Hands-On Review:Burns, baby, burns!- Burns Bison, Steer and Double-Six electric guitars

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by Chris Gill


Is the sun finally setting on the British Empire? Consider the recent fate of several popular British icons from the Sixties: the Mini Cooper-designed and produced by BMW; Doc Marten shoes-made in China; the beloved Burns guitar-built in Korea. Next thing you know they'll be saying James Bond isn't really English. (Wait a second, isn't Sean Connery, the original James Bond, Scottish?)

In the Sixties, Burns guitars were to Swinging London what Fender guitars were to Southern California. Hank Marvin of the Shadows (England's equivalent of the Ventures) used Burns guitars, and Beatle George Harrison tinkered with a Burns Nu-Sonic bass during the sessions for the group's 1966 single "Paperback Writer." In the Seventies, Brian May of Queen put Burns pickups in his homemade guitars (which is one reason why Burns is the current manufacturer of the official Brian May Signature guitar). These days Supergrass, Badly Drawn Boy and Pulp all count themselves as Burns enthusiasts.

Unfortunately, it just doesn't make good economic sense to manufacture certain products in the U.K. anymore (the employee dental insurance premiums alone would bankrupt most companies). But Britain's loss is our gain, as these guitars are still well made, and reasonably priced. It really wouldn't matter if the
Bison, Steer or Double Six were made in Korea, Czechoslovakia or Iraq-they're as delightfully shagadelic as ever, baby!

Burns Bison
First introduced in the early Sixties, the
Burns Bison allegedly got its name when company founder Jim Burns showed his creation to a co-worker who viewed the guitar's pointy cutaway horns and exclaimed, "Oi, it looks like a bloody fookin' bison!" (Thank God he didn't say it looked like a horny devil.) The Bison was Britain's answer to the Strat, although patent restrictions forced Burns' designers to modify their creation in several significant ways. (Patent controls were one of the main reasons why many guitar companies developed so many innovations in the Sixties.)

Bison deviates from the Strat in three ways. First, it features three Tri-Sonic pickups (the same pickups favored by Brian May) positioned perpendicular to the strings rather than at an angle, as on the Strat. Second, instead of a three- or five-position pickup selector, the Bison has a four-position rotary switch and a two-position (A/B) rotary switch that together provide eight tone/pickup combinations. The four-position switch serves up "split sound" (a Strat-like "in-between" dual-pickup tone), bass (neck pickup), treble (bridge pickup) and "wild dog" (a Tele-like bridge pickup tone). These settings are enhanced by the two-position switch, which yields enhanced treble in the "A" setting and emphasizes the bass in the "B' position. If you're looking for something close to Brian May's signature tone, use the "split sound"/"B" combination and turn down the tone control when you want his simulated "horn" sounds.

The third way the
Bison differs from the Strat is in its knife-edge tremolo. The Burns-designed trem performs in a manner similar to the Strat's tremolo and stays in tune exceptionally well, even after deep dive bombs. A versatile alternative to a Strat, the Bison offers similar sounds and features, more tonal options and a distinctly British feel that will have you involuntarily banging out the chords to "Paranoid Android."

Burns Steer
Although the
Burns Steer wasn't introduced until 1979, it has a Sixties attitude and, like the Bison, a bovine-inspired name. Featuring a truly unique design that combines the attributes of an acoustic and a solidbody electric, the Steer is the kind of guitar that most players either love or hate. If you're a die-hard acoustic enthusiast, you'll probably find its Frankenstein design off-putting, but electric fans will likely love its combination of electric guitar feel and acoustic-like quirkiness (and the devil horns on the headstock are wicked, too).

Although other hybrid guitars do the acoustic/electric Jekyll and Hyde dilly-o much better (the Parker Fly and Hamer Duo-Tone come to mind), the
Steer does produce a decent facsimile of an acoustic guitar's tone, with a distinctly electric edge. Punk-folk provocateur Billy Bragg has favored the Steer since he first laid eyes on one in the early Eighties, and if you want to play ringing open chords with a distorted edge but not become lost in a wash of feedback, the Steer is a great choice.

Like the
Bison, the Steer is a tonally versatile ax. It has a single-coil pickup in the neck position and a humbucker in the bridge position that can be split for bright single-coil tones. The neck pickup provides the most authentic acoustic tones, while the bridge pickup sounds are strictly electric. A three-position switch makes it easy to select the sound you want instantly. The Steer's
20-fret neck and lack of a cutaway make it better suited to chord bashers than lead thrashers, but for almost any imaginable musical style, it's a guitar that delivers.

Burns Double-Six
Electric 12-string guitars are still a rare breed in this day and age, so it's refreshing to see Burns producing a reissue of its legendary
Double-Six. The guitar was a favorite of Elvis Presley, as well as the Troggs, who apparently used a Double-Six to record "Wild Thing." With its oversize body and 11-inch headstock, the Double-Six
will make you feel like Ron Jeremy when you strap it on. Wild thing, indeed.

Like the
Bison, the Double-Six includes three fat-sounding Tri-Sonic pickups, but all three are positioned at an angle. The Double-Six
also features a five-position pickup selector switch that operates like the switch on a contemporary Strat. The single volume and dual tone controls are also very Stratlike, except the bottom tone control can be pulled out to activate additional pickup combinations. Half of the strings are anchored in the bridge above the body, while the other half are anchored through the body, allowing the bridge to maintain a compact size.

While the
offers a wonderful jingly-jangly retro sound that will have you lusting for go-go girls in white boots and mini skirts, it doesn't quite nail the bite of a Rickenbacker 12 or the sheen of the Fender Electric XII that Jimmy Page used to record "Stairway to Heaven" and "The Song Remains the Same." Even so, it produces a beautiful tone and is much easier to play than a Ric or Fender 12, thanks to its wide fingerboard.

If you're tired of all the look-alike and sound-alike guitars on the market today, give a Burns guitar a try. Despite the fact that they're now made in Korea, these guitars are as British as fish 'n' chips, cups o' tea, bad food, worse weather and Mary fookin' Poppins. Yeah, baby!



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