Last week I opined about my penchant for unusual, not to say, ugly guitars like the Fenton-Weill Tux-master from England. Now, I don’t mean to throw (rolling) stones—the States has produced its share of butt-ugly guitars—but Merry Old England has contributed mightily to the cause. And even though he’s revered in the U.K. as their very own Leo Fender, Jim Burns has had a hand in more than a few guitar models that might crack a mirror if they could see themselves. One case in point: the Burns Flyte.
Now, the Burns Flyte is definitely a step up from the Tux-master, but not such a very big one. James Ormston Burns (1925-1998) began designing guitars in around 1958 when he made a short scale Supersound guitar for the musician Ike Isaacs. In 1959 Burns teamed up with Henry Weill to form the Burns-Weill company, producing the rather ungainly forebears of last month’s featured Tux-master. Burns and Weills apparently weren’t a match made in heaven and they had parted ways before the year was out. In 1960 Burns struck out on his own, founding Burns London Ltd. And putting out what’s now a legendary line of soldibody electric guitars.
Probably the most famous feature on Burns guitars of the 1960s was the setting called “Wild Dog” on the Bison and some other models. I can remember not being able to wait to plug in mine when I got it. Wild Dog!! A snarl? Growl? Sharp bark? Imagine my disappointment when I learned that Wild Dog was simply a somewhat weak phase-reversal effect like you get in-between pickups on a Strat! Now there was the marketing department run amok!
Burns guitars quickly won the hearts of British guitar players…there were, indeed, few other quality options. Plus, they arrived at just about the time that teenagers were trading in their Skiffle washboards for their first electric guitars in order to play that new music from the Colonies.
Meanwhile, in the former Colonies, guitars—especially electrics—had become hot commodities among the young. And there were lots of young folks, the Post-War Baby Boomers, hitting the right age to become a “market.” Savvy businessmen wanted in on the gold mine. Companies as diverse as Norlin (a brewing conglomerate) and CBS (TV, movies, and records) started buying guitar companies (Gibson and Fender, respectively).
Into the corporate feeding frenzy jumped the Baldwin Piano and Organ Company. At least it was in the musical instrument business to begin with! Initially Baldwin was a bidder for Fender, but lost out to CBS. On the rebound, Baldwin set its eyes on Burns of London and in 1965 began importing Baldwin-badged versions of Jim Burns’ guitars.
However, Baldwin’s affair with Burns was relatively short-lived. In 1966 Baldwin struck a deal to purchase Gretsch and they proved to be much better sellers in the U.S. marketplace. Baldwin held on to the Burns property until closing it down in 1970.
Burns wasn’t through with guitars yet. From 1969 to 1973 Burns manufactured Hayman guitars for the music distributor Dallas-Arbiter. As part of the agreement, Jim Burns couldn’t use the Burns of London name, but somehow Burns UK was acceptable and Burns resumed making guitar in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1974. Which brings us to the Flyte.
The Flyte—originally supposed to be the Concorde (or Conchorde)—coincided with the debut of supersonic aviation. Hence the swept-wing appearance. If you appreciated weird guitarflesh, this should tickle your fancy. I keep looking at it it just keeps getting weirder, and in an especially good way! Those pickups are called Mach One Humbusters. The Dynamic Tension bridge is pretty interesting…well, no, it’s not. It’s just weird. Indeed, much like Hayman guitars before it, Flytes were well made and pretty unremarkable except for the eccentric appearance.
Apparently, Burns UK Flytes were played by so-called Glam Rockers like the band Slade and Mark Bolan (who made a career of eccentric guitars, among other things). Wikipedia lists other Flyte players, but I’ve never heard of any of them, not that that signifies anything. But, you have to stretch to find Flyte fans; they never did take off.
This guitar is #172. I have no idea how many Flytes were produced, but I suspect production quantities were not enormous. They were only made for about 2 years. In around 1977 Burns UK introduced the Mirage to replace the Flyte, with re-designed Mach Two pickups. Burns UK then bit the dust.
Jim Burns gave guitars one more go with the oddly named enterprise “Jim Burns Actualizers Ltd.” From 1979-83, but that met with even less success than Burns UK and the Flyte.
Still, you have to give Burns high marks for chutzpah and if your taste, like mine, runs to the unusual, you should be sure to catch a Flyte the next time one come your way!