source of the following article:
Guitar Magazine Vol.10 No 2 , October 1999
The Red Special, the Fireplace, the Old Lady - Brian May's famed and much-nicknamed guitar
ranks alongside Clappo's Blackie and Jimi's Woodstock Strat as one of the most fabled tools in
rock history. Sean Walker recounts the story behind a most esteemed plank - and its many
The Red Special was born in 1963, the result of 18 months hard work
and development between Brian and his
genius electrical engineer father, Harold. Dissatisfied with the coveted Strats and Les Pauls of the day - and,
anyway, unable to afford any of them - the pair set about designing and building their own interpretation of the
perfect elecric guitar.
The guitar earned its nickname "the Fireplace" because the huge one-piece
mahogany neck was laboriously
hand-carved using a penknife from just that - the column support from an old mirror-type fireplace that a family
friend happened to be throwing out. At the nut the Red Special´s neck is about 46mm wide, with a string spacing of
40mm: Most production electrics vary between 41-43mm at the nut with a string spacing of around 34mm. Add a
depth of 29mm at the 1st fret (thickening to 31mm at 12th) and you´ve got a chunky affair that puts even Jeff
Beck´s "baseball-necked" Strats firmly in the shade.
The glossy fingerboard is actually made of oak, painted black with that
classic British DIY substance known as
Rustin´s Plastic Coating and dotted with hand-filed pearl butons pinched from Brian´s mother´s sewing box - as was
a knitting needle end that would soon find a new home as a vibrato arm tip.
The guitar featured 24 frets - "a nice, neat double octave", according
to Brian - with a zero fret and a loose-tensioned
610mm (24") scale length - the latter, in theory, making for a more bend-friendly playing experience despite the
184mm (7.25") fingerboard radius which toughens the feel of May´s favourite 009"-042" strings.
The neck joins the body via a paddle-like heel extension which slots
into a rectangular cut-out in the body, stopping
just short of the bridge pickup. Although originally designed to be glued in, the snug neck/body join is also secured
by a single bolt visible on the back of the guitar. This bolt also acts an anchor for the truss-rod end which the Mays
bent into shape on the kitchen cooker.
The central section of the body was formed from an old oak table. The
rest - including the distinctive curves - were
made up from two layers of blockboard, hollowed out to create acoustic chanmbers, then stuck onto the sides of the
oak insert. These acoustic chambers are the key to much of the guitar´s incredible high-gain resonance (in truth,
May originally planned an f-hole but never got round to it). The whole body was finally covered in a mahogany
veneer, stained a deep brick-red color and then lacquered with Rustin´s, rounded off by binding sourced from some
readily available shelf edging.
But the May´s ingenuity didn´t end there. Brian wanted a
wide-travel vibrato that would drop an octave and (gasp!)
actually return to pitch after use. They realised that most vibratos of that era were riddled with flaws. The main
culprit being friction in the strings´ path of travel.
After building a few prototypes they settled on a design which used
six individual aluminium bridge pieces screwed
straight to the body, each supporting a low-friction steel roller saddle. Intonation was handled by small slots cut into
the top of each bridge piece; if the intonation was out on an individual string, the roller could be popped out of its
axle and moved back or forward accordingly to an appropriate slot. Behind these, a handmade trem block rocked
against a case-hardened steel knife edge hidden under the top body veneer. Unlike a conventional Strat fulcrum
trem - which stretches the springs when the arm is depressed - this design used two heavy-duty tension adjustable
motorbike valve springs suspended on cavity-mounted bolts. When the trem arm (sourced from a bicycle saddlebag
holder) was pressed down the trem plate compressed the springs giving a positive, subtantial feel. With almost
straight string pull to the tuners and a shallow 4 degree headstock angle causing very little friction through the
black bakelite string guide, this system allowed excellent return to pitch for the non-locking unit. For its time, it was
nothing short of revolutionary.
And of course when it came to the electrics, the egghead May family
just couldn't keep it simple. Brian had
originally wound his own pickups; they´d sounded good, but under string-bending the unhelpful north/south dual
polarity of the small horseshoe type magnets he´d used created a nasty rustling noise. After spending three guineas
at the Burns shop in St. Giles´ Circus, Brian became the proud owner of a set of the fabled metal cased Burns
First, the coils were potted in Araldite epoxy to help reduce their
microphonic tendencies. Next the pickups were
direct mounted to the body, and after much experimentation the pair eventually settled on an arrangement where
each pickup passed to two small 2-position slider switches, the first row, nearest the pickups, being on/offs for each
pickup and the second row allowing phase reversal for each. These switches and the volume and tone pots were all
mounted on a shielding-aiding aluminium plate underneath the black perspex scratchplate.
This wiring allowed a number of different pickup configuations and tones.
With two or more pickups on together the
sound combined in series - not parallel, as on a Strat, for instance - increasing the output and giving the guitar its
famously fat, resonant humbucking tone when combined with a treble booster into a Vox AC30. But when May
flicked up one of the phase reversal switches it cancelled out the low end harmonic, creating a chiming clean tone or
the trademark sreeching lead sounds typified by the Bohemiam Rhapsody solo (neck and middle pickups on
together, out of phase).
Its owner has decribed the guitar as a cross between a Strat- and a
Les Paul-sounding tone. Add the humbucking
options and the wide travel trem and the Red Special displays a remarkable number of elements of the modern
metal guitar. Not bad for two inexperienced guitar builders working in a spare bedroom in the early ´60s...
REDS UNDER THE BED:
COPIES AND REPLICAS
Pity the poor Brian May fan. A Hendrix freak could always save and buy
a perfectly good Strat - but unofficial
copies of the closely-guarded Red Special were often very wide of the mark.
The probable first-ever copy was commissioned by May himself from British
guitar builder JOHN BIRCH in the
mid-70´s. The Birch model closely aped the outline and electrics but the all-maple construction, steeper headstock
angle and the bound fretboard were quite different. It was used as a concert backup guitar until the early-´80s,
appearing in the We Will Rock You video and playing a cameo role on the Live At Milton Keynes TV extravaganxa.
The Japanese were the first to commercially produce unofficial copies.
Queen always were huge in Japan but it took
until 1981 before GRECO brought out the BM 900. Retailing at around 90,000 yen (£450), these were high quality
copies - visually quite close, including the tremolo, but lacking a zero fret, and adding a red tortoiseshell
scratchplate with six mini toggle switches in place of the sliders. Another effort of the same era, the FRESHER
BM270, shared most of the Greco´s constructional details and almost certainly came from the same factory.
Since then more Brian May models have appeared, though none have ever
been exported - at least, not legally. Jap
company KID´S have kept the flag flying through the ´90s with the 260BM model (´91-´94 and costing 260,000 yen
or £1,300) and the BM Special (up until ´98 and priced at 200,000 yen or £1,000). For those with 500,000 yen
(£2,500) to fling about in 1995 they also made the BM Dragon, a kind of Brian May/PTS mongrel.
Back in the Western world, it was 1984 when Brian May at last got together
with GUILD to produce the first offical
replica. Only 316 "close counterparts" - i.e. not particularly accurate replicas - were made. These BHM-1 models had
the correct body outline but a solid mahogany construction, glued-in necks and ebony fingerboards. The hardware
was very different, too: The black-faced Dimarzio HHM pickups seemed to sound the part but the larger
scratchplate and custom tension Kahler tremolo system with locking nut were way off the mark. The man himself
used examples on video - and as a live backup until as recently as 1993´s Back To The Light tour, but the guitar
ultimately failed to satisfy both Brian and the punters and was discontinued. Although rare, these guitars still turn
up occasionally between £1,000-1,500.
After some discussions with the British Eagle company (which unfortunatley
fell through), Brian let Guild eventually
try again in ´93. The result, the BM Ltd Signature model (later called the BM Pro) was a lot closer, with a
semi-solid mahogany body construction, a more accurate (if not exact Schaller trem system and Seymour Duncan
pickups designed to look and sound like the original Tri-Sonics. To the eagle-eyed trainspotter the most obvious
differences are the tune-o-matic style Schaller roller bridge, slightly different scratchplate (black/white/black - yuk),
the shallower neck (21.6mm at the first fret), the 9" radius fingerboard and the shorter headstock. At around £1,750
the guitar sold quite well - and current secondhand values lie between £1,500-£2,000.
But what about the average player? Guild decided to make changes with
two new models: the BM Special (£1,299),
which kept the general dimensions and semi-solid construction but gained a hardtail bridge/tailpiece and a different
pickup arrangement, and the even-cheaper BM Standard (£845) with solid, unbound construction and a choice of
three pickup configurations - twin humbuckers, a humbucker at the bridge and a Duncan Tri-sonic at the neck, or
three single coils plus a 5-way selector. The guitar also lacked a scratchplate and was offered with a narrower, more
regular 41.3 nut width. Brian May seemed to like the BM Ltd Signature models, using a pair of them for the heavier
dropped-D momment on his first solo tour. Sadly, though, when Fender bought out Guild a couple of years ago the
entire solid body range was rationalised. And the Brian May models became victims of the new regime. Will they
rise again? No word - but watch this space.
RED OR DEAD
It was early '96 Aussie luthier Greg Fryer approached Brian May with
an interesting offer: To build some exact
replicas specifically for him, using original materials as much as possible. With May´s permision, Fryer took
exhaustive measurements of the old gal and returned a full two years later with three guitars.
Two of the guitars (since named John and Paul) were exact replicas,
the closest yet in looks, feel and sound to
Brian's faithful but battered original. The third, dubbed George Burns, was a little different, being made with New
guinea rosewood for the neck and body (not really a true rosewood, botanically speaking - more a brighter-souding
type of mahogany) and Brazilian rosewood for the figerboard instead of the original non-exotic mahogany and
veneered blockboard. These new woods combine to give George Burns a tone that, while still sweet, had a more
aggressive edge which could cut through more easily.
But by now the original was not in such great shape. After nearly 30
years of constant gigging it had begun to show
serious signs of wear, the finish so worn in places that the veneer had begun to tear, allowing moisture to seep into
the potentially fragile plywood body. Encouraged by Greg´s replica work and with a tour looming, May decided it
was high time the Red Special had a complete overhaul to get it back up to gigging spec and after much soul
searching decided to give the go-ahead for Greg to peform major surgery.
The 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. Greg re-finished the neck and body in Rustin's Plastic coating
over the existing finish. Fingerboard wear was repaired and a long lost dot marker replaced; incredibly, although
very worn, the original frets have never needed replacing. The electrics were re-wired and overhauled, the metal
pickup covers - in poor shape after suffering serious and prolonged sixpence abuse - were carefully panel-beaten
back into shape and given new surrounds, and various holes and cracks in the scratchplate were filled and repaired.
With the Red Special now back in top form and with a trio of faithful
replicas waiting in the wings, Brian May´s
distinctive guitar tone looks to be with us for a long time to come.
Greg is currently developing a whole range of Brian May products including
pedals, pickups and various versions of
the guitar. Contact: Fryer Guitars and Pickups, Oittswater Road, Brookvale, Sydney, New Australia 2100, Tel 612
9938 3379, fax 612 9938 3236. Our thanks to Greg Fryer and Mark Reynolds for their help and additional info. (...)