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Legendary Guitar: Brian May’s Red Special

Dave Hunter
|
05.21.2009
Brian May with Red Special guitarThe ultimate “legendary guitar” is that great instrument that a groundbreaking player latches onto and loves deeply throughout his or her career — devoting the vast bulk of their art to just that one guitar, a six-string with no parallel among its peers, in their estimation at least. With this in mind, Brian May’s “Red Special” has not only been his partner in the vast majority of his noteworthy work, but he himself created it to embody precisely what he was looking for from an instrument.

The sound is unmistakable: hot, searing, thickly saturated with harmonic overtones, both smooth and eviscerating at the same time. May’s tone exploded onto the world of popular rock music in the mid ’70s as something entirely different, in a world that was dominated by the Gibson Les Paul and the Marshall stack. Always a mad scientist of sorts (and now with an actual PhD in astrophysics, no less), May tweaked and modified every aspect of his rig to bend it into producing the tone he was hearing in his head. The pinnacle of this endeavor was the design and creation of his own electric guitar. Talk about extreme tweakage! This thing was a Brian May production from the ground up, with a little help from his father, Harold May.

Brian May with Red Special The Red Special was constructed almost entirely from scratch between 1962 and ’64 and the May father-son effort involved the use of many household — and junkyard — items bent into tone-inspired submission. A junked 18th century oak mantelpiece, thrown on the curbside by a neighbor, was carved into the body’s central core, while a mahogany support post was conscripted for the neck (carved to a wide, thick profile to suit May’s large hands). Sculpted block-board wings were added to the oak core, and the body front and back were covered with mahogany veneer to yield a guitar that appears solid, but actually hides weight-relieving chambers in its upper and lower bouts. Finally, the fingerboard was also carved from oak, and the entire wood structure was painted in many deep-red coats of Rustin’s Plastic Coat, a common furniture finish in the U.K.

Brian May Burns Tri Sonic pickupsOne notable store-bought component is the set of three Burns Tri-Sonic pickups that the young May splurged on, but he did modify these significantly by rewinding the middle pickup reverse-wind/reverse-polarity to make the neck+middle and bridge+middle selections hum canceling, as well as potting all three in epoxy to reduce microphony. For the Red Special’s very effective (and much used) vibrato tailpiece, however, he and pops turned back to the junkyard. Much of the unit itself is purportedly made from motorcycle kickstand parts, while the tensioning springs are a pair of valve springs. The bridge, which has six independently adjustable roller saddles for return-to-pitch accuracy, was carved from six blocks of aluminum.

Put it all together, and the result is a driving and forceful rock tone, but one that is still cutting, bright and well defined thanks to the Burns single-coils. May’s switching arrangement further enhances the versatility of the instrument. Each pickup is routed through its own on/off and phase-reverse switch, offering a myriad combinations of the three Tri-Sonics. A frequent combo is the bridge/middle together, which induces both the heavy crunch of “We Will Rock You” and “Tie Your Mother Down,” and the chimey, percussive clean of “We Are The Champions” and “Under Pressure.” An out-of-phase bridge/neck coupling yields the distinctive, slightly nasal lead tone heard most notably in the solo to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and also in “Ogre Battle” and “Keep Yourself Alive.”

Other makers have offered reproductions of the Red Special, notably Guild, Brian May Guitars, and Greg Fryer, among others, but the very nature of its origins means there can only ever be one Red Special. It is, and will remain, a guitar as distinctive as its master’s tone and playing style, and a genuine legend.

Related Links:

Mythbusters: Brian May's Secret Weapons
How to Capture Brian May's Queen Guitar Tone

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