It was in 1960 that Jim Burns founded his own company, Ormston Burns Ltd., which began selling guitars branded "Burns London."
Among his most endearing guitar designs were the pointy, horned Bison and a guitar made for Hank Marvin, England's answer to the Ventures.
Burns guitars were generally well designed and produced, with feather-touch vibratos, a unique "gear-box" truss rod adjuster (which ended up on many Baldwin-era Gretsches), and nifty electronic features like the "Wild Dog" setting on the Jazz Split Sound (basically an early out-of-phase tone). Unfortunately Mr. Burns skills were guitar design and technology and not business and financial management. Within five years his company was deeply in debt to suppliers and creditors. He was in desperate need of capital to maintain his company.
In '61, Lucien Wulsin III took over the reigns of the Baldwin empire based in Cincinnati Ohio. The name Baldwin conjures up visions of finely manufactured pianos and console organs. These were selling well, but due to the British Invasion, every kid across the world wanted to play electric guitar. Leo Fender was having health problems and decided to put Fender Musical Instruments on the block.
Mr. Wulsin took a big chance to take his business in a new direction and made an attempt to purchase Fender, but was outbid by CBS. As a compromise Baldwin dispatched treasurer Richard Harrison to England to negotiate with Jim Burns about purchasing his floundering company.
Due to the sad financial state of affairs of Burns Ormston. The reported purchase price was in the neighborhood of $380,000. This was far from the millions Baldwin had offered to purchase Fender. Most of the purchase price went to pay off notes.
In September '65, Baldwin Piano and Organ took over the assets of Ormston Burns Ltd. Jim Burns remained on with his old company for about a year in a consulting capacity. New product development ground to a halt as Baldwin adjusted to the shock of inheriting a product line targeted at an entirely new market.
Following these were some in-production models on which the Burns name was actually excised, and the Baldwin name inserted.
Since the name was usually on the pickguard, this meant cutting out the Burns name and gluing a piece of pickguard material engraved with the Baldwin name over it.
Once the existing Burns parts were used up, the Baldwin logo was incorporated into the parts, as normal. The 1965 Baldwin/Burns line included the Nu-Sonic, G.B.65, G.B.66, G.B.66 Deluxe, Bison, Baby Bison, Hank Marvin, Jazz Split Sound, Vibraslim, Double Six (12-string) and Virginian. Basses included the Nu-Sonic, GB66, Jazz Split Sound, Bison Bass, Shadows, Baby Bison, and Vibraslim basses.
Depending on the model, headstocks on most of these early Baldwin guitars were in-line, on-a-side or the trademark large scroll. Burns guitars tended to have a variously shaped clear plastic emblem stenciled with the model name situated on the headstock, with no Burns logo (which was engraved on the pickguard).
With the exception of the classical, all Burns/Baldwin guitars had bolt-on necks. Necks were adjustable, with access underneath the neckplate into a geared mechanism usually called a "gearbox." Fingerboards were typically unbound rosewood with pearl dot inlays; the octave had a regular-sized dot in the center with a smaller dot on each flank. Burns guitars usually featured a zero fret.
Pickguards were typically black/white laminated (tortoise on better models, in order to allow the engraving of the logo). Knobs were generally black plastic "Pilgrim hat" or "bell knob" types with a chrome insert on the top.
The development of the Interstate highway system cut through Baldwin's lumber yard and there was an impassable struggle with the union.
Or, as Duke Kramer, who joined Baldwin later as part of the Gretsch acquisition, tells it more graphically, "The polyester finishes exploded!"
Baldwin eventually hired a fellow whose job was just to refinish damaged guitars, but there were so many he never caught up!
Baldwin guitars didn't sell very well. Baldwin had it's own stores that sold pianos and organs. There were other music stores that specialized in guitar sales. Guitar manufacturers sent salesmen to independent music stores to push their products. Baldwin attempted to sell guitars in their piano stores which attracted a far different clientele. Baldwin's sales force was geared to pianos and organs.
Baldwin also discovered the unforeseen cost of import tariffs. The tariffs were much higher on completed guitars than on containers of components. In 1966 Baldwin began having the Burns factory bring the guitars to a state of semi-finish, but not final assembled. Thus, they would pack one container with bodies, another with necks, etc. Apparently the state of completion would vary, but these were then shipped to Fayetteville, where the parts were assembled.
Baldwin took further steps to reduce costs. Baldwin completely redesigned the guitars neck. First, from this point on, all Baldwin guitars had the same neck, rather than different headstocks based on the model. The new necks featured a flatter version of the scroll headstock which was easier to manufacture than the previous design, which had a real, carved scroll. The fingerboards were bound and the triple-dot octave had three dots of the same size.
In addition, in '66 several models underwent minor changes, while the Vibraslim got a major makeover to become simply the prosaic Model 548. Although it looked the same the Vibraslim lost the internal wood and became a hollowbody.
The old Ultra-Sonic pickups were replaced by new Bar Magnet units. Instead of mounting the controls with thumbwheels along the edge of the pickguard, they were now mounted on the top of the guitar. On some models, the laminated pickguard was replaced with a see-through plastic one. And the old Mk. 9 vibrato was replaced by the shorter Rezo-tube. Similar changes were made to the Vibraslim bass.
In addition to the new specs, the entire line received new numerical model designations. Except for the Vibraslim, the old Burns names remained, but clearly de-emphasized.
Baldwin poured a lot of money into marketing the new line. Lots of space advertising, an expensive catalog. Baldwin tried. Guitarist Chuck Thompson was hired as a demo man, a la Gretsch's Jimmy Webster, and toured the country in a Baldwin van.
In '67 Baldwin decided to add a less expensive budget line, the 700 Series. The 700s featured conventional ES-335-style equal double-cutaway hollowbodies made in Italy and imported into the Fayetteville plant for assembly with Burns necks and other components, including some Italian-made hardware and probably pickups. There were four guitars and one bass included in the 700 Series. 700 Series instruments came in cherry red or sunburst finishes.
The Model 706V was a two-pickup thinline with the new Baldwin neck, an adjustable fine-tune bridge, and a Bigsby-style vibrato with string rollers and a stylized "B" on the backplate. The last two pieces look distinctly Italian.
The pickups, mounted on metal rings, were a new "Bar Type" that appear to be humbuckers, and sure look Italian. These had metal covers with six adjustable screw poles on either side of a stenciled oval with the Baldwin name included.
The Model 706 was the same guitar except for a trapeze tailpiece with a large "B" medallion. These are definitely different from the old Burns trapezes, and are also probably of Italian origin.
The Model 712 was a 706 with a 12-string neck. The saddles on the bridge were double notched, so it was essentially the same six string model converted to a 12 string and therefore probably intonation was a problem.
The Model 704 was a bass version of the 706, pretty much identical except for two rows of four poles on the pickups and an attractive staggered tuner arrangement.
Except for the 700 series, Baldwin guitars are excellent instruments. They were essentially domestic made Burns guitar. Burns was a sought after English brand especially the Double Six model.
|Reproduction of Baldwin Classical by Mel McCullough|
Jerry Reed's main guitar was a Baldwin Classical. These were prized due to the prismatone piezo crystal pickups in the bridge saddle. This arrangement actually revolutionized acoustic guitar playing.
Chet Atkins and his sideman Paul Yandell both had Baldwin guitars. Chet removed the bridge saddle and used it on his classic models from luthier Hascal Haille. The same design went into Chet's Gibson model SST.
Willie Nelson also removed the saddle pickup and placed it on "Trigger", his signature Martin guitar.
Willie Nelson has played through an amp, similar to the one pictured above, for years. The colorful organ style push switches on the right are called Supersound. These are treble, mid and bass boosters. The solid state amplifier is two channels, 45 watts with 2 - 12" speakers.
The most remarkable amplifier was called the Baldwin Exterminator. This amplifier was an earsplitting 250 watts RMS and contained 2-15" speakers, 2 - 12" speakers and 2 - 7" speakers. It stood five feet high and weighed as much as a refrigerator.