to these instruments’ success in the U.S.: “Price? Slightly higher than the best American counterparts.” This was wishful obfuscation on Ampeg’s part… at an initial list of $399.50 (Plus $45 for the case) the Wild Dog EG-1 guitar was considerably more expensive than the Stratocaster it generally resembled ($289.50 in November ’63). The amount on the Ampeg’s price tag would get you a top-of-the-line Fender Jaguar – in a custom-color finish – or any but the very fanciest solidbody Gibsons. The list price of the EB-1 Wild Dog Bass was even more out of sync with the U.S. market. Listed at $449.50, the Ampeg dog was wild alright. But a custom-color Fender Jazz Bass could be had for less than $300, and you could buy two sunburst Precision Basses for just under $460! Even the traditionally higher-priced Gibson EB-3 and Thunderbird IV (introduced a few months later) were significantly cheaper than the unfortunate Burns/Ampeg. True, the Wild Dog Bass offered three pickups, but as the most expensive bass guitar on the U.S. market, that would not be enough! One shudders to think what a Black Bison would have been priced at!

With freight and tariffs, the cost of importing guitars was simply too high to make the scheme entirely practical. No wonder the cheapest model was the one that sold! Some basses seem to have made it to the Ampeg factory at least – there are pictures of them being used to test Ampeg amps – but very few Ampeg-logo basses appear to have been actually sold; they almost never appear in period pictures or on the used market! The Wild Dog Split Sonic is similarly scarce. Ampeg’s model designations changed by 1964 as the line expanded, but strangely, the Jazz Split Sound is barely mentioned even in the ’64 catalog.

Talk of pricing brings up another lingering question: Were there quality differences between the Burns instruments destined for the U.S. market and those sold elsewhere? According to some ex-Burns employees, guitars destined for Ampeg were built with cheaper materials to lower their price as much as possible. Surviving examples don’t seem to bear this out, but it’s possible that material choices made at the factory aren’t readily apparent on finished guitars 40-plus years later.

The first batch of Ampeg-logo Jazz Split Sound guitars (with serial numbers in the 1400 to 2500 range) were finished in a transparent light cherry; some even having the earliest style mahogany body and neck. This color is unusual for Burns-labeled examples, though it was standard on the Nu-Sonic and Baby Bison, and may have been specific to Ampeg’s order. Later batches are the standard red/black sunburst. A couple of models may have been offered to Ampeg but not put into production; several aberrant Ampeg-logo pickguards have turned up over the years for models that apparently never existed – it’s possible these were simply run as tests. By late ’64, Ampeg was offering the new Burns Nu-Sonic guitar and hollowbody TR-2, as well, but these are also quite rare.

It’s hard to deduce if Ampeg’s relationship with Burns lasted up until the Baldwin purchase in September, 1965, or ended sometime before; the latest Ampeg instruments tend to date to the end of ’64, suggesting the romance was over before a new suitor had arrived! Even before this, though, Ormston Burns Ltd. had forged a new connection and introduced the guitar that in many ways assured the brand’s long term survival, and insured the brand would be forever tied to one of the U.K.’s (and the world’s) most beloved bands. Next up, the Burns Marvin saga!

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

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