Few guitars can shout ‘British classic’ quite as loudly as a Burns. Marcus Leadley checks out a pair of retro rockers which can do a lot more than just play Wonderful Land
Description: Custom Elite Signature Marvin Solidbody electric guitar. Assembled in the UK from Chinese parts
Contact: Burns London – 0208 7833 638 – www.burnsguitars.com
Club Series Cobra: Solidbody electric guitar. Made in China
Contact: Burns London – 0208 7833 638. www.burnsguitars.com
The original Burns guitars came along at a very particular point in the history of popular music. In the early ’60s, a sudden explosion in interest in guitar music combined with high import tariffs on American goods created an environment where the much-coveted Fenders were rare birds in the UK, and British makers found themselves with the opportunity to both imitate and innovate.
Burns London Limited only endured until 1965, when the company was sold to Baldwin. In 1974, after a couple of false starts, Jim Burns came back with new instruments. While company names and fortunes changed, he managed to keep production rolling until 1984. Burns London, with Barry Gibson at the helm and Jim Burns as a consultant, came along in 1994. Since then we’ve had a regular dose of classic reissues and some contemporary twists.
The Burns Marvin, a collaboration between Jim Burns and Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin, is a perfect example of British ingenuity. No one can say a Marvin doesn’t look a bit like a Strat – but in terms of pickups and hardware, it’s a different beast. A certain amount of the design was driven by an effort to improve on Fender’s previous work, for the 1960s wasn’t an era when things were set in stone, and people were trying to do things better.
Today’s Marvin arrives in a silver snakeskin tolex case full of goodies: leather strap, toolkit, cleaning cloth and certificate of authenticity. White is the finish, and with the faux tortoiseshell scratchplates the guitar looks stylish and eccentric. The bodies and necks for Custom Elite series are fabricated in China but the guitars are assembled in the UK, and the standard of finishing and set-up is very good. This body is made from American alder and the bolt-on neck is Canadian hard rock maple.
You’ll probably either love or hate the scroll design of the headstock and the reproduction Van Gent-style tuners; however, the mass balances the guitar well and the string path is nice and straight, which helps to reduce tuning issues. Moving down to the rosewood fingerboard we encounter a quirk of many vintage British guitars: a zero fret. These pretty much guarantee a great first-position action and a zingy and chiming response from the open stings and they minimise the opportunity for pitch errors between fretted and unfretted notes. If you’re a player who mostly plays around the first five frets, check this option out.
Moving on down the neck, the unbound rosewood fingerboard is excellent. The narrow-gauge fretwire has a nice vintage feel and the C profile neck feels great. The high gloss finish enhances the vintage feel; to me, this is what a guitar neck should feel like. Neck access past the 17th fret starts to get a bit compromised by the heel joint, but a good technique will get you comfortably all the way to the 21st fret, where the intonation is still spot-on.
At the other end of the string path is the impressive edifice of the Burns Rez-O-Tube vibrato, which gets its name from the individual metal tubes though which the strings pass from the back of the guitar. The entire bridge assembly is mounted on a solid aluminium plate. It’s spring-loaded and pivots on a knife-edge. Spring tension can be adjusted at the tail end, and the chunky side-mounted arm can be adjusted for swivel tension and angle. The palm rest is a necessary feature, as it stops a wayward hand whacking the aluminium plate. It’s a quirky design, but there’s method in the madness: when properly set up, the guitar stays in tune well.
Burns also designed the Rez-O-Matic pickups for the Marvin. These were designed to sound more ‘Fenderish’ than the earlier Tri-Sonics and were designed around alnico magnets rather than ceramic. The Marvin sports three, and they’re wired via a five-way selector – not a three-way as on the original. This configuration gives the three pickup voices plus two ‘in between’ out-of-phase voices. There’s a push/pull on the rear tone control that switches the neck pickup on, which means that you can have bridge and neck pickup on with the selector hard back. In any of the middle positions you have all three pickups on together – so that’s a full seven options from just three pickups. The guitar also has a master volume control and independent tone controls.
If you want bright yet warm clean tones, the Marvin is a superb performer. All the different factors add up to a chiming sound that works brilliantly for ’60s melodic licks, country-inspired fingerpicking and clean chords. The pickups really showcase the natural sound of the instrument, so the sound of the neck pickup into an uncoloured amp sounds very acoustic, with a lovely full bass, or you can roll off a little top end for a super-smooth jazzy lead tone that still has excellent clarity.
The out-of-phase voices are less coloured then the Fender equivalents, but exhibit all the noise-free loveliness that make them ideal for recording as well as live playing. The middle position offers a full, bright rhythm sound and bridge pickup is somehow twangy, smooth and scratchy all at the same time. Across all the pickup settings there’s a pleasing sense of definition and focus to the pick-edge sound. The extra neck/bridge combination is a very full frequency option that’s great for strumming and singing. Using all the pickups together gives a great funk rhythm sound.
There is a tendency to assume that the Shadows sound was clean, clean, clean all the way, but in the live situation the amps of the day often sputtered into breakup. It’s all part of the territory, and the Marvin loves to growl. The pickups have a very dynamic response so there’s a definite reward for hitting the strings harder: it’s a 3D rock’n’roll sound that eats surf music and can get very raunchy if pushed a bit harder. Moving into slightly higher gain territory brings on a gritty, jangly pop tone, though excessive amounts of gain choke the sound, so it’s not an ideal choice for hard rock or modern metal.
Club Series Cobra
The Cobra is based on the Drifter Custom, a guitar with its roots in the late ’90s. This Cobra asserts its Burns credentials by taking on a trio of Tri-Sonic pickups but in a smaller, redesigned form. The problem with the old Tri-Sonics was that they required a larger body rout and a custom-cut pick guard; Burns says this redesign used the same split ceramic magnets and loose coil winding technique as the originals, but it manages to squeeze the internals into a narrow casing.
The Cobra is Chinese-built and at £249 is very, very good value for money – and, remarkably, it comes in a well-built hard case. What you don’t get are quite the same materials and attention to detail as you do with the Marvin. The body timber’s not specified, though the neck is maple. The headstock is scarf-jointed on; the rosewood fingerboard has a couple of nasty nicks in it and there’s some serious scuffing up past the 12th fret on the high E side, though this doesn’t affect the playing.
The neck is quite broad and the fingerboard relatively flat, so the feel is fast and rocky. The medium-jumbo frets could do with a dressing and the board feels in need of polishing, as there are a few sticky spots. The intonation, however, is spot on, and bar minor issues the guitar plays very well. The action is low and fast, so once again the zero fret seems to be doing the trick nicely.
The Burns London vibrato uses the same knife-edge approach as the Rez-O-Tube, but this is basically an adaptation of the standard, most common vibrato. It’s solidly made, well chromed and the guitar stays in tune.
As well as the three Tri-Sonic pickups the Cobra sports independent tone controls and a master volume. There’s a five-way selector and once again you can access two extra voices by pulling up on the rear tone control.
While the Cobra doesn’t sound like the Marvin, both instruments still manage to sound like Burns guitars. The Cobra has a very particular brash, bright, slightly angular quality that’s instantly appealing; if you think you know single coil S-type tones, think again. While the bridge pickup tone is a little flat in the midrange for clean chords, it becomes a total monster when you load on the gain.
No problem with a contemporary rock tone – and winding off the tone control creates a remarkably cool Brian May sound that’s really good for wailing solos. The middle pickup on its own is good for clean chords, and the neck pickup is very melodic and jazzy. Both the out-of-phase settings work well with midrange drive, and the dynamics feel very responsive. The extra pull-up voices are great for rhythm playing and creating a jazzier clean tone.
Who’s going to buy a Marvin? Shadows fans who’ve decided that money in the bank doesn’t make them happy? Good decision. At the same time, this is a guitar for anyone who wants a vast array of hi-fi clean sounds; it has a real aficionado’s tone. It’s also a natural choice for anyone who likes classic surf, early rock’n’roll or country, plus their more contemporary punky siblings. There’s nothing about the Marvin that traps it in the ’60s; like any really good guitar, it can hop decades and genres.
While the Cobra is a budget model, it punches well above its weight. It’s much more suited to metal and hard rock than the Marvin, and it’s a natural for jangly pop and alt-rock. The remodelled Tri-Sonics are about 200 per cent better that the pickups you find on most budget guitars, so if you’re starting out, want a better budget guitar or simply fancy adding a bit of Burns to your collection without breaking the bank, the Cobra is a fine option.