A Brief History of Burns: The Classic British Guitar Brand

Chesham Close in Romford, Essex, does not look like a site of outstanding British rock’n’roll importance. Walk down the street today and you’re unlikely to be impressed by the series of small, ordinary industrial buildings ranged along either side. But one of them, near the corner of Brooklands Approach, was the Burns guitar factory for most of the ‘60s.

The firm moved there in ’64 from a place next to Roding Valley tube station, about nine miles away, and it was in these locations that James Ormston Burns and his team made the Burns London instruments, including the classic Marvin and Bison models.

Inside the Burns factory, 1965

Jim was a steel guitar player, born in 1925 in Washington, near Newcastle upon Tyne, who soon tried his hand at amateur guitar-making.

"I had a natural bent for using my hands," he recalled in a 1964 interview. "I was a trained woodworker, and working as a fitter gave me a chance of playing around with metal, too. I had always been interested in trying to perfect a solid resonance-free instrument. After settling in London in 1952, I made a Hawaiian guitar."

Six years later, at the age of 33, he teamed up briefly with an amplifier company, Supersound, to produce a handful of instruments that, although crude, are now considered the first commercial British solidbody electric guitars and basses. The following year, 1959, Jim hooked up with another amp maker, Henry Weill, to produce a few more early solidbody electrics and basses—these, with the Burns-Weill brand.

1966 Burns Black Bison

It was Jim’s own Ormston Burns company, which he set up later in 1959 after parting with Weill, where he moved into a higher gear. The first Burns models were the short-scale Artist guitar and bass, and the guitar immediately demonstrated Jim’s original approach to design, with its heel-less junction of set neck and body, and—probably for the first time—a 24-fret fingerboard. Burns introduced the similar Vibra-Artist in ’60, also with three pickups but adding a vibrato (and these were Tri-Sonic pickups, the same type that Brian May would use for his famous homemade guitar).

The most spectacular of the Burns guitars came next, the Black Bison, introduced in 1961. This first version had a beautifully sculpted body with a pair of forward-sloping cutaway horns, an impressive vibrato, gold-plated metalwork, a patented gear-box truss-rod system, Split Sound switching, and low-impedance pickups.

Burns replaced this remarkable four-pickup Bison with a redesigned version the following year. It had three pickups and was generally not quite so advanced as the original, though it did have the enticing "Wild Dog" setting among its tonal presets. And it sold better, which probably gave Jim pause for thought. Like many an Englishman good at designing and making things and coming up with new ideas, he was a poor businessman. His main concern was always the look and playability of Burns instruments.

Burns Ad, December 1961

The Bison was out of reach for many, with a 1961 list price of £157/10/- (which today we’d write as £157.50). Around the same time, a similarly lofty Fender Stratocaster listed at £177.50, but there were plenty of budget instruments available. And it was the guitars further down the Burns pricelists that attracted many young British beat-group guitarists. Mike Pender of The Searchers was one of them, and his Vibra-Artist stood him in good stead through the band’s early successes.

"I remember that little cherry guitar well," Mike told me. "That’s what I had at the Star Club in Hamburg, after my Hofner Club 60. I think I gave the Club to a friend of mine when I got the Burns. The Burns had three pickups, a tremolo arm, double cutaway, and it was on the very first records, ‘Sweets For My Sweet,’ ‘Sugar And Spice.’ Then came my ES-345, that beautiful double-bound stereo Gibson."

Hundreds of other ‘60s guitarists trod a similar path, and while the lucky few like Mike found that fame provided the means to move up to more expensive instruments, others stuck with their Burns—a bolt-on-neck Split Sonic, say, or a TR2 semi-hollowbody, with its pioneering active battery-powered pre-amp.

1964 Rice Krispies box advertising the Burns Electric
Guitar Competition

Perhaps the good people of Romford who sat down to their breakfast bowl of Rice Krispies in the early months of 1964 were unaware that the "70 Burns Electric Guitars To Be Won" advertised on the front of the packet were made just down the road. Such a valuable promotional deal with Kellogg’s seemed to mark just how successful Ormston Burns had become in little more than four years.

By now, the Burns line consisted of six guitars—Nu Sonic (£59.85), Jazz (two-pickup £84, three-pickup £109.20), Double Six (£131.25), Vibraslim (£140.70), Bison (£147), and Marvin (£162.50)—and five basses—Nu Sonic (£52.50), Jazz (£94.50), Bison (£139.12), Vibraslim (£140.70), and Shadows (£151.20). Burns also exported a few guitars at this time to Ampeg in the United States, each with a pickguard bearing an Ampeg By Burns Of London logo.

The connection with Hank Marvin and The Shadows did the company no harm. Hank wrote about the liaison in a magazine column at the time. There’s nothing he’d rather ramble on about, he said, because there’s nothing quite like playing your own tailor-made guitar. He was well known as a Strat player, and he and the Shads had become role models for thousands of spotty youths who figured an electric guitar must be the easy route to unimaginable pleasures and fortunes.

Hank had been wondering for a while about that tailor-made guitar. He mentioned the idea to his old music teacher, Ike Isaacs—a guitarist who happened to be involved with model development at Burns. Ike arranged a meeting with Jim. The Shadows guitarist knew exactly what he was after: he wanted a guitar that remained perfectly in tune, even with a wide-range tremolo arm, and if possible he wanted more variation in the tone controls.

Burns ad with Hank Marvin, 1964

"Those fellows up at Romford must have loved me!" Hank wrote. "Over 30 models were completed before the final job appeared. I just had to keep sending them back—because if I didn’t find something wrong, a certain rhythm guitarist [Bruce Welch] would. I admit I was beginning to wonder if it ever would be exactly right, but at last we got one that was perfect. The 24 months of waiting was a nuisance, I know, but it all seemed worthwhile when we first began to use them … and now we wouldn’t change them for anything."

Burns introduced the Marvin model in 1964, drawing heavily on Hank’s beloved Strat but adding new features such as a scrolled headstock shape and a Rezo-tube vibrato, with a knife-edge bearing and six individual tubes to anchor the strings instead of Fender’s metal block, which Burns said in its catalogue resulted in "singing strings."

Burns also came up with a similar 12-string version, and Hank received and used an early sample of the guitar that became the Burns Double Six.

All these outward signs of success hid the company’s troubling financial performance, not helped by Jim’s idiosyncratic approach to business matters. He sold out to D.H. Baldwin, an American instrument company that specialized in manufacturing pianos and organs.

Baldwin wanted to buy a guitar-making operation, and in 1965 it bid unsuccessfully for Fender. Baldwin bought Burns in September 1965 for £250,000, applying the Baldwin brand to many existing Burns models, and then making changes. Two years later, Baldwin bought Gretsch, and by 1970 it had halted the Baldwin-Burns instruments.

Lenny Breau plays a Baldwin-Burns Virginian on "The Lenny Breau Show," 1966

Jim, meanwhile, got involved in a number of post-Burns projects, including instruments with the brands Ormston and Hayman, and he returned with new Burns guitars in 1974 (as Burns UK Ltd, including the angular Flyte model) and 1979 (Jim Burns Actualizers Ltd, including the bizarrely shaped Scorpion model). By the early 80s, however, Jim Burns was out of the instrument business again.

Burns Catalog Cover, ca. 1964

Barry Gibson revitalized Burns in 1992, and his Burns London company is still going strong today. Jim was a consultant until his death in 1998. The hardest part of getting the new operation started, Barry says, was finding ways to tell the world that Burns was out there again and back in production. He did a lot of marketing and found himself registering and protecting Burns trademarks.

Barry is aware that Burns today has to please at least two quite different markets: the older purists who like to see a Marvin guitar in period-perfect style, and younger guitarists who like the vibe but want something a little different.

"We’ve done that by mixing retro with new ideas and updates," Barry says, "as with our newer models such as the Bison series, the MR2 models, and also the King Cobra. And there are more new custom UK models to come this year, as we’re expanding back into serious UK handmade production again. The Marvin signature series has been great and steady from the beginning, which proves that Mr Hank Marvin is still a top endorsee, but I truly believe that all the Burns models are distinctive and stand out from other guitar producers in design, quality, playability, and affordability."

What would Jim Burns have made of the current state of the "new" Burns company?

"He would be very proud," Barry replies with a chuckle. "And that’s despite us having to jump on the bandwagon and produce guitars in Korea and China as well as the UK. Also, the earlier Burns companies only lasted a couple of years or so, each time they were formed. We’ve managed to keep the name out there, worldwide, for the last 27 years, through good and bad times, while many bigger brands have tumbled."

About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Ultimate Guitar Book, Fuzz & Feedback, and Electric Guitars: Design And Invention. His latest is a new edition of Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (Chartwell). Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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