In early 2009, VG columnist Peter Stuart Kohman turned his focus on Burns, the pioneering British guitar builder. We’ve compiled installments 7 and 8 for this special edition of VG Overdrive. Watch for the complete history in the upcoming weeks.
The Way Back Beat survey of instruments designed by James Ormston Burns continues with the final products developed by his company before it was bought out by U.S. keyboard manufacturer Baldwin in late 1965.
Despite the preponderance of Beat groups in the U.K., Burns’ heart seemingly retained a soft spot for the jazz players who had been his first customers, and in mid/late 1964, he returned to designing guitars for that much smaller market. After all, by that point his solidbody rock-and-roll line was extensive, so perhaps Burns felt it was time to cater to the “quality” end of the market. Of course, he already offered a nominal “Jazz” range, but those short-scale, Fenderesque solidbodies looked (and sounded) less like traditional jazz guitars than even Leo’s Jazzmaster! Many of these later Burns designs appear to follow a train of thought, and in retrospect it can be interesting to watch the design process play out.
Burns had entered the world of semi-hollow guitars in 1963 with the TR2 and subsequent Vibraslim models, two variations on a theme detailed last month. These double-cutaway thinlines were aimed at players of all styles who preferred the likes of Gibson’s ES-335 or typical Gretsch and Guild offerings. While well-made and interesting, they were not hugely successful, nor as distinctively eyecatching as the solidbody Bison and Marvin instruments that were the company’s flagships. The same late-’64 press announcement that introduced the Vibraslim contained the line “Burns also announce they will shortly be manufacturing a range of acoustic guitars.” Whether they actually meant “acoustic” guitars is a matter of doubt – what Burns would shortly introduce were “Electro Acoustic” instruments, fully hollow, but definitely electric in intention. The first of these would be the GB65, another eccentric but certainly original design.
Announced in Beat Instrumental in February, 1965, and labeled as the “JB65” – which may not be an error – it’s possible the GB65 guitar was intended to be named for Jim Burns himself. “A new six-string Burns Jumbo will be on sale before the end of January,” reads the blurb. “It will have very sensitive pickups to provide more treble tonal quality than can be obtained from most solids. Price is reported to be just over the £100 mark.” This was fairly inexpensive for a full-line Burns instrument… especially a nominally prestigious hollowbody. The reference to a “Jumbo” implied that the guitar was intended to serve as an amplified acoustic, like the Beatles-approved Gibson J-160E. The next month’s BI prominently displays the GB65 in the “Instrumental Corner” section with a prototype pictured; it reads, “GB Stands for Great Britain,” and Jim Burns is quoted, “We’re proud of it.” The characteristically Burnsian text continues; “Indeed this new semi-acoustic is typically British. Without flashy finish or sweeping lines, the verdict on the instrument is left to the player who makes sound his first consideration and takes the trouble to put the electronics through their paces. The Burns back-room boys are especially proud of the new technique they have used for the internal bracing of the ’65. They maintain that this method completely does away with the weird unwanted sound affects that can be generated when an acoustic guitar is amplified. On this model, two specially developed Rez-O-Matic pickups are used. With these down-to-Earth features, it’s quite possible that the Burns GB65 will notch up record sales both here and overseas.”
Interestingly, Burns is listed as the distributor – a move away from past reliance on jobbers like Rose-Morris.
The company’s catalog text for the new model read, “New Thinking… A departure from the concept of adapting acoustic models for electric work paved the way for the development of a semi-acoustic design which would eliminate unwanted resonances and use the acoustic chamber to enhance the performance of high-sensitivity pick-ups.” Burns (now fully schooled in the art of snazzy slogans) called it “Controlled Resonance.” In the case of the GB65, this seems to consist of not much more than a single solid block under the bridge! In practice, the system does work, to an extent – at high volume it will still feed back, but far less than the likes of even a thin ES-330.
The GB’s jumbo single rounded cutaway flat-topped body was 16 ½" wide and 25/8" thick with two very eccentrically shaped two-part soundholes and an almost Gaudi-esque fluid pickguard and control plate. The laminated body has a dark mahogany back and sides and clear-finished “flamed sycamore” top, often beautifully grained. It was fitted with a trapeze tailpiece and simple metal floating bridge…which can be the same unit as on a Nu-Sonic or Double Six, probably depending on what was in the parts bin that day! Despite its acoustic look, the GB65 really does have a fully realized electric sound, and is indeed capable of surprisingly bright tones…especially compared to the usual amplified flat-top. “Specially developed Rez-O-Matic pickups are used,” claimed Burns, though the units actually used resemble the cheaper Nu-Sonic pickups more than the fancier Rez-O-Matics on the Marvin. The neck used the simple direct-drive truss rod recently developed for the Nu-Sonic, along with a flat-cut headstock (with no back-angle or scroll) all of which made neck production easier, but necessitated a string tensioner behind the nut. These measures doubtless reduced the production cost of the new model.
It appears only a few production batches of GB65s were completed beginning in early ’65, straddling the Burns/Baldwin takeover timeline. They appear with both logos – the only physical difference is the engraving on the pickguard. A couple of early (possibly prototype) examples have a different headstock logo and tailpiece. Otherwise, variations appear confined to random substitutions of bridges and switches. Despite Burns’ enthusiasm, the GB65 in practice is a slightly awkward guitar to play, at least in the standing up and shimmyin’ Beat-group style. It was certainly a more useful and practical electric at high volume than a standard amplified flat-top – or even many large body archtops – but its unusual styling does not seem to have won it many friends. In overall dimensions and character, it’s vaguely reminiscent of the Kay Thin Twin of the ’50s, but the GB65 remains a pretty singular guitar. A bit of an evolutionary dead end, perhaps, although a look at some recently introduced Taylor electrics reveals a ghostly similarity! The only notable “Top Of The Pops” GB65 user was rhythm guitarist David Meikle of Unit 4+2, one of Burns’ more faithful endorsers.
Even after sending the GB65 out into the world, Jim Burns kept tweaking the design. Another model soon followed, built along the same lines, but with more distinctly Burnsian character. “A further development in ‘Controlled Resonance’ technology is seen in the Virginian, which incorporates the Burns Reso-tube bridge/tailpiece unit first developed for the instruments used by the Shadows group,” read the ad copy in April of ’65. The unmistakably odd but somehow stylish Virginian looks even more like an electrified flat top ala the J-160E, but again is a fully electric instrument. The Virginian uses the same body size and shape as the GB 65 but with a (barely functional) round soundhole in place of the eccentric twin f-holes, and heftier solid blocking inside. Instead of a conventional bridge the Virginian uses the Rezo-Tube unit, in a new short-plate version with no vibrato arm. This is where things get a bit counterintuitive; it means there’s a solid block in the center of the hollow body, but with a large hole cut in it and six strings encased in individual hollow tubes hanging down therein. And the whole unit is sprung suspended on a knife-edge, but is not intended to move. Compared to the GB65’s simple trapeze tailpiece/floating bridge setup this introduces a world of construction and setup complication, but does seem to give the guitar a more distinctive sound and feel.
The new model used the Bison/Marvin-style scroll-head neck and geared truss rod, with the Bison’s shorter 24 ¾" scale length – the GB65 utilized the Marvin’s Fenderlike 25 ½" scale. Burns’ newest pickups were featured; called the “Bar-O-Matic” these featured adjustable polepiece screws mounted in an exposed metal bar and would be further developed as the year went on. The simple-looking circuitry included a major innovation – the “Presence” control – which blended in the second coil of a stacked humbucker in the neck position (the internally different but identical looking pickups are often found marked on the underside with a sticker for the convenience of the assembler!). This was a really interesting and original development, but when left unexplained can be confusing for the contemporary user, as the controls behave in subtle and eccentric style. The three knobs function as master Volume, “Density,” and Tone, which also works only on the neck pickup. Thus there are effectively two tone controls working on one pickup, no tone on the other, and a three way switch. And you thought Gretsch’s ’60s wiring was obtuse…
The name “Virginian” implies this model was intended for the country/western market, but it was the supposed “jazz” sound emphasized in the initial publicity! “…the greatest sound of all is true jazz guitar tone! A real thick full sound that explodes without ‘wooly’ trimmings… new tonal shadings with the unique density control.”
Well… okay. Despite Jim’s best intentions, it’s unlikely much serious jazz ever got played on Virginians; still the model did find some fans. The Virginian went on into the Baldwin line, where someone deduced that if you’re going to all the trouble to put an elaborate vibrato system into a guitar, you might as well give folks an arm to shake it with, so later Virginians do feature a whammy bar, among other changes. The Virginian even at £134 was far and away the most successful of the ’65 hollowbody models, remaining in production nearly until the end. There’s something endearingly goofy about the guitar’s hybrid appearance, especially with the vibrato – it can appear to the unsuspecting observer to be a horribly mutilated flat-top acoustic, but it really is a solid player. The same flat top/fully electric concept was further developed by Jim in the ’70s and early ’80s into the Steer, a cult favorite still offered by Burns U.K.
1965 was the high summer of Ormston Burns Ltd; the firm had seen five years of non-stop expansion and was undisputibly the most successful guitar maker in the U.K. Their only real competition was Vox, but JMI was an amplifier maker first and their guitar line was really a secondary operation. Like Jennings, Burns had, by late ’64, opened its own retail showroom on St Giles High Street in London, around the corner from Denmark Street – the heart of the British music-publishing business and today still the center of guitar retail in London. While the picture looked rosy from the outside, all this expansion had come at the cost of massive financial outlays, and the company’s balance sheet was tilting precariously toward a red sea! Still, through the summer of ’65, Jim Burns, ever the creative thinker and not the business man, was busy working on new guitar designs.
The next to appear was the GB66, one of the most conventional of Burns instruments and one of the least-remembered. This was a slightly lopsided double-cutaway 16″ hollowbody with a bolt-on neck that had neither the eccentric charm of the best Burns creations nor the elegance of a Gibson or Guild. The tailpiece, bridge, and headstock shape were continued from the GB65 but the top and back were arched, the f-holes traditionally shaped and the controls mounted directly to the body. The GB66 was the last guitar to use the original 1962-style Ultra-Sonic pickups, albeit in the re-wound high-impedance version with adjustable polepieces. This was certainly not a bad instrument, but had little to offer in the way of innovation. Unsurprizingly few jazz players were tempted to put down their ES-175s or L-5s to give it a try, and beat group musicians showed little interest. It was introduced in the summer of ’65 and was gone from the Baldwin line by the summer of ’66. Few illustrations even exist of this model… the catalog clipping shown here is from the earliest Baldwin brochure.
Even Jim himself may have felt this was an unfinished design as issued. He had further plans for the model and quickly followed up with a GB66 “Deluxe.” Using the same overall design but a deeper body, this was intended as Burns’ ultimate jazz box and offered an elaborate new electronics rig developed from the Virginian. It was first listed in August 1965 at £160; described as “…Aimed at jazz guitarists. There are two double-coil pickups, styled after the famous Charlie Christian models.” The earliest versions of the Deluxe feature a large plastic plate mounted to the face of the guitar, covering the extended magnet structure. The 1966 Baldwin model shown here dispensed with that fitting, mounting the rig through the back. No GB66 featured a vibrato tailpiece, further emphasizing their “jazz” pedigree. A September ’65 write-up of the 1965 British Musical Trade Fair (held the week of August 23) made special mention of the GB66 Deluxe (136 Guineas) GB66 (120 Guineas) and GB 66 Bass (125 Guineas) “Burns were extremely proud of their GB66 guitars… This one (the Deluxe) includes a density control, which Burns introduced on their Virginian, and employs a pickup system which produces a wide magnetic field all around the two pickups and the space between them.” As noted, there was an odd (though predictable) addition to the line was the GB66 Bass. This probably gets the nod as Burns’ least-inspired four-string, with the neck extending far from the fully hollow body, and making for an awkward instrument. In any event, it was built in such small numbers few had the chance to render a verdict!
This Music Fair display also showcased an instrument intended as a weapon to to crack the elusive U.S. market – a special guitar with Burns’ distinctive styling but at a lower price point to make it more attractive to importers. BI reported, “The Burns Baby Bison also made an appearance at the show. This is a straight forward two-pickup guitar with sharp lines and again, a density control. Unfortunately, the Baby won’t be available in this country because it is being made solely for export to America.” This new model introduced several features that would soon become familiar on subsequent Baldwin instruments, including a redesigned simplified Rezo-Tube vibrato tailpiece and re-worked “bar magnet” pickups. Electronics-wise, it was virtually a solidbody Virginian with the same stacked-coil humbucker in the neck position blended by the “Density” control – a neat trick for a “Budget” guitar. The Burns – logo’d Baby Bison is probably the rarest of all the company’s products; I have only encountered two examples in 30 years. Production got underway in earnest after the takeover, and the Baldwin model was built in considerable numbers before being somewhat modified in mid ’66. Baldwin Baby Bisons – both the guitar and inevitable matching bass – are still fairly common finds today, particularly in their original target market of the U.S. Also featured at that same trade fair booth was the Burns Mini-Bass, an electric upright that was not taken at the time beyond the prototype stage.
Throughout ’65, Jim Burns continued to seek full-scale entry into the giant U.S. market. He had been attending trade shows there for some time, but despite some spotty success (notably the Ampeg-labeled line, which had pretty much run down by this point) had not made a major breakthrough. In June of ’65, a special Melody Maker supplement distributed to U.S. music industry professionals at the summer NAMM show was dedicated to promoting U.K. interests. This carried a full-page advert from Burns highlighting in particular the new semi-acoustic line. It also announced, “Jim Burns and Jim Farrell will be delighted to meet old friends and make new friends at their exhibition at the Hilton, Chicago, Room 754A.” It would be most interesting to know if some of those “new friends” represented Baldwin, the American piano and organ giant. Burns may well have approached Baldwin to distribute his product line; as a music industry powerhouse sorely lacking any guitar operation in the Beat-mad summer of ’65 they would have been an obvious candidate. On paper, it would seem to have been a promising match, but as things developed, neither Jim Burns or the Baldwin organization would end up particularly happy with subsequent developments. And that, as you may have guessed, will be our next installment…
This article originally appeared in VG August 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.