The Woodshed: Burns Guitars
2010 marks the 50th anniversary of Burns Guitars. Nick Wells of Bass Guitar Magazine meets Barry Gibson, the man responsible for reviving the company's fortunes
Founded in 1960 by Jim Burns, a man often described as the 'British Leo Fender', Burns Guitars were a force to be reckoned with throughout the early 60s. The company was later sold to the Baldwin Piano and Organ Company of Cincinnati in 1965, and the original Burns guitar line subsequently came to an end in 1970.
Following several attempts to revive the brand over the years, it was Barry Gibson who successfully restarted the company in 1992. 'I was a Burns fan when I was a kid,' explains Barry, 'and when I realised they weren't in existence anymore, I registered the company and set out to find Jim [Burns]. Once I had his approval I kicked it all off from scratch again, and the rest is history.'
It's to Barry's credit that the current administration has remained in business longer than the original company and all of the subsequent attempts at reviving it. 'We've lasted 19 years so far,
and I think the reason we've survived is that we've got a range of very good, niche products. We're not just selling to the old guys out there; a lot of young bands are playing our instruments. Sometimes I'll switch on the TV and see someone playing a Burns who I didn't even know about, or
hadn't approached; they've just gone out and got one. There's a lot more out there than we know about, but we're gradually finding out who's who and trying to get some endorsements going. It's been 50 years since the company was first incorporated in 1960, so we've got to tell everybody we're
Alongside a guitar range that oozes retro cool, Burns currently offer five bass models: the Barracuda Special, the Marquee bass, the Bison bass, the limited-edition Shadows bass, of which only 500 were made, and the Nu-Sonic. Each model has its own classic look and an almost simplistic body shape that's in keeping with the original Burns instruments of the 60s. 'The first bass we brought out was the Shadows bass,' says Barry, 'which was to complement the Hank Marvin guitar and
make up the full set.
'Those were made in our UK custom shop and did really well. Then we launched the Bison bass, followed by the Barracuda Special, which is a 6-string that can be played as a guitar or a short-scale bass [it's tuned the same as a standard guitar, only an octave lower]. The Marquee is a
medium-scale copy of the original Burns Jazz Bass from 1963, and now we're looking to introduce the Nu-Sonic bass as a part of our anniversary series.'
In The Club
In 2002, Burns began work on a new budget line called the Club range, which saw manufacturing leave Britain for the first time in the company's history as production was outsourced to Korea, but has moved to China in the past four years. 'It's all down to cost, at the end of the day,' explains Barry.
'Overheads in the UK are going up and up, so we tend to lean on getting the very best out of the Far East, but it's tough out there now. The recession has certainly taken a hold on the sales of musical instruments, but luckily for us, touching lots of wood, we haven't actually felt the pinch in sales;
that's been fairly consistent. But it's hit the factories very hard, so where we've felt the pinch is in our supply. All you need is one component to not be available and it knocks your production we've had to change case manufacturers twice in the last nine months because they've gone bust!
Meanwhile, you've got private sellers and distributors waiting for instruments, and we might have
spent 40 to 50 grand supplying jigs and know-how, and overnight the factory has gone, so you have to start again. It's not easy, but things have improved. We might have had a nine-month dip where supply has been very bad, but it's made us push harder to find the best factories, and in doing so the product has improved even more. You can't cut corners on the product; you've actually got to improve the product and then get supply.'
The move has allowed Burns to reissue an abundance of original Jim Burns designs, including the Marquee and Bison basses. 'We think we've cracked it now,' says Barry. 'I've got a very good team around me, including a guy called Alan Entwistle, who's an electronics engineer and pickup wizard. He visits all our factories in the Far East and makes sure everything that leaves the factory is in A1 condition. It's not just about checking the guitars; it's about respect and bonding with the management teams of the factories.
If you're willing to make the effort, they will too.' While some buyers remain sceptical over the reliability of Far Eastern manufacturing, Barry has no such reservations. 'I honestly believe
it's getting better and better. There are factories in China that have got very strong buying power, and buy timber years in advance from Canada and North America, so the wood's not indigenous to China; they're importing high-quality maple and mahogany and have got high-tech finishing departments and CNC machines now.
That all pushes the price up, but you end up with a European-quality product. All our electrical parts come from America, and all the timber, rosewood and ebony from India. All our pickguards are made in Europe and shipped out, so we pick and choose and consolidate our materials into one area,
make the whole instrument in China, and then do final assembly and set-up at our servicing workshops in the UK. And that brings the quality up to another level.'
Reeling Back The Years
Taking into account that Burns is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary while boasting an artist roster that includes the likes of Brian May and Andy Bell, along with a portfolio of suitably retro bass designs, things are certainly looking up. We asked Barry for his thoughts on the secret behind the company's regeneration: 'To be a top instrument maker, I think you have to be a player, and that's where the drawbacks used to come from Japan, Korea and China.
Unless you've got people working in the factories who are musicians, the workers don't appreciate the fine details. Even the factory guy who sweeps up sawdust at the end of the day needs to have some sort of musical-theory knowledge; there's got to be a connection there, it really does help.
I've worked with people over the years who haven't had that experience, and it's very hard to put it across to them how much that little detail gives to the feel of the player; if you're a good player you'll learn your trade much quicker.'
For Barry, his professional career originated from studying at the London College of Furniture. 'When I left school I went to college to learn the cabinetmaking trade and do an apprenticeship the oldfashioned way. I did that for quite a few years, and during that time I was playing guitar as well. I remember I had a broken guitar when I was 19 or 20 and I was going to take it to the guitar repairers, but one day I just thought, 'I'm going to do this myself. I'm a cabinetmaker, it can't be
that difficult.' It was almost like a eureka moment that gave me the confidence to start experimenting.
'I began working for a music shop, repairing instruments, and was soon covering 10 to 12 shops. From that I went on to actually making instruments from scratch. I set myself up with machinery and was making bodies and necks, nothing imported all parts weren't around then!
'You just begged, stole and borrowed and made it yourself, which was a good way to learn. One week I was making a fitted kitchen, the next I was making a guitar, but gradually I started getting more and more work building and repairing musical instruments.
'I kept on playing, and what a great test bed for your instruments I'd build something,
and it had to be good because I was going out to do a professional gig with it the next night, and
that just made me get better and better.'
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