This article was taken from Vintage Guitar Magazine , June 1995. The author, C. William Kaman II, is the president of Ovation Guitars, and has a large collection of Travis Beans, some of which are pictured in the magazine.
© 1995 C. William Kaman II
Travis Bean. It's the name of a California motorcycle enthusiast who decided in the early 70's that aluminum would be a step forward in guitar design. He thought that it would be a much more stable material for the necks. Using a neck-through-to-the-bridge design also improved the sound and sustain of the guitars. While Travis played some guitar, he was a drummer and kept a drum kit set up at the factory to back up players when they were there to check out equipment.
The company was founded in 1974 and lasted five years, closing in August of '79. They produced about 3650 guitars and basses which are as viable an instrument today in the '90's as they were when they were built. Initial production began in 1974 and continued until December '77 when the factory was closed for "reorganization". In June '78 it reopened and continued till August '79 when the plug was pulled by the investors that had "reorganized" the company. Sashi Patell, an Indian guy, was the major investor and "drove" the company for the last twelve months. During the first six months of 1978, limited "unofficial" production continued with a partial production crew who often took guitars in lieu of wages. In 1977 the guitars were sold through Rothchild Distribution but that ended with the reorganization.
When the company closed in '79 everything was sold off at auction. Mighty Mite bought about 200 bodies and most of the guitar parts but never really did anything with them. There were about thirty TB500 necks left over and it's not known who bought these. Mighty Mite itself was closed and auctioned off a few years later.
The first guitar Travis ever built was a Melody Maker body shape with humbucking pickups. The aluminum neck had a welded on peghead and was bolted to the body. The neck attatchment plate was inlaid in the body and extended back to under the bridge. After experimenting with this guitar awhile, the idea of a neck-through-to-the-bridge design began to take shape. A second prototype was built which was much closer to the production design in neck and body configuration. After these two guitars limited production began.
These first "limited production" guitars were TB1000 Artists and were produced in 1974. The serial numbers started with 11 and went to 20. These guitars were hand made by Travis and Mark McElwee, Travis' partner in the company, and are quite similar in construction to the second preproduction prototype. The bodies were Koa, Teak, Padauk, Zebra Wood and Alder (guitar 11 and 18 are known to be Padauk). The necks on these were quite different from the later production models produced on a lathe. These were hand carved from a solid block of T6061 aluminum and are solid under the fingerboard and solid through the body. The necks have a wide and flat profile which is noticably thinner than the later production which are much fuller and more rounded. The pickups on these first guitars are humbuckers using Fender Bobbins and Alnico magnets and have "Travis Bean" engraved on the chrome pickup covers. The guitars are quite thin, about the same thickness as the 1979 final profuction Artists.
Another interesting aspect of these guitars is the peghead. The angle is flatter than the later production (about 6° versus a production angle of 12°). There also is about an extra inch between the nut and the beginning of the "T" cutout. In this extra space there is bolted an aluminum block with six holes acting as a string tree to hold the tension over the nut. Later production guitars with the steeper angle didn't need this tie down.
In all, there are quite a few differences between these first ten prototypes and the production models ranging from the body thickness and top contour, peghead dimensions and angle, neck profile and shape of the body insert piece to the pickup engraving. These guitars are a bit crude compared to the later production but, after all, they are the first ones made.
Production of the 1000 Series continued throughout 1974 with the 1000 Standard being introduced approximately six months after the startup. This guitar had all the same dimensions as the 1000 Artist only differing in that the body was not carved and it had dot fingerboard inlays rather than the large pearl blocks of the Artists. It was a solid 1 3/4 all over. The run of serial numbers on Standards and Artists began with 21 and continued till 1000. At that point the lines were split and each continued with 1001, 1002, etc. While it is unclear if the production records of these firt 1000 guitars still exist, it is estimated that they were approximately 1/3 Artists and 2/3 Standards. All the bodies were Koa and most were finished natural, however, the factory did offer black, white and red. Both straight color and pearl color were offered. There were also several dark blue pearl guitars made. (There were two silver guitars made, one for Joe Perry of Aerosmith, a Standard #1738, and a Wedge guitar #53 for Al Austin). The Koa bodies continued until late '78 when the painted models began to use magnolia and popular [sic]. The natural finishes continued to use mostly Koa although a natural magnolia is known to exist.
All these guitars used black speed knobs which Travis bought directly from Gibson until for some reason Gibson shut them off. After that clear speed knobs were used. In the late '78 and '79 black metal knobs were used. Internally, these were referred to as Sansui knobs because they looked like they were off a home stereo set. The machine heads were Schaller and Grover and they alternated without any pattern throughout the years of production. Towards the end of the company, Gotoh machine heads were used, particularly on the 500 model. The last Artist produced was serial number 1425 and the last Standard produced was serial number 1782. In all, there were about 755 Artists and 1422 Standards produced.
The TB2000 Bass was introduced in late 1974. The first prototype bass had the serial number 0 and is of similar construction to the first ten guitars. However, it is much more like a production guitar in that it doesn't have that "handmade" look of the first ten guitars. This bass is pictured in the first catalogue of the TB2000 models. This bass also had an aluminum nut, the only one made this way. All other production Travis Beans were made with brass nuts. The neck was hand carved by Travis and has a thick squarish feel. It was solid as was the section in the body. The body had a 1/4 edge radius and was Koa. Production started with serial number 11 and the bodies were more rounded and contoured. They were all Koa and made in natural and all the same colors as the guitars. Fretless versions were also available as was a short scale bass. In all about twelve short scale basses were made, two of which were for Bill Wyman in October '78, serial number 892 and 893. The last bass made was serial number 1033. In all there were 1023 basses made.
The 500 model was meant to be a less expensive single coil version of the 1000 Model. The first guitars were produced in late '77 just before reorganization shutdown. The first nine guitars were quite different from the bablance of production. These had 1 3/4 thickness bodies but the aluminum body extension was set in from the top rather than sliding into the middle of the body and being exposed at the back. These guitars had uncoated necks and the bodies were much more square than later production. Most of these first 500's went to performers like Jerry Garcia and Rory Gallagher who had three pickup guitars. Mark McElwee kept one made with a Koa body.
In June of '78 when production resumed with guitar #20 the bodies were thinner and had a slanted off center shape. The pickguards were more stylized, the majority of the necks were coated with the Black Imron paint that was used to give the necks a warmer "feel". There were several made with three pickups, serial numbers 11, 12 and 270. Up until around serial number 290 the pickups had black plastic covers with the pole pieces exposed. After 290, the covers were solid black plastic with a molded in stylized Travis Bean logo. The majority of the 500's had magnolia bodies although there were some made from poplar. Most were painted black, white or red although there were some naturals made. The last 500 was serial number 362 so there were a total of 351 TB500 guitars produced. There were plans for a 500 bass but it was never completed.
The Wedges are perhaps the most unique guitars produced by Travis Bean. They were the "Stage" guitars and the Travis Bean version of a Flying V. They were introduced in '76 and built for two years. In total 45 TB3000 Wedge guitars and 36 TB4000 Wedge basses were produced. All the basses were produced in the 1 3/4 thickness. Most guitars were 1 3/4 thick with the exception of the last few. (Example: Wedge guitar #49 is 1 3/4 but the next to the last one produced, #55, was 1 3/8 thick. Also #49 has a one piece fingerboard and #55 is a two piece.) The majority of the Wedges were produced in pearl colors, white, black and red. An interesting point is that the bodies were the same overall size for both guitars and bass.
There were two double necks built. Both were double six strings and used Artist necks. One was a red Wedge and the other a natural Artist. There were also six 5-strings made that were Standards and are serial No. 1732- 1737. These went to Keith Richards, Travis, Obe, Mark McElwee and Bill Lominic, the head machinist at the company. All of these were coated necks and were 1 3/8 thick. Left handed guitars and basses were also available and lefty 1000 Artists and Standards and 2000 basses are known to exist. There were no lefty Wedges or 500's built.
There were, over the years, requests for special custom bodies on guitars. These requests were turned down. Travis felt that building the custom "one- off's" would dilute the impact of the market place of the standard production. There exists today several instruments with custom bodies (a Map guitar and a Flying V for example) but these were retrofitted to existing guitars and not done at the Bean factory.
Throughout the production there were several significant changed that took place. The first change was that the horns of the guitars and basses were widened. This was around mid '77. This was a suggestion from Rothchild and it was felt that this would improve playability and sales. An estimate is that this took place on Artists around #1100, Standars #1250 and Basses #440.
The second change is that the bodies were made thinner by 3/8. This is estimated to have taken place around #1200 on Artists, #1400 on Standards and #580 on basses and was probably phased in around the first part of '78.
The third change was that the fingerboards wnt to a two piece construction. This took place just about the same time as the thinner bodies. Initially the fingerboard was rosewood (although some early guitars had ebony and they also experimented with phenolic) and was a standard thickness. The center portion of the neck under the fingerboard was machined away to make it lighter. There was a rib down the middle to support the fingerboard. On the later version the fingerboard was again rosewood but half the thickness it had been previously. A thin piece of aluminum was added under the fingerboard to bring the fingerboard assembly back to standard thickness. On these guitars the center rib was not left in the middle of the neck since the aluminum underlay would fully support the wood. Also in '78 a slight radius was introduced to the fingerboards. Up until this they had all been flat like a classical guitar (except for the prototype bass #0 which has a 7° radius).
The fourth change that took place around mid '77 was the coating of the necks. One of the constant complaints about Travis Beans was that the necks felt "cold" and some found that objectionable. (It's a good thing these guys didn't play saxophone). In response to this the company introduced the option of a Black Imron coated neck. Imron is a heavy duty automotive enamel. It was felt that this heavy finish would make the necks feel slightly warmer and, since it was a spray on finish it would be more like a standard guitar neck. This was an option on any guitar or bass and, as mentioned, pretty much standard on the 500 series.
There was another small change in the machining of the aluminum piece in the body of the guitars. Aprroximately the first 300 TB1000 guitars made had the aluminum section in the body cavity machined from the side to take out weight. The middle of the aluminum was cut completely away so there was a back section, visible at the back of the guitar, and a top section which the pickups sat on. The rear most portion of the extension under the bridge was left solid. This was then glued into the body after it was finished. From around serial number 300 on the body section of the aluminum was machined from the top which created a U shaped channel under the guitar top and pickups. The rear end portion under the bridge was again solid. The improvements in this design was that it created a much more rigid structure in the body of the guitar plus it allowed the body to be screwed to the neck extension by two wood screws through the walls of the U channel under the front pickup. Those two screws, plus the three that fasten the bridge to the aluminum through the wood body, are all that hold it together. This design made it much easier to remove the neck should it need work or work on the body. The pickups sat directly on either side of the U channel and were held in place by allen screws mounted from the rear.
The serial number of the guitar is stamped on to the face of the peghead just above the nut. It was also stamped into the aluminum under the neck pickup. On some it was written on the bottom of the U channel. It was written on the body in two places, the interior of the control cavity and in the space between the pickups on the inside. On the painted bodies the number in the control cavity was often painted over and therefore not visible. It is interesting to note that bass 477 has body 478 so either bass 478 has 477's body or the 477 body had a problem and they just used the next body on the assembly line. This does prove that necks and bodies are interchangable.
Where is Travis Bean today? By the time the company was sold at auction, Travis had had his fill of production headaches, Music Industry bullshit and demanding visits from the Taxmen. He took some time off. Being a tinkerer at heart and someone who is happier using his hands and building things, he eventually began work building sets for the movie studios which he continues to do today. His personal interest in music has stayed strong and he has kept playing, focusing mostly on his drumming. Being true to his machinist/ designer/tinker side, he has also developed a new style of rack setup for drums allowing for fast setup and teardown. So the answer is, Travis is alive and well and still playing in California.
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