The Red Special
is a guitar
owned and custom-built
guitarist Brian May
. May has used it on Queen albums and in live performances for more than three decades. The name Red Special
came from the red/brown colour of the guitar after it was stained and painted with numerous layers of Rustin's plastic coating.
Unlike the primary instruments of most musicians, May and his father, Harold, built the original Red Special guitar themselves. They began to work on the guitar in August 1963. Most of the wood came from an 18th century fireplace mantel that a friend of the family was about to throw away. The neck was hand-shaped until it reached the desired form, which was difficult due to the age and quality of the wood. According to May, there are two wormholes in the neck of the guitar.
The neck was finished with a 24 fret oak fingerboard. Each of the position inlays were hand shaped from mother-of-pearl buttons. May decided to position them in a personal way: two dots at 7th and 19th fret and three at 12th and 24th.
The body was made from oak, blockboard and mahogany veneer; the final result was a sort of semi-acoustic guitar—the central block is glued to the sides and covered with two mahogany sheets to give it the appearance of a solid-body guitar. White shelf edging was then applied as binding. It was then completed with three pickups and a custom-made bridge. May purchased a set of Burns Tri-Sonic pickups but re-wound them with reverse wound/reverse polarity and "potted" the coils with Araldite epoxy to reduce microphonics. He originally wound his own pickups, as he had for his first guitar, but he did not like the resulting sound using bending because of the polarity of these pickups: alternating North-South instead of all North.
The tremolo system is made from an old hardened-steel knife-edge shaped into a V and two motorbike valve springs to counter the string tension. The tension of the springs is adjustable by screwing the bolts, which run through the middle of the springs, in or out via two small access holes next to the rear strap button. To reduce friction, the bridge was completed with rollers to allow the strings to return perfectly in tune after using the tremolo arm (the arm itself was from a bicycle saddlebag holder with a plastic knitting needle tip). For the same reason, at the other end of the neck the strings pass over a zero fret and through a bakelite string guide.
Originally the guitar had a built in distortion circuit, adapted from a mid-1960s Vox distortion unit. The switch for this was in front of the phase switches. May soon discovered that he preferred the sound of a Vox AC30 distorting at full power, so the circuit was removed. The switch hole is now covered by a mother-of-pearl star inlay, but was originally covered by insulation tape.
He still uses the original but he has been using replicas in some performances since his own company (Brian May Guitars) builds this instrument. One of the most well known occasions on which the original guitar was not used is in the videos "We Will Rock You", and "Spread Your Wings" since he did not want to expose the Red Special to snow. He also opted out of using the Red Special for the "Play the Game" video, using a knock-off guitar based on a Fender Stratocaster since at one point in the video, singer Freddie Mercury would snatch the guitar from him and "throw" it back to him (also the reason he used a knock-off instead of a real Strat.)
Official replicas of the "Red Special" guitar have been manufactured in varying numbers and in multiple models (i.e. a higher-end full-featured model, and a lower-cost one lacking some of the intricacies of the former) several times during the 1980s and 90s, most often by the Guild Guitar Company
from 1983 to 1991 and by Burns Guitars in the latter 90s (mass-produced models made in Korea). The Burns model, produced with guidance from May, was awarded "Best Electric Guitar of the Year 2001" by Guitarist Magazine
. Currently 3 separate companies manufacture "Red Special" models, Brian May Guitars (taking over manufacture from Burns), RS Guitars (hand-built in Arizona, US) and KZ GuitarWorks (replica-quality, hand-made in Japan by master luthier
Kazutaka Ijuin). Dillion Guitars (built in Korea) also makes unofficial replicas, in two models.
The Brian May Guitars version differ from the Burns original in a few points; for example, the tremolo was now a two-point synchronized tremolo with rear access plate. The Brian May Guitars models also feature a half moon scratch plate behind the bridge to emulate the original. The switches were also changed from black to white to match Brian's guitar. They still use the Burns Tri-Sonic pickups. 24 guitars were made in a rare baby blue color with a pearloid pickguard and gold hardware. The guitars come in Antique Cherry, White and 3 Tone Sunburst with chrome hardware. They also have Honey Sunburst, Black and Gold with gold hardware.
Greg Fryer, an Australian guitar luthier, produced 3 copies of the Red Special in 1996/97 with permission from May, who allowed Fryer to x-ray the body for information on the internal cavities in the body, taking exhaustive body measurements for CAD/CAM reproduction, Fryer named his three replicas John, Paul and George Burns. May has 2 of these guitars, John and George Burns while Fryer kept Paul, which was built with slightly different tone woods for a "more aggressive edge" tonally, for himself.
In 2004, Andrew Guyton, a guitar luthier from East Anglia in the UK, manufactured 50 copies of the Red Special: 40 in red to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the guitar, and 10 in Green, as he had previously seen a Guild copy available in green and liked it. He has recently made another Red Special copy with a scalloped fretboard.
In 2006 Brian May Guitars introduced a "Mini May" guitar, based on a scaled down Red Special (even including 24 frets but no zero fret) featuring a single pickup, no switches and a maple neck.
An acoustic guitar featuring a 24 fret neck and the body outline of the Red Special went into production during 2007.
The Guild models of the early 1990s featured three major configurations. Of the three, the "Signature" model was closest to Brian's guitar. The "Special" model featured a stop-tailpiece rather than a vibrato, the middle pickup was moved back next to the bridge pickup for a humbucking look, and the back of the guitar had no binding. The "Standard" model featured a more common Strat-style 5-way pickup selector switch, a longer scale neck, and a deeper headstock angle.
After viewing the replicas and taking note of the wear-and-tear the "Red Special" had gone through during nearly 30 years of constant touring, May had Fryer restore the original Red Special in 1998 using as much original and time-period specific material as possible. Damaged veneer on the back of the guitar was removed and new pieces scarfed in. The binding was removed and various nicks and dents in the top were repaired. Fryer re-finished the neck and body in the original Rustin's Plastic coating used in the creation over the existing finish, and fingerboard wear was repaired and dot-markers replaced. The original electrics were also re-wired and overhauled, and cosmetic work such as wear and holes in access panels, pickup covers (worn by May's use of a sixpence
as opposed to a standard pick) and the front scratchplate were filled in.
At the end of the Queen + Paul Rodgers tour in 2005, May had several revisions made to his original Red Special, including having the zero fret replaced for the first time (this was judged not to be needed at the time of the 1998 restoration) and making a larger opening for a new jack. Despite all of this work, the original frets (other than the zero fret) have never been replaced.
- Series wiring
- The pickups are wired in series rather than the more usual parallel configuration. This means that when more than one pickup is active the resultant tone has more bass and less treble than if the pickups were wired in parallel. The output is also added together when wired in series meaning that with all 3 pickups turned on the output is tripled.
- On/Off switches
- Each pickup has its own dedicated on/off switch. This allows for the additional pickup combinations of "all 3 on" and "neck and bridge on", combinations not commonly available on three pickup guitars.
- Phase Switches
- Each pickup has a phase switch which reverses the pickup wiring therefore reversing the phase of the signal from the pickup. This means that when more than one pickup is active and one has the phase reversed, the resultant tone is rich in mid to high frequencies with the low frequencies reduced, giving a characteristic "thin" quality.
- The position of volume and tone controls is transposed compared to most guitars with the tone being nearest the pickups and the volume furthest away.
- Perhaps the most novel feature of May's guitar (and the one that is most difficult to ascribe to a particular technical specification) is its very singular tone. Many theories abound as to what particular aspect of the guitar (or the setup of effects and amplifiers used to convey the sound) contributes this tone, but no guitar before sounded quite like it, and efforts to replicate the tone in latter setups can only come close. It is near-impossible to describe, but is so singular that it is easily-identified.
- *In the DVD Queen: Live at Wembley Stadium, during Brian May's solo feature, he is seen working the switches on the Red Special while playing to produce different sounds.
- Oak and blockboard (with a mahogany veneer), semi-solid body
- Depth: 39 mm
- Bolt-On, One large bolt which sits beneath the fingerboard and goes through a hole in the body then a nut is then attached, its also screwed down by two small wood screws at the tenon end which ends just before the bridge pickup. The Greg Fryer, Burns/Brian May Guitars, Guild, John Birch and Greco copies feature a Set Neck
- Mahogany taken from a two-hundred year old fireplace
- Neck Pitch: 2°
- Headstock Angle: 4°
- Width at nut: 47 mm
- Width at 12th fret: 51 mm
- Depth at 1st fret: 25 mm
- Depth at 12th fret: 27 mm
- Though utilizing a 24-fret fingerboard, the scale length of the Red Special is a short 24" (609.6 mm); compared to the Gibson standard of 24.75" (628.65 mm) and Fender's common 25.5" (647.7 mm) scale lengths, this creates a looser feel for the strings, which is conducive to May's extensive use of string bending and his wide vibrato.
- Black-painted oak
- Radius: 7"+1/4"
- Scale length: 610 mm
- Number of frets: 24
- Fret gauge: 24 x 1.2
- Inlays: 3°, 5°, 9°, 15°, 17°, 21° (one dot), 7° and 19° (two dots), 12° and 24° (three dots)
- String spacing at nut: 41 mm
- String spacing at bridge: 49 mm
- Pickups: 3 modified Burns Tri-Sonic
- Tremolo Arm: Self-made from old motorcycle parts
- Pickguard/Pickup Surrounds/tailpiece: black Perspex
- Controls: Master Volume, Master Tone, On/Off (toggle) Switch for each pickup, In/Out of Phase Switch for each pickup
- Weight: approx 8 lb (3.6 kg)