I’ve never owned a Burns guitar, and I have only one with Burns pickups: a funky mid-’60s Baldwin Virginian I scored for $100 some 20 years ago. It’s a cheap plywood piece of crap — but it’s my piece of crap, and I’m quite attached to it.
James O. Burns founded Burns London Ltd. in 1960 and had success underselling expensive American imports. Burns users included Hank Marvin, pre-Zep Jimmy Page, and most famously, Brian May, who used Burns’s Tri-Sonic pickups in his iconic homemade guitar.
Cincinnati’s Baldwin company bought Burns in 1965 and quality suffered — much like the same year’s CBS/Fender debacle, only on a smaller scale. But the Baldwin/Burns marriage produced some interesting oddballs, notably the Baldwin Burns Buzzaround (a quirky fuzz pedal favored by Robert Fripp), plus a lot of weirdo guitars. Like this one.
When I was playing with PJ Harvey, I used the Virginian to play the songs she’d written in “Gary Glitter tuning”: AAAAAA, as heard on “Rock and Roll Part 2,” and on this 1995 PJ Harvey clip from The White Room, a great British live music TV show of the era. (As on the UK’s long-running Later with Jools Holland show, bands would set up on multiple stages facing each other across a large room. Also performing the night we tracked this: Oasis, Paul Weller, and Bobby Womack.)
Here’s how the same guitar and guitarist sound 17 years later. Listen and weep:
There’s just something cool about the sound of these pickups, though I’ve never been able to discern which qualities are due to the pickups, and which to the oddball axe that houses them. The famous Tri-Sonics are ceramic-magnet pickups, but these certainly don’t sound ceramic to me — they’re soft-spoken and if anything, somewhat under-powered. (I almost always use some sort of clean booster with this guitar.) The tone is pretty, in a humble understated way. They’re rather noisy (especially with trashed-out sounds), but that, too, is part of their charm.
Anyone else have any experience with Burns guitars, pickups, or pedals? I’ve played Burns guitars, both reissues and ’60s originals. They look bitchin’, but none of them played especially well, and the famous “Wild Dog” pickup setting was never as wild as the name promised, though you could probably make it howl and bark with the right stompboxes.