Brian May’s Red Special Guitar
This is the guitar that Brian built together with his father Harold in the early 1960s, and the one that he used as his main recording instrument ever since. It is one of the most unique guitars in the history of rock music, because it’s the only guitar that was actually built by the guitarist himself from scratch, and used on albums and songs that reached billions of people at this point.
The inspiration for building the Red Special, as Brian explained, came from the first acoustic guitar the he ever had – an Egmond parlor guitar. Brian played this acoustic for a while, even made a small pickup in order to “electrify” it at some point, but eventually together with his father, who was an electrical engineer, decided to try and make an actual electric guitar.
The inspiration for the Red Special came from this little guitar. It was a present to me from my mom and dad for me 7 birthday – or so (around 1954).
There came a point when me and my dad said – well, it would be nice to have an electric gutiar, instead of this acoustic guitar. But – we had no money, we were really poor.Brian May’s Red Special – The Book Launch
The building process took around two years and was finished when Brian was around 19 years old. The materials that Brian and his father used when building the guitar came from all kinds of sources.
For instance, the neck was built from an 18th-century fireplace mantel, which had warm holes in it, which Brian filled in with the same match sticks and wood glue. The inlays on the fretboard were made from old mother-of-pearl buttons that Brian’s mother had laying around, which Brian hand-shaped all by hand to fit into the holes he made on the fretboard.
The guitar has a semi-hollow design, and the middle piece that is part of that design, which basically connects to the neck and handles all the tension, was built from a piece of an oak table. The outside shell of the body was built from blackboard and veneer.
After it was assembled, the body was painted with a few layers of Rustins’ plastic coating which resulted in a dark red color. Somewhat recently, the guitar received another top coat for protection, which was done by Greg Fryer from Fryer Guitars in Australia. At that point, Greg also had made a few Red Special replicas for Brian.
In 1996-97 I made 3 replica guitars for Brian May of his priceless Red Special guitar, and in November 1997 Brian asked me to undertake a major restoration of his priceless Red Special. I worked for Brian at his London Allerton Hill studio on the Red Special restoration and on several other of his projects from December 1997 to August 1998.About Us/Contact – Fryer Guitars
If you want to see photos taken during the restoration process, and read Greg’s explanation of each step he took, please be sure to visit Fryer Guitars website – Red Special restoration 1998.
It seems that the guitar was refinished once again in 2016, by Andrew Guyton, who posted a short video of the guitar before the restoration on his YouTube channel.
Moving on – the tremolo piece was also completely hand-built. The metal piece bolted on the body was built using an old knife edge. This tremolo itself had a groove in which this edge slides and the bottom part of the tremolo is basically pushed with a pair of motorbike valve springs – to counter the string tension.
The bridge was built from a solid metal block, in which Brain placed six little cylindrical rollers – which he hand-shaped using a drill and some sandpaper and file. This way, there’s no friction at the bridge, as the rollers are free to move.
Lastly, the tremolo arm in itself is an actual saddle bag holder from his bicycle, while the top piece which you basically hold with your hand made from a knitting needle.
Originally Brain made the pickups for the Red Special himself. Unfortunately, they had a major flaw, and Brian deemed them not practical. So he headed to a local Burns’ shop and bought three brand new Burns Tri-Sonic pickups for three Guinea each.
The only thing I changed really since the beginning is the pickups. I made my own pickups, the same one that I put on my acoustic, but they had a problem. When you squeeze the notes (bend the strings), they would make a “rushing noise.
So, I went to Burns, which was at St Giles’s Circus down the road, and asked if the had any pickups.Brian May’s Red Special – The Book Launch 8:54 / 40:01
Brian immediately liked the pickups but discovered that they had a lot of weird loud feedback when he would get them close to an amp speaker. He also discovered that this feedback would stop if he held his hand on the pickups, so he decided to pot the coils of the Burns pickups with Araldite epoxy to reduce these unwanted microphonics.
I decided to dampen the vibration in other ways, but inserting tape between the casings and the magnets, and filling the air spaces in the pickups with Araldite, to dampen the ‘microphone’ effect. It worked pretty well, and now the pickups ‘sang’, with ‘good’ feedback, without any unpleasant whistling feedback.OK… I’ll tell the true story… the history of me and Burns Tri-Sonic Pickups…
The controls on Brian’s guitars are set up in such a way that he can turn each pickup on and off, and make each pickup in or out of phase. This allowed for some unique combinations that weren’t available on other popular guitars at the time.
For instance, the Fender Stratocaster model at that time only had a 3-way switch which meant you could only use one pickup at a time. Later this was replaced with a 5-way one which allowed for two pickups to be used at once. But on Brian’s guitar, you could for example use all three pickups at once, or use the bridge and the neck pickup together.
Additionally, each pickup also has a phase switch which obviously allows for even more unique combinations. If you want to learn more about what in and out of phase means when it comes to guitar pickups, check this excellent article by Seymour Duncan – Pickup Polarity and Phase Made Simple.
Brian himself most often uses the bridge pickup and the middle pickup together in phase, and he noted that this is his favorite sound. However, he obviously uses different combinations for different songs and occasions.
Brian used this guitar extensively throughout the Queen era, on every single song in the studio apart from “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”.
There were also various replicas of the Red Special made from 1975 up until now, and Brian uses them occasionally as backup guitars, or for songs that require different tuning.
Obviously I used it on every recording we ever did [with the Queen], with the possible exception of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” where I was persuaded to use a Telecaster. And maybe a couple of acoustic things.Brian May’s Red Special – The Book Launch – 19:04 / 40:01
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