Those Mysterious Burns Pickups

A unique pickup in a “unique” guitar.

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.

Some Burns guitars had four pickup settings: “Split Sound,” “Jazz, “Treble,” and Wild Dog.”

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.

46 comments to Those Mysterious Burns Pickups

  • Oinkus

    That looks and sounds like a ton of fun ! I will look around and see if someone local has one for you too.Lot of good sounds in there just not the standard ones we hear way too much.

  • Didn’t you feature the Baldwin guitar and amp, and the Rhythm’n’Sound in GP about 17 years ago? I seem to remember reading about them back then, so it’s really cool to be able to hear them in use, instead of guessing what sonic glories (or horrors) they evoke.
    And, as for carlsguitarcorner, there is a obsessive, completist collector for everything; makes me wish I’d kept all my toenail clippings all these years, ’cause someone out there really, really needs to add ’em to their collection…

  • Digital Larry

    The least sycophantic thing I can think of to say here is: “what happened to the knife”?

  • Digital Larry

    I was only barely aware of PJ Harvey. But. Wow. She is intense!

  • AndrewT

    There’s a scene in Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Look Back’ where he’s in London looking into a window full of guitars – ‘they don’t have those guitars in the States man, incredible!’

    I always thought there could’ve been a Burns in among them.

    See what you make of it :

  • jeremy

    AndrewT, here’s hoping Joe’s next electronic project guide shows us how to make a time machine to hop back to that street (Denmark Street, I’d guess) and pick up a few bargains – did you see the prices?

  • Wow! Bobby Womack and Paul Weller on the same night as Polly Jean? What an evening! Did you get to hang with Paul or Bobby that night? All three managed to change the world a little bit with their songs and their guitar playing. And all three have managed to remain relevant over the long haul.
    Oh yeah, and Oasis was pretty damn good, too, although the bros. Gallagher haven’t managed to retain their stature; their recent projects are pale imitations of their earlier, more vital work.

    • joe

      I didn’t meet Weller or Womack. But Liam Gallagher kicked a soccer ball at me.

    • joe

      No, I didn’t met Weller or Womack — and Womack is a real guitar hero of mine. I love his old solo records, and I love what he did on one of my favorite Tracy Chapman tracks, “Open Arms.” It’s got this faux-naive simplicity, but it is SO refined and elusive. I’ve never made it sound as good as he did, and I’ve tried for years. Wish I’d met him.

      On the other hand, Liam Gallagher kicked a football at me.

      • Kicked it at you, not with you? You gotta’ love those who embrace their own bull-jive legend. Or maybe detest would be the better word…
        Womack is HEAVY. I’ll have to check out the Tracy Chapman cut, ’cause this guy can do no wrong. One of THE master r’n’b guitarists. But one shouldn’t underestimate the southern England genius of Weller; his whole career has been instructive- a beautiful arc from punk to soul to pop and back a few times, and still vibrant and fresh. Noel and Liam take note.

  • mwseniff

    I have a Mini-May which is a travel sized version of the Brian May Guitar. It has one of the current Tri-sonic pickups that are used in the May guitars today.

    It has a really nice tone. The pickup is sort of in the lower mid position, the neck is very nice feeling. I bought it as a slightly used return from Music 123 with a really nice little gig bag (it was new by all appearances). I have a thing for these “soprano” sized guitars (not the Tony Soprano sized guitars). It cost me $80 delivered to my door, I wish I’d bought the other one they had at the same price. The short scale works really well as a change for slide.

    Sound is nothing like any other single coil I’ve played it has more girth and a sweeter high end. They would probably sound killer in a strat. The pickup comes alive with fuzz, distortion and OD. The pickup is very quiet for a single coil probably because the metal shell on it

    • el reclusa

      Do Tri-Sonics fit in a standard Strat pickguard? That could be really cool, and I happen to have a Strat lying around that I really like, aside from a couple of so-so pickups in the middle and bridge positions…hmmm.

      At the vintage and used shop where I spent my early adult life working, we had one of the smaller Rickenbacker solidbodies (can’t remember the model, one of the two-pickup, “tulip” ones, 320something?) that had been fitted with Burns pickups- and I kinda regret not taking it home. Ricks equaled jangle in my mind, but that one was surprisingly, awesomely raw-sounding. Gave the ’66 SG Jr I had at the time a run for its money, even. Man, I miss working in a guitar shop!

      • joe

        I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but…NO! They’re too fat to fit in a Strat rout.

        Has anyone ever made a Tri-Sonic in Fender form?

        I’m no longer associated with Seymour Duncan, but I can’t help thinking that anyone who phoned up MJ in the Custom Shop requesting exactly that would either hear that: a) she’d cracked that nut years ago, and has one ready to ship, or b) she’ll make you one herself. And not insanely expensive.

        • mwseniff

          GuitarFetish makes some called Brightons that are strat sized. The owner claims to have worked on the original Guild “Red Guitar” project in the 80’s. He admits it won’t make your strat sound like “The old lady” but feels he has captured the sound of the rewound Burns Tri-Sonics. I may get a couple to try in my Gibson WRC #5 super strat as it needs a little something to get my attention again. They are around $85 for a set of three.

          For the record I have been satisfied with my purchases from GFS in the past and the price is right. The pickups have all been well made and sound good. I’ve used their bridges and tuners as well with good result. I have a blowout priced neck ($16) coming soon that I will cut up to use the peghead to upgrade my electric cello. Are they as good as SD’s? Maybe but the philosophy of the designers is different and aimed at different markets. GFS does only direct sales on the net and has no dealers so it is aimed at DIY for those who can. Seymour Duncans are aimed at the reseller/installer market a bit more and definitely have a cachet that lends credibility to the supplier and installer (can’t go wrong with SDs). YMMV

          • el reclusa

            I’ve had mixed results from GFS, but haven’t tried any pickups from them…though I’ve had my eye on the Surf 90 for a while now.

        • Darren

          Burns released a “mini” version of the Tri-sonic a few years back:
 which are standard single coil size.

          I managed to source one on ebay (I think it’s a middle one) and put it in the neck of one of my Patrick Eggle New Yorks, really love the sound from it.


      • Harald

        Burns produces Mini Tri-Sonic pickups which can be used as a replacement for standard-sized single-coil pickups. I personally like the sound of these pickups very much.

  • Sebastian Enriquez

    There are some similar guitar, not as vintage as them, but really good sounding; such as the Talman TCM50e:
    I think you should have recorded with the Rythm ‘N Sound, that would be great for vintage playing 🙂
    BTW such a great guitar and a great recording

  • mwseniff

    Nice guitar my pals and I refer to peg heads like the one on your guitar as “uncircumcised”.

  • id

    Hello Joe — You’ll find Teenie Hodges playing on one in 2013 in this Hi Rhythm SXSW short —

  • I have a Burns Marquee reissue, one of their strat-like things and it is simply fantastic. A truly underrated guitar. A pro friend of mine, who owns all the USA-made stuff you’d expect a session dude to have used to come over just to play it. “If you’re busy that’s cool – I just want to play your Burns”. He said it was the most Strat-like guitar he’d ever played. It nails the usual tones, but seems to have a bit of character all of its own. I recently put 13-62s on it to detune to B since I have some other stratty axes and don’t like having duplicates. It does the baritone thing really well. I have no idea why anyone would want a Fender after playing this for the last decade or so. They appear on eBay regularly for under £300 and never sell. Grab one when you can!

    • joe

      I’m glad you dig it! I was ogling those at Musikmesse the year before last, but I didn’t have a chance to play them. I understand the pickups are in Strat format, right? So you could pop them into any Strat-type guitar?

  • Zed

    Hello Joe,

    I just watched your great “Fuzz Down Below” looper composition and ended up here…

    Anyway, if you are still after tri-sonic pickups that fit in strat cavity and sound good, give these a try . I have not tried them myself but Jaime really has a great ear I would not be surprised if he managed to capture the “cool” factor of these pickups.

    • joe

      Thanks for the reminder, Zed — I saw them at Musikmesse 2014, but have never gotten around to checking them out. Now, remember: When you change the physical package of the pickup, you change its tone, so these Strat-sized models aren’t likely to sound exactly like originals, even if they use identical materials. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing—I loved some of the pickups I encountered when putting together the humbucker-sized P-90 roundup for Premier Guitar. Tons of cool pickups, even if they’re not totally period-accurate.

  • ant Sor

    Hello, the Burns guitars i told you about is like the one featured here:
    Seems to be a “reissue” of yours, quite different though.

  • Harald

    First of all thank you for your great website. There are not many people providing in-depth information and write quality articles like you do. I highly appreciate the energy, diligence and love for great sound you are putting into your reviews and articles 🙂
    I recently restarted to play guitar and was looking for the “right” sound. I wanted to have it clear and crisp but at the same time with a warm, full body (so not the typical Strat sound). I dislike most humbuckers and their tendency to loose precision and clarity. I tested lots of guitars and used two older ones to try many different pickups. Factually, the quality of guitar gear has become quite good, so I can’t say anything negative about what I tested – just I did not like it. Then I grabbed a Burns King Cobra from Ebay. And that’s it for me. It required a day setup work (I believe it got too much humidity where it was stored) but now it plays like a dream. It has the Mini Tri-Sonic pickups and I am totally in love with the sound. It is not spectacular at all, but my Cobra has exactly the tonal balance I wanted. Warm bass (never thin but never boomy), clean mids and crisp highs with moderate resonance only. Soft transient into distortion with great harmonics.
    I would say that the Burns guitars are underrated and deserve more attention. Since those are cheap they might require some work but for me the final result (sound and playability) was worth the effort.

  • Brian

    Anyone have a circuit diagram of the rotary switch to pickup wiring on a Burns split sonic from about 1962. The rotary switch has four positions “split sound, Jazz, Treble and Wild dog” and there are three pickups. Wiring in photo is not correct so need to fix this.

  • Hi Brian,

    The Burns web site has a diagram of pickup combinations selected by that 4 way rotary switch
    By looking at that and looking at the switch itself it should be possible to work out how it should be wired. If that is a single bank switch, its a 2 pole 4 way and one of the poles has a lump of solder on it but does not appear to go anywhere.
    According to the Burns diagram there is a further A/B switch that in combination with the 4 way provides 8 pickup configurations. Is that second switch on the back of one of the pots?

  • Joe Gore

    Thanks yet again, Terry, for stepping up. I hadn’t a clue! 🙂

  • Adam Brown

    I have a 64 Ampeg Splitsound Jazz guitar and the original case. I bought it at a garage sale in 1977. Of all the guitars I’ve owned, I just can’t seem to part with this one even though I might play it once a year. Surprising there is still a following for the old Burns guitars and now it appears they are back in business.

  • I bought a Burns Nu-Sonic in 1965 when I was hired to play lead/rhythm guitar for “The Sinners” in Welland, Ontario, Canada. I still have it although it has gone through a lot! Read all about it here:
    André Germain.
    Playin’ it all by ear.

  • El Reclusa

    I have a set of gold Burns Tri-Sonics en route now…trying to decide what to do with them. I’m sure it’ll end up fun in any case.

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