Missoula’s Hank Donovan wanted to learn more about a guitar. He ended up stumbling upon the unlikely story of one of rock ’n’ roll’s most mysterious instruments.
click to flip through (6)
Photo by Chad Harder
Randy Starnes learned in 1975 that his wife was pregnant. Somewhere in the mixed emotions of panic and joy, he decided to make something special to give to his child the moment it entered the world. Starnes worked as a machinist, but he also considered himself an artist—one of two-dozen people who made Travis Bean Guitars out of a little shop in Burbank, Calif.
Starnes’ responsibility at the shop included crafting the necks on the guitars, but for his child’s gift he built the entire instrument himself. He shaped the wood body, machined the neck—a solid piece of aluminum—and wired all the electronics. When his son, Randy Junior, was born, Starnes presented him an electric guitar that was bigger and heavier than the child.
Randy Junior never learned to play the thing, but he always kept it in a case under his bed. For more than 30 years he considered it nothing more than a family keepsake. Then he met Missoula’s Hank Donovan and learned the guitar could be worth thousands, if not tens of thousands. It’s a collector’s item.
In a few short years, Donovan has stumbled upon the story of Travis Bean Guitars, and become an unlikely central character. The local web developer and musician hosts a website—travisbeanguitars.com—that attracts avid collectors and industry elite who research, update or reminisce about one of rock ’n’ roll’s most mysterious instruments. Travis Bean Guitars produced approximately 3,000 guitars and basses in the 1970s, garnering support from musicians like Jerry Garcia, Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and former Missoula musician and famous musical engineer Steve Albini. With stars continuing to swear by the instrument’s superior sustain—enhanced by its signature aluminum neck—Travis Bean Guitars have maintained cult status.
But Donovan didn’t just build a website. He became the company’s unofficial historian, chronicling Travis Bean Guitars’ short but influential history, learning as much as he could about how a bunch of counter-culture SoCal kids created a line of groundbreaking guitars. In the process, Donovan met the likes of Randy Starnes, who relayed the story of his son’s valuable birthday gift. Donovan eventually reached almost all of the old shop’s workers, most of whom are late in life, including Bean himself, who’s in failing health and living in seclusion in California.
The material Donovan collected is now in the hands of a local production company, which is hoping to turn the untold story of Travis Bean Guitars into a feature-length documentary film.
What started as a side project has morphed into a full-scale opus for Donovan. He’s quick to defer credit, but in the opinion of Missoula filmmaker Toni Matlock, Donovan’s now “the evangelist of Travis Bean Guitars.”
And he’s not done spreading the message.
“It has a soul”
Troy “Hank” Donovan arrived in Missoula in 1992. While playing in various bands of his own, Donovan and Jimmy Rolle opened Bevel Studio in the late ’90s in Rolle’s garage. Over the next few years the pair recorded what looks now like a who’s who of Jay’s Upstairs-era bands—Humpy, Oblio Joes, Ass End Offend, Disappointments, Cicada and Mike and Rick all recorded there. Once the gear was paid for, the studio essentially closed so Donovan and Rolle could focus on recording their own projects.
Around the same time, a former Missoula musician introduced Donovan to Travis Bean Guitars. Steve Albini graduated from Hellgate High School and went on to become known not only for his own music—he played in Rapeman, Big Black and still plays in Shellac—but also for the music he records in his Chicago studio. His resume includes sessions with Nirvana, The Pixies, Low, Neurosis, High on Fire and The Stooges.
Donovan was a huge fan of Albini’s bands and in 1998 noticed Shellac was playing The Moose. The show impressed Donovan, but it was the band’s guitars that captivated him.
“They both played these guitars with ‘T’s’ in the headstock,” he says. “I went home the next day and started doing some research on it and found out those were Travis Bean Guitars, and I was like, I gotta get one.”
Donovan had never heard of Travis Bean Guitars prior to the Shellac show, and wanted one not only because he thought it looked cool, but because he loved the sound.
“The tone wasn’t like anything I’d heard—it was just ripping my face off,” he says. “When I decided I wanted one, I figured Travis Beans were still in production, you know, and you could just go out and get one, right? But then I quickly found out the company went out of business years and years ago, so I didn’t think I’d ever find one. There were hardly any of them ever made.”
Donovan only learned the basics: Travis Bean Guitars were manufactured from 1974 to 1979. Bean worked alongside Mark McElwee and Gary Kramer in a small shop in Burbank. Their guitars featured necks made from aluminum and connected as one piece to the bridge, surrounded by stylish koa wood bodies. The idea behind the metal neck was to improve sustain, and to keep the neck from warping and twisting over time, a problem Bean saw as too common on wooden-necked guitars.
From the beginning the company went after a specific part of the market. The guitars were handmade, and sold for around $1,000 each—more than double what other big-name guitars cost in 1974. The manufacturers considered Beans premium instruments, and wanted to build a reputation among musicians as the guitar to have. The approach was a challenge, and despite some early successes—they went from a three-man operation to nearly 30 to meet initial demand—the company flared out.
Donovan didn’t need to know much more at the time. He just wanted one of his own, and he eventually tracked one down on eBay.
“I’ll never forget the moment I got the guitar and I opened the case and I saw it,” Hank says. “I’ve told the story to a lot of people, but I totally believe it has a soul. I picked it up and it was like, magic, like this is alive.”
Donovan started using the guitar at his own shows. The more he played the guitar, the more he wanted to know more about where it came from.
“At that point I knew it was something special and I wanted to learn more and more about it—not just Travis Bean’s guitars themselves, but my specific guitar,” he says. “I found the serial number and I started going on the web to see what I could find out about it.”
The serial number is the key to learning about any guitar. For example, a Gibson Les Paul has an eight-digit serial number on the back of the headstock. Over the years the format has changed, but basically it provides a key to tell the owner what year and where the guitar was made. Donovan’s Bean contains just three digits: 866. Sleuthing out details proved to be a challenge.
“There wasn’t a lot of information out there,” Donovan says, “but I did find this website that cross-referenced a few Travis Bean serial numbers with the people who owned them. Like, this one is Joe Perry’s Travis Bean, or that one is so-and-so’s Travis Bean. I was thinking, ‘Wow, there’s a history here. I can try and find out who owned 866 before me.’ I submitted my Bean so it would be registered but it would never show up in the database. I kept sending e-mails and asking about it and I never got an e-mail back, so I said screw it, I’m gonna make my own.”
A web developer by trade—after several years working for other firms, Donovan started his own web development company, Astarna, Inc., in 2004—he combined his tech skills with his musical passion. Donovan registered the web domain and developed a site to address the very questions he wanted answered about his own guitar. He designed a form that allows Bean owners to easily register the serial numbers of their guitars. The database collects the serial number and general info about the owner, images and other information. He also built a forum so Bean owners could communicate with each other. He hoped the forum would turn up more information about the guitars and the history of the company, which was still shrouded in mystery.
“As soon as I put that website up, I had this guy Bill Kaman, a huge Bean collector (and former president of Ovation guitars) contact me,” says Donovan. “He gave me a whole list of Beans that he had in his collection so I could populate my database. I had about 20 when I launched that I’d gotten from the original site I found online, then he gave me like 50 more Beans to put in there. That’s what started it, and immediately a community started developing. People would come in, or e-mail me. They were all people just obsessed with the guitars.”
Donovan’s online excursion became the de facto gathering place for Travis Bean enthusiasts, a vocal cadre of collectors and fans every bit as opinionated and obsessive as any classic car or vintage motorcycle community. They were consumed with every little detail from what knobs were used on the guitars to the body’s brand of paint. With a finite number of guitars in existence, and authentic replacement parts more and more difficult to find, the value of the guitars swiftly climbed higher.
Donovan’s website became the place to track down, research or celebrate a true collector’s item.
“Kind of a fraternity”
Among the site’s modest 800 registered users are some high-profile names. And all of them—famous or not—spend time discussing what makes a Travis Bean guitar so special.
“Distinctive sound and playing qualities,” says Steve Albini in a recent e-mail interview. “They are hard-edged but flexible, and being made of metal they can take a lot of abuse. They are perfect for aggressive rock music, which really came into its heyday after the company called it quits. There weren’t a lot of them, so if you owned one you felt like you were in a kind of fraternity of people who appreciated them.”
Albini first played a Bean in a music store in 1980. He purchased a TB500 and a bass eight years later at a guitar show. He continued to try others before realizing the TB500 was all he needed.
“I eventually settled on the TB500 as my sole guitar, and I’ve played it ever since. I’ve gotten rid of all the other ones except a 500 that I keep as a ‘spare,’ though I’ve never needed to use it.”
Kevin Burkett of Electrical Guitar Company fell for the company’s underdog approach, as well as its performance. His operation now makes guitars with aluminum necks and bodies, picking up where Bean left off.
“I like every single thing about them,” says Burkett from his shop in Florida. “I like the shapes. I love the way they sound. I love the fact they are made out of metal. I love that it was a small company. I’m really into every aspect of them, and I think they are phenomenal instruments. To this day I play them and collect them, and I think they are one of the best, if not the best, guitars ever made.”
Acting as the site’s forum administrator puts Donovan in the center of the Bean discussion and in a position to meet a lot of his users. For instance, Tim Midgett, a former Missoulian who formed the band Ein Heit in the late ’80s then moved to Seattle to start the band Silkworm (he currently plays in Bottomless Pit), was surprised not only to find the website, but also that it was being run by a Missoulian.
“I totally met Hank through the Travis Bean website,” Midgett says. “I think I put something on the registry and I heard from him after that. I had no idea he was from Missoula. I was surprised that someone from Missoula would be interested in that stuff, so that was a nice surprise.”
Midgett’s attracted to the innovation of Bean guitars. He points out that most of the music industry is conservative when it comes to developing new gear, but that Travis Bean Guitars tried something different.
“You’d think that with rock musicians it would be all wild and crazy, but people are very hesitant to try things that are modeled on new ideas,” he says, listing the lack of change in most electric guitars and amps. “Part of it is a lot of the stuff was perfected early on. I don’t think that the basic electric guitar amplifier has been improved since the late ’60s, and you could say almost the same thing about bass amps or anything else. But Travis Beans are different. It was a genuine innovation in the design of the instrument and I think it’s underappreciated.”
Price proves the instruments aren’t as underappreciated as they used to be. As awareness of the Beans improves on the collectors’ market, the guitars are beginning to reach the point where cost is eclipsing the means of those who just want to rock out with them. Some Beans have gone for tens of thousands of dollars, which makes it impossible for casual musicians to keep up.
“That horse left the barn, or rather was driven out of the barn,” says Albini.
Albini sold most of his Beans years ago and now relies on Burkett’s Electrical Guitar Company as a more affordable alternative.
Burkett understands better than most what it takes to build metal guitars. His fascination with Bean’s operation inspired him to learn metalworking and begin making his own metal guitars six years ago.
“The more I learn about how these guys made these things in the ’70s, it’s just amazing to me and all my friends who are into metalworking that they were able to do what they did,” says Burkett. “Everything they did with their limited equipment, it’s just astounding that these guitars exist and that the guys had the drive to do it.”
Burkett also has mixed feelings about the rising price of Bean guitars.
“For guys like Hank and me, twenty grand may as well be two million, you know?” he says. “We just aren’t going to be able to afford that. So in one way it’s good, because I’m happy to see the guitars getting the attention they deserve, but on the other hand it sucks for those of us who just want to play them.”
“This dark secret”
In March 2008, a new forum member named Kurt Oblinger logged on to travisbeanguitars.com and posted the following:
“My older brother passed away earlier this month. His name was Rick Oblinger and was known here in L.A. as ‘Obe the Guitar Guy’. He worked for Travis Bean for a couple of years at least. I don’t recall when he started but I think he was there about to the end… I remember well in the late ’70s he came over to my folks’ house and showed us a guitar he had built for himself at Travis Bean. It was an all-black fretless bass. Damn it was beautiful. I told him it was a fantastic piece of design and would look right at home in the Museum of Modern Art.”
The post caught Donovan’s attention for two reasons. First, it hinted at another rare source of Bean information. Second, he realized most of Bean’s old employees were reaching the ends of their lives.
“It turns out Obe was one of the main guys from the shop who went on to work with a bunch of famous musicians,” says Donovan. “Kurt really just wanted to see if anyone knew Obe and share stories. Growing up, they weren’t really close, and he knew a big part of Obe’s life was working with Travis Bean. That was when a couple more former employees came in right away and said, ‘I worked with Obe, here’s my phone number, give me a call,’ whatever. Really, for me it was like a hammer to the face, where I have this website about Travis Bean, and no one knows anything about the company or what happened. It’s like this dark secret where no one really knows who they were.”
An entire world of new Travis Bean information opened up for Hank to obsess over. Not only were former employees now in contact, but Rick Oblinger also turned out to have been something of a pack rat. He had boxes of parts, old Bean T-shirts, ad campaign materials and blank company letterhead. Kurt Oblinger would upload photos of the stuff he was in the process of getting inventoried and all the Bean geeks would freak, especially Donovan.
The second part of the post, however, raised some concern. Donovan knew Travis Bean had been a small company, and figured that former employees were all likely reaching their 60s. The death of one of the key members of the team made Donovan realize a lot of information was still unknown, with a narrowing window of opportunity to dig it up. He decided to try and contact a few of the employees and document their stories, with the goal being to write an article that would shed some light on the company.
“Immediately after I started talking to people it was really obvious that it was a bigger story than I could ever do it justice,” Donovan says. “The first two guys I interviewed on the phone, they were saying that was the proudest thing they’d ever been a part of in their life, the best job they ever had. They were very enthusiastic about it. So I started putting together a list. Every person I talked to knew another name, so I kinda had this little game of finding out the Travis Bean family tree.”
Donovan had the idea that maybe a documentary would work, but had no idea if the story warranted the attempt. He contacted his filmmaker friend Bruce Tribbensee, who has a local production company with Toni Matlock called Salty Snack Studios.
“I remember saying ‘Just tell me if it’s not possible, if it’s too big, because if it’s too big then I don’t wanna do it. We can’t start it and then have it fail, or not finish it,’” recalls Donovan. “Of course Bruce was like ‘No, we can totally do it, we can totally make it happen.’ That’s when I started contacting Travis Bean people and seeing if they would be willing to be interviewed on camera.”
Donovan, Tribbensee and Matlock devised a plan for putting the documentary together, and broke it out into phases. The first phase would be trying to track down and talk to every employee who ever worked at the company. They especially wanted to reach the reclusive Bean himself, who had not been seen, let alone interviewed, in 15 years. He suffers from various health problems and is confined to a wheelchair.
“I had a pyramid drawn, with all these employees, and I was working my way up the pyramid,” says Donovan. “I finally got hold of (company co-founder) Marc McElwee, and he was great on the phone. We talked for a long time. I was all nervous, and I asked him, ‘So do you ever talk to Travis?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I talk to him on the phone every day.’”
McElwee provided Bean’s direct number and Donovan called him.
“I couldn’t believe it. In my mind I had a whole different picture about how he was going to be,” says Donovan. “I had this idea of what he’d be like—mean and dark and reclusive—and he’s like the nicest guy. Totally funny, very open, and obsessed with guitars.”
The filmmakers and Donovan made a trip to Reno to interview a couple employees, as well as three separate trips to Los Angeles to interview employees up and down the valley, including an emotional meeting with Bean face-to-face.
“Over the years Travis has forgotten what he did, how important it was, how great that moment was for the people who worked with him,” Donovan says. “Now people are calling him and old connections are being reestablished. It’s real emotional for him.”
During the interviews, all the former employees asked about Bean and wanted to thank him for his company’s influence on their lives. The filmmakers hatched an idea to get them all together for a reunion, and Donovan worked with Kevin Burkett to produce invitations made from T-6061 aluminum, the same type the Bean artisans used for their guitars. Each metal card featured a “T” cut out of the middle, just like the headstocks on the guitar, and came stamped with a serial number. Bean received serial number 11, referencing the first guitar the company ever produced.
The meeting proved to be a success, with Bean particularly touched by the outpouring of support.
“I have given interviews in the past in print about the history of the guitars,” Bean says from his home in California. “With Hank, you know, we started on the phone, and I just felt really comfortable with him—Hank has a very gracious way about him. He wasn’t the first, of course, and there are other pockets of enthusiasts for the instrument around the country, but he has definitely been the one to take the steps to capture all the stuff and see to it that it’s told accurately so that it will stand the test of time.”
Donovan now talks to Bean regularly. An admitted “non-computer person,” Bean has even begun checking out the website Donovan built, and seems genuinely excited about the turn of events. He also recognizes who is responsible for bringing the Travis Bean family together again.
“Everything about it has been a pleasant experience for me, and it is thanks first of all to Hank’s professionalism, and very obviously he has a deep regard for the instrument,” Bean says. “You know, a lot of us hadn’t talked for a long time, and I’m in contact with several guys on a regular basis now. I’m particularly glad to see the other guys that worked with me getting some recognition too. It’s been a completely win-win situation for me. It’s made a significant difference in my outlook.”
“The Travis Bean world”
Looking at the project from behind the lens of a camera, Bruce Tribbensee says he’s starting to understand the depth of the Travis Bean Guitars story.
“It is a crazy happenstance that this collection of very talented people ended up in the same place at the same time,” he says. “They were all incredibly talented in their fields, got along so well, and started putting out these amazing instruments. Having gone out to Burbank a few times and met with a lot of people, they all have guitars in their garages. A lot of these guys weren’t even guitar players, so they have these instruments that are still mint. So to have them open these cases and pull these things out that are works of art; incredibly gorgeous, the work they did.”
Tribbensee pauses in mid-thought.
“They knew they were creating works of art,” he continues. “It’s like the environment they were in, seeing this gorgeous piece of wood guitar body come out of the shop inspired the next guy to build just the best neck he could; everyone was inspired to just do their best, most artistic work possible.”
The documentary has a working title of Sustain, and work continues on getting more interviews lined up. The filmmakers wanted to complete the reunion before going public with the project—a precautionary measure to avoid party crashers—and have now focused on speaking with musicians.
“We will definitely submit to film festivals, and hopefully sell it in some way to make back some of the money we’ve spent on it,” says Tribbensee. “For people who are into music and into guitars, it’s a little fetishist. We feel pretty good about the interest being there. But in the end, it’s not gonna end anything. It’s just another part of the Travis Bean world.”
That world continues to consume Donovan. He wonders what would have happened if he’d abandoned the online forums a year ago, like he almost did. Even more, he wonders what would have happened if Travis Bean Guitars never stopped manufacturing instruments.
“The company was ahead of their time,” he says. “In 1975, who else was making one-off, handmade, crazy guitars? No one! If this had happened in, say, ’85, it would probably fly. If it happened now, and you were going to charge somebody 30 grand for a custom guitar, it would probably work. They were just too early.”
In the meantime, he continues to monitor the website and build the Travis Bean Guitars community.
“It’s just funny how it goes,” he says. “It seems like whenever something weird happens with Travis Beans, I somehow get involved.”