Today we dive into the riveting story of Jim Burns and his journey through the guitar history, a story filled with passion, innovation, craftsmanship and a not so great talent for business.
Our Journey begins in the picturesque County Durham, England, in the year of 1925 with the birth of young Jim Bourns. Soon times would become hard, and at the age of 18, he joined the Royal Air Force, not as a pilot but as a metalworker, a craft that would be crucial to Jim's future path as a guitar maker.
The second crucial craft, woodworking, was acquired when he left the RAF, in 1946 and started to work as a joiner. But at night Jim would be a musician, and so the stage was set for years of innovations in the electric guitar development.
Supersound - 1958
In 1952 he moved to London and it was at this time that he built his first Hawaiian guitar. Fate would have it that in 1953 he would cross paths with Peter Farrel, who would be an essential part in the future company to be formed. In this year the projects of Jim Burns attracted the attention of Alan Wootton, head of the amplification company Supersound. They joined in an associated partnership, brief in time but it produced the first commercially available guitars made in the U.K.. Supersound supplied Jim with the materials for him to do the bodies and necks, then they would finish the instruments. Production however did not last long, and unfortunately this was a trend that would be with Jim forever.
Supersound short scale standard
This guitar was made with pine wood for the body, an unusual choice of wood. It has a mahogany set in neck, with a rosewood fingerboard. The scale length on these instruments is 23 inches and they have 22 frets, with rectangular fret markers. The pickups were made by Supersound and they were bar-magnet single coils. The bridge was made from aluminium. These guitars had no truss rod.
After the failed partnership with Supersound he teamed up with Henry Weill on a similar basis to form Burns Weill. Henry would provide Jim with the pickguards and the pickups, and Jim would do the rest of the guitars.
Also like the previous Jim partnership this one didn’t last long and it broke apart. Soon Jim was owing money to Henry and a deal was broken. Henry would keep the designs and consider the debt paid. Jim left the partnership and Henry kept producing the instruments after a redesign, and did so until 1964, under the Fenton-Weill brand..
This Guitar was introduced in 1959, and not too many of them were made when the model ceased production in 1960. This is a guitar that seems to me to be totally out of time. Its straight lines in the body and headstock do not match the general “curvy” design tendencies of the decade, and it probably had an extreme effect on players. They would either love it or hate it. The guitar had two single coil pickups, two volumes and one tone. There was a 3 way selector and a rhythm/solo switch. Sycamore was the main wood used for these models.
On an ad from the time we could read: “ Shap that’s modern! Styling of such quality, there’s never before been anything so richly toned, so perfectly controllable! Roy Plummer designed the neck and his experience ensures Burns-WEILL playing and performance.” It had a price of £56.
Ormston Burns London Ltd 1959-1966
In 1959 Ormston Burns was founded. Its origins trace back to the cellar of Louise Farrel's house at 131 Queens Road. This is Peter Farrel sister, and it was at her place where production first began. During this initial phase, the guitar bodies were roughly cut at George Jackson's factory in Harlow.
Things started well and a significant milestone came in 1960 when Ormston Burns acquired a factory in Cherry Tree Rise, marking a pivotal moment in the company's expansion.
In the early 1960s, Jim Burns made a significant move by forming a partnership with Everett Hull from Ampeg. This partnership led to the distribution of Burns guitars in the United States from 1963 to 1964. Notably, the Ampeg logo was added to the pickguards of these guitars, signifying the collaboration.
Remember Peter Farell? He was in charge of the production along with Jack Golder at this time.
Despite these successes, Ormston Burns faced challenges, and one of their most significant missteps was venturing into the production of amplifiers. The company invested heavily in pioneering transistor amplifiers, but the market wasn't ready for the clean sound they offered. Musicians of the era continued to prefer the warmth and tone of valve amplifiers.
Furthermore, Jim Burns faced difficulties as a businessman and manager, leading to financial troubles for the company. In 1965, Ormston Burns was acquired by the Baldwin Piano and Organ Company, marking the end of an era. Jim left the Company.
Following the acquisition of Ormston Burns, Baldwin initially retained the existing range of guitars with minimal modifications, primarily replacing logos to reflect the new ownership. However, in 1966, Baldwin embarked on a process to rationalize and streamline the guitar production line for efficiency and consistency. During this period of rationalization, a few noteworthy changes and additions were made to the product line-up.
One significant addition was the introduction of the semi-acoustic instruments belonging to the 700 series. Additionally, Baldwin introduced the 800C/800CP amplified classic guitars. These models can be understood as simplified versions of the Virginian model.
The Bison to me marks a maturing of Jim Burns design efforts, and one of its most iconic models. The name obviously comes from the horns design and the instrument presents us with exaggerated styling, like the horns, and an overdose of metals in these model gold plated, like the unnecessary tuners cover. All of this in tune with the 60’s design styling. The guitar itself had a set neck, four single coils with 8 pickup options. The body was made from Brazilian mahogany, and also the neck that had initially an ebony fingerboard bound with ivory. The fingerboard was later changed to rosewood. The scale was 24 3/4 inches with 22 frets. The truss rod had a gear box for adjustment.
One of the best technical achievements of this guitar was its tremolo unit, which had a “positive return »boomerang» tremolo unit” like it mentioned in the ad.
This model was produced as a budget instrument, as an update to the original Sonic models. The body was made from “African Hardwood” and the neck was probably maple and it had a rosewood fingerboard. It had a scale length of 23 ⅜ inches
From an ad we can read “ British engineering in the Exclusive new tremolo with plus feature tension adjustment to give “in-tune” return on any gauge string.” The guitar had a polyester finish, transparent red or black.
Note that this model returns to the flat body end, something the original Supersound instrument had.
This is probably the most sought after Burns guitar, and its success has to do with its quality of design, made to please Hank Marvin, who required the design to be based out of the stratocaster and he also had the scroll headstock idea.
There were about 300 guitars made from this model. Originally it had a Honduran mahogany body that later transitioned to Obeche.
From an ad we can read: “string passing over a stainless steel saddle to the resotube. Each string passes through the body of the guitar in its own tube so that whistl sostenute is accentuated you have clarity of chord voicing by “string separation””
As part of the deal, with Baldwin Jim was prohibited from using the "Burns" brand. So when in 1966 he teamed up with Nigel Dennis and Gordon Huntley to embark on a new venture he adopted his second name, Ormston, as a substitute for the Burns brand.
Nigel and Gordon had a background in pedal steel guitars, and this became their first project as a new collaboration. Their second project centered around upright basses. However, despite a substantial investment in the development and production of these instruments, they faced low sales, leading to yet another setback for Jim Burns in the business world.
In addition to pedal steel guitars and upright basses, there was a third instrument introduced under the "Ormston" name, known as the Ormston guitar.
As previously mentioned, the low sales and high development costs marked the rapid end of this project, but Jim's guitar making career did not end here! Soon after there were the Heyman guitars.
The Hayman Guitars 1970-1975
The Hayman brand, which was in production from 1970 to 1975, experienced a relatively short existence. Jim Burns and Bob Pierson partner to create the Hayman Guitars, under the umbrella of the Dallas Arbiter Company.
In the first year Jim was involved in the development of some models, the 1010,2020, 3030 and the 4040 bass. But in 1971 Jim left the company.
Unfortunately, conflicts and disagreements within the company board eventually took their toll, resulting in the closure of the Dallas Arbiter Company in 1975.This end was precipitated by Ivor Arbiter's departure from the company as he took a substantial portion of the business with him.
Following the dissolution of the Dallas Arbiter Company, Bob Pearson found a new home at Shergold. There, he undertook the task of re-engineering the Hayman guitar models, which ultimately became part of the Shergold. He later would recall this as a bad decision.
One interesting curiosity is that all Hayman guitars had encapsulated a box of 4 springs to create sympathetic resonance, an idea Jim took from the Fender tremolo. The idea was that the strings would vibrate longer with this contraption. Did it work?!
On personal levels, this period marks the troubles Jim was having with alcohol, and was one of the main reasons for his short collaboration on Hayman Guitars. His marriage to Freda would also come to an end at this period.
The Heyman main range all had the same outline and neck, and the spring contraption. In the 1010 the initial bodies were made from Honduras mahogany and later Obeche and sycamore. The neck was Maple and had a 25.2 inch scale with 22 frets. This model had 3 single coils and the 3 way selector switch would select one at the time. Hayman guitars descend from the Ormston guitar prototype that didn't go into production, and the body shape was refined to a very well balanced contour, with a rather nice contour headstock. But the rather prominent metal control plate disrupts the balanced design. In the 2020 model, where such a plate is not found the several components hierarchy is much more balanced.
Burns UK Ltd, 1974-1979
During the period from 1974 to 1979, Jim Burns found employment with Alan Wright, the founder of City Music Stores. Under this new collaboration, Jim Burns took on the role of designing four distinct guitar models, each contributing to the musical instrument landscape of the time.
One of the standout creations from this era was the Flyte model, which became an iconic guitar for the company. The Flyte was inspired by the popular sensation of the time, the Concorde. This guitar model embodied the sleek and futuristic aesthetics associated with the Concorde.
In addition to the Flyte, Jim Burns designed three other guitar models during his tenure with City Music Stores: the Artist, the Mirage and the LJ 24.
It's worth noting that the bodies and necks of these guitars were produced by Shergold.
They went into liquidation in 1977, but Alan Wright managed to say the retail side of the business and City Music Stores would go on until 1982.
This model was based on the popular airplane released at the time, the Concord. They even tried to use Concord as the model name but were not allowed. Its a futuristic shaped guitar that was released in 1974. The guitar had two humbuckers, one volume, one tone and a 3 way switch.
The guitar had a mahogany body.The neck was made from Rock Maple with an ebony fingerboard and a 25 ½ inch scale.
It had a new bridge design. Here is an ad text about it: The Dynamic Tension advanced bridge fitted to the Flyte has threeway adjustment giving the player individual control”
Jim Burns Actualizers Ltd 1979-1983
In 1979, a new chapter in Jim Burns' career began when he was introduced to PA:CE Electronics by Paul Day. This encounter led to their decision to venture into guitar production. They went on to acquire a company known as Actualizers, forming a new entity called Burns Actualizers Ltd.
However, the journey of Burns Actualizers Ltd was relatively short-lived and faced some familiar challenges. Instead of focusing on building upon the established customer base with the successful models of the past, Jim opted to design entirely new guitar models. Unfortunately, this decision did not yield the desired results, and the company encountered difficulties.
One of the last guitar designs Jim Burns created during his tenure with the company was the Bandit. However, by the time the Bandit was released it was already to late for the company.
This episode in Jim Burns' career underscores the challenges that can arise in the guitar manufacturing industry, especially when introducing new models without an established customer base.
With a body of mahogany and a hard maple neck with an ebony fretboard the scorpion was an instrument that proved too unconventional for significant market success.
A description from the catalog claimed unparallelled sustain based on the fact that “the bridge and the two pickups are mounted on a single eighth of an inch brass plate - a system that combines the innate harmonic properties of the brass with the novel idea of linking the vital sound transmitting parts. The degree of sustain achievable is remarkable.”
The guitar had two humbuckers, one 3 way switch and the tone controls also allowed for single or double coil modes. It also had a phase switch, and a volume.
Burns London - 1992-2017(?)
So the Burns guitar designs went on without any production for quite a few years, when in 1992, a new attempt to revive the iconic Burns brand was made by Barry Gibson. He embarked on this journey partnering with Eddie Cross, with the intention of bringing back the classic Burns guitar models that had become legendary over the years. To accomplish this, they utilized templates, jigs, and materials from the original 1960s productions, aiming to capture the essence and quality of the vintage instruments.
Jim was involved in this revival effort, albeit in a different capacity. He was not offered a decision-making role in the company but was hired as a freelance consultant. This arrangement allowed him to contribute his expertise and knowledge to the project.
As time went on, however, sales began to slow down. In response, the company made a strategic shift by moving some of its manufacturing to Korea, and they introduced the Marquee model. Then, in 2003, they further transitioned production to China. The company continued its efforts until around 2017.
Today, 2023, the brand seems to be going under a new revamp and I can only hope the market jumps into it and we can see these iconic models back at the stores!
Jim Burns died in 1998, and his story is both inspiring and a cautionary tale! He created so many guitar models, some truly iconic in the guitar world, but at the same time started and ended a tremendous number of companies and partnerships that did not encounter success. Who knows what could have been achieved had he been able to stay in a long lasting partnership with focus on sales, but we can still thank him for his role in the development of the electric guitar and bass.