In early 2009, VG columnist Peter Stuart Kohman turned his focus on Burns, the pioneering British guitar builder. We’ve compiled installments 9, 10, and 11 for this special edition of VG Overdrive. See the complete history.
Electric guitars date back less than a century, but the stories of their development sometimes seem as lost as those of antiquity! Then a forgotten closet will open and out will tumble dusty skeletons of wood and wire, offering new insights, and often posing new questions.
Just over a year ago, a basement in Cheltenham, England, yielded a box of mostly uncompleted guitars that had lain forgotten for almost 50 years, opening a window into the beginnings of Jim Burns’ career, and the birth of solidbody guitars in the U.K.
By ’58, solidbodies were common in the U.S., mostly due to Fender. In Europe and the U.K., though, they were a rarely-glimpsed rumor and players stuck with the electrified archtops introduced after World War II. Jim Burns was one of the few home-grown visionaries working to change that…
Early details of Burns’ guitar-making activities are obscure. A Hawaiian-style player, he was a solidbody convert from the beginning. No hand-built Jim Burns guitars from the ’50s are known to exist. The first serially produced instruments of his design are from 1958-’59 and carried the Supersound brand name – not his trademark, but that of an electronics firm founded by Alan Wootton in ’52. Even more than the substantiation of Burns and Wootton’s pioneer status in the development of electric guitars in the U.K., the instruments have proved, at least theoretically, to be a veritable Rosetta Stone, unlocking the mysteries of the earliest English solidbodies.
While Burns was a former pro guitarist and cabinet maker, Wootton was a gifted electrical engineer. Supersound began as a home business in Wilmington, near Dartford, Kent. Besides building custom-made amps, radios, and the like, Alan worked in Dartford with Tom Jennings (founder of JMI, future maker of Vox amps) working on the Univox keyboard. By his wife’s account, he became disenchanted when his design work on an amplifier went unrewarded, and they decided to make their small company a full-time concern. They did contract work for Jennings but found that getting paid was less than certain, and broke with JMI. With several of Alan’s ex-Jennings colleagues onboard, Supersound found success building amplifiers for the U.K.’s first generation of electric guitarists. A subsequent product was proprietary electric pickups, so the next logical step for Supersound was to market complete instruments.
This led to a brief and apparently not particularly happy association between the Woottons and Burns, who Alan’s wife, Mary, remembers with little fondness. Jim was hired in mid ’58 to supply finished and fretted body/neck assemblies Supersound would fit with electronics and scratchplates made in-house. Alan would fetch Jim back to the factory with the semi-completed guitars, as Jim had no car!
The Supersound/Burns connection may have come about because Jim had built an instrument for pro guitarist Pete Dyke, who knew the Woottons and had them equip the guitar with electronics.
Interviewed by Paul Day in 1977, Dyke recalled, “I first met Jimmy Burns in 1946 or ’47, when he working behind a bar, hashing food, lunchtime nosh, and all that business! Then much later, I saw him in Jennings’ shop, Charing Cross Road; he said he was interested in making solidbody guitars, and I fell over laughing! No way, we were all playing big hollowbodied guitars with screwed or strapped on pickups. Jim said, ‘I’ll make you a guitar.’ And he did… the late Alan Wootton made the electronics. That was the original Supersound Company of Wilmington, just outside Dartford. A very advanced engineer for his day and he had these incredible pickups. Jim built a short 22 3/8” scale guitar, solid bodied and it was an absolute gorgeous instrument to play. Two pickups, I think it cost me about £25 around 1957. No adjustable truss rod; single cutaway Les Paul sort of basic configuration – no one had heard of a Les Paul in those days. Two Tone and Volume controls, a single selection switch, a natural finish, and it had a Perspex back… Jim built it with a Perspex back!”
This description is similar to the one “production” guitar credited to Supersound, the Ike Isaacs Shortscale Model, named for one of Britain’s top players in ’58.
The first Supersound guitar and bass were played on U.K. TV in mid/late ’58 on the “Jack Jackson Show” by Teddy Wadmore and Bob Rogers of the Ted Taylor Trio, who were already using the company’s amps. Unfortunately, the glued-in neck of the guitar came loose almost immediately, and Wootton got an earful of feedback as a result! Subsequent Supersounds had the glued neck joint reinforced by four screws under the fingerboard – a method carried through in the Burns-Weil, Fenton Weill, and early Burns instruments, including the first Black Bisons. Even the Burns Vibraslim of 1964 still hid this legacy under its neckplate. After this embarrassing mishap, Jim Burns seemingly never trusted glue again! This minor disaster strained relations between Jim and the Woottons. In Mary’s recollection, they had given Jim “a lot of money” to build that first guitar, and its failure in action was a personal affront. Still, plans were laid for serial production. A solitary Supersound advertisement appeared in Melody Maker in December, 1958, picturing the Ike Isaacs Short Scale signature model. “Another Supersound First,” it trumpeted – a “New all-British shortscale guitar.” A “Standard Scale” guitar and bass were listed as available “shortly.” Perhaps a handful of these models were actually sold; Jim Burns years later claimed to have made “about 20,” but none have surfaced.
The story then gets rather murky… Supersound moved from London to Hastings in June, 1959. By all accounts, the liason with Jim Burns was by then history. The Woottons continued their successful line of amps, echo units, and other products sold under their brand, and by others like Rosetti and B&H under the names Lucky 7, Zenith, and Ivor Maraints. The guitar line seems to have been stillborn; how many were actually assembled or sold being an unresolved question. A website detailing the history of Supersound (trevormidgley.com) includes commentary from Mary Wootton. In her recollection, Supersound built “hunderds” of guitars from 1959 to ’62, yet virtually none are known to exist. These 12 basement relics are the only known survivors, and despite memories to the contrary, may well represent the bulk of production. They remain in mostly unfinished condition, with hardware partially or wholly unfitted, as if abandoned in progress. Four identical basses await their tuners and simple aluminum block bridges and tailpieces. Mary herself claims Jim Burns left after making just one guitar, but this is strongly contradicted by accounts from Pete Dyke and Jim Burns. These instruments – which definitely bear Burn’s aesthetic signature – were never completed. Perhaps each was finished only if there was an order, or the line simply fell by the wayside and it was not considered worth the effort.
At least one escaped into the outside world – a double-cutaway Supersound bass is known to have been bought in Cardiff, Wales, in 1959 by 19-year-old Brian “Rockhouse” Davies. He was pictured playing it in the local newspaper with his group, The Raiders, alongside the guitarist – a very young Dave Edmunds! Davies later sold the bass and it has never resurfaced, but proves some Supersounds got as far as a retail shop! No catalog listing for the guitars has ever been found, though Supersound amplification and accessories were commonly offered by U.K. jobbers. Whatever the truth about guitar production, Supersound soon changed focus. Finding it harder to turn a profit in the competitive music industry of the early 1960s, Supersound moved into film sound, and despite pioneering work in equipping the pre-beat electric guitarist was soon a forgotten name in guitar industry. Alan Wootton died suddenly in 1973 and the firm closed down the next year, its status as a musical innovator seemingly lost forever. To the family’s later annoyance, the Supersound name became remembered primarily a footnote in the Burns story!
There it might have stayed, but for an unlikely series of circumstances last year. Guy Mackenzie, one of the U.K.’s most avid acquirers of oddball guitars, heard through the guitar grapevine that some Supersound guitars had been located, but nobody seemed particularly interested.
A highly enthusiastic lover of fretted arcania, Guy is not a dealer; his collection is entirely a hobby. “I collect because I love their shapes and styles, in the same way that people collect paintings,” he said. “I found a love of guitars that I could never quite understand – because I can barely play one! But for me, that’s a bonus – I can appreciate them without being hampered by the sound or action or whatever. I have some guitars that no player would ever think of buying other than for a wall decoration! My other interest is the part they play in the history of popular music. So with that, how could I resist becoming a guitar collector; they give me great pleasure!”
It should be noted that Guy is a lifetime musician, having drummed in rock bands since ’64. His discovery and “rescue” of the lost Supersounds was motivated by pure curiosity, not profit, but has landed him and the guitars on TV and in the national press in the U.K.
“After Supersound folded in ’74, the guitars ended up in Alan Wootton’s son’s garage. Years later, he was preparing a move to Spain, and sold off the stuff he didn’t want to take. By chance, he sold an old Höfner guitar Supersound had used to test its amps, and the person who bought them was told about the Supersounds. I had to meet the owner… he’d bought them years before and kept them virtually untouched. They were stored in cardboard boxes in the basement, despite this, they’d stood the test of time surprisingly well. I couldn’t leave without buying the lot; a dozen examples in various stages of completion.”
One guitar had been sold to a well-known Burns collector prior to Guy’s intervention, but otherwise the stash was complete and undisturbed. “There is one complete six-string and two complete basses – one with a single cutaway and one with a twin-cutaway. I’d like to leave them as found, as they are a real piece of history. I did get three boxes of parts – machine heads, knobs, scratchplates, pick-ups, etc. So perhaps two or three more could be completed.”
The instruments in this musty time capsule show signs of ongoing experimentation. Most are visually striking, especially for ’58, with dramatic sharp contours on their single or double cutaways. Several have a headstock too thick to mount the imported tuners without countersinking, while on others the problem is corrected. Some unfinished guitars have a cutout in the lower waist, mounting a bank of pushbutton switches; this is likely a Wootton install, as any guitarist would point out that if you attempted to play this instrument sitting down, they would rest on the leg and you’d constantly be turning things on and off! The pointy “horns” on the bodies are typical of Jim Burns’ aesthetic, as seen on the Black Bison several years on. The lower bouts are nearly identical in contour and thickness to the Burns Vibra-Artist of 1960, another “family resemblance.” The only complete guitar – the “Brown Prototype” – is much different from the rest, appearing more handmade, with different woods. This appears to be the earliest of the bunch, most similar to the Ike Isaacs model. The unfinished double-cutaway models are far more dramatic in appearance.
The bass guitars – both complete and left in progress – are particularly interesting. They appear to be not only the first solidbody basses in the U.K., but some of the most advanced basses available in ’58. The double-cutaway models, in particular, show the direct influence of the Fender bass. The anecdotal story is that Supersound endorsers Wadmore and Rodgers saw a Precision in use at a U.S.A.F. base and were able to borrow it for a day and demonstrate it to Supersound, asking for a similar design! The only electric basses in Europe at the time were hollow archtops from Höfner and Framus; essentially guitars with four-string necks. The only other solidbody bass available in the England by ’59 was the Dallas Tuxedo, a cheap and rather shoddy instrument with a lumpy single-cutaway body that is far less appealing, visually and sonically, than the Supersound basses.
By any standard, these are the most progressive basses in Europe in 1958/’59, and look modernistic, even now! With their single pickup placed in Leo Fender’s “sweet spot” and simple wiring they are quite practical, although the European standard 30″ short scale is the one distinctly “non-Fender” feature
“In nearly 50 years of playing and writing about the electric guitar, this is the first time I have actually seen one Supersound instrument, let alone 12!” said Paul Day. “Thinking about the bass in particular it’s more of a first than I initially realized. If it pre-dates the Dallas Tuxedo as I believe, then it must have been designed before any other solid bass available in the U.K., regardless of origin! I think it’s worth emphasizing the pioneering status of Supersound’s design in the solidbody field, as I’m not aware of any imported or U.K.-made competition, which makes it that much more important.”
With the evidence of these newly-discovered Supersounds in-hand, Paul has developed a theory about the relationship between all these early U.K. solidbodies. While fairly crude, the Supersounds do not appear handmade by Jim; rather they look designed by him, but built in a workshop. After carefully examining examples of each, Day believes the early instruments by Supersound, Burns-Weil, Fenton Weil, and Dallas Tuxedo were all made in one factory – Stewart Darkins & Co. Woodworking, known also as Empire Works. This obscure Essex cabinetry firm may be the lost connection between these seemingly unrelated brands, which on close inspection reveal similar traits. “The place looked like a bomb site,” laughs Day, who has found workplace photos. “You can see Dallas and Fenton-Weil bodies stacked up next to each other, like rubble.”
The Darkins firm may well have been the only workshop in London set up to accept this sort of contract work. It appears likely that finding his relationship with the Woottons souring, Jim Burns simply approached (or was approached by) another electronics provider – Henry Weill and entered into a more lucrative formal partnership, using the same contractor for the woodworking. Under their oval metal covers, the Weill-supplied pickups even look very much like Supersound units, and a certain unusual brass fretwire on the Supersounds – reportedly specially ordered by the Woottons – appears to have been also used on the first Burns-Weill guitars! All have the Burns “glued and screwed” neck joints, the legacy of that nearly televised “collapsing” guitar! Neck contours and heel profiles also establish a common lineage, as well as confirming Burns’ hand in construction of the Supersounds.
While this unlikely surfacing of “lost” Supersound instruments after 50 years in some ways poses more questions than it answers, for anyone interested in the history of the solidbody guitar, this is an intriguing glimpse back to the time when it was a new and imperfect concept, at least in Europe. American guitarists in ’59 could choose between a sunburst Les Paul or a Stratocaster, while the U.K. player struggled with the limits of cottage industry, seemingly cut off from modern developments. The efforts of small-time visionaries like Wootton, Burns, Jennings, and others helped set the stage for the guitar explosion that became the Beat Era, and left behind a fascinating – if eccentric – trail of artifacts.
Guy Mackenzie’s delightfully eccentric instrument stash can be seen at: theguitarcollection.org.U.K.
This article originally appeared in VG November 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.