Reviews of the Burns Brian May Signature

Burns Brian May Signature

Taken from Guitarist magazine, November 2001.

The Guitar that every Queen fan has been waiting for – an affordable ‘Red Special’
by Simon Bradley

In the history of guitar-based music, no other guitar has such an iconic status as Brian May’s Red Special. Even such treasures as Hendrix’s white Strat, Jimmy Page’s ’58 Les Paul Standard and Jeff Beck’s battered Esquire pale into insignificance simply because, rare though they are, those models were production instruments. Irrespective of the music that May subsequently produced with his guitar, what makes the Red Special unique is it was made at home by two people – Brian and his dad – who had no prior experience of guitar building.

Stories of the construction of the Red Special – the use of motorcycle saddle springs, knitting needles and pearl shirt buttons, not to mention a mantelpiece riddled with woodworm holes – have become legendary. But the bottom line is that the guitar turned out to possess several innovative designs that have yet to be fully copied by other manufacturers, even today.

Many companies have attempted to persuade and cajole May into allowing them to produce a signature model, but only Guild – and more recently RS Guitars and Greg Fryer – have grabbed the bull by the horns and taken on the daunting task of copying a guitar that is idolised by millions. As good as these guitars are, although the Guild models are no longer available, they are all exclusively expensive and May has had the idea of producing what he describes as an “affordable” copy on the back-burner for years. The story of how he ultimately chose Burns for the job is described by both Brian and his tech Pete Malandrone later in this article, but here we have one of the first production Burns Brian May Signature models to roll off the Korean production line in late August 2001.

Burns Brian May Signature

To be fair, the term ‘production line’ does Burns something of a disservice, as quality has been arguably the highest consideration during the R&D stages. Yes, the guitar is manufactured in the same Korean facility as the rest of the company’s excellent Club series, but Burns have taken steps to keep standards up without realising a hike in price.

As you’d expect, the guitar is loaded with a trio of Tri-Sonic single-coils combined in series (as opposed to parallel like a Strat). The pickups are Korean-made replicas of the bar-magnet-style Tri-Sonics from the early sixties. Burns London supplied the specification and all parties involved have been very happy with the resulting tone.

Obviously the oak/mahogany construction of the original guitar would have been prohibitively expensive here, so May has opted instead for basswood for the body. Burns’ Barry Gibson explains: “Several of the prototypes had alder bodies but we were able to suggest basswood for the production models as it’s inexpensive and, what’s more, a local resource in Korea.”

In an aim to replicate the resonance of the original Red Special, the body also features an acoustic chamber in the area above and behind the bridge. Earning full marks for attention to detail, Burns actually went as far as x-ray scanning the original – courtesy of British Airways! – in order to ensure the placement and dimensions of the cavity were wholly authentic.

There’s pinstripe binding on both the upper and lower faces and, as Burns are understandably keen to point out, the actual body shape is exactly the same as the original. It transpires, according to May, that the bodies of the original Guild BHM models weren’t quite shape-correct. Another brownie point for Burns then.

Also faithful to the original design are the initially daunting array of black-topped, two-position slide switches that control the trio of Tri-Sonics. Each of the three pickups has its own on/off and phase reversal switch. Although our creaky mathematics makes that a total of 27 possible combinations, there are some duplications caused by the phase reversal on a two pickup combination and the fact that you’ll only hear any difference in phase when two pickups are selected, not one. In reality, the guitar offers 16 different tones, and of course you can mute it… rather too easily! We’ll go into the actual sounds in due course, but if there’s a potentially more versatile guitar out there, we’d like to hear about it.

An obvious compromise from the original guitar was the bridge arrangement. Instead of the complex original vibrato assembly, Burns have gone for a Strat-derived unit. “This bridge was a problem,” explains May, “because almost always when you have this kind of saddle the worm [height adjustment] screws stick out of the top and I hate that – it kills my hand. So they did this version which just works great because you’ve got this space here for your hand and can play as usual and have the vibrato there at the same time. The vibrato has a different source point from mine too, a different pivot. Mine is way back on the bridge, so you don’t have this feeling of (it) being in the way.”

The vibrato arm bar, too, differs slightly. According to May’s tech Pete Malandrome: “Brian couldn’t actually play the way he liked, which is being in contact with the arm almost the entire time; it was always either too low or not flat enough to the body. So we bent the arm in a vice one afternoon and came up with the design you see here.”

Arguably the biggest compromise, however, is with the neck. Although, like the Red Special, the scale length is 610mm (24-inch), shorter than the vast majority of production electrics, and we get the zero fret and string guide which, incidentally, is hand-cut in the UK, the neck is made from a single piece of hard rock maple. And although Brian specified a wide 45mm nut width, the resulting feel is completely different from the original. Several of us at Guitarist have had the chance to play the real deal in anger, and suffice to say that the dimensions of the Red Special’s neck are almost impossibly huge in both width and depth – far too big for a production instrument.

The neck goes from 45mm at the nut to 56.5mm at the 24th fret, which is in keeping with the width of the original, but has an average depth of 24mm – a lot slimmer than the Red Special – all the way to the heel. Coupled with the medium frets, superior ebony board and super-glossy finish, the instrument is extremely playable with vibrato stability coming from a set of unusual but efficient looking Grover tuners. The dot inlays add to the authenticity and, if anyone was in any doubt as to the origin of the guitar, Mr May’s signature scrawl adorns the characteristic headstock.

Sounds: Obviously the best method of gauging the performance in this department is to listen to the audio demos on this month’s CD, courtesy of both Brian himself and yours truly, but it’s awe-inspiring just how ‘Queen’ it’s possible to sound upon plugging in.

It’s easy to get lost among the flurry of switches – even Brian admits to getting foxed from time to time – but the sheer variety of sounds at your fingertips is most impressive.

The option of reversing the phase of any of the pickups at any time has a drastic effect. For example, having all three pickups on in series produces that thick creamy tone that has been used for the cello sections of May’s guitar orchestrations. However, reverse the middle pickup and the bottom drops out, leaving you with a snorting twang that a Telecaster or Gretsch would be proud of.

The vibrato system is worthy of mention too. It offers surprisingly wide travel, feels very smooth in action and above all holds its tuning well both during quite violent bends and also when you’re palm damping with your right-hand.


An almost unavoidable trap with the Brian May Signature is that it’ll be perceived as a tonal Queen vehicle and not much else. However, such is the playing comfort, the look, vibe and sheer amount of tone involved here you’d be missing out on something genuinely special if Freddie and co were never your bag. As well as the three-tone sunburst option already on the market, plans are in the pipeline for a further two finishes, so there’s no need to go for the vintage cherry model if you do want to distance yourself from the May persona.

Do many players use more than three or four sounds during a gig? Arguably not, but if you want to go from all out rock to the aforementioned country twang at the flick of a switch or two, we can’t think of more than a couple of other guitars that could do the same job.

The price of £499 is frankly astounding and there’s no doubt that these guitars are going to sell like hot cakes. For May fans, this instrument is a dream that’s finally come true. But guitarists of any genre will find something here that they can use, which is the highest praise we can give.

Guitarist rating 4.5/5

The Burns connection

Pete Malandrone has been Brian’s technical assistant since 1993 and is responsible for the maintenance of Brian’s guitars, Vox amps and rack. He was heavily involved in the evolution of the Burns Brian May Signature from the very beginning.

What made Brian come up with the idea for this guitar in the first place?

The concept – in fact the basic premise of the whole thing-was to produce a genuinely high-quality instrument that people could afford. Obviously to get it under £500 you’ve got to cut corners in certain areas, but hopefully this won’t prove to be a deterrent to people who want to buy it. Basically, any compromises we’ve made have happened in order to keep the price down and we’ve tried to work out where we can cut corners without compromising the quality.

The process took two years from start to finish. How did it begin?

It was something we thought would be a good idea and I sort of put the word out to see how many people would be interested in doing it. To be honest, everyone always says they’d love to do a signature Brian May guitar but nothing really comes of it, so I made it my job to sort of pump the idea around.

How did you eventually offer the option to Burns?

Well, it’s partly because of the obvious connection of the Tri-Sonics (pickups) but also it’s a good old British guitar-maker’s name and they were quickest off the mark. They brought a guitar to us pretty fast and presented it as the type of thing they could do. The feeling I got was that Brian would have liked it to have been Burns anyway, y’know? I mean there was Fender and Gibson on the list too, but there’s not that much of a link there, and I always thought that when he looked at the names he’d have gone for Burns. It’s worked out well.

What do you think of the finished article?

Everything is as close as we could get it without having to re-design the wheel, as it were. Burns sent us stuff, and if Brian liked it, they went with it. It wasn’t like we went down to measuring string spacings or anything; it was just, Here’s a guitar which looks very nice, plays very well and one that Brian would be happy to both play and put his name to.

Do you think it’ll appeal to non-Queen fans?

We hope so. I mean, why not? It’s actually a very nice instrument, and it’s different. Everyone’s got a Les Paul or a Strat, or a derivative of either, and there’s no doubt that it does give you an awful lot of sounds.

Hammers That Fall

A look at other May signatures, plus the original ol’ lady

Guild BHM1

Guild’s stab at a production version of the Red Special began as far back as 1984 and, although 300 initial models of the BHM1 hit the streets, Brian pulled the plug when discrepancies began to appear. With a solid body, DiMarzio BHM pickups and a Kahler locking vibrato, it’s arguably easy to see why…

In 1993, Guild tried again with the BM01 Signature Pro being by far the most faithful copy up to that point. The pickups came from Seymour Duncan this time while the vibrato, custom-made by Schaller, was a very close reproduction of May’s own ‘knife edge’ design. More and more BM models appeared, including a selection of stripped-down designs in a veritable rainbow of finishes. But, as the perceived build quality dipped, so did Brian’s enthusiasm and the association was dissolved soon after.

Greg Fryer ‘Brian May’

The full story behind the genial Aussie luthier’s one-man mission to build May the ‘best copies that he’d ever seen’ is detailed in the July 1998 issue of Guitarist. Greg obtained full permission from May to completely disassemble the Red Special and take exhaustive measurements of every single part, before pulling it back together as pad of a drawn-out restoration process. The Fryer guitars are exactly the same as the original in every possible way – the materials, the sound, the feel, even the finishing procedures. He went as far as visiting Mr May Senior’s garden shed to locate the pots of Rustin’s Plastic Coating and Furniglas Mahogany wood dye that had been originally used. At around £5,000 a piece the guitars aren’t cheap, but they are as close to the genuine article as is feasible for mere mortals.

The Red Special

As the story behind its creation is widely available, there’s little need to rehash it here, As Hank Marvin said of the RS: “Imagine building your own guitar, as we’ve all done at sometime, and it still works after 30 years. Amazing.” Considering that it cost Brian and his father the princely sum of £8, the guitar is now a genuine rock icon – arguably the most revered of them all. Brian has recently affixed a sixpence to the headstock: is this sacrilege?

Burns Brian May Signature

Taken from Total Guitar magazine, November 2001.

A rock icon for the masses. ‘Ready Freddie’ or merely a ‘Crazy Little Thing’?

Words: Simon Bradley

Was the original really homemade?

Yes, even after 35-odd years in existence, the original Red Special remains a unique enigma; the fact that 99 per cent of all of Brian’s guitar work was performed on a guitar made in his dad’s garden shed still beggars belief.

How come it’s lasted so long, then?

As well as designing the guitar itself the fledgling May Guitars Inc. came up with brand-new blueprints for the tools they used in the construction too. This all boiled down to a guitar that was built to last – like most of us, the young Brian couldn’t afford his dream instrument at the time, a Fender Strat – and it’s still his number one instrument to this day.

Is that why Burns has made this copy?

Well, it’s not the only reason, but the connection probably made the final decision more straightforward. Many companies have been interested in producing a Brian May guitar, but according to Brian himself, nothing ever seemed to come of initial discussions. Guild produced some models during the 90s and Aussie luthier Greg Fryer builds limited numbers of what May calls ‘the best copies I’ve ever played’, but there’s no ‘budget’ version in the marketplace.

Until now…

Indeed. The idea was floated to several big names, including Fender and Gibson, but due to the aforementioned relationship – plus the fact that it was quickest off the mark – Burns got the nod. This production guitar is the result of many months of R&D between the two parties, and this final spec and design was arrived at via a series of suggestions from Brian and the construction of prototypes by Burns. Mr May has stringent requirements of his usual setup anyway and, for him to be prepared to put his name on the guitar, this procedure was exhaustive – a slight change in dimensions here, a tweak of the pickup voicings there -but the man is now quoted as being extremely happy with the results.

How close is this to the original?

The genuine Red Special is an oak/ mahogany affair that, quite aside from anything else, would have proved prohibitively expensive to try and reproduce at this end of the market. Here, the body is fashioned from basswood and, combined with an acoustic chamber within the guitar’s construction, is a very close reproduction of the original. Another compromise is the neck. The feel of May’s own guitar is absolutely massive, easily the biggest of any guitar we’ve ever played and, as both Burns and Brian wanted this guitar to appeal to everyone, its dimensions are far more comfortable. He asked for a 45mm width at the nut, which is pretty standard, and a zero fret (the fret right under the nut) for authenticity.

What do all those switches do?

Each of the three pickups has a switch to turn them on and off just like a normal toggle or blade switch, and you select the coils accordingly. The other set of buttons are phase switches for each. Without getting into the murky realms of applied electronics, flicking the switch reverses the pickup coil, which results in a vastly different sound from the same pickup selections. This only works when you have two or more coils selected, but this design has yet to appear on any other production guitar that we know of.

What’s the sound like?

In a word: awesome. May’s signature tone comes from running his Vox amps flat out, and the character of power valve drive, combined with the guitar and Brian’s fingers, does the rest: it’s thick, warm and drips with feel. The pickups here are wired in series rather than in parallel (that is, one after the other in the circuit rather than side by side). This provides extra signal to the amp, and although it’s a tad complicated to explain in full here, putting all three pickups on gives you a massive sound through virtually any amp you like. With a huge selection of pickup settings at your disposal, the guitar is extremely versatile and there’s no need to feel hemmed into a Queen style if this isn’t your bag: you could use this thing for anything from country to mosh-core. Seriously.


As a stand-alone instrument, the BM Signature plays excellently, sounds the nuts and looks cool too, and with such a great price it’d be a shame for everyone reading this not to at least try one out, If you’re a Queen fan and revel in the May tone, then rest assured that this Burns is easily as good as you will have dared to hope.

Rating: 5/5

Origin: Korea
Body: Basswood
Neck: Maple
Fingerboard: Ebony
Pickups: Three Burns Tri Sonic singlecoils
Electrics: volume and tone pots, on/off switch and phase switch for each pickup
Bridge: vintage pivot tremolo
Finishes: Vintage cherry, three tone sunburst

Contact House Music
Tel: 0207 461 3350
www burns-guitars

Killer Queen

Burns Brian May Signature Model
By Emile Menasché

Taken from Guitar World Magazine, August 2002

Few signature models are as closely connected to their namesake as the Burns new Brian May Signature guitar. According to the British guitar builder, the Queen guitarist exercised a firm hand in the model’s development: he vetoed 22 prototypes before settling on the design the company offers today.

The Brian May Signature is based on May’s Red Special, a guitar he and his father built by hand and which became ubiquitous on Queen’s recordings. Throughout the group’s reign, May’s tone stood out as one of the most identifiable in the business – soaring overdrive punctuated by a distinct, percussive attack, as though a Strat and Les Paul were fused to produce one archetypal sound.

From its origins as a homemade one-off, May’s guitar has become available in various production models over the years. The Burns model is the latest, and come from a company known for its own iconoclastic approach to guitar design. The instrument is the first to be issued by Burns USA, which plans to revive many of the classic Burns guitars that have been popular from the Sixties forward.

Wood and construction

The Burns model features the same essential materials as May’s original guitar: a mahogany neck glued to a mahogany body, with a two-octave ebony fingerboard. The body has a resonant acoustic chamber that adds dimension to the tone (and keeps the weight down).

The medium frets are smoothly dressed, and the overall playing surface is slick but sure. The neck feels round – reminiscent of some Gibsons but with less taper. It’s a great playing surface if you really like to dig into the strings for bends. One unusual feature: the May has a zero fret. But though zero-fret guitars can be a little buzzy, the setup on the test guitar was fine.

The neck joint meets the body near the 19th fret, and the cutaways don’t start until the 21st, a design that provides exceptional access to the upper registers. The deep cutaway in the bass side of the neck allows you to play high-wire runs across the strings and then bend those high notes to the brink. With a shorter scale (24 inches) than the typical rock guitar, the two-octave neck feels less cumbersome than some, though the fret-to-fret spacing can be a little cramped at the highest frets.

Hardware and appointments

The Burns version of the May has a floating bridge system (the design is similar to that of a vintage Fender) and locking Grover tuners. The bridge worked well; it had smooth action and didn’t bounce. As for the Grovers, they have an interesting design in that the sleeve locks automatically as you tighten the string. They certainly maintained stable tuning.

All the hardware is chrome, including the pickup covers, which look great against the black pick guard and Vintage Cherry finish. With simple dot inlays, the May has an understated, pro look. Like an old sports car, it has an austere modernity that makes you think action.


Brian May created his unique sounds with some very unconventional electronics, and his signature model is equipped with three handmade Burns Tri-Sonic single-coils, which are governed by master volume and tone controls. They do a great job of capturing his sound.

Each pickup has a three-way switch that lets it be turned on, turned off or phase reversed, allowing for about 14 different sounds (there are actually more combinations, but there’s some duplication in the phase relationships). The pickups are wired in series, not parallel as they are on most guitars, and when you combine two or more, you get an increase in sonic fat content. While a Strat sounds glassy and funky with the neck and mid pickups engaged, the Brian May screams.

The pickups offer so much attack that the sound stays clear when you combine the pickups, even when plenty of distortion is added. With a tube amp driving hard, the Burns produced May’s singsong lead sounds that’s great for melodic playing. With a cleaner amp setup, the May was capable of everything from sharp rockabilly licks to blues to country. Reversing the phase of one pickup produced a shimmering funky tone. And a nice surprise: the May is also capable of producing some very smoky jazz tones.

The bottom line

While the Brian May model can produce all the familiar Queen sounds, it would be a shame to relegate it to tribute duties only. This is an instrument that you can exploit to create your own voice, one that’s as distinct from May’s original as it is from Strats, Teles and Les Pauls.

List price $1395.00 (without case)

Burns Official Brian May Signature Guitar

Taken from Guitar One Magazine

Axe Fit for a Queen
by Douglas Baldwin

Brian May’s Red Special is one legendary guitar, with an emphasis on one. In addition to being the source of his creamy, violinlike melodies and raging pop-metal riffs with Queen, there is literally only one Red Special, as it was hand-built by Brian and his dad from motorcycle saddle springs, knitting needles, pearl shirt buttons, and an old wormhole-ridden oak mantelpiece.

Several companies have attempted production-line recreations of the Red Special, the most successful of which until now has been Guild. Its BHM model commands some big bucks, though, because it’s no longer available. May has always wanted to produce an affordable copy of his unique axe, but it was not until he hooked up with the resurrected Burns London guitar company that he found a team both sympathetic and skilled enough to realize his wishes. Two years of intensive research and development produced 22 separate prototypes before Brian and Burns found a Korean manufacturer capable of delivering an instrument that stood up to spec at the proper price.

Better Than the Original

Certain details of Brian May’s original Red Special have been scrupulously copied, such as the trio of Tri-Sonic pickups, which are built to spec, wired in series, and activated and phase-reversed with individual slider switches. The body shape is also exactly the same as the original (a detail missing from Guild’s BHM model), and Burns actually X-ray–scanned May’s guitar (courtesy of British Airways!) to recreate the acoustic chamber he carved into the area above and behind the bridge. The neck, like the Red Special’s, is carved from a single piece of solid mahogany, sporting the accurate and unusually short scale length of 24″ and a wider-than-usual 13¼” nut. The zero fret, string guide (hand-cut in the U.K.), and dot inlays cleave to the original, and if anyone had any doubt as to its origins, Mr. May’s signature scrawl adorns the characteristic headstock.

The points that deviate from the original Red Special actually combine to produce an instrument that is both superior for the average player and tastefully aimed at keeping the instrument affordable. The oak/mahogany construction of the original guitar would have been expensive to reproduce, so May has opted instead for a mahogany-only body. The Vintage Cherry Red finish is a bit more upscale than May’s original fence paint, and the Three-tone Sunburst offers a handsome alternative to mere visual cloning. And though the Signature Model’s neck conforms to the original in width, it is far thinner in depth—and far more playable—than May’s massive original.

Instead of the original Byzantine vibrato assembly, Burns has gone for a free-floating unit with pivot screws mounted below the face of the instrument. The resulting feel is far friendlier to the hand than either a Tune-o-matic or vintage Stratocaster design. The vibrato arm also differs slightly. In tandem with the medium frets, gloss-finished ebony fretboard, and Grover locking tuners, the Signature Model plays like butter and stays reliably in tune.

Sounds Like May — and Then Some!

If you must dial up May’s velvety sustain, slide all three pickups to the “on” position, roll back the tone control a bit, plug into a wall of overdriven Vox AC30 amps, and play – you will not be disappointed. But there’s so much going on with this guitar that to focus on just how “Queen” you can sound would do it a great disservice. The Tri-Sonic pickups have a clear, almost glassy countrified tone when used alone. In pairs, the series wiring adds muscle while the pickup spacing adds a bit of “cluck.” The out-of-phase option transforms any combination of pickups into a snarly, funky tone filter worthy of a Sly Stone remix. And the tone control is amazingly well-tuned, capable of eliciting vowel-like “wah” effects if you wish. Unless you have a custom-wired instrument, there is virtually nothing on the market that can conjure up the tones that this axe has. Certainly fans of Queen will enjoy this honorable tribute instrument, but guitarists of every possible style could make the Brian May Signature Model their first-choice tool of the trade.