Travis Bean, 63; created aluminum guitars for rock stars
NEW YORK - Travis Bean, a machinist who earned a nugget of rock ’n’ roll immortality by making electric guitars with necks fashioned out of aluminum instead of wood and selling them to members of the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones, died July 10 in Burbank, Calif. He was 63.
The death was announced on travisbeanguitars.com, a website devoted to Mr. Bean and his guitars. He had lymphatic cancer.
From 1974 to 1979 Mr. Bean and his partners made unadorned electric guitars and basses that had an uncanny ability to sustain notes and a richness of tone that some likened to that of a piano or harp. The instruments - 3,650 in several models were made - have been used in virtually every genre of popular music.
But the guitar’s legend owes most to the rock star who owned four of them, Jerry Garcia, the leader of the Grateful Dead. A man who identified himself only as Paul on one of the many blogs that discussed Mr. Bean’s death told of being in a guitar store in Palo Alto, Calif., in the 1970s when Garcia came in. A clerk asked him to check out a newly arrived Travis Bean guitar.
“Jeez, another weird guitar,’’ Garcia marveled, proceeding to dig into his pocket for checks he had never cashed from past gigs to pay for the purchase.
Others who have owned Travis Bean guitars include Keith Richards and Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and Roger Fisher of Heart. A 1978 sales brochure also listed members of the Beach Boys; Earth, Wind & Fire; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; and Jefferson Starship as devotees.
Clifford Travis Bean was born in San Fernando, Calif. He had experience as a machinist, metal sculptor, rock drummer, and motorcycle racer before he decided in the early 1970s that aluminum could revolutionize guitar design, believing that it would be a more stable material for the necks.
John Veleno had preceded him in the 1960s by developing an all-aluminum guitar, which became a cult object in its own right, prized by Eric Clapton, Greg Allman, and Lou Reed, among others.
Mr. Bean’s patented guitar tried to balance the sturdiness of aluminum with the lighter weight of wood for the guitar’s body, though some guitarists still complained about the heft. The guitar sold for around $1,000, a high price at the time.
But he and his partners at Travis Bean, Marc McElwee and Gary Kramer, proved to be better craftsmen than businessmen; the company closed in 1979. In 1998, Mr. Bean announced he would again build guitars, but only nine or 10 were made. He eventually began building sets for movie studios.
Mr. Bean leaves his wife, Rita; his son, Darren Miller; his daughter, Dawn Norvell; and four grandchildren.
In 2007, a cream-colored Travis Bean electric guitar once owned by Jerry Garcia sold at auction for $312,000. The price included an unopened pack of the musician’s Camel cigarettes, unfiltered.