An aluminum-through-necked beauty that’s enjoying a renaissance in the world of heavy music.
In a 1977 advertisement, Travis Bean Guitars heralded their aluminum-necked designs as “the first new development in the electric guitar since the 1930s.” Hyperbolic as this may have been, it’s a claim that reflects a company that was confident in the instruments they were building. They saw their patented neck concept—with a single piece of metal extending from headstock to bridge—as a turning point in guitar innovation. And while not the first guitar maker to use aluminum as a building material, Travis Bean was the first to do so in a sustained way, forging guitars that have resonated with a devout and growing cast of players in the years since.
According to most retellings, Travis Bean and company co-founder Marc McElwee met in a guitar store in the early ’70s, where McElwee worked as a tech. Bean was leaving a stint as a motocross racer, due to an injury, and combined his love of mechanical tinkering and his naivety when it came to guitar construction to conceive of a new type of instrument that used aluminum for its neck for maximum sustain and stability.
A conspicuous aspect of Travis Bean instruments was their open headstocks, with the opening mimicking a letter “T.”
A number of garden shed prototypes later, Travis Bean Guitars went into full production in 1974, building around 3,700 guitars and basses before calling it quits in 1979. Bean built a set of revised prototypes in the late ’90s, and aluminum guitar revivalist Kevin Burkett of Electrical Guitar Company recently teamed up with McElwee to offer a new line of Bean guitars, which launched at the Winter 2017 NAMM show.
A view of this TB1000A’s back reveals the depth of the aluminum neck, which extends to the guitar’s bridge. That gives these guitars their distinct resonance and ringing tones.
During the initial run, the most notable Travis Bean endorsees included Bill Wyman and Keith Richards, as well as Jerry Garcia, who played a TB500 model with a built-in effects loop from 1976 to 1978. In more recent years, these guitars have been further championed by noise-rock titans like Steve Albini and the Jesus Lizard’s Duane Denison, along with denizens of myriad heavy sub-genres like doom and stoner metal. Stephen O’Malley’s work with Sunn O))) is a good example of the gargantuan, pulverizing tones that heavy players can wring out of these guitars.
The tops of these guitars were made with Hawaiian koa. This appears to be a particularly well-figured example. Block inlays similar to a Les Paul Black Beauty accent its rosewood neck.
Recent decades have also seen the rise of a tight-knit online community that views these instruments as the finest guitars ever made. Their reputation and mystique have continued to expand, which, combined with the ongoing popularity of heavy music (and perhaps the financial maturation of its adherents), has pushed prices on vintage Beans higher and higher. Against a backdrop of a generally static vintage market, Beans have risen steadily. The average sale price of a Bean in 2014 was around $3,000. So far in 2018, prices have averaged $4,700, with the most coveted models selling for considerably more.
This guitar’s humbuckers are anchored with mounting bolts accessible from its back, so no screw heads are visible on the front. They’ve historically appealed to a range of guitarists that includes both Keith Richards and Ron Wood of the Stones, Jerry Garcia, Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, and Colin Newman of Wire.
Today’s featured guitar is a TB1000A, or Artist, which was listed by the Chicago Music Exchange earlier this year. The Artist model was the higher-end counterpart to the standard TB1000S Bean model and was distinguished by its carved Hawaiian koa top, and block inlays in the style of a Black Beauty Les Paul Custom. The body shape on both models actually evolved some in their original run. The horns were made a bit larger in mid 1977, and the body made a bit thinner the following year. Originally, this model would have retailed for around $1,395, which would have made it one of the most expensive guitars on the market in 1977. These days, we’re seeing Artist model Beans sell for closer to $6,000, with more pristine specimens going for more than that.
Sources for this article include The History and Development of the American Guitar
by Ken Achard, Grateful Dead Gear: The Band's Instruments, Sound Systems, and Recording Sessions from 1965 to 1995 by Blair Jackson, and the invaluable Travis Bean fan site, at travisbeanguitars.com.