Brian May’s Guitars and Gear

Brian May was born on 19 July 1947 in Hampton, London. His an English musician and astrophysicist most widely known as the guitarist, songwriter and occasional singer of the rock band Queen. He was ranked at No. 26 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. In 2012, May was ranked the 2nd greatest guitarist of all time by a Guitar World magazine readers poll.

Brian is mostly known for using the Red Special – a guitar which he made with the help of his father when he was a teenager. He used that guitar on all of the Queen’s albums, and still uses it to this day. During the years, he tried some other guitars, including a 1978 Fender Telecaster, 1950s Fender Stratocaster and couple of different Gibsons, but he always ended coming back to the old Red Special.

Brian May’s Electric Guitars:

Red Special

Red Special Brian May Home-made guitar build by Brian and his father Harold in the early 1960s. The material for the guitar came from all kinds of sources, including the 18th century fireplace mantel which was used to make the neck, and the piece of the oak table which served as the middle piece of the blockboard semi-hollow body. The guitar was painted with layers of Rustins’ plastic coating which resulted in a dark red color.

Brian used three Burns Tri-Sonic pickups which he re-wound with reverse polarity and potted the coils with Araldite epoxy to reduce microphonics. The wiring was done in a way that each pickup can be turned on or off individually, which meant that all three of them could be on at the same time or the bridge and the neck pickups could be used together, which is quite unique feature. They are wired in series, but each pickup also has a phase switch which reverses the wiring.

The tremolo piece was also completely hand-built. The metal piece bolted on the body was built using an old knife-edge shaped into a V. This piece holds the tremolo placed in the semi-circular hole, which also holds two motorbike valve springs to counter the string tension (nice replica of this system can be seen here). The tremolo arm itself was built using a metal piece from a saddle bag carrier from an old bike and a knitting needle from Brian’s mother.

Brian used this guitar extensively throughout Queen era. There were also various replicas of it guitar made from 1975 up until now, and Brian uses them occasionally as backup guitars, or for songs that require different tuning. He carries two guitars with him built by Greg Fryer, which are perhaps the most authentic copies, as Fryer had the original Red Special under x-ray in order to gather up as much information on the internal cavities in the body.

Brian May now also owns the company that makes and sells Red Special replicas.

John Birch RS Replica

Brian May Guitar Replica Perhaps the best known replica of the Red Special was made by John Birch in 1975 and is know mainly for it’s appearance in the “We Will Rock You” music video. Brian didn’t really like it because it didn’t sound like the original one, despite the fact it had the exact same pickups which he kept as spare.

He did use it though until 1982 when he smashed it against an amp during a concert in the US. He then sent the guitar to John Page, who kept the remains for over 20 years before sending them back to May. May then had the guitar restored by Andrew Guyton, and still owns it today.

1978 Fender Telecaster

Brian May Telecaster Brian used this Telecaster to play the solo on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (note: he used a different Telecaster on the recording – 1967 model with natural finish owned by Roger Taylor)

1950s Fender Stratocaster

Brian May Stratocaster Based on the maple neck and the headstock shape, the guitar was probably made sometime in 1950s. Brian carried it as a backup on tour between 1972 and 1973.

Gibson Les Paul Deluxe

Gibson Les Paul Deluxe Brian May Brain wasn’t satisfied with the Stratocaster/Vox AC30 combo, so he started using the Les Paul instead for the 1974-1975 tour.

This ended up being disappointment also, and Brian went back to playing his Red Special – and ordered John Birch replica as a backup.
“I used to think the Stratocaster would be the thing when I got one. Always thought when I got enough money to get one of those, that will be it. Then, when I got enough, I didn’t like it. The same with the Les Paul. I thought the Les Paul would be it.”  

Gibson Flying V

Brian May Gibson Flying V Brian started using this Flying V in 1982, after smashing the John Birch replica.

The guitar had tobacco sunburst finish with white binding, and two exposed humbuckers.

Burns Double Six

Burns Double Six Brian May Used on “Long Away”.

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Brian May’s Acoustic Guitars:

Ovation Pacemaker 1615

Brian May Ovation Acoustic Brain’s main acoustic guitar used for studio recording and live. He owns a couple of them (Freddie and Brian played one each live for “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”), and strungs them upside-down, with the lighter strings on the treble side.

Brain played it one of these on “Love of my Life”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “39”.

Guild 12-String

Guild 12 String Brian May More recently Brian has been playing his Guild on-stage instead of the Ovation. One of the occasions was during the tour with Paul Rogers in 2004.

Martin D18

Martin D18 Brian acquired his first D18 in the early 70s and recorded “Funny How Love” on one.

Hairfred acoustic

Unknown Acoustic Used in the very early days, from 1969 to 1972. This was likely some cheap model, and one of the very first acoustics he owned.

Story goes that Dave Dilloway, who played the bass in Brian’s band called “1984” from 1964-1968, gave it to Brian in exchange for his Egmond Student (the guitar he learned to play on).

Brian May’s Guitar Amps:

Vox AC30

Vox AC30 Brian May Brian’s main amp has always been the Vox AC30. He uses up to nine amps on stage, and a custom switching unit which allows him to use different amps at different times, in order to avoid any damage which may come as a result of the stress put on them.

Majority of his AC30s are modded to some degree, usually by Greg Fryer.

The Deacy Amp

The Deacy Amp Brian May Custom built amp by Queen’s bassist, John Deacon, which has an output of around one watt.

Brian uses it only for studio work.

Brian May’s Guitar Effects:

Back in the day, the first in the line of Brian’s effects was a Dallas RangeMaster treble booster, which used to be attached on his guitar strap. By the late 80s, May started using a custom made booster by Pete Cornish, and later in 1998 he used boosters made by Greg Fryer [Greg Fryer: Full Interview]. Both of these models were direct replicas of the original Dallas RangeMaster, made so they can be more easily attached to a guitar strap and to reduce the interference of the original booster.

Since the mid 2000s Brian uses treble boosters made by Nigel Knight. These are somewhat smaller and a lot lighter then the models that Brian used in the past, and they are available for purchase at Knight Audio Technologies website.

In the old days with the Queen, Brian also used a pedal called Foxx Phaser, which he seemed to have abandoned by the mid 80s [Guitar Player –  January 1983]. Around that same time he started using a Boss Chorus CE-1 pedal, which he used it to stereoize two of his Vox AC-30 amps.

Before the splitter thing there’s a Boss phaser, or chorus, pedal. One side is straight though and the other side goes through the pedal into another separate amp so that, even when you’ve got the thing cranked right up, they don’t interfere and you still get the phasing sound. We mike that amp up as well, and have the two in stereo on the PA and it gives a nice breath to the sound. I have that on most of the time actually, just very slightly phasing – just enough to give that stereo effect. [Guitarist Magazine August – 1985]

In the late 90s when Pete Malandrone became Brian’s guitar tech, his rig included a Dunlop Cry Baby Rack Wah DCR-2SR which he controled himself with a pedal. Also, all of his effects were moved to rack and they consisted of a TC Electronic G-Force and a Rocktron Intelliflex XL [Pete Malandrone:Brian May’s Guitar Tech]. Towards the late 2000s, both of the units were out of the picture and they were replaced with a single TC Electronic G-Major 2 unit. [Rig Rundown – Queen’s Brian May]

Brain May’s Guitar Strings:

– Rotosound strings (.008, .009, .011, .016, 0.22, and .034) – used in the old days. [Guitarist Magazine August – 1985]

– Optima Brian May Signature Strings .009-.042 – used nowadays

Brian May’s Guitar Picks:

– Brian usually uses a reshaped Sixpence (old British coin).

Contributors: sami.o.joki, Smhersh03