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Travis Bean

This article discusses the history of the 1974-79 Travis Bean guitars and basses. It provides a brief history of the instruments as well as discussing some current popular Travis Bean topics such as identifying and dating the instruments.

History of the Travis Bean Guitar

Travis Bean manufactured aluminum neck guitars and basses from 1974 to mid-1979. Travis Bean had two partners: Marc McElwee and Gary Kramer. All Travis Beans were handmade in a factory in Sun Valley, California. Quality was very important to the small staff, and either Bean or McElwee played every single guitar and bass before it left the factory.

Travis Bean guitars were built around the patented one piece neck. Raw Reynolds 6061-T6 aluminum stock was used to produce a one piece neck that ran from the tuning machines all the way down to the bridge. The bridge mounted directly to the neck unit, and the strings ran through the body. The pickups were made with Alnico 5 magnets and capped with stainless steel covers. On top of the pickup covers was etched "Travis Bean". Like the bridge, the pickups mounted directly to the neck assembly, with adjustment and mounting "bolts" accessable from the back of the guitar (there are no screw heads visible on the front of the guitar, even the bridge mounting screw heads are "hidden" beneath the saddle pieces). The rosewood or ebony fretboards were epoxied directly to the neck. On later models, the fretboards were epoxied to a 3/32 aluminum plate which was then bonded to the neck. The wood bodies were epoxied to the neck assembly. Schaller or Grover tuning machines were used through most of the production years, with Gotoh machines being used toward the end as well. Most Travis Bean guitars and basses came with chrome plated brass nuts. Knobs and switch handles were various types (clear,gold,black,etc) and assembly of these items depended on what was in stock and on hand.

The aluminum neck design had it's fair share of criticism. People complained about the aluminum expanding and contracting with changes in temperature, thus causing tuning problems. There were also complaints about the neck being too cold. To alleviate this issue, and an optional black acrylic neck coating was introduced for Standards, Artists, and Basses. This acrylic coating (sometimes referred to by it Dupont name "Imron") was standard on all Model-500's, although a few 500's escaped without it. Travis Bean Sales literature argued that this coating gave the neck "the warmth and feel of a conventional guitar neck (you don't feel the wood, you feel the finish; the lacquer or the paint)." It is estimated that the acrylic coating was used on about 20-25% of Artists and Standards once introduced as an option, and might make about about 10% of all Standards and Artists produced.

Most Travis Bean guitars were finished in with a clear hand rubbed lacquer on Koa wood bodied. Some were painted the opaque colors of red, black, or white. After the December 1977 break, pearlescent finishes were available as well including a dark blue pearlescent finish. Also following the December 1977 break, the company made magnolia the standard body for TB-500s as well as Standard guitars (although it seems Koa continued to be the most common body for the Standards).

Travis discouraged the manufacture of "custom" shaped guitars. There were custom applications including some double neck Travis Beans and some lefthanded versions as well. As an aside, Travis Bean seem to strive toward ensuring a "production" shop image to the public (as apposed to a "custom" guitar shop). Evidence of this is his reluctance to accept custom orders, as well as advertisements and sales literature offering a distinct model line.

Years Active

Travis Bean and Marc McElwee built the first prototype guitars in 1974. Gary Kramer was a principle in the early days of the company as well. Travis Bean submitted the patent in October 1974, and it was granted in October of 1975 (Kramer left the same month). Travis Bean recalled opening the shop in January 1974. Production started sometime that year (possibly late 1974).

After a few years of production, financial troubles forced layoffs and guitar production temporarily ceased in December 1977. Travis Bean secured some new investors and re-organized. Production resumed in the summer of 1978. This lasted about a year, and in the summer of 1979, the company and it's guitars came to an end. The final year of production was quite active. Nearly all the TB-500s were produced in that time frame as well as lots of TB1000's and basses.

What caused its demise? According to Travis Bean, the new financial backers began pressuring him to lower prices and costs and cut corners. Not wanting to sacrifice quality, Bean decided to close up shop. He has been quoted a few times as saying "the last guitar we ever made was as good as any we ever made."

Leftover stock of necks and bodies were auctioned off in bankruptcy. Because of this, I don't know if a total production figure can be completely nailed down.

Artist and Standard Guitars

The Standard Guitar (TB1000S,TBSG) was the most popular model. It had two Travis Bean double-coil hum-cancelling high output pickups, and a rosewood fretboard with dot inlays. Prior to the 1977 temporary shutdown, nearly all Standards were Koa. After the re-organization, magnolia was advertised to the standard, and Koa was available at an additional cost. Similarly, fretboards were rosewood with ebony as an extra option. The Artist Guitar (TB1000A,TBAG) was a Standard with a carved top and trapezoidal inlays on an ebony fretboard. Nearly all Artist's were koa wood bodies. These guitars were priced higher than any of the other Travis Beans, in fact some Travis Bean Sales literature pointed out that the only thing your are paying extra for are visual aesthetics.

Other options in the early days were two neck widths, 1.5" or 1.75" at the nut, as well as a choice of fret size.

Model-500 Guitar

The Model-500 (TB500,TBDG) was originally inspired by Jerry Garcia's preference for single coil pickups. Garcia had been playing a production Artist and had the factory fit it with custom single coils in the place of the Artist dual-coil pickups. The first two production TB-500s (#11 and #12) went to Garcia as three pickup white guitars. The first show he is photographed using one of these guitars was the August 2, 1976. Between that time and the production hiatus beginning in December of 1977, only nine of these early TB-500s were produced.

In June 1978, guitar production resumed including a redesigned TB-500 with an offset body similar to a Fender Stratocaster or Jaguar and new pickguard (white or black). For the next and final 12 months of guitar production, about 350 or so TB-500's were built, all with the acrylic coated black neck.

The form factor of the neck and how it fit to the body was different than the other guitars and bases, and a cast aluminum bridge was used as well. The single coil pickups were probably the most significant difference between the TB-500 and the TB-1000's. The first 260 or TB-500s had plastic pickup covers with exposed pole pieces. Between #269 and #276, a new molded black plastic cover for the pickups with the name "Travis Bean" was introduced.

Bass Guitars

The Bass (TB2000,TBSB) were nearly all made from Koa. Clear finishes were most common, but opaque finishes aren't necessarily rare. Compared to a Fender, these basses have a long top horn to help balance the neck heavy guitar on the shoulder strap.

A "Model-500 Bass" was designed in 1978 and even made a price list dated 11/78, but it was never produced.

Wedge Guitars and Basses

Travis Bean also made a wedge shaped guitar, appropriately named "The Wedge" (TB3000). It was basically shaped like a Gibson flying V, only it was triangular (no lower "v" notched out), with a carved top. Production of this model was quite low, and majority of them were painted an opaque color (as apposed to a clean finish). They were produced from as early as Dec 1975, but probably mid-1976 (maybe in time for the Summer NAMM show).

Running Changes

In 1977, the shape of the horns on the Standard/Artist body design was changed. The horns became longer and the body width at the area of the horns became wider. This happened between Artist numbers of 1097 and 1106, and on Standard between 1246 and 1276.

In 1978, the Standard/Artist bodies became thinner. By Artist number 1028 the thinner body was in use. On the Standards the change occured sometime between 1315 and 1559. One could spectulate that it was done to either save weight, cut production costs or both. Either way, a Travis Bean prior to this change was 1-3/4" thick and the later ones were 1-3/8" thick. This change occured with Artists and Standards, I don't know if the Basses were changed.

Fretboard thickness can further date a Travis Bean. Later models used a two piece fretboard with a thinner rosewood fretboard being epoxied to an aluminum "shim" (this shim/fretboard assembly was then epoxied to the neck). This was done to deal with fretboards coming unglued from the neck. An additional note, later (mid-1978) guitars did not have the same flat radius fretboard found on earlier Travis Beans.

Production Figures

In a recent [late 1990s] Vintage Guitar Magazine article by C. William Kaman II (Ovation Guitars) pinpoints the production at 3650 total, with 1422 Standards, 755 Artists, 1023 basses, 45 Wedge guitars, and 36 Wedge basses (that leaves about 370 for the Model-500 and any miscellaneous and prototype guitars that may have been built).

Travis Beans were expensive in their day. A 1978 price list shows the Model-500 retailing for $500, the Standard Guitar (later called the TB1000S) going for $995, and the Artist Guitar (later known as the TB1000A) listing for $1,195. Lefty models added another $200 to the price. Despite this high price, production costs were so high that years later, Travis Bean told me that he lost money on every guitar he built.

Employees

In a Vintage Guitar article from 1998, Travis Bean said "We had 21 people working during those five years. Only one person left." The once person he was referring to was Gary Kramer. Other employees were Bill Bissel, Jon Edwards (sales manager), Bill Lominic (head machinist), Marc McElwee (luthier and designer), Frank Kelleher, Mitch Manina, James "Pat" Murtha (paint), and Rick "Obe" Obinger. Also, I believe Charles "Stoney" Stone and Scott Standley were employees.

Travis Bean Returns to Guitar Building

In 1997, Travis Bean announced that he would soon be building guitars again. These guitars were to share some of fine qualities of his original guitars, but in addition, Travis Bean was to incorporate some "new ideas". He designed and built a few prototypes, launched a business, and made press announcements. Travis Bean contracted with Bernie Hepner of Edenhaus guitars to build the new guitars but only 9-10 were actually made. These guitars were priced at $6000 to $8000 each, which no doubt, accounted for the lack of buyer interest.

Serial Numbers

Serial numbers for these guitars can be somewhat confusing. The following serial number schema may ressemble some truth (but it has been proven to be somewhat incorrect): Serial numbers are not unique number across all Travis Beans. All production model lines began numbering with #10.

For the Wedges, the Bass, and the Model-500 models, serial numbers were unique for each of the three models. To illustrate this point, there was a Bass #10, a Model-500 #10, and a Wedge #10.

Artists and Standards shared the same pool of numbers at first in the range of #10 through #1000. At #1001, the Artist and the Standard each began its own numbering (so there was only one Artist/Standard #1000 but there were two #1001's, one Standard and one Artist).

Regarding early serial numbers. I've mentioned here that production for each model began at #10, however over the years several Travis Beans have surfaced with lower numbers. These might have been prototype guitars.

Serial number stamped into the head unit of the guitar were matched to serial numbers inked on the guitar body. The inked number was written inside the control cavity, and sometimes under the bridge plate. Some guitars have been found to have mismatched neck number and inked numbers. Where numbers are one or two off, this was probably a swap at the factory to ensure a quality guitar. In cases where numbers are way off, these might be later repairs. If the numbers are high numbered guitars, they were likely assembled from loose parts after the plant closed and necks and bodies were sold at auction.

Pot date codes are pretty useless for dating guitars. Travis Bean bought a big supply of CTS pots with the date code "7619". Standard guitars from #500 to #1200 all have these pots.

Sources

I've put together this information based on what I have seen, accounts from other Travis Bean owners, Travis Bean Sales Literature, a conversation with Travis Bean, and an occasional article or blurb in a guitar magazine.

The first appearance of this article was in 1995. There simply was nothing to be found on the Internet regarding this guitars. The only references available at the time were some blurbs in a couple guitar encyclopedia type books. So, up when my page on an un-official web server at local university. Around the same time Jodi Shapiro started a registry, and later in the 2000's the travisbeanguitars.com website appeared with an advanced database and a user forum that ended up being a great place where ex-employees gathered for a brief time to recount some of the history.

About the same time I put up my first pictures on a website, Bill Kaman wrote this great article, published in June 1995.

There is definitely debate about the facts and history surrounding the Travis Bean, however I don't think there is any doubt that these guitars are remarkable instruments.

The following lo-res pictures are the first ones I put on the website in 1995.

left to right: Wedge, Standard #547 with koa body, Artist #615 back and front (center) missing pick guard with a non-original sunburst finish. Note that the lower horn is shaped differently than the upper horn (post factory modification); Model-500 (far right).

People who play Travis Bean guitars

Here's a list of musicians who either have been known to, or currently do play Travis Beans.

During the years that Travis Bean made guitars, Jerry Garcia has be the most significant musician to play the guitars. In advertisement and sales brochures he was pictured and quoted saying these were "the best damn production guitars and basses in the world". When the Grateful Dead reunited in August of 1975 for a few shows, played a white Artist. This was his primary guitar for the 1976 dates through six consecutive dates at the Orpheum Theatre in July. The first Grateful Dead show Garcia played his white TB-500 was August 2 at Colt Park in Hartford, Connecticut. The TB-500 was his primary guitar through most of 1977 until Doug Irwin gave him a revamped "Wolf" guitar (the guitar the Travis Bean guitar originally replaced in 1975.

At one point Garcia's Artist #51 was taken to a San Fransisco area guitar shop to be fitted with a single coil between the neck and bridge humbuckers. The shop badly damaged the body in there novice attempt to modify the guitar, so it was sent back to the factory. Rather than repair the guitar, the factory sent Garcia a replacement, Artist #715, fitted with two single coil pickups in place of the dual-coil the Artist guitars usually came with (#51 was never reassembled).

Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones played Travis Basses. Wyman played a short scale bass so the factory made a short run of less than 10 short scale basses, giving a couple to Wyman and the rest were ordered by a single guitar shop.

When a guitar was built for a well known musican, Travis Bean would sometimes inscribe the musician's name on the instrument. It is believed that he did this for Kieth Richards (a 5 string guitar), Ron Wood's Model-500s, Rory Gallegher's Model-500, and Roger Fisher's Artist. Michael Sembello and Ronnie Montrose each ordered Artists and Greg Lake ordered a Standard with a coil splitter.

Stanley Jordan played a Standard, in fact he sort of repopularized the guitar in the early 1980's. Perhaps more than anyone in popular music, Stanley Jordan made his Travis Bean a very prolific part of his performance, and it is featured on the cover of his debut Blue Note album "Magic Touch". Joe Perry of AeroSmith played Travis Beans, and Slash has a number of Travis Beans, one specifically setup for slide with a quarter inch raised nut (actually Slash was introduced to the Travis Bean at a Joe Perry workshop). Other Travis Bean players include Gary Shider of Funkadelic/Parliament, Roger Fisher of Heart, Teenie Hodges of the Al Green band, and Brian Robertson of Thin Lizzy.

Travis Beans experienced a tremendous surge in popularity when a few prolific underground guitarists began using Travis Beans. Duane Denison of the Jesus Lizard played a green turquoise Standard through many tours during the 1990-1994 period, Denison also played a white Standard with non-original pickups, but sold it in the 1990s. Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth, after playing Duane Denison's, bought one. At some point, two of Renaldo's Beans were stolen (#102 and #375) and later recovered, but badly damaged. Denison first played a Travis Bean while recording with Steve Albini. Albini introduced Travis Beans to a lot of audiences through stage appearances with his band Shellac. John of Six Finger Satellite played a wedge guitar, and a natural finish Artist, and The Post Children used Travis Beans in the early 1990s as well.

Perhaps the first underground or alternative-music musician to popularize the Travis Bean was Keith Levene of Public Image Limited (P.I.L.) who played Travis Bean guitars in videos and in concert (as well as a Veleno).

Specifications

These specifications were taken from a late Travis Bean brochure (1977 or so):

Travis Bean changed the naming and model designation scheme of his guitars at least once. Early on, the Standard was referred to as the TBSG and the TCSG, the Artist was referred to as the TBAG and the TCAG, the Model-500 was the TCDG and the bass was the TBSB and the TCSB. "TBxx"'s were uncoated neck models, and the "TCxx"'s were the instruments with acrylic coated necks. Sometime around 1977, Travis Bean started referring guitars in the following manner: the TBSG/TCSG Standard became the TB1000 Standard (TB1000S), the TASG/TACG Artist became the TB1000 Artist (TB1000A), the TBSG/TBCG Bass became the TB2000, and the TCDG Model-500 became the TB500 Standard. Wedges were added to the line-up as the TB4000 Wedge (the bass), and the TB3000 Wedge (the guitar). Other model designation schemes may have been used as well, these are the only two I've found documentation about.

The Standard, the Artist, the Wedge, and the Model-500
all had the following specifications in 1976:

Demensions....39.5" long,  14.5" wide, 2" deep.
Scale Length..4.75".
Neck .........22 fret, 1 5/8" at nut in early years,
1 1/2" and 1 3/4" widths at the
nut were available in later years.
Weight........7.5-9 lbs.

The Standard Bass Guitar and the Wedge Bass Guitar
had the following specifications in 1976:

Demensions....41.4" long,  14.5" wide, 2" deep.
Scale Length..34.5".
Neck .........20 fret, 1 5/8" at nut.
Weight........7.5-9 lbs.

NOTE:  Prior to 1978, Travis Beans used bodies that were 1-3/4" thick,
after they were 1-3/8" thick.

Other Travis Bean documents: