Travis Bean, a life-long Burbank resident who revolutionized guitar manufacturing with his aluminum-necked instruments, died on July 10 after a nearly two-decade battle with cancer. He was 63.
Bean broke into the electric guitar manufacturing business — then dominated by Fender and Gibson — in the 1970s when he co-founded the Travis Bean Guitars with close friend Marcus McElwee. They closed shop in 1979 amid a dispute with their corporate backers, but the instruments continue to enjoy a cult following and the manufacturing techniques are still widely used.
“He loved music and was quite the aficionado,” his widow, Rita Bean, said. “He was one of those people who could listen to a song, and he could tell you what year it was, what band it was, what all the people’s names were.”
In 1974, Travis Bean and McElwee began manufacturing electric guitars and basses with solid aluminum necks and headstocks and ornate hardwood bodies. Most guitars are built with wooden necks – often maple or mahogany.
Bean and McElwee used exacting methods, McElwee said, at one point employing 25 people. The instruments’ unique sound was a hit with musicians, and Travis Bean instruments soon landed in the hands of Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Bill Wyman, all of the Rolling Stones.
“Travis Bean was the most inventive person I have ever met in my life,” McElwee said. “He could come up with an idea instantly. That was one of the things he did right up until the last minute.”
In the 1970s, the guitars retailed for about $1,000. They since have soared in value, with many selling for three to four times that amount. And in 2007 a white Travis Bean guitar once owned by the late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia sold at auction for $312,000.
A documentary about the company, titled “Sustain,” currently is in production.
Travis Bean’s love of music wasn’t limited to the guitar, family and friends said.
“Everyone thinks of Travis in connection to his guitars,” Rita Bean said. “But he had actually become a drummer. He told me…that when they were making the guitars they always had a plethora of guitar players around, but nobody to play the drums. So he was sort of self-taught.”
Shortly after he stopped making guitars, Travis Bean worked as a stage hand for more than a decade. He continued to gather with musician friends.
“We actually had a studio in the garage for a while where everyone would congregate for days on end until I finally threw them out,” Rita Bean said.
In 1994, Travis Bean was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma that manifested as skin cancer. His world shrank to a small circle of family and close friends, Rita Bean said. He was forced to give up the drums, but still picked up his guitars.
“He was a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” Rita Bean said. “He was a cool guy.”
Travis Bean was preceded in death by his son, Dean Miller. In addition to his wife, he is survived by son Darren Miller; daughter Dawn Norvell; and grandchildren David and Ashley Miller, Michael Thorne and Jenell Norvell.
A memorial will take place 10:30 a.m. July 23 at the First Christian Church in Studio City. A website, www.helptravisbean.com, has been established to help cover years of medical costs.