Travis Bean Guitars

Efforts to improve neck stability and enhance sustain by using aluminum instead of wood go back more than 40 years to the forward-thinking electrics made by Italian guitar builder Antonio “Wandre” Pioli, American machinist/luthier John Veleno, and Astoria, Oregon’s Messenger Guitars. But it was Travis Bean who, along with partners Marc McElwee and Gary Kramer, took the concept to prime time with a series of aluminum-necked guitars that were made from 1974 to 1979 in Sun Valley, California. In Bean’s unique patented design, a billet of Reynolds 6061-T6 aluminum was machined to produce a one-piece neck running from the headstock all the way down to a “receiver section” upon which the pickups and bridge were mounted. Equipped with a rosewood board and 22 jumbo nickel-silver frets, the neck was mounted to a koa- or magnolia-wood body, which was available with either a flat or contoured top. Colors included natural, black, red, white, and optional pearl finishes. The pickups were Bean’s
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The goal of enhancing string vibration was routinely highlighted in Travis Bean literature, as one can see from this excerpt published in 1978: “The more rigid the surface over which the string is stretched, the longer it will vibrate (sustain), and the less it is affected by feedback. Wood, in comparison to a harder, denser material, acts like a sponge, soaking up vibration. The ideal material is durable enough not to warp, twist, or break, but is resonant enough so that just pure string tone without coloration is produced. Aluminum—first chosen because it was durable—didn’t solve all the problems for us. A solid ingot of harder material also robs vibration due to its mass. That is why we’ve hollowed out the base of the Travis Bean neck assembly and tapered it to form a chassis for the length of the string. It is this patented chassis that makes the Travis Bean guitar what it is—an instrument that has become the most dramatic breakthrough in electric guitar technology in 50 years.”

Travis Bean had its rap down, but complaints still arose about temperature-related tuning problems and the fact that aluminum necks feel quite cold to the touch. Bean sought to address the latter by applying a black acrylic coating to the neck, which was supposed to provide the warmth and feel of a conventional neck. After all, the company reasoned, even on a wood neck, it’s the finish you feel. All Model 500s came with this coating, but it was never a popular option for the rest of the line—which is hardly surprising, as the polished aluminum neck was a key part of Bean’s visual esthetic. I remember seeing Jerry Garcia during his Travis Bean phase, and the reflections the guitar radiated to all points in the hall were pretty spectacular, as were the bright, bronzy tones it produced through his Fender/Macintosh/JBL rig. The Bean’s pristine, hi-fi response was obviously well suited for Garcia’s style, and in a rare endorsement he stated, “The best damn production guitars and basses in the world are made by Travis Bean.”

Travis Beans were expensive in their day. A 1978 price list shows the Model 500 retailing for $500, the Standard Guitar (later called the TB 1000) going for $995, and the Artist Guitar (later known as the TB 1000A) listing for $1,195. Lefty models added another $200 to the price. By 1979, the company’s investors began calling for the prices to be lowered. Not willing to cut corners and diminish the quality, Bean chose instead to stop production.

It’s unclear how many guitars and basses the company made during its short life. Some put the total at 3,650—others at 1,700. Nevertheless, the abrupt end of Travis Bean closed an exciting chapter in the modern guitar story that yielded some very significant achievements in terms of construction, sustain, and design. Like maverick automaker John DeLorean, Bean pushed the envelope by doing something radically different with a familiar product. Bean’s extraordinary focus on preserving string vibration may have resulted in an instrument that was too costly for the working players it was intended for, but the metal concept would stick around for years via his ex-partner’s line of Kramer-brand aluminum-neck guitars. The caveat, of course, was that Kramer’s design incorporated wood inserts that were set into the neck to provide a more natural feel—a detail one might conclude was a harbinger of wood’s ultimate triumph in the great metal challenge.