Friday, March 20, 2015

Burns Guitars

1963 Burns Double Six
In the mid 1960's I spent a lot of time at Dodd’s Music Store in Covington Kentucky. As a new guitar player I was awestruck by the collection of guitars hanging on the walls. Two of them in particular were fascinating. These were the Burn’s Double Six, a twelve string model and its six string companion, the Burns Jazz guitar. Both instruments featured Green-burst finishes and both had the famous Burn’s of London pickups. And both the six and twelve string guitars featured vibrato bars. 

Dodd’s carried a few other Burns models, but none appeared as regal as these two guitars. As a 12 year old boy I was fascinated and wanted to know what a Wild Dog setting sounded like. In later years I discovered it didn't sound that great, but I digress.

Burns of London was originally known as Ormston Burns Ltd. Founded by James Ormston Burns and a partner Alice Louise Farrell in 1960. I cannot find any information about Miss Farrell.

James Ormston Burns
James Burns ran a guitar repair shop in London. Perhaps his first claim to fame was repainting and repairing John Lennon’s Rickenbacker 325.  However most U.K. folks would remember James O. Burns as the “Leo Fender” of London.

Under his ownership and ideas, this little guitar repair shop became the producer of guitars that had a world-class reputation. Like Fender, Burns sold off his company and later re-emerged with a new company and new guitar designs.

1963 Black Bison
James Burns take on the Stratocaster was called The Bison and The Steer. The horns were a little more radical, the neck was glued in, the length was slightly shorter at a 25” scale and its 3 high-output Tri-Sonic pickups allowed different selections including the Wild Dog Sound. The six-on-a-side head stock had the "batwing" design.

Burns Guitars were enormously well received in Britain before the British invaded the USA. As I have mentioned before, in the 1950’s through the 1960’s Britain was paying off a huge war debt. Guitars imported from the United States had a very expensive import tariff, and were out of the financial reach of many Britons. But Burns guitars and other European made instruments were readily available and affordable.

Ike Isaacs
The first commercially produced Burn manufactured guitar was the Ike Issacs short scale model. Issacs was a well-known jazz guitarist. Issacs was born in Burma and came to London as a student in the mid 1940’s. It was there he immersed himself in guitar playing and he really soaked it up. Within a few years he was playing with Stephan Grappelli, Barney Kessel and other well known artists.

The Ike Issacs model was distrubted by the Supersound Company. This was a company founded by a couple with the surname Wooten that specialized in public address and guitar amplifiers from 1952 to 1974. Their company needed someone to build guitars, so they contracted with Jim Burns. Burns introduced the Ike Issacs model in 1958 and shortly afterward introduced the Single Cutaway Bass for the company.

By 1959 Burns was building guitars under his own name, although he did so in collaboration with a fellow named Henry Weill. The result was The Fenton Guitar. Burns forte was wood working. Weill designed the electronics. The original Fenton Guitar looked somewhat like a Guyatone of the same period.

Vibra Artist Deluxe
With the onset of Skiffle music and rock n’ roll in the UK the guitar was become a very popular instrument. Cliff Richard introduced the first Fender Stratocaster to the UK and Europe. Burn’s followed suit by producing the Vibra Artist and Vibra Artist Deluxe. These guitars featured what Burns called the rolling tremolo. Both guitars came with two pickups.

1963 Burns Bison
Burns also offered six versions of the Bison series. These characteristic guitars featured a symmetrical body with two long horns that mimicked the appearance of a bison skull.

1963 Burns Split Sonic
Jim Burns also created the Sonic series which included the Sonic, Split Sonic, Sonic Vista and Nu Sonic. These may have been vaguely based on a Gibson SG, but all had unique shapes. All were equipped with a tremolo.

Though Burns created two models he dubbed Jazz Guitars, it is doubtful most Jazz player would equate them to this music style, for these resembled Stratocasters and came with two or three Tri-Sonic pickups and a tremolo. However they were sweet looking guitars.

Cliff Richard and his band, The Shadows were extremely popular during this era. Jim Burns was honored to be asked to create guitars and a bass for the group with their name featured on each instrument.

Burns Marvin
Instead of the six-on-a-side style, Burns created a scrolled violin style head stock. Right under the scroll was a clear plastic bison head-shaped emblem.

Burns Shadows Bass
This announced it was a Marvin or a Shadows Bass. A twelve string version was also launched with the longest head stock I’ve ever seen. Though it was a Marvin, it eventually became known as the Double-Six.

Burns also launched a line of “half-resonance guitars”. These were thin hollowbodies and were designated the TR2, the Vibraslim, the GB65, GB66 and GB66 Deluxe Virginian.

The TR2 and the Vibraslim looked alike.

GB65 (Baldwin)

The GB65  looked like a jazz guitar with F holes. The GB66 was a double cutaway version.

GB66 Virginian D
The GB66 Deluxe Virginian was a totally different guitar.

It had a round faux sound hole on the front that had two pickup on the upper and lower sides of the sound hole and like an acoustic guitar from the front.

However it featured a tremolo unit and if you saw it sideways you could see it was a thinline instrument.

Originally Burns had signed an agreement with Ampeg to distribute their instruments in the United State. So you may run across a Burns of London guitar with the name Ampeg on its pickguard.

You would think the British Invasion would have brought bountiful sales for Burns, however quite the opposite happened. Popular British bands were using American made guitars. Burns sales plummeted and Jim Burns was very short of capital.

It was around this time, 1966, that Cincinnati, Ohio based Baldwin Piano Company was also experiencing a slump in piano and organ sales due to the popularity of the guitar. The company made an offer to buy the Fender Guitar Company, but was outbid by CBS. They then set their sites on Burns of London and purchased the company and all of its assets for just under £ 400,000. ($380,000 USD)

Pickguard & controls are changed
The easiest way to change a Burns to a Baldwin was to remove the pick guard that said Burns of London. This was helpful, because initially there was a large quantity of unsold Burns stock that was shipped to the United States. Baldwin removed the section of pick guard that said Burns and replaced it with a different one that announced it to be a Baldwin guitar.

Baldwin later swapped necks or used a similar one on all models. Generally this was the one with the carved scroll on the head stock.

The State of Ohio planned to build an interstate route where the Cincinnati Baldwin property existed. Baldwin decided to move its manufacturing facility to Arkansas. This is where they began manufacturing new Baldwin (and Gretsch) guitars.

The Baldwin Company did not count on the humid Arkansas summers and the adverse effect this would have on the guitars paint and varnish. Baldwin employees spent a lot of time refinishing guitars that had been returned due to the paint or varnish being damaged. Due to a number of factors the brands popularity tanked and Baldwin Guitars shut down in 1970.

Although James O. Burns sold the tradename Burns of London, he did not totally get out of the guitar manufacturing business. He started a new company called Ormton in 1966. Initially his goal was to market pedal steel guitars made by the Denley Company. This venture lasted until 1968.

At this time Burns decided to create and original guitar which went on to be distributed by Dallas-Arbiter under the brandname Hayman. The line lasted from 1969 to 1973.

Burns Flyte Guitar
In the 1970’s Burns could not use the name Burns for a trademark. But this did not stop him from using and producing "Burns UK" guitars. These were sold starting in 1974 and ending in 1977. Burns UK guitars were manufactured in Newcastle upon Tyne. Only one model seemed to gain any interest. This was called The Flyte. It appeared about the same time as the Concord airplane was showing some popularity. Several popular musicians began to use it.

In 1979 Burns tried a different trade name, Jim Burns Actualizers Ltd. These guitars had more of a resemblance of a traditional Burns guitar. He also made a semi-acoustic guitar called the The Burns Steer, which gained some popularity through its use by singer Billy Bragg. 

However this business closed in 1983 and was James Ormston Burns last venture as owner of a guitar manufacturing business.

Burns Guitars was restarted in 1992 by former Burns employee Barry Gibson and Jim Burns was hired as a consultant to the company. The company's initial goal was to resurrect replicas of famous Burns guitars from the past and hand build each. This brought some accolades from performers of the day including Steve Howe from Yes, who is himself a guitar collector and very knowledgeable.

By 1999 Burns Guitars, as it was known and still is today, began building a budget line called The Club Series. These instruments were manufactured in Korea under strict supervision of the Burns management.

The Club Series expanded quickly and many Jim Burns designed guitars such as the Marquee, the Marvin, the Steer and the Bison were resurrected.

A bass/baritone guitar called the Barracuda was introduced. Burns Guitars also worked with Queen guitarist Brian May to build a reproduction of his home-made Red Special, which was originally built by May and his father using 3 Burns Tri-Sonic pickups.

In 2004 production was moved to China and two new models emerged in the line up. The Cobra and the Nu-Sonic short scale (30”) bass. The Nu-Sonic features the bat-wing design on its headstock. The Cobra resembles a Stratocaster and even has a strat-style vibrato. The three pickups on it are known as mini-Tri-Sonics.

James O. Burns passed away in 1998.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)


Online Guitar Lessons said... is nice, unique guitar, now if you want to learn guitar playing so join up on jamplay to improve your playing skill.

Joe McDokes said...

Keep up the great work. I really enjoy reading the blog. I was particularly happy to hear about Ike Isaacs, I had guitar lessons from Ike in the mid 1980s. He was a very nice man, very dedicated to teaching and an exceptional guitarist. He told me a bit about his time with Burns Guitars. I think at the time his main guitar was an Aria version of an ES-175. Perhaps it was a limited run signature model; can't recall. What impressed me too was the obvious enjoyment he had when he played live.

marcus ohara said...

Well I for one am impressed that you studied with Mr. Issacs. 'fantastic player.

Thank you for stopping by.

~Marc O'Hara~

Anonymous said...

I have my husbands Burns Vibra Artist Trisonic electric guitar, he bought it second hand around 1969. it has been played regularly until he died in February. It looks its age and is in need of some TLC to rectify the odd DIY repair. Do you have any idea what sort of price I should ask for it as I want to sell?

Blogger said...

eToro is the ultimate forex trading platform for newbie and professional traders.

Blogger said...


Professional trading signals sent to your cell phone every day.

Follow our signals NOW and gain up to 270% per day.