Feature

Travis Bean, 1947–2011

The guitar maker who made metal sing

While working at a Burbank, Calif., music shop in the early 1970s, Travis Bean noticed that many of the electric guitars brought in for repair suffered a similar fault: Their wooden necks were either bent or broken. “In my simple and naïve way of looking at things, I said, ‘I can solve that,’” Bean recalled in 1999. “So I decided to build a guitar.” To provide greater durability, he swapped the traditional wooden guitar neck for one made of solid aluminum. His souped-up six-string produced a sustained, almost harp-like tone when strummed, and soon became a hit with guitar legends of the era, including the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry.

Born in San Fernando, Calif., Bean worked “as a machinist, metal sculptor, rock drummer, and motorcycle racer” before founding his namesake guitar company in 1974, said The New York Times. Over the next five years, Bean produced 3,650 instruments, many of which boasted exotic hardwood bodies and price tags topping $1,000. Bean always regarded himself as a craftsman, not an entrepreneur. So when his investors called on him in 1979 to drop his prices so he could sell more guitars, he chose “to stop production instead of compromising quality,” said the Los Angeles Times.

Bean never regretted that decision. “We stopped clean, and the reputation of the instruments has remained very strong,” he said later. The current-day guitar market bears that out. In 2007, a cream-colored Travis Bean guitar, one of four models once owned by Jerry Garcia, sold at auction for $312,000.

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