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.
In Beat Portraits: Burns Volume 4, we looked at Burns’ best-remembered instruments – the signature guitars of Hank Marvin and the Shadows. The same year – 1964 – saw the full flowering of Jim Burns and his associates’ creativity, and their greatest success. In the wake of the Marvin, new designs were introduced that defined the Burns aesthetic for the Beat Age; flashy, space age in a particularly English way, and as distinctive looking and sounding as any in the world.
The first was the Double Six solidbody 12-string guitar – a truly classic Burns design. This was in development before George Harrison’s Rickenbacker 360/12 in A Hard Day’s Night made electric 12s the next big thing in the spring of ’64, giving Burns a jump on nearly every other guitarmaker. But there was a caveat; the guitar’s original design was not for a standard 12-string. The name Double Six was a clue that it was originally envisioned as a combined six-string bass and guitar, with special “strung under” strings playing at bass-guitar pitch. Hank Marvin was an early tester and recorded with one months before its official introduction, prior to finalization of his signature design. The Double Six used the same Strat-with-sharper-horns body shape as the Marvin and Shadows bass, with the older hard-laminated black plastic for the pickguard(s) instead of the Marvin’s tortoise celluloid. Early prototypes had a single-piece ’guard like the Jazz range, Split Sound wiring (with Wild Dog) and a full-floating cradle bridge (fortunately without the vibrato!). Production models used the pickguard shape and wiring layout of the new Marvin, though the pickups were the old Tri-Sonics, not the Strat-like Rez-O-Matics. The guitar appears to have been in production by spring, 1964.
Burns’ catalog introduction, as usual, is a masterpiece of chatty pseudo-scientific fluff. “The Double Six is a 12-string with a difference. All double strings are tuned in octaves which means that the bottom string on the low E takes you down to a fat 40 cycles… the lowest note on the string bass or bass guitar… Research and development… included test recordings… still the no. 1 topic of conversation when the recording boys have a coffee break. Everyone kicked in; the electronic team came up with a circuit to give multi-tonal orchestral sounds from a three-position selector… The body team beat the added stress problems with a piano-pin-type tailpiece and a new balanced strain reinforced head. Defying orthodox ideas the finishing boys produced a Venetian glass lustre coating in shaded green which ‘sold’ us all at a glance.” Never mind that custom Burns guitars from as early as ’62 had been finished that way! And they finished with, “Take up the challenge of handling the Double Six… it’s quite a technique!”
Notwithstanding this oversell, the Double Six was rather straightforward and simple – for a Burns. It was the last design to use the great-sounding Tri-Sonic pickup, but the earlier complex wiring schemes were abandoned; like the Marvin, the new 12-string was wired Strat-style with a single three-way switch, master Volume and two Tone controls. This rather limits potential sounds available; the fancy lever-activated slider needs some finessing to achieve those magic in-between multi-pickup combinations. In place of the prototype’s complex open-cradle bridge, the production model’s simple heavy-pin tailpiece was screwed to the top, concealed under a chrome cover. The floating bridge was simply a bar of metal, with no intonation adjustment possible except getting the slant just right! Of course, this meant that changing to or from the special “bass under” string set was simplified. One user-friendly feature is the big neck with a nearly 2″ wide fingerboard… easier to navigate for many players than the skinny Rick neck. The unmistakable visual signature is a huge extended headstock that looks like the head of some sort of primordial crocodile, especially in the guitar’s standard green/black sunburst finish! Some were finished in Burns’ familiar red/black, but the eyecatching “Martian-burst” is standard.
The Double Six is a large, imposing and heavy instrument, especially compared to the sleek Rickenbacker. It was also fairly expensive, initially advertised at £131 and later raised to over £152, which seems high for a guitar not festooned with the Rezo-tube or other fancy Burns gadgets. The nearest home-made competitor, Vox’s Phantom XII, listed in 1965 for £99 (£115 for the Teardrop-shaped Mark III). The Rickenbacker 360-12S (Rose morris Model 1997) cost a whopping £222, 12 shillings. Compared to that, the Burns was a bargain!
The original Octave Under stringing concept seems to have died a quick death, though Burns listed the string set for some time. Hollies bassist Eric Haydock was pictured in ’65 with a bass Double Six; whether he made much use of it is unknown. A possibility for hearing this unusual creation is an obscure Reg Guest Syndicate LP Underworld. Issued on Fontana in ’66, it’s a delightfully cheesy compilation of Bond themes and the like. The liner notes mention the Syndicate’s “Curious, little known weapons: six- and 12 String Electric Bass Guitars.” As this LP was cut in London, it’s almost certain that this is a rare example of the Strung-Under Double Six in action.
The Double Six in regular 12-string configuration became one of the most popular and best-remembered Burns guitars. Many “beat” groups recorded and toured with them. Curt Cresswell of The Naturals posed for photos with one in the fall of ’64. While little remembered today, the young band were briefly U.K. Top 30 contenders with “I Should Have Known Better,” one of the obligatory Beatle covers of ’64. The guitar was a mainstay with the Searchers, though Mike Pender eventually preferred his Rickenbacker. It was also later used by Chris Britton the Troggs, almost certainly on one of their most popular discs “Love Is All Around.” The Zombies’ Paul Atkinson employed a Double Six, though he was not the most enthusiastic user. “We used 12-string on some records,” he recalled in the ’90s. “But I gave up because the damn thing kept going out of tune. I had a Burns, which in the studio sounded good but on the road it was terrible. I think I took it to Sweden a couple of times.” One made it to Italy; local guitar star Enrico Ciacci played a Double Six during the sessions for his 1966 instrumental album Chitarra Sessantasette, one of the great cheesy twang LPs of all time. A most unlikely Double Six player (or at least wearer) was Elvis Presley, who appears with one for lip-synch numbers in the film Spinout – alongside his double-necked Gibson! This guitar is still displayed at Graceland in the King’s royal collection, and allows Burns fans to claim Elvis as an endorser!.
This model continued to sell well in its Baldwin incarnation, at least until electric 12-strings fell from favor in the late ’60s. Second-generation examples are little-changed from the original, making the Double Six the least “Baldwinized” of Burns instruments. The neck gained a bound fingerboard in early ’66, and shortly after, the practice of finishing it to match the body ceased (except, oddly enough, on black ones) making it easier to assemble guitars from pre-existing parts. Baldwin Double Sixes have turned up in a number of finish variants beyond the standard green ’burst – red sunburst, black, white, and translucent cherry all being documented. Original examples, though far from the rarest of Burns guitars, have steadily become pricier and more difficult to locate despite some fairly accurate reissues being produced recently by Burns U.K.
The next big Burns development of ’64 was a re-style of the Bison guitar and bass, re-cast in the Shadows’ mode. The company’s flagship product until the Marvin’s debut, they now seemed old-fashioned by comparison. The new “Marvin” design elements were grafted onto the Bison; the forward-sloped, curving body horns were retained but nearly everything else changed. In some ways, the new version of the Bison offered less guitar for the money with an unbound rosewood (instead of bound ebony) fingerboard, Burns also appears to have abandoned the Bison’s sycamore body for cheaper African hardwood. The body became slimmer and lighter, if a bit less sculpted, losing its Fender-like contours. These guitars tend to be much lighter, but lack some of the solid feel of earlier instruments. The softer wood can allow the neck joints to creep, and the body’s polyurethane finish doesn’t always adhere well; on survivors, it has often heavily checked. The scroll headstock appears identical to the Marvin; the neck however was not quite the same as the Bison retained its shorter 24 ¾" scale length. At least it kept the enigmatic cartoon Bison head on the badge! Three new Strat-like Rez-O-Matic pickups were fitted, and the complex wiring with the internal transformers and Wild Dog setting was abandoned. The Rez-O-Tube knife-edge bridge/vibrato system replaced the Series II cradle, and the hard black plastic pickguard gave way to a three-segment version made of celluloid in a cool grey pearloid pattern. This “Marvin in another guise” did offer a second selector switch, allowing a greater range of tones and more sonic versatility, at about 15 quid less.
The new Bisons were still visually striking guitars compared to other makers’ offerings. The revamped line was introduced at the British Musical Instrument trade fair at the end of summer that year. “Ormston Burns demonstrated the new Black Bison Guitar – it has a scroll neck with a resonating tube bridge system,” read one contemporary account. “This gives a remarkable sustained note to strings. This was designed by Jim Burns and described as ‘…to the guitar world what the jet engine was to aviation.’” Really?! The September ’64 catalog introduced the new Bison models, and was probably rushed to print given that the descriptive text is not fully updated. Wild Dog sound and other outdated features like the sycamore body and ebony fingerboard are still listed.
The second-generation Bison Bass appears to have been marginally more successful than the guitar, at least among professional users. The bass was revamped with the same fittings as the Shadows bass, including the Rezo-Tube bridge, Rez-O-Matic pickups and centrally-mounted “cage” handrest. The body became much lighter and less contoured. The scroll-head necks have the same 33 ½" scale, but a less-rounded profile than the old Bison, also losing the ebony fingerboard. The bass has only a single three-way switch, but it sometimes will sit between settings to combine pickups. Even with these changes, the Bison was still one of the most impressive (or at least imposing) bass guitars in ’64. The Rezo-Tube tailpiece remains a strange fitting for a bass – spring-balanced on a knife-edge despite having no vibrato mechanism! String vibrations are supposedly isolated from each other and the body, theoretically enhancing sustain (“sostenuto,” as Burns’ catalog scribes love to put it), though the bass also has an “adjustable bridge damping unit” rather negating that supposed advantage! The new Bison Bass generally had a less-solid feel and sound compared to earlier ones, though at least the reduction in weight made the large instrument a bit handier.
In mid ’64, one other Burns bass received a face lift and a new name – the Jazz Bass. Simply the Vista-Sonic bass adapted to the Marvin/Double Six body, all other fittings remained the same. It was mated to the Jazz Split Sound guitar, and all Vista-Sonics were gone from the line by late ’64. The Jazz Bass did not get the new three-part pickguard, and the instrument’s neck and hardware stylings were unchanged from ’62, with the huge, sculpted single-sided-head-with-plastic-button Van Ghent tuners. It did receive the new snazzier “Handcrafted By Burns London” pickguard logo, while the JSS guitar kept the old block-letter version. With a handy medium-scale neck and three punchy Tri-Sonic bass pickups, this mid-priced (£94, later up to £114) bass should have been a winner. Troggs’ bassist Pete Staples played one extensively in ’66-’67, but few other players seem to have discovered it. The Burns bass’ percussive, edgy tone was a major part of the Troggs’ aural signature, prominently heard on many of their discs.
Perhaps taking a lesson from JMI/Vox, by ’64 Burns was more active in encouraging popular beat groups to feature its gear. Burns guitars were always distinctive; a Bison Bass or Double Six on “Ready Steady Go” or “Top Of the Pops” really stood out on a small black-and-white TV! The white finish, especially, against the dark suits commonly worn by groups at the time, made a fabulous visual impression. Beyond The Shadows, the foremost Burns endorsers were The Searchers; it appears the company was quite generous with this popular foursome. By late ’64, both singer/guitarist Mike Pender and bassist Frank Allen were performing with a Double Six and Bison Bass in a very striking matching white finish, though Pender appeared with a green sunburst 12-string and, briefly, a white Jazz Split Sound, as well. Rhythm guitarist John McNally seemed to be the least interested in Burns’ creations; despite appearing with a Marvin and Double Six, he generally preferred his trusty Telecaster. Frank Allen – not a physically large man – often appears dwarfed by his giant white bass with its enormous swooping horns and scroll head! Asked about the Burns instruments in the 1980s, he said they, “…looked great, but didn’t really play.” Still, they’re a part of the Searchers’ legacy, appearing in many of the group’s TV and live appearances. Accounts differ as to whether they were much used for recording, or whether the groups’ Fenders and Gibsons “spelled” them in the studio.
The next most visible company act was The Honeycombs – reported as “all Burns” by September of ’64. “The group uses a three-guitar lineup from the Burns range,” read a contemporary blurb. Their stomping debut single “Have I The Right” was a huge hit in mid/late ’64, and put the group at least briefly at the top of the pop world. The Honeycombs’ most popular asset was female drummer Honey Lantree, who endorsed Carlton drums. Lead guitarist Allan Ward (“the dreamy one”) played an older (circa ’63) Black Bison, and before long, the band was a virtual Bison showcase. Bassist John Lantree is nearly always seen with a ’64 Bison Bass, and rhythm guitarist Martin Murray sported not only several Bison guitars, but posed, at least, with a Burns TR-2. He was replaced by Peter Pye in ’65, and this young left-handed guitarist appeared with several different southpaw Burns items likely built for him. The group was produced by eccentric legend Joe Meek, so how much of their recorded sound is Burns and how much is Joe is a matter of conjecture – their guitar sounds do have a trebly, echo-laden Wild Dog edge! The Honeycombs never matched the success of that first hit (even after having a song written for them by Ray Davies) and their career eventually stalled. But for a year or two, they were a showpiece for Burns gear.
Even with these high-profile endorsements, by ’65, pop groups rather than musicians bands were most associated with Burns, with the arguable exception of the Shadows. The company’s instruments were seldom seen with the new breed of R&B bands that came to prominence in ’65, with a couple of exceptions, like bassist Paul Williams with Zoot Money. Alan Henderson of Them sometimes used a newer-style Black Bison Bass along with his Fender Jazz. His clipped, trebly tone on record is typical of both instruments (Henderson by most accounts is one of the few Them musicians – alongside Van Morrison – to actually appear on at least some of the groups records). The up-and-coming Spencer Davis Group were photographed with Burns Orbit Amplifiers in ’65; whether they made much use of them is unknown.
Next month, we’ll look at these and other Burns product lines from 1964-’65, the true heyday for Burns, with major endorsers appearing on records and TV on a regular basis, and sales up markedly from the year before. Despite (or in some ways because of) this success, the firm would end the year nearly bankrupt, and the creative spark that characterized these quirky but unique products would shortly be extinguished.
This article originally appeared in VG June 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.