Beat Portraits: Burns Volume 11

Burns Oddities and Ends
Beat Portraits: Burns Volume 11
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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.

Many who own Burns and Baldwin guitars are curious to date their instrument, and wonder just how rare these guitars really are. While no official records appear to have survived, there is enough information available to make educated guesses. Most (but not all) Burns and Baldwin guitars made from 1961 to ’70 carry serial numbers progressing in a single series. The early Artists, Vibra Artists, and Sonic series never bore serial numbers and can only be roughly dated by features. The Artists were phased out in 1962, and the Sonics in early ’64.

With the introduction of the original Black Bison, serial numbers come into use starting at 01 and were applied to the many subsequent bolt-neck models. This series appears to run up to just over 22,000 during the next seven to eight years. It’s possible that not all numbers were used when new, and many leftover pre-numbered plates are reportedly still extant.

The Shadows “S” bass.

Burns serial numbers are much like Fender’s; they were engraved by an outside supplier, presumably in order, but were not applied to instruments in sequence. The digits are found on the plastic plate covering the neck-mounting screws on the back (except for the earliest Black Bisons, which carry theirs in the vibrato cradle). This neck plate (which bore an ever-increasing plethora of patent numbers) is easily removed, exchanged, lost, or broken, so sometimes, the number is missing. The situation is further complicated because, by ’64, there were several different-sized neck plates in use, and they were not interchangeable. As these were engraved before installation, different instruments’ production schedules got out of sync, resulting in the series not progressing in an orderly manner. The guitars do tend to cluster in batches, especially the more popular models. If a certain number is found on a Jazz Split Sound, many adjacent ones will be the same model – or at least one using the same size plate. They often progress in batches of 100 but seem to often switch at the “XX50” point in a sequence. Remember that by mid ’66, instruments were being assembled both in the U.K. and in the U.S., so by that time even the hope of a cohesive order was gone!

Various forms of Burns neck plates.

Many Burns and Baldwins from 1963 through ’67 carry a signed inspection tag with a stamped date inside. While useful, the date is not the day the guitar was assembled – it’s the date the pickup rig was wired up and tested. Many of early Baldwin-logo’d instruments from fall ’65 carry stamps dating back as much as six months; or more obviously, production of components and the guitars being assembled was seriously out of synch by 1965! Some stamps have faded to illegibility or are missing altogether, but those still visible give a useful (if unreliable) correlation to the serial number series. Numbers 01 to approximately 1,200 appear to have been used in 1962 through early ’63. By the end of that year, Burns was up to about 4,000, though ’63 numbers often run wildly out of sequence within this grouping. By the end of ’64, the series showed a huge uptick in production, with numbers in the 9,500 to 9,800s appearing before January ’65. As the un-numbered Sonic budget instruments were discontinued by early/mid ’64, the increase in factory output was not as dramatic as it appears, but still impressive! 1965 numbers progress from the last of the 9,000s up through around 13,000 – the sequence of transition to the Baldwin logo is far from strict. 1966 dates appear in instruments numbered way up through 19,000, but again the sequencing seems wildly out of order by this point – the transition to the newer Baldwin styles (i.e. mid ’66) occurs on many models around 15,000. Instruments with numbers from 18,000 to 22,000 sometimes carry 1967 dates, but the stamped dating becomes haphazard by this point, and it appears production slowed. Some production – or maybe just assembly of existing parts – reportedly continued through around 1970.

Among production Baldwin models, only the 700 series hollowbodies built with Italian components do not follow this sequence. They debut in late ’66 and carry two number series, neither of which correlate with the main line. The first examples use four digits, which may begin at 1000 or possibly 0100. Someone soon figured out that these numbers duplicate those issued earlier by Burns, so this was changed to a more commonly seen new series starting at 71,000. These guitars were built from 1966 to ’69, and pretty much date themselves! The 700s are fairly common, and must have been made quickly in some quantity. Overall, the most common guitar from the Burns era is the Jazz Split Sound, which maintains its preponderance until ’66, when the re-styled Baldwin Vibraslim was also sold in comparatively large numbers. Marvins, Bisons, and the like are much rarer, with only occasional batches assembled after the Baldwin takeover. Adding up the outside possible total figure for the serially numbered run of 22,000, a few thousand early un-numbered Sonic and Artist instruments and possibly several thousand 700-series models yields a highest total probable production estimate for the entire ’60s of 25,000 to 30,000 instruments total – but that’s a guess. The figure represents only a fraction of what Fender or Gibson could produce in a single year of the 1960s, so by those standards any Burns/Baldwin instrument is fairly rare!

So now, here are some serious rarities!

Baldwin’s doomed Model 601.

An interesting example of a serial number/date mismatch, the Shadows S (Special) Bass shown here emerged earlier this year in a pawn shop in Maine. Two matching Marvins are known in the same style, reportedly built for The Shadows in mid ’66 as an experimental Mark II version of their regular instruments. The bodies are flat-topped with bound edges and hollow acoustic pockets, while the necks feature the original Burns scroll, not the newer “lump” Baldwin version. A Marvin S guitar featured in Per Gjorde’s Pearls and Crazy Diamonds reportedly belonged to Hank himself; this bass matches that guitar in all its specific eccentricities, including the bound/green-finished body, lack of headstock logo, laminate black scratchplate, and apparently leftover 1962-’63 serial number plate only a few digits apart. It’s not known for sure if this bass was actually made for or used by John Rostill, of the Shadows. Some accounts say the set was supplied to the band and used on their ’67 Australian tour, but footage shows a pair of differently appointed (but equally odd) white Baldwin prototypes in the hands of Marvin and Welch, and Rostill playing his normal solidbody bass. Whatever its history, the bass shows signs of use, but remains in excellent condition except for typical Baldwin-era heavy checking in the heavy polyester overcoat, which is practically peeling off in spots.

“The Shadows S bass is wonderful and a real find,” said Burns guru Paul Day. “I mentioned it to Barry Gibson (head of Burns U.K.) and he, too, was surprised and impressed.”

Around the same time as these Romford-built artist one-offs, a uniquely American line of Baldwin models was designed in Arkansas, but not produced in quantity. Still, some interesting prototype examples have surfaced. This would have been the 600 series, a Baldwin concept using some Burns parts. As reported several years ago by Michael Wright in VG, “About this time… Baldwin hooked up with a luthier by the name of Clyde Edwards, and hired him to design a line of U.S.-made guitars at the Booneville plant… sometime in late ’66. They never appeared in Baldwin catalogs or advertising. Basically, the Edwards was a single-cutaway hollowbody with a pair of f-holes and one of those shoulder profiles where the upper bout made an S-curve through the neck into the pointed Florentine cutaway. Despite the fact these models never entered production, the company was apparently pleased with Edwards, because he went on to work for the Gretsch division as their ‘Master String-Instrument Designer.’ In fact, the S-curve shoulders showed up again in Edwards’ designs for Gretsch.”

The 600 series designation makes sense; existing Burns models got 500s numbers in Baldwin’s catalog, while the subsequent Italo-Baldwins were the 700s. The Edwards design was likely the earlier attempt at a non-Burns made Baldwin guitar line.

The Prismatone prototype.

Oddly enough, an interesting Edwards prototype turned up recently in the U.K., labeled Baldwin Model 601 and with serial number 628012, which fits no Burns series. The flat-topped body is fully hollow, in the unique Edwards shape. Pickups are the Burns bar magnet units used on most guitars by ’66. The neck looks like the flat-scroll Romford-made Baldwin style but has a center laminate and different carving pattern unlike any known Burns-made neck. It is mounted with an unusual three-bolt triangular plate, with an open access hole in the middle for the geared truss rod. The Vibrato is from the recently discontinued Nu-Sonic guitar, while the adjustable bridge was used on several Burns hollowbody models. The knobs are standard “catalog” parts in the U.S., similar to those on some Coral guitars. The pots are U.S. components – the wiring is set up with a master Volume on the cutaway, individual Volume for each pickup, and a master Tone in the middle. This control scheme is very “un-Burns,” but the multi-volume knob set up oddly Gretsch-like. The pickguard with the engraved Baldwin logo appears to be made of the traditional laminated hard plastic used by Burns, unlike the few other extant 600s that have a clear plastic fitting. Glen Forde, in Scotland, recently purchased the guitar from the daughter of the original owner. She remembers her father, John Johns-Hunt (born in Willenhall, England, in March 1925), bought it new in the ’60s and played it in bands until he died in January ’08. Despite having been gigged for 40 years, this unique Baldwin is in exceptional condition and still plays perfectly. The only modification is a new switch tip – a child’s rubber toy! How this apparently Arkansas-made guitar ended up being originally sold in the U.K. is anyone’s guess; it may have been sent to Romford as a sample, or displayed at a trade show and disposed of afterwards

Another unique and interesting guitar from this prototype batch is in Temecula, California – a Baldwin 600 series Prismatone. This guitar carries a Baldwin paper label inside that reads (peering through the upper f-hole) “Model 113301” and “Serial number 606006.” In this case, the Edwards body is fitted out with one Burns Tri-Sonic pickup at the neck, and the old Burns Mk. 9 vibrato. It also has an unusual neck with a block-inlay fingerboard and conventional truss rod that bears no resemblance to any Burns style, but constructed with a three-way laminate like the previous Style 601. The headstock logo is a raised-style, also unique to this guitar, while the knobs are the same style as the previous example.

The rare “600” label.

The most fascinating component is the Prismatone bridge. This under-saddle pickup uses piezo-electric crystals encased in a ceramic damper, and would have been very advanced for 1965… If Baldwin had marketed it aggressively, they could have beaten Ovation to the punch! Jim Burns was working on an electrified classical guitar in ’65 (to be called The Elizabethan), but the Prismatone was a pre-existing Baldwin USA project. A patent application for a bridge/pickup assembly nearly identical to this was filed in August ’65 by Robert C. Scherer, assignor to the D.H. Baldwin company, Cincinnati. While this was just before the Burns purchase was finalized, it shows that development of this unit had been underway for some time. The patent also shows a flat-topped cutaway electric guitar not unlike this prototype, and the bridge/pickup appears intended for conventional electric guitars. The patent mentions only in passing that the system is suitable for nylon strings. This begs the question why Baldwin, a company with no guitar operation, was apparently paying someone to design guitar pickups! The patent was granted in August ’68, almost three years after the application. The ’68 Baldwin Electric Classic which finally made use of a version of this pickup was the last guitar marketed by the company, and this 600-style Prismatone prototype was never developed. The Prismatone pickup is remembered today primarily because of a single player’s career-long affection for it… one still resides inside Willie Nelson’s battered Martin classical.

The Prismatone bridge.

“I was blown away when the guitar got here and it was like made yesterday mint,” said Chance Wilson, who owns this Baldwin. “Everything on it said ‘Pat Pend’ or ‘PAF.’ I was also surprised at the HZ response and the setup – this is a pro-grade guitar with excellent fit and finish, much nicer than the Fender semi-hollows from the same period. The Prismatone looks just like Willie’s, with a white ceramic chunk, except it’s inside an adjustable bridge. And the Tri-Sonic is an amazing-sounding pickup – especially combined with the Prismatone.”

While Baldwin is generally remembered as having done little with its guitar division, these three instruments show that both in the U.S. and the U.K., the company was capable of creating interesting concepts. Hopefully, we’ve shed light on the sometimes quixotic – but always creative – world of Burns/Baldwin, and bring these often under-appreciated fretted curios a little overdue respect!

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

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