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 (Kramer left within a few months of the first production run and went on to manufacture his own guitars). 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. Travis Beans came with Schaller, and 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 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. Travis Bean tried to combat this problem by making a black acrylic neck coating standard on all Model 500's at some point, and optional on the Artist, the Standard and the Bass Guitars. 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)." The coated neck was never a real popular option, most people probably liked to see the aluminum neck.
The Standard Guitar was the most popular model. It had two Travis Bean Humbuckers, a rosewood fretboard with dot inlays, and a magnolia body. A koa wood body could be had at an added cost. The Artist was basically a Standard with a carved top (much like a Paul Reed Smith guitar). All Artist's had koa wood bodies. These guitars were priced higher than any of the other Travis Beans, in fact some Travis Bean Sales literature points out that the only thing your are paying extra for are visual aesthetics. The Model 500 had a similar neck unit as the Standard and the Artist, except it's form factor as it entered the wood body is somewhat different than that of the Standard and the Artist. The difference, no doubt, doesn't affect sound in an adverse fashion. In simple terms, the "neck-thru" design of the the 500 does not reveal itself as it travels through the body to the bridge as it does with the Standard and the Artist. Whiel the Artist and the Standard used a symmetrical ES-335 shaped body, the Model-500 was similar to a Stratocaster. . It had two Travis Bean single coil pickups, an aluminum bridge (rather than a chrome-plated brass bridge), and a plastic pickguard. (there is a picture of a Model 500 below).
Travis Bean also made a wedge shaped guitar, appropriately named "The Wedge". It was basically shaped like a Gibson flying V, only it was triangular (no lower "v" notched out), and symmetrical as well. Production of this model was quite low, although it was available from 1975 to 1979.
In 1979 production of Travis Bean guitars and basses ended. Over time additional investors were brought in to help with cash flow problems. Some of Bean's financial backers began pressuring him to lower prices and costs and cut corners. Not wanting to sacrifice quality, Bean decided to close up shop. Travis Bean had also become disinterested with the many aspects of a production operation. I don't know if a total production figure can be nailed down. 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). I'm not convinced that production was this high, however, these numbers have been backed by Travis Bean himself, and no one has been able to offer any information to the contrary.
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 when interviewed, Travis Bean said he money on every guitar he built.
Most Travis Bean guitars were finished in either a clear finish on a Koa or Magnolia body or with the opaque colors of red, black, white, and cream. By far the most common finish for Standards and Artists is a clear acrylic finish. Since most of uniqueness of the guitar is actual the neck assembly, and since the pickups mount to the neck and the bridge does as well, and the body is little more than a "handle". the shape of the wood body could be varied without adding much difficulty to the final assembly process. Due to this "unit" construction, custom body shapes would have been easy to make, however 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.
In 1998, 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.Travis Beans Dating and Running Changes
There is also a question of dating Travis Beans and finding when a particular guitar was manufactured. Obivously the serial number goes along way to determining the date with higher numbers being produced later in the years of production. Some direction can be provided by looking at changes in production as well.
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 Wedge, the Bass, and the Model-500 models, serial numbers were unique for each of the three models. That is to say that each of these three models started with #10 and incremented upward as models were produced (to illustrate this point, there was a Bass #10, a Model-500 #10, and a Wedge #10). There are some Wedges numbered higher than #1000. Artists and Standards shared the same pool of numbers 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 and its possible that they didn't make 10 of each as prototypes. Early Model-500's were also manufactured without the Imron coating. These would be the rarest of all Model-500s numbering 20 or less.
There was a Travis Bean registry in the late 1990s run by Jodi Shapiro. Here is a list of guitars that were registered at the Shapiro site that didn't make it to the registery at www.travisbeanguitars.com.
Other than serial numbers, Travis Beans can be generally dated by production model changes and model introductions. The Model 500's were not produced until around late 1976, with most of them being produced from 1977 to 1978. Wedge guitars were probably not made much past 1977. Otherwise, other models were produced from 1974 to 1979.
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 1145, and on Standard between 1215 and 1315.
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. Most likely the Model 500's were changed as well.
Some early Artists were built with Ebony fretboards. Sales literature picked up at a music store in early 1976 described the Artist as only being available with an ebony fretboard (it is likely early Artists were also delivered with rosewood fretboards). In 1976-77 the switch was made to making all guitars with rosewood fretboards. An Artist with an Ebony fretboard could most likely be dated prior to 1977.
Serial number stamped into the head unit of the guitar where matched to serial numbers inked on the guitar body. The inked number was written inside the control cavity, and sometimes under the bridge plate. This was the initial intent and most likely holds true for many guitars, however problems must have arose that caused production to stray from this practice. Many guitars have been found to have mismatched neck number and inked numbers. I discovered this when I bought an unused guitar body several years ago. It was said to have been a left over after the business shutdown. It was clearly an unused guitar body, holes had not been drilled for the cavity cover or the strap buttons. Many years later the number inked on my body appeared in the online-registry. I contacted the owner, who explained that this had been a source of confusion. My theory is that as production was under way, a finished guitar body was found to have flaws, so another body was selected with a different inked number and assembled with that body. The flawed body was put aside. Once the order was upset, there was no setting it straight.
Fretboards can further date Travis Bean in that later models used a two piece fretboard with a thinner rosewood fretboard being epoxied to a an aluminum "shim" (this shim/fretboard assmebly was then epoxied to the neck). An additional note, later (mid-1978) guitars did not have the flat fretboard found on earlier Travis Beans.
Model 500's changed the shape of the pickguard. Earlier ones have a pickguard that extends to the end of the lower horn (later 500's rounded that point off before reaching the horn. On later 500's the contour of the pickguard along the tail of the bridge is parallel with the bridge and does not extend further toward the tail of the guitar until it has cleared the bridge. Early 500's are a little more graceful in the way they curve past the bridge (see the picture below).
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. 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.
People who play Travis Bean guitars
Here's a list of musicians who either have been known to, or currently do play Travis Beans.
Jerry Garcia played and endorsed Travis Beans back in the seventies. The Travis Bean sales broshure quotes him as saying Travis Beans are "the best damn production guitars and basses in the world". I've seen photographs of him playing both Artists and Standards, and there were a pair of whilte Model-500s produced for Garcia early on. At one point Jerry 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 service the guitar, so it was sent back to the factory. Rather than replace the guitar, the factory sent Garcia a replacement believed to be #715.
Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones played Travis Basses. Wyman played a short scale bass so Travis Bean 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 and 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 paet of his performance. 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).
Travis Beans experienced a surge in popularity when a few prolific underground guitarists began using Travis Beans exclusively. 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 as I recall were 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).
These specifications were taken from some early Travis Bean literature from 1975 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.