John Birch Guitars

The period from the early 60s through to the mid/late 70's was the boom-time for guitar bands. In the U.K. at this time, however, the choice of guitar models was very limited - restricted for the most part to products from the "big name" U.S.A. manufacturers, which were obviously imported into the country.
The need for a better range of choice in the U.K. led to the success of John Birch Guitars, who set out to improve on the features offered by the big boys, and also to provide totally unique one-off guitars tailored specifically to the customer's requirements.

John Birch has been widely acknowledged as "the U.K. father of the custom guitar". Sadly, he died in 2000.

Here, we talk to John Birch's former tech John Carling about the history of John Birch Guitars, and also its future, with John Carling now the custodian of the brand name.

(NOTE: as there are three guys named John discussed here, JB = John Birch, JD = John Diggins, JC = John Carling)

So, "John Birch Guitars" - how did it all begin?

With JB gone, the history is a bit vague - but it was John Birch, John Diggins and Arthur Baker who set up a workshop in Birmingham in the late '60s-early 70s to repair and customize guitars - and eventually moving into building new guitars.

What were their respective areas of expertise?

Arthur Baker was the electronics man, JB did the designing, and JB & JD both did the bodywork, spraying etc.

And what prompted the move into building new guitars?

In the early days there were not too many brands of guitar about - mostly only USA imports. These were often in for repair for the same reasons over and over - broken necks and joints, refretting, dodgy pickups. JB realized that a re-think of the basic designs was needed, and in so doing formulated the basic fundamental principles of JB Guitars.

...such as?

Firstly, the material. Using the harder maple wood for the entire neck and body together with a through neck/center section in one piece gave greater stability and also sufficient strength to allow for a 24-fret guitar; no other guitars at that time had offered this much-desired feature.

Hang on! A single piece of wood? Doesn't that make selection of the raw material difficult? And what about the weight balance between neck and body?

Wood selection in guitar building is ALWAYS important if the finish is not a solid color, the grain and imperfections need to be considered.

The fact that the center section is one piece does not matter as the balance can be adjusted by the calculation of the rest of the guitar body weight.

Fair enough. Carry on...

Next, the playability was further improved by the use of the stainless steel bridge and deep brass pillar inserts, and a zero fret also helped. The internal truss rod was a new design featuring a tunnel type channel, with a steel rod deepest point at the fifth to seventh fret -  the weakest point in the original designs.

...and JB designed his own pickups?

The pickup design was a true work of genius.

In those early days, unlike today, there were not many types available - just P90s or humbuckers, or single-coil Strat and Tele types.

JB came up with a design using a huge cobolt magnet steel bar with 22 pole pieces. Stainless steel covers, and sealed with a heat treated process to avoid any feedback problems that many conventional pickups suffered when used with the massive back line amplification that was becoming popular - thanks to Mr. Jim Marshall.

The pickups were also improved by the internal wire being much finer than normal, improving the turns ratio performance.

How did JB think all this stuff up?

Well I just do not know if JB had any formal qualifications, but he was VERY clever at thinking in a practical way and equally clever at building stuff by hand. I know he was in the (Royal Air Force) in radio communications during the war. With pickups he just worked it all out in his head and it worked!

The guitars were still further improved by the skill of Arthur Baker and offered unheard of pickup switching, stereo output, internal phase reversal etc.

When all these features were put into the guitar the result was a sensation, and very soon all the top UK bands wanted a John Birch Guitar.

Care to drop a few names here?

Well, it was the start of a whole era of new designs, and one-off custom guitars became the fashion with top players, such as Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath) with his famous cross-inlay SG shape guitar, Roy Wood, ELO, The Glitter Band's star-shaped guitar, Slade's (Dave Hill) "Superyob" model.....they all wanted their own version of a JB. 

Even "The Big O"?

That's right. Roy Orbison was presented with his JB at a special fan club gig in 1975, at  Queen's Hall in Hornchurch, Essex. At the time, he said "this is the only guitar I will ever play". I don't think he actually kept to his word, but it makes a nice story!

So the business was a big success?

Oh, yes! The 70s was the period of the real guitar-playing bands, and JB produced the right product at the right time.

But it didn't last?

In the late 70s and early 80s there was a change in the style of popular music, punk rock became the next wave, as we know this did not require a great deal of guitar playing ability so the demand for fine instruments was not so important.

Also, the Japanese were in on the guitar building business and coming in with unheard of low prices. The lease on the Rubery workshop was up so JB decided to pull out of the main business of guitar building, leaving JD and other workers to carry on.

JB never fully quit, as there was always someone begging him to repair or build a guitar, but he went into other things - nothing really that was to match the world acclaim he obtained with guitars, of course.

So how many guitars had been built by the time JB left?

Not sure of the actual figure - several thousand. There was a fire or break-in at the Birmingham workshop - shortly after JB left - and all the records and tooling were lost.

So, when did YOU get involved?

I met JB in 1993 here in West Bridgford living back at the family home with his sister. It turned out he had one original JB J1 guitar left from new, and I just had to buy it. I just happened to say "What about getting back into the guitar building business again?" , and he replied "Well, if you will help me, OK!"

What had been your own experience in the music business up to this point?

I first started to play in local bands in Nottingham in the late 60's as second guitar in a blues band whilst still at college finishing a C&G in Engineering Science.

I then joined a local professional pop band as the bass player for a couple of years touring but decided it was not for me.

Then I went back to telecommunications, but still put a local three piece band together - now into avant garde 70's rock.

Several local bands were to come and go, the last one did better and we played on many national gigs with bands like Genesis, Gary Moore, AC/DC etc. until I left Nottingham to go to work in London.

Eventually we returned to West Bridgford in 1985 and although not working with live acts anymore, I still continued playing and by now I was running my own business, until that chance meeting with JB in 1993 set the wheels in motion.

So what was the plan for this new phase of the business?

John and myself decided to re-establish the JB Guitar business, but we never expected it to be as busy as it was in the 70's.

JB was at that point past retirement age, but he was never one to just do nothing - at the same time not wanting too much pressure.

As the word got out, there were many original customers with by now old JB guitars wanting them restored or repaired and so work began.

But JB still had some new ideas?

One area in pickup design JB put together at the end of the Birmingham era was the Full Range pickup. These were refined into today's version and it's a very fine pickup.

We also did a joint promotion with Music Mart (magazine) and editor Steve Wright. It was a competition, the plan was to design your own guitar and the winner had it built by JB and presented in London. This was a very popular promotion and helped to re-establish the name.

New guitars were to be built to the original spec as well as a few specials and then one day I introduced JB to a Casio MIDI guitar.

John was fascinated with the prospect of expanding the guitar capability and decided we should develop our own system, a tall order!

Indeed!

After much searching around trying to get this project started I contacted Forefront Technology and they agreed to give it a go.

It took some time and eventually the M3 system was built and in my opinion it's a brilliant piece of engineering, mostly by Mark Saltmarsh, and his team. JB agreed to offer this facility in any new guitar order or retro-fit to any guitar or bass. MIDI sales have been well below expectations for such a great product.

About this time here in the UK the Internet was getting more profile and as an ex-communications engineer I could see the potential, so I contacted many companies to put forward an offer to market other products as well as the JB product range under the JB Retailing division. This has worked out well, and products are now sent Worldwide.

Then disaster struck on November 7, 2000. I called JB as usual but got no reply. We went round to  investigate - but John was found to be dead.

This was a great loss to myself, not only for the business but as a close friend, and still today he is very much missed. It is a rare occurrence for any man to achieve worldwide acclaim as JB did and it was a privilege to have worked with him until the end.

So, following a meeting with his daughters after the funeral in Birmingham, which was attended by many old friends from that area, we had to decide what to do. John always said to me in his typical manner, "if I drop dead tomorrow, you know what to do!". Well, it happened.

After a bit of legal wrangling we decided that I will continue the JB business and include it in the JC Business Services company.

So what comes next?

Well, we're going to continue offering the John Birch Classic guitar series (still made to JB's specs, and built by the same team of people) and the services of our guitar workshop. We're also looking to expand on the Internet retailing side of the business.


And so the story continues....

Be sure to visit the website at www.johnbirchguitars.com

Special thanks to Mark Saltmarsh, who interviewed Mr. Carling and wrote this article for the Zone.

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