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Travis Bean dies at 63; innovative guitar-maker

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In a Burbank shop in the 1970s, Travis Bean reinvented the electric guitar.

To enhance string vibration, he suggested making the instrument's neck and headstock out of solid aluminum instead of wood. The resulting guitars, manufactured for only five years, remain prized for their unique tone and durability.

Among the famous who have strummed them are Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead – whose Travis Bean guitar was auctioned for $312,000 in 2007 – and many of the Rolling Stones.

Bean died Sunday in Burbank after a long battle with cancer, his family announced. He was 63.

"He came along when there was not much of anything in terms of fresh ideas when it came to making guitars," Jim Washburn, a music writer who has curated guitar exhibits, told The Times. "Then he revolutionized things a bit. He made a pretty good mark for making them for such a short period of time."

Guitar Player magazine has compared Bean to maverick automaker John DeLorean because both "pushed the envelope by doing something radically different with a familiar product."

Other guitar makers had tried using aluminum to improve neck stability and vibration but Bean and his two partners – Marc McElwee and Gary Kramer – "took the concept to prime time," the magazine said in 2005. Kramer later founded his own company that made aluminum-necked guitars.

Manufactured from 1974 to 1979, Travis Bean guitars were also known for their exotic hardwood bodies and a high-end price tag that could top $1,000.

When company investors called for prices to be lowered, Bean decided to stop production instead of compromising quality, according to the magazine.

He was born Aug. 21, 1947, in San Fernando and was adopted by Raymond and Betty Bean, who named their only child Clifford Travis Bean. His father worked for Shell Oil Co.

A 1965 graduate of Burbank High, Bean was a woodworker with a penchant for redesigning objects when he turned toward the guitar.

When employees and guests at the guitar shop would jam in a back room, "there was always a ton of guitarists and bass players but never any drummers," so Bean took up the drums, said his friend Philip Culp.

"That was the essence of Travis," Culp said. "He could teach himself how to do anything."

Bean is survived by his wife, Rita; son Darren Miller; daughter Dawn Norvel; and four grandchildren.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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