Burns LondonBurns London was started by James Ormston Burns (1925-1998), often described as the British Leo Fender due to the similarity in terms of his life and the direction his company took under his ownership, and the parralels to be drawn between the latter periods of both companies when they were later sold off. Jim Burns set out to make, in his own words, "mass produced one-offs", such as the Marquee, a radical take on the Stratocaster style with many more differences than it is 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.
The original guitars made many showbiz friends, having been sighted in the hands of some extremely high-profile celebrities for the time, such as Elvis Presley, Hank Marvin and even David Gilmour on occasion. Most impressively, Burns guitars enjoyed a relatively high level of popularity over the course of its first two decades despite often being seen as a cheaper alternative to more expensive US brands such as Fender and Gibson. Another reason accounting for the popularity in Britain especially was the trade embargo against all American goods, making it next to impossible to buy US-made guitars in Britain.
The 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 Beatles, and again thanks to the trade embargo on US-made goods. Even Ampeg, a relatively well-known brand, bought the license to manufature guitars under the Burns moniker, most probably for the US market, though these weren't much of a success.
Despite the good times for guitar sales, Burns London Ltd was deeply in debt to suppliers and creditors and in desperate need of rescue. The company and name were sold in 1965 to thhe Baldwin Piano and Organ Company of Cincinnati for the price was £380,000, small money in comparison to the £13 million for Fender which Baldwin had earlier lost out on. Unfortunately, the acquisition did 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, inbetween 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.
Towards the end of 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 Ltd. The former appeared in 1976 and lasted until 1978, a mere two years, and produced only one guitar of note; The Flyte (sometimes referred to at the time as the Concorde). The latter company 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.
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. The company enjoyed serious critical acclaim from many corners of the market, and manufactured many guitars for individuals, including Steve Howe of Yes and Gaz Coombes of Supergrass. later on, in 1999, the company began work on a budget line called the Club range, outsourcing production to Korea. The Club range 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 range expanded quickly, with nearly every Jim Burns-designed guitar ever constructed from 1960 to 1983 receiving its own budget model, such as the Marquee, the Steer, 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.
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 of a 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. While the Club range is considered the "budget" end of Burns London, the small Chinese range are much closer to the general perception of a budget range such as Squier and Epiphone, with the Korean models more closely resembling the build quality and price of Japanese Fenders.
Burns London Ltd now produce a great deal of guitars, including four complete ranges. The Burns Custom shop sits at the top, with some of its models included in the Elite range. Below those two sit the Custom Elite range, which feature a wide array of construction methods, with the parts constructed in Korea, then assembled and wired in Britain, or the guitar manufactured in a Chinese factory staffed with extremly highly skilled workers, such as the new Jet-Sonic. Finally, there are the previously mentioned Club range, which includes the Korean and Chinese models.
Thankfully, all of these inconsistencies proved to be purely cosmetic, and sometimes were simply a result of the guitar going on sale before the appropriate changes were made to the literature and catalogues accompanying them. Although many argue that this simply adds to the charm of the range, and that it helps a now prolific and mass-manufactured range to stick closer to the original 1960 design ethic of "mass produced one-offs" than any other guitar company.