Red Special: Wikis


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Red Special
Manufacturer Brian May, Harold May
Period 1963
Body type semi-hollow
Neck joint Bolt on
Scale 24"
Body Oak, blockboard with mahogany veneer
Neck Mahogany
Fretboard Oak
Bridge Custom made with separate string adjustment
Pickup(s) 3 modified Burns Tri-Sonic (Originally homemade pickups)

The Red Special is an electric guitar owned by Queen guitarist Brian May and custom-built by May and his father.[1] May has used it on Queen albums and in live performances for more than 30 years. 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, the original Red Special (also known as 'The Old Lady') was built by May himself along with his father, Harold. 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 into the desired form; this was difficult because of the age and quality of the wood. According to May, there are two wormholes in the neck of the guitar.[2]

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 cheap Satellite-badged copy instead of a real Strat). Another video that did not feature the Red Special was "Princes of the Universe", where May used a white Jackson Randy Rhoads replica (for reasons unknown).[3] May also recorded the original version of "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and performed in the accompanying video with a Fender Telecaster.[4]


Brian May performing with the Greg Fryer Red Special Replica (named 'John') (note the Fryer logo on the headstock).

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.[5] 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 [a similar color to that of the Red Special] , 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. John is Brian's main back up Red Special, and is tuned to standard. When Brian plays George Burns live, he tunes it to Drop D tuning, to play Fat Bottomed Girls, and occasionally Another One Bites The Dust. George is also made out of New Guinea Rosewood so, tonally, it differs to the original.

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. Brian has recently had another Red Special copy made with a scalloped fretboard made by Andrew Guyton.


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.

Unusual features

  • Series wiring
    • The pickups are wired in series rather than the more usual parallel configuration. 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 what remains after the signal common to the two pickups is canceled out, and only the differences from pickup position remain. If the output were identical from two pickups, no sound would be produced.
  • Controls
    • 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.
  • Tone
    • 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.[citation needed]
  • 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.
  • Tremolo
    • The tremolo is unique and was designed by Brian and his father. The tremolo-system is known as the knife-edge tremolo as it features a knife-edge. The tremolo rocks on a knife-edge that is linked to a couple of motor-bikes valvesprings in the guitar. The tremolo-arm itself was a made from a saddle bag carrier from an old bike and the knitting needle from his mother.


  • Body
    • Oak and blockboard (with a mahogany veneer), semi-solid body
    • Depth: 39 mm
  • Neck
    • 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
    • Oak 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.
  • Fretboard
    • 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)
  • Nut
    • "Zero" fret with Bakelite string guide
  • Strings
    • String spacing at nut: 41 mm
    • String spacing at bridge: 49 mm
    • Strings used - Optima Gold Brian May Custom Gauge - .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042 supplied by A Strings
  • Misc
    • 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)

See also


  1. ^ "The Red Special Story". "Brian May Guitars - The Official web site". 
  2. ^ "His Guitars". "Tornado's Page". Retrieved 2007-05-31. 
  3. ^ Queen - "Princes of the Universe" music video
  4. ^ Blackett, Matt. "Renaissance Man." Guitar Player Magazine Jan. 2008: 92. Print.
  5. ^ Gjörde, Per (2001). Pearls and Crazy Diamonds. Göteborg, Sweden: Addit Information AB. pp. 62–63. 

External links

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