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 1964 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.
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 solid body electric guitars and basses.
The following year, 1959, Jim hooked up with another amp maker, Henry Weill, to produce a few more early solid body electrics and basses – these, with the Burns-Weill brand.
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 fist 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.
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.