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THE BEST OF BRITISH
50 YEARS OF BURNS GUITARS
James Ormston Burns began building guitars in the early 60s and before long his innovative designs were being used by many of the influential musicians of the day including Hank Marvin, Elvis Presley, George Harrison, Marc Bolan, Jimmy Page, Mark Knopfler, Brian May, Tom Petty, Status Quo and Slade – to name but a few. Burns designs were always ahead of their time and Jim’s ideas have now become standard with many other guitar makers. The heel-less glued-in neck, 24 fret fingerboard, knife-edge bearing vibrato units, active electronics and stacked-coil pickups were all Burns’ conceptions.
In 1959, James Ormston Burns unveiled the Short Scale De-Luxe Artist, the first guitar to carry the ‘Burns’ brand name, and Ormston-Burns Ltd was officially established the following year. The early Burns line included the Artist, soon superseded by the Vibra Artist, and the small-bodied Sonic model, plus bass versions of both. Unlike the offerings from Watkins, Vox, Dallas, Rosetti and other UK-based companies, Burns products were never built to a price. e company’s least expensive six-string, the Artist, retailed at ¥550 (equivalent to around ¥10,000 in today’s money) while the top of the line Vibra Artist model sold for the princely sum of ¥830, a serious investment at a time when the average adult wage was around ¥75 per week! The introduction of the Black Bison in December 1961 reflects the confidence that Jim Burns must have felt in his new venture. With its all-black finish, forward sloping horns and gold-plated hardware, the new guitar made a bold visual statement. Innovative features included four Ultra-Sonic pickups, novel ‘Split Sound’ circuitry, a newly designed ‘boomerang’ tremolo unit and a ‘gear box’ truss rod system that was concealed within the neck heel. The model’s ¥1,700 price tag singled it out as the most expensive British-built solidbody guitar of its era. In practice, the Black Bison proved completely uneconomical to manufacture and as a result, just 50 examples of the original four-pickup version were made before the model was redesigned with three pickups, a bolt-on neck and a simplified vibrato unit.
Over the next few years the Burns Company added several new models to its line including the Split Sonic, the Jazz Split Sound guitar and the semi-solid TR2. With the introduction of the Marvin in December 1964, however, Burns came of age. That Hank Marvin – the lead guitarist with the UK’s top instrumental group, The Shadows – should have laid aside his famous red Fender in favour of a British-built Burns guitar represented a remarkable coup for Jim and one that he could hardly have envisaged just a few years earlier. The Shadows, who were experiencing tuning problems with their Fenders, had approached Jim with the request that he build them a Stratocaster-style instrument that would play and stay in tune. Taking Hank’s Fender Stratocaster as a point of departure, Jim had incorporated various ‘improvements’ including the newly designed Rezo-Tube vibrato unit and Rez-o-Matik pickups. With a ¥1,900 price tag (around ¥220 more than a sunburst Fender Stratocaster), the Marvin replaced the Bison as Burns’s flagship model.
The future seemed bright, but by 1965 the tide had turned against UK and European makers as players increasingly opted for American instruments. Burns didn’t escape this downturn, and sales were suffering accordingly. The time was right for a major change – and it would come from an unexpected quarter.
THE LATE ’60s: BALDWIN USA TAKES OVER
Burns instruments had previously been available in the US via versions re-badged with the logo of amplifier maker Ampeg. The company naturally wanted to re-enter this major marketplace and approached various distributors across the Atlantic, including piano and organ giant Baldwin. However the latter had different ideas, offering instead to actually buy the entire Burns operation, which they did in September 1965, for the sum of £250,000 (¥2.7m). Initially only the brand logo altered – from Burns to Baldwin, but in 1966 the new owners decided to reduce and rationalize the range, flattening the famous ‘scroll’ headstock etc, to reduce cost and streamline production. Dwindling guitar sales prompted guitar production to cease completely three years later.
70’s AND 80’s
Jim Burns continued to develop his own ideas initially under the Ormston banner (since Baldwin now owned the ‘Burns’ brand name) and then with ex-Vox employee Bob Pearson he launched a highly acclaimed line of guitars and basses sold under the Hayman brand name. Through the ’70s and ’80s Jim was involved in the production of various radical, eye-catching designs, including the ‘Flyte’ (1973, famously played by Marc Bolan of T-Rex), the ‘Scorpion’ (1980, a model that found favour with Blondie guitarist Chris Stein) and the ‘Steer’ (which became the ‘trademark’ guitar played by British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg).
THE 90s – BURNS LONDON
In 1992 the Burns® London company was re-established to manufacture authentic reproductions of the original, highly desirable guitars thus maintaining its position as the premiere Euro builder. The designs chosen for the re-issues represented the very best of these classics and were painstakingly crafted. Many of the components had to be exclusively made and sourced – often from the same suppliers who supplied components for the original instruments. However, technology now allows the company to make guitars with better fit and finish. Body and neck timbers are far superior whilst the hardware has improved measurably both in quality and performance.
Special thanks go to Per Gjorde for text and photo help. For a comprehensive history of the Burns brand, get Per’s book ‘Pearls and Crazy Diamonds’.
For more information see Products / Accessories page.
In the 1960s, most English bands used Burns guitars on and off, and they have been doing so ever since. Burns was a popular quality guitar in many other countries as well. Today, a lot of newer bands have discovered the guitars. See Featured Artists page.
10 landmark events in the 50-year history of the Burns brand.
Ormston-Burns Ltd is established in a London cellar, complex Vibra-Artist guitar is introduced at £51 (¥ 550).
Introduced in December 1961, the top-of-the-range Black Bison features distinctive forward-sloping horns, gold-plated hardware, four pickups, innovative split-sound circuitry, a newly designed tremolo and, of course, an all-black finish! Priced at £157 (around ¥ 1,700 in today’s money), it is the most expensive British-built solidbody guitar of its era.
The Marvin is launched; 315 were sold at £175 (¥ 1,900) (today’s Marquee model is based on the 1964 Marvin).
The Double Six 12-string guitar is launched, beating the Fender XII by 12 months. Elvis Presley will famously play this guitar in the late ’60’s movie Spinout.
Baldwin buys Burns for £250,000 (¥ 2.7m).
End of the US connection: Baldwin stops production.
Burns UK established: radical new designs.
The modern Burns London company is established. Burns guitars are re-discovered by many new bands helping to grow the popularity of this ‘best of British’ brand.
The start of Burns’ Chinese guitar production.
Burns’ 50 Years anniversary, Burns brand begin sales in China www.burnsguitars.cn