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This article was originally published in issue #29
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The story starts back in 1960 when Burns Guitars were very much at the forefront of UK's live music culture. Jim Burns (who died in 1998) made guitars that were being enjoyed by notable players of the time (and still today for that matter!), such as Hank Marvin, Elvis Presley (yes, really!), George Harrison, Marc Bolan, Jimmy Page, Mark Knopfler, Brian May, Tom Petty, Status Quo and Slade. Not for nothing has Jim been described as the 'Leo Fender of the UK'. Manufacturers today like to push their innovations, however many of those 'new' ideas somewhat surprisingly were first conceived many years before in the Burns workshop. A few examples pulled from the Burns website include heel-less glued-in guitar necks, 24 fret fingerboards, knife-edge tremolo units, stacked coil pickups and even active electronics!
Although it'd be nice to do a whistle-stop tour of Burns history, I'm afraid we can't cover it all here, but suffice it to say that company's twists and turns bring us to 1992 when the Burns London company was re-established by Barry Gibson, originally a professional musician who used Burns guitars for many years himself. His enthusiasm for the brand coupled with his own wood working skills moved him from fan to reigniting and running the company and enjoying much success today.
Today we have in the Burns Bison bass, a Chinese made reissue of the original - and don't let that put you off! There are some pretty poor instruments being made in China (though they are getting rarer) and some great ones - and this is definitely one of the best ones!
Let's look a bit deeper at the Bison spec: We've a bolt-on hard rock maple neck featuring a familiar rosewood fretboard on to which 22 frets are neatly fitted. Side binding on the neck looks neat and stylish. Under the 'board is a bi-flex truss rod for neck adjustment and the tuning keys are of the closed geared type that have a smooth tuning action. Being a more compact unit they also serve to keep the bass free of any neck dive. Speaking of the neck, the profile has a rounded carve that feels good too. You'll be happy to hear that the nut width at 44mm is another familiar territory for us bass players, so the Bison does feel immediately inviting to play. Did I forget to mention the original 'batwing' headstock? Take a closer look, did you miss it the first time? You won't from now on! '60's stylings!
The 34” scale bass feels a smidge taller than a Fender Precision bass. The contoured body, made of Indonesian nato, with its emphasised upper and lower horns is wrapped in a classic polyester finish and certainly looks right for its era! Although it has that slightly longer scale, I suspect it is the exaggerated size of the horns that give this bass a slightly larger feel and look, though I think that there is probably not as much in the size difference between it and a Precision, as you might at first think.
Incidentally, although our review model came dressed with chrome hardware, the specifications also offer a gold hardware model too and I think that'd look great against this luscious black poly finish!
That's fit and finish looked at, now here's the really interesting part! Have you ever felt a bit let down by tonal options on a bass guitar? A pan pot can be a usable method of mixing between two pickups and there's nothing wrong with a coil tap for variation either but I'm here to tell you that the Burns Bison features, in addition to volume and tone pots, two other rotary switches and delivers a vast array of very useful bass tones. Not once did I think there was a 'weak sound' on this bass. They all had purpose and that is a big thumbs up for me.
Knob number one has four positions: Split Sound, Bass, Treble and Wild Dog. The latter sounds like something too good to miss! With three pickups on the bass there's plenty of options, but here's how the configuration works. 'Split Sound' selects the neck and bridge pickups, whereas the 'Bass' setting routes just the neck pickup to the output via the passive tone control for a big fat, round tone. Logically, the 'Treble' setting does the same with just the bridge pickup which naturally has more mids and top than the neck pickup sound. There are three very usable sounds right there and we've barely touched the surface. Wild Dog? Oh yeah, that's the one that bites! Again it's the bridge pickup soloed, but there's extra output and perceived top end on this setting and I think it would deliver the goods being pushed in to an overdriven valve amplifier!
All of these settings are duplicated when the second knob is turned from position A to position B but this time with the addition of the middle pickup, delivering another four tone options! I particularly liked the bridge and middle setting as well as the neck and middle setting. Check out the video to hear those.
Acoustically, the combination of neck and body makes for a resonant tone that is full and rounded even with the flatwound strings installed as standard. Flatwounds aren't a favourite of mine but they were extremely popular during the era when the Bison first appeared so full marks for authenticity! In fact it's testament to the instrument to hear a wide range of overtones coming from the bass with this type of string. Personally, I'd be grabbing a set of D'Addario Pro Steels - I wouldn't be able to resist it!
So, to sum up, here's a very different looking bass that offers more tones than you can shake a stick at, feels easy and familiar to play and is simply beautifully made. For the right player, this is a really excellent bass and don't assume that just means a '60s tribute band as the Bison has been making quite a name for itself in recent years with a whole new generation of young players!