(source: Guitarist magazine)
Over the years, Brian May's 'Red Special', 'Old Lady' or whichever term one wants to apply to the instrument built by Brian and his late father Harold May, over 30 years ago, has been copied by fans and bona fide guitar companies alike.
Perhaps the best known replicas are by Guild, who've had a couple of
stabs at recreating this icon of rock. But due to production compromises
these instruments, although fine guitars in their own right, owed little
to the original in
construction, sound or playability. Enter an unassuming guitar builder and repairer from Sydney, Australia...
Back in 1996 Greg Fryer contacted Brian May and suggested he build a
genuine replica of the Old Lady, since he believed this had never really
been achieved. So when he undertook the project he decided that it had
to be done properly: that is,
in as close a fashion to Brian's own guitar as possible. All Brian's fans know the legend of the Red Special, so I won't go into that again, but take a look at the July '98 issue for more information. Suffice it to say that Greg took exhaustive measurements from the original instrument, with the help and consent of Brian himself, before undertaking the daunting work.
It looks like there will be two versions of the Special: the first will be like 'John' and 'Paul' (Greg's first two replica Specials - Brian has John and Greg kept Paul); and 'George Burns' (George Burns is rather different, in that he's made from New
Guinea rosewood throughout; Brian has him, too). We'll concentrate mainly on the John and George versions here and intersperse comments about George Burns where appropriate.
Just like the original guitar, Greg employed a centre slab of oak, upon
which the bridge, tremolo and pickups are mounted and into which the neck
is glued (the original was affixed by a single bolt whose nut actually
protruded from the back of
the body). That oak centre section is then padded out with blockboard wings and the front, back and rims covered with veneers of mahogany (remember that George Burns is solid rosewood, although both styles feature hollow chambers
for improved tone and dynamics).
The neck is a single lump of mahogany, with a black-painted and lacquered
oak fingerboard containing 24 Jim Dunlop 6130 frets, plus an extra 'zero'
fret (again, George Burns is all New Guinea rosewood). Just like the Old
Lady and the three instruments made for him by Greg, it's a fat old thing
and would shock many modern guitarists by its large 'D' section and the
fact that it's rather wider at the nut, but slightly narrower at the top
of the neck than the 43mm-56mm standard of
Greg has even used twin-pack Rustin's Plastic Coating for the clear finish. It's flat, smooth and glass-like, with no sinking or flaws of any kind and the wood beneath radiating its grain in a very fetching manner.
The pickups are Kent Armstrong versions of the Burns Tri-Sonics on the
Red Special, which Greg has modified in order to mimic the differences
in each of Brian's originals and to eradicate the potential howl of metal-covered
metal bases. Black perspex was the material of choice for the original scratchplate and Mr Fryer saw fit to use the same material for the sake of absolute authenticity.
From an engineering standpoint, the original home-made bridge and vibrato-tailpiece
were the most time-consuming and thought-provoking nuts to crack. These
have also been the most difficult aspects of the original guitar to
duplicate, either by one-off makers or indeed by Guild. Greg wanted to re-create, as accurately as possible, Brian's 'bike-spring and knitting-needle' affair, which works so well and has such a great feel to it. So certain aspects were farmed out
to some exceptional machinist/designers and the results are simply awesome to use.
The six slider switches which are mounted adjacent to the single volume
and tone control look quite complicated, but are fairly logical to use
once you realise where everything is. The two rows correspond directly
with the pickups and the top
three are simple on-off switches, while the lower row reverse each one's phase. It doesn't take long to accustom yourself to where everything is and which of the many tones are your favourite. Machineheads are rear-locking Schallers with
modified Gotoh pearl buttons, to look more like Brian's original headstock.
For me, a big neck is not a problem to surmount on a guitar; I even got
along with the 'baseball bat' that was the early Jeff Beck Strat. So there
was nothing too daunting here from that viewpoint. Even its relatively
parallel width presented no
The fact that the guitar has a zero fret that sits a couple of millimetres
away from the nut means that there's a certain amount of scraping across
it when you bend a string. This is obviously only noticeable when playing
unplugged and doesn't
come through the amp at all - you'd certainly never hear it at the volumes Brian plays!
As all the Fryer guitars I tried were strung with 9-gauge Maxima Gold
strings, there's naturally a light feel to them. Add to this the fact that
Brian likes quite a low action, and you'd be right to envisage a slippery
feel - especially on the two
models with Rustin's lacquered fingerboards. Bending is great and those wide, May-type vibratos come more easily under the fingers than usual, courtesy of the big neck, light action and feel. Top end access is excellent, due to the 19th fret
neck join and neat cutaway, and it was no problem to hit the top octave.
There's an obvious difference in feel between John and Paul, with their
lacquered fingerboards, and George Burns, with his bare rosewood board;
the two Beatles are more slippery than their American comedian counterpart.
With this kind of construction - lightweight composites around a core of dense hardwood - you'd expect a certain springiness of tone and a broad dynamic response. Unsurprisingly, that's exactly what you get in John and Paul - and indeed the original Old Lady, although that seemed somehow less inherently toppy than the new instruments. George Burns is a little tougher-sounding and Brian probably uses him when requiring a ballsier, more modern tone.
Acoustically, the guitars are quite bright and loud, despite their light actions. But when you plug in - and I was fortunate enough to have Brian's own favourite Vox AC30 and the 'Deacy' amp as my testbeds - the transformation is spectacular.
The guitars' natural tone is lively and bright, with each pickup selection
offering its own version of that sound, from sharp and incisive at the
bridge, through warm and Fendery in the middle to fat and punchy at the
neck. There's no mushiness at
all, despite the often thick tones favoured by Brian for soloing or harmony work. These are usually created using beefy combinations of in and out-of-phase pickups and often with the incredibly fat-sounding 'Deacy' amp (John Deacon built
this little transistor amp for Brian years ago and it has been featured on dozens of tracks).
What I did find fascinating - and real Brian fans will want to kill
me for this privilege - was playing through the Vox and the Deacy, and
trying out different pickup and I've said before, it's a tough job, but
someone's gotta do it!
Value for money
I would imagine the amount of time, energy and sheer dedication, not
to mention blood, sweat and probably a few tears too, that have gone into
the creation of these guitars, has rarely, if ever, been equalled. That
I then have to judge them on
their worth is almost an insult to Greg Fryer, Brian and Harold May. However, £5,000 is an awful lot of anyone's money and will put these guitars out of most players' reach.
I'm sure I'd not be wrong in my assumption that only true May-heads
will be interested in looking closer. If they do they'll realise the terrific
investment potential here and be prepared to fork out for a unique piece
of rock history. I mean, think
Greg Fryer is an artisan. In all my years in this business, seldom have
I seen such dedication and sheer devotion to a task. Greg's Brian May models
are true works of art, which bear the blessing and indeed the patronage
of their original
inspiration. It doesn't get much better than that... and it doesn't get much better than this.