Ormston Burns Ltd (1961-1965)
|Founder||James Ormston Burns, Alice Louise Farrell|
|Website||Burns London Ltd|
Burns is an English manufacturer of electric guitars and bass guitars, founded by Alice Louise Farrell (1908-1993) and James Ormston (Jim) Burns (1925–1998) in 1959. The company was first named Burns-Weill, then renamed Ormston Burns Ltd. At its peak, in the 1960s, it was the most successful guitar company in England.
Ormston Burns Ltd. was bought up by Baldwin Piano Company in 1965, and the company was renamed Baldwin-Burns. Burns guitars were reintroduced in 1991 under the name Burns London, and the product line now includes a collector's edition of the first model the company produced.
Jim Burns set out to make, in his own words, "mass produced one-offs", such as the Marvin, a radical take on the Stratocaster style with many more differences than it is generally credited with. The Bison, now considered a classic, combined fewer Fender influences with a shorter scale length of 25", and the now famous "Wild Dog" electronics, allowing the high-output Tri-Sonic pickups to be selected in many different, and sometimes unusual, combinations. Burns had a proprietary vibrato system, which was used also on Gretsch guitars.
The original guitars made many showbiz friends, and were seen in the hands of some high-profile performers of the time, such as Elvis Presley, Hank Marvin and Jimmy Page, and were quite popular since they were much cheaper than US brands such as Fender and Gibson, helped also by import tariffs that made it expensive to buy US-made guitars in Britain.
Jim Burns' first commercial foray into electric guitar making came in 1958 when he designed and built the "Ike Isaacs Short Scale Model" for the Supersound Company. His Burns London name and company changed hands several times during the course of the '60s and '70s, all the while retaining the Burns London moniker. The period and name most fondly remembered is, of course, the original Burns London Ltd, established in 1960. The timing of the establishment of Burns London was perfect, with the British guitar market experiencing a huge boom, in part thanks to the popularity of British pop bands like The Shadows, and again thanks to the high tariffs on US-made goods. Even Ampeg, a relatively well-known brand, bought the license to manufacture guitars under the Burns moniker, most probably for the US market, though these were not a commercial success.
Despite the good times for guitar sales, Ormston Burns Ltd. was sold in 1965 to the Baldwin Piano and Organ Company of Cincinnati for the price of $380,000, small money in comparison to the $13 million paid at the time for Fender (where Baldwin were outbid by CBS). The company was renamed Baldwin-Burns, and released three amplifiers at the NAMM Show of June 1965. Unfortunately, the acquisition didn't see quality levels increase at Burns, and standards began to slip. The earliest casualties were the pickguards. With huge levels of unsold stock still stored when the Burns name was purchased, Baldwin resorted to cutting out the piece of pickguard bearing the Burns name and replaced it with a much lower quality piece of plastic with the Baldwin name on. This resulted in colour clashes, as the plastic was sometimes slightly the wrong hue, or even shrinkage, while the rest of the pickguard remained in good condition. A little later, Baldwin also resorted to using exactly the same necks for all models, consisting of a bound fingerboard and much lower quality carved scroll headstock. As the quality fell, the earlier popularity declined as well. Baldwin eventually closed the doors on the Burns guitar line in 1970.
Burns Guitars from 1970–1983
While the original Burns guitar line ended in 1970, Jim Burns never quite stopped working on his creations. Several attempts were made to revive the Burns name, in between projects with entirely new companies. In 1966, Jim Burns, unable to use the Burns name, started a new company called Ormston, formed initially to market a range of pedal steel guitars made by Denley. In 1968, just before Ormston shut its doors also, Jim Burns created an original guitar which later became a prototype for the Hayman range, which came about after being hired by the Dallas-Arbiter Organisation to work on a new range of guitars under the name of Hayman. The line lasted from 1969 to 1973, and enjoyed a fair share of popularity.
During the '70s, two more attempts were made at resurrecting the Burns guitar line. Again, due to the agreement with Baldwin, the Burns name could not be used, so the first attempt was named Burns UK, and the second called Jim Burns Actualizers Ltd.
Burns UK (1974-77)
Burns UK appeared in 1974 and lasted until 1977. Burns UK guitars were manufactured close to Newcastle upon Tyne in Jim Burns' native north east. Only one guitar model sold well, The Flyte, which was originally to be named the Conchorde, after the supersonic plane, because of its shape. Its design proved popular among glam rock performers of the time, such as Slade and Marc Bolan. Despite their unconventional design (which often added to the production cost), the guitars had a rather conventional sound, and again Burns ceased to produce guitars—but not before of few examples of the Burns Mirage, the successor to the Flyte, had been produced.
Jim Burns Actualizers Ltd. (1979-1983)
Jim Burns Actualizers Ltd. was established in 1979 and lasted a longer four years, into 1983, and produced some more recognisably "Burns" guitars, such as the Steer, and even the Scorpion. The Burns Steer, a semi-acoustic altered to reduce feedback, was popularized by singer Billy Bragg.
Burns London Ltd.
After Jim Burns Ltd, no more Burns guitars appeared on the market until 1992, when the company was restarted by Barry Gibson who employed Jim Burns as a consultant in the company. The original idea was to manufacture handmade replicas of famous Burns guitars from previous incarnations, such as the Marvin and the Nu-Sonic; Gaz Coombes of Supergrass played a reissue of the Bison. Later on, in 1999, the company began work on a budget line called the Club Series, outsourcing production to Korea. The Club Series became the first Burns guitars ever to be manufactured outside of Britain, but the original Burns design ethics, construction and style didn't suffer as a result, with the range exploding in popularity throughout the following years. The Club Series expanded quickly, many Jim Burns-designed guitars constructed from 1960 to 1983 receiving its own budget model, such as the Marquee which was a budget version of The Marvin, the Steer (most famously played by Billy Bragg, the London Steer being a copy of a Steer guitar built and given to Billy by Jim Burns many years ago), the Bison and even the Barracuda six-string bass/baritone model. Newer designs have begun to emerge in the last few years, usually building upon the designs of the '60s originals, such as the Batwing, a Marquee with a Bison-style headstock. Burns also worked with Queen guitarist Brian May to produced a copy of May's famous Red Special guitar (which uses Burns Tri-Sonic pickups), and this model was awarded "Best Electric Guitar of the Year 2001" by Guitarist magazine.
More recently, an even cheaper range (manufactured in China) has emerged with two new models, the Cobra and the Nu-Sonic. The Cobra is the closest Burns have come to a straight copy in its lifetime. The body is that of a Stratocaster, but the model retains the sectioned pickguard. Tri-Sonic pickups and (shrunken) batwing headstock common to other Burns guitars. Meanwhile, the Nu-Sonic borrows the name of an original Burns guitar, and resembles more the Fender Telecaster, albeit with a distinctly different pickup setup with two Tri-Sonics and a bridge humbucker borrowing directly from the Steer. As well as the pickups, it also retains the shrunken batwing headstock of its cousin, as well as a German carve around the front edge of the guitar.
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