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.
Recent installments of “The (Way) Back Beat” have followed the London-based Ormston Burns Ltd. from its 1960 beginnings, hand-carving guitars in a Victorian basement, to worldwide success… except, of course, in the U.S.A.!
By spring, 1964, Burns had discontinued its low-priced Sonic series, last remnants of the original line. Replacing these venerable creations were… wait for it – the Nu-Sonics! A snappy, typically Burnsian trade name! These were bolt-neck guitars, less eccentric than the set-neck/small-bodied Sonics, which looked somewhat archaic by ’64. Nu-Sonics, like their similar (in concept anyway) U.S. contemporary, the Fender Mustang, were intended as a quality budget-line guitar for students or aspiring pros. They were not particularly cheap (beginner-grade Vox guitars started at 1/3 the price) but offered a simple professional instrument in a budget guise.
The Nu model was handy and functional, if not groundbreaking. Swooping, asymmetrical body cutaways echoed by the pickguard gave a stylish, modern look. Thin bodies were cut from very light African hardwood with none of the sculpted contouring of the upmarket solids. The 23 3/8"-scale neck had a new truss rod adjusted with an Allen key from the body end. Electronics were conventional; two pickups without adjustable poles, and a three-way switch. Oddly, catalogs specify the wiring as two Tone controls with a master Volume; many (i.e. every one I’ve tried!) actually have two Volumes and a single Tone; perhaps changed for production with no one informing the sales department! The guitar also sported a new, simple but effective adjustable-tension vibrato sunk into the body, and a floating bridge with rocking solid-metal saddle.
The Nu-Sonics were listed in two finishes, a translucent cherry called Cherry Red Lustre, or solid black. The great majority appear in the Cherry Red Lustre that today is often faded to soft orange. A few custom-color examples have turned up; white and sunburst are known, but as with most budget guitars special orders, they were scarce. All kept the old-style hard-plastic black pickguard with 1962’s block-letter “Burns London” logo. Despite being Burns’ cheapest offering (around £60 initially) the Nu-Sonics were more expensive than U.K. competitors. The Watkins Rapier 44 offered four pickups and tremolo for 35 Guineas and Vox’s Super Ace was £46 with three pickups and vibrato. At least one Nu-Sonic was given away by Beat Instrumental magazine in their April ’65 reader’s competition! A few Nu-Sonic guitars made it to the U.S. branded Ampeg, but by that time they the partnership was winding down and the numbers were very small.
Typically, a matching bass was offered and proved particularly useful for its £52 price – light and compact, with an extremely punchy sound. Very easy to play even for a small aspirant, the Nu-Sonic Bass remains one of the most user-friendly four-strings ever. The bass had some similarities to the recently developed Shadows bass – the pickups were a close relative (though labeled “Nu Sonic” instead of “Rez-O-Matic” the covers, coil, and baseplate are practically identical) and the simple bar bridge saddle was the same fitting used with the early Rez-O-Tube unit. Screwed to the body without the elaborate tubes and springs, this solid bridge may actually sound better! The bass’ body is very similar – but not identical to – the guitar, complicating production more than necessary! The 30″ scale neck had a small Fenderish headstock with guitar-sized Van Ghent tuners.
The Nu-Sonic Bass has one grand, though unlikely, claim to fame; studio pictures from April, 1966, show George Harrison playing a Nu-Sonic Bass with the Beatles during the “Paperback Writer/Rain” session, part of the recording that produced that 45 and the Revolver LP. Despite strong evidence to the contrary, some accounts persist in crediting that day’s phenomenal bass tracks to George and this little bass. Recent information suggests that it had been supplied by Burns in ’64 to EMI Abbey Road as a studio loaner. The almost toy-like Nu-Sonic basses do have a powerful tone and are very comfortable to the average guitarist… presumably if found laying about, it would have been more useful to Harrison than one of Paul’s “upside-down” basses! The bass tracks to Lennon’s “Dr. Robert,” cut a couple of days later, and “Taxman,” are also sometimes credited to George and his Burns. Beatle historians still debate whether there is any solid evidence of its appearance on released tracks. Few other “star” sightings of Nu-Sonics are evident… years later Captain Sensible of the Damned sometimes employed a stripped and battered bass in the band’s early days.
The introduction of the Nu-Sonics essentially completed the 1964 Burns solidbody line. The Stratocaster had dominated the U.K. guitar scene when Burns began, but by ’63, the popularity of Gibson, Gretsch, Epiphone, and Rickenbacker hollow thinlines was exploding. Liverpool bands, in particular, were often wholly equipped with this type, which carried over into London’s R&B scene as well – both the Beatles and Rolling Stones being prime examples. Before ’63, the Burns line had consisted entirely of solidbodies. “We grew up with the business and started off accepting the difference between the guitar and the electric guitar… consequently we built Solids,” reads a ’64 blurb. “Which would have a rigid base to carry the electrical and mechanical gear. Rigid assemblies that would hold the neck and maintain the close-set action demanded by skilled players. Our solids sold themselves in 26 countries… and we turned to semi-acoustics. Once again we did not adapt; we started from scratch to make a braced semi-acoustic body that would stand up in the same way as the solid.”
Of course, that doesn’t mention that it is also much easier to build solidbodies… especially when you’re starting in a basement! Still, Jim applied himself to the task and produced original, if rather whiffy-looking, prototypes. The earliest known handbuilt Burns semi-acoustic (circa 1961) was a symmetrical double cutaway something like an elongated ES-335 with three Ultra-Sonic pickups and Bison-like switching. The second version used more Strat-like uneven cutaways, and this prototype’s refined body and headstock shape would continue into production. This test guitar still fitted three pickups, with a solidbody-style floating bridge/vibrato unit that must have necessitated an uncomfortably flat neck angle! Still, the design was coming together, and this was the direct ancestor of the production-version, the TR2. “More than a Guitar… A New Musical Experience” was the catalog introduction. “The TR2 has been designed to meet the requirements of those who demand a guitar conventional in styling yet having the tonal characteristics of the Burns solid models. The body is a compromise between semi-acoustic and solid types. The arched top and back are built and stressed to kill extraneous resonances and the instrument articulates with the same alacrity as the Burns Solids.”
Introduced in mid/late ’63, the TR2 was an original creation, most memorably being the earliest guitar to carry a transistorized onboard preamp. The name signified “TRansistorised 2-pickup” and with it, Burns stepped boldly, if perhaps prematurely, into the ’60s miracle of miniaturized electronics. The 1962-’64 Bison used tacitly low-impedance pickups, with tiny transformer coils mounted under the pickguard. The TR2 used two of the same Ultra-Sonic units but without adjustable polepieces, mated to the battery-operated preamp. To allow easy battery-changing, the entire pickguard assembly “floated” off the top of the guitar, secured by two screws. The rotary pots attached to the underside of the pickguard rim, with knobs protruding horizontally for adjustment along the lower edge. Volume, Treble and Bass controls were provided along with a three-way selector. Unfortunately, this arrangement is somewhat awkward to operate while playing, and the raised pickguard allows dust, dirt and the like into the electronics’ cavity which probably didn’t help reliability in action!
The body looked rather like an ES-335 mated with a Stratocaster, with a whiff of Bison thrown in. With an “offset waist,” like a Jazzmaster, the design presages Fender’s Starcaster by a decade. The top and back (initially listed as carved) mount to rims attached to a center block, although the back was not fully in contact with it and there was plenty of “hollow” in this body! Unlike contemporary Burns solids, the neck is glued in, but with a couple of screws added for good measure! The TR2 carried Burns’ standby Mk. 9 vibrato unit, usually fitted with an additional tension bar. The strings then run over a solid-saddle floating bridge – a missed opportunity, perhaps, as a bridge anchored to the center block would have been more in keeping with Burns’ “solid” tone goals.
The model was available in several finishes; most often sunburst, blond, and cherry. In its own off-kilter way, the TR2 was a fairly classy guitar, though admittedly not a match for an ES-335. Still, it was the most sophisticated semi-hollow built in Europe, a far more advanced design than any contemporary Höfner, Framus, or Levin instruments. The “space-age” TR2 rather lacks the old-world charm of these, however, and the jazzy class of Gibson or even Gretsch. Compared to the Burns solids, it must have been a bear to build, but, priced at around £140 (close to the cost of the Bison), seems like a real deal! The very early example pictured in an introductory flyer has Burns’ familiar Bison-head marking on the headstock; production models soon substituted a “Burns TR2” plastic logo.
The guitar did catch on with some users, though no notable stars took it up. A TR2 is displayed front-and-center in a shot of up-and-coming (and quickly going) foursome The Trends, from early ’64. Note also the already outdated Burns Artist Bass beside it. This group may have been partial to English guitars, as the third instrument is a Grimshaw! A successful Danish band called The Rocking Ghosts used two blond TR2s and a Black Bison Bass… and sometimes performed in ghost costumes that to the U.S. observer look uncomfortably like Ku Klux Klan uniforms! Some of these guitars seem to have gone far afield. Noted ’60s Indonesian guitarist Rudy Van Dalm is pictured on an EP cover with the sunburst TR2 that became his trademark for a while. The TR2 was listed as available in the U.S. by Ampeg in ’64 as the Thinline. So few have ever surfaced it’s doubtful more than a handful were even imported.
The TR2 was discontinued after a year or so around early fall 1964; not exactly a failure, as its replacement the “Vibra-Slim” was essentially the same guitar without the TR-ansistor boost unit! The preamp must have been a disappointment in practice; they often turn up today gutted or simply non-functional. It was probably too early for these new-fangled electronics to be reliable enough to be a viable concept, and transistors would soon cause Burns far more serious headaches. The company tacitly admitted the disappointment by simply deleting it and re-naming the model; the new Vibra Slim had rewound (now high-impedance) Ultra-Sonic pickups with adjustable poles and a similar electronic layout, but adding a Presence knob – another developing Burns obsession! Other differences were subtle, including a longer headstock logo plate and a slightly different pickguard shape. For some reason, the pickup height adjustment was eliminated… at least without first removing the chrome surrounds. Some Vibra Slims were not fitted with the string tension bar for the vibrato, an oversight sometimes making them more difficult to set up. Another oddity is the rim-mounted output jack unusually close to the guitar’s waist, making seated playing positions awkward. Sometimes these features overlap, suggesting a sloppy production transition!
The December ’64 issue of Beat Instrumental read, “The newest guitar from the Burns range is the Vibra Slim. Selling at 140/-14/-10 it has an ultra slim neck, the finger tip controls are fitted into the pickguard and it also boasts a special ‘Presence’ control for subtle blending of tones.” The guitar pictured in the September ’64 catalog (with oddly blacked-out pickups) is not the production model, suggesting it was not yet perfected. This generally well-designed guitar was not a big seller, perhaps overshadowed by the flashier Marvin and Bison. Today, they are less common than TR2s, and despite some promotional work by (again!) the Brit-pop band Unit 4+2, failed to attract much professional use. Once again, some seem to have made it out to the Pacific rim – Phil Key of New Zealand legends the La-De-Das played a blond Vibra Slim during the group’s breakout.
Of course, a matching bass followed for the TR2 and Vibra Slim. While most Burns basses are very well-designed, these two seem like afterthoughts built for marketing reasons. The guitar-like layout, putting the bridge at the body’s center with the long neck extended outwards, made for a somewhat awkward feel. Neither offered much competition to the Gibson EB-2/Epiphone Rivoli, though their higher-fi sound might win them acclaim today! These original semi-hollow Burns basses are extremely rare. The TR2 Bass was not mentioned in the company’s literature until the summer of ’64, many months after the guitar. “Four-string bass model now available” read a discreet blurb in July ’64, “The new Thin Line Bass, with the exception of the 30″-scale neck resembles the TR2 in appearance.” No picture was shown or price quoted, suggesting production had not begun. By September, the Vibra Slim Bass was offered instead, described as, “The answer… and with an outstanding performance.” The picture shown, however, was of the older TR2 bass – artwork apparently was not ready in July!
The press release for the Vibra Slim further stated, “Burns also announce they will shortly be manufacturing a range of acoustic guitars.” Whether that actually meant “acoustic” guitars is a matter of doubt. What would shortly follow they would term “Electro Acoustic” instruments, hollow but definitely electric in intention.
Despite the dominance of the beat groups in the UK, Jim Burns’ heart seemingly remained with the jazz players who had been his first customers, and at the height of the “beat” era he returned to designing guitars for that smaller market. Burns existing Jazz range of short-scale solidbodies looked less like traditional jazz guitars than even Fender’s Jazzmaster… his next creations would move in yet more oblique directions!
This article originally appeared in VG July 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.