When guitar builder and repairer, Greg Fryer wrote to Brian May and suggested that he could build a replica of the famous Red Special, the Queen guitarist might well have presumed it to be another nutter after his 15 minutes of fame. But something seemed different…
He wrote me this letter from Australia, explains Brian, and said that the pinnacle of his life would be to make a proper copy of the Old Lady, as he didnt believe that it had ever been done before. I talked to him and he flew himself over, I let him go over the guitar to the ultimate millionth of an inch; he went home again and 18 months later arrived with three superb copies of the guitar. Theyre just beautiful. If Id gone looking for someone who could do this, it would have taken years to find him.
Brian doesnt disparage the various models built for him by Guild, but confesses that theres something very different about Fryers approach.
Guild made a great job, but they couldnt get into every single detail of say, the tremolo or the woods for a production guitar. Greg did it all by hand, exactly the way Id done it. And hed researched all the materials, the finish, the glues, everything.
Once Brian had seen the sheer quality of Gregs work, he trusted him enough to let him examine the guitar hed made all those years ago with his father. The guitar was irreplaceable, but it was in trouble.
Its surface had become so pitted that it was unable to keep out the elements, adds Brian; remember its got to go from minus 30 degrees to tropical temperatures.
Initially, Greg was just a little over-awed by the thought of taking apart one of the worlds most famous, not to say priceless, guitars. So Brian took the plunge himself.
I got the screwdriver out and we took it to bits. After that, Greg took over. Hes great, because he never does anything without asking, and never without researching what Id done in the first place. I have to say that I found it interesting, revisiting what wed done. It was all by hand: we made little jigs to shape things like the frets and the bridge. Gregs very interested in the design of the guitar and the fact that, when we did a lot of those things, it was the first time they had ever been done. I just hope itll all go back together again!
Brian is only too aware that his renovation of the Old Lady will cause raised eyebrows in certain quarters, due to its vintage value and scarcity. But this is a working guitar first and foremost, and it was beginning to fall to pieces, literally.
Oh yeah, sighs May, I know some people will disagree with what Ive done, because theres this big fetish with old guitars, where you can see all the wear on them.
I did some real soul searching. Take the fingerboard: we were going to repair the pits caused by damage, but keep the wear. Then I decided it should be restored; its still going to be my main guitar and its going to get worn again.
Brian then slipped away for his interview with Simon Bradley, while I went to meet Greg.
Nurse, the screens
Head bowed over the Old Ladys dismembered limbs, Greg put me in mind of a surgeon, grafting back the pieces of some hapless road accident victim. This comparison may seem a distressing one but the similarities are remarkable: absolute love of the job is paramount, total care and dedication vital; attention to detail also imperative. This guy is a complete perfectionist.
Unusually quietly spoken for a Sydney lad, Greg was nevertheless quick to show his disapproval as my fingers wandered over the guitars dislocated body.
Please… dont touch… thats been degreased about 15 times already. Now Ill have to do it again. Oops!
But soon we are getting along well, Greg becoming animated at the thought of telling Guitarist readers about the builder-repairers dream come true.
Its a huge privilege, he begins, because, like loads of other guitar makers and players, Ive been a huge fan of Brians playing for a long time and its fantastic to be associated with the research and development on his guitar.
When Greg first came to England in July 1996, he discussed the repairs Brian was envisaging at that stage.
They were just cosmetic things, such as the binding, which had been coming off at the top side and had been held on with bits of tape for about seven or eight years. And the machineheads had been replaced a few times. He wasnt happy with the Gotoh locking heads and there were holes in the back of the headstock, filled with bits of wood. Im replacing the machineheads with Schallers, the same type which are one my own guitars, where Ive adapted the Gotoh white pearl buttons, identical to Brians originals.
Once May was confident in Gregs abilities, they took the project several stages further.
We took the neck out of the body and removed the tremolo, and the whole process evolved as weve gathered up our courage. Initially, no re-finishing was talked about, but Brian eventually decided that hed prefer to have some re-lacquering done, just to stop the bits that were really falling apart from deteriorating further. So all the usual discussions that go on between guitar collectors and players come up; like whether to leave it in its original, semi-battered form. Ultimately, Brian was the one who had to be happy with the course that we took. Hes the one who plays it, and it is a playing instrument; itll never be sold, so it doesnt have any intrinsic value…
Repairs to the body include several pieces of veneer that were scarfed in. These are bits that have been torn away or worn out by belt buckles. There are other areas, like the little dip up near the scratchplate, where the sixpence plectrum had chopped up the wood. There are two large sections where weve done trials with Rustins Plastic Coating, and different methods of preparing the surface to get the grime and some of the wear and tear out. At least what goes over the top now will hold together, so that whatever might be underneath stays reasonably invisible.
Remarkably, perhaps, the Old Lady was in incredibly good structural shape, considering all the wear and tear that its faced over the years and the occasional accidents that have befallen it. The lacquer checking on the guitars top, however, does look quite serious.
Thats mainly from movement in the surface veneers, Greg reassures me, but the glue has held together pretty well. It was Cascamite, a urea-formaldehyde glue which evolved through the 1940s and 1950s; its still used in some boating applications. It makes quite invisible joins, too. But you can see where the screws that hold the layer of blockboard together are, because theyre the things that have moved. The veneer has started to split, but most of its just the Rustins, which has reached the end of its elastic life and cracked where the veneers have started to move.
As a builder of extremely high quality guitars himself, what does Greg think of the workmanship here?
Its remarkable, he exclaims with genuine respect. It was much more difficult for them to do that job than, say, for me to build my first guitar in 1980, because a lot of things just werent available. Now, of course, I can get all the stuff from the States and its on my doorstep in five days. But Brian and his dad did it all the hard way. They were re-designing the wheel and in some ways making a better version of it than any of the guitar companies.
What about the idiosyncrasies that father and son built into the guitar?
Theres the very thick neck, for one. The next thing that people notice is the wide spacing at the nut and the comparatively narrower spacing at the body end. Apart from those things which they deliberately chose to do, its made in a very sound fashion indeed.
They chose the correct materials and theyve done some things that were really hard to do. Putting the veneer round the sides is very hard, because it never wants to stay flat. They did all these jobs very well, and they were only using hand tools in a top room of the house.
The whole concept was extremely innovative, say Fryer, because they were going from a clean-sheet design and they put their minds to things that confound guitar-makers time and again. Their tremolo system and their bridge with the rollers were very original and worked extremely well. And the headstock is incredibly well designed, with almost straight string pull and very shallow angles across the nut; just enough to pull the strings down and not to add to the tuning woes.
Strats have much more trouble with their varying angles, from the bottom E to the top E, and the Stratocaster is arguably the best guitar ever designed.
As Brian has said, this guitar has to withstand vast temperature and humidity changes throughout its life. So how has the neck stood up to the rigours of the road?
Its as straight as an arrow, exclaims Fryer. The truss rod has never been adjusted and I undid the nut with my fingers. Its still true and straight on both sides and in the middle. Its a great piece of work.
Those whove followed the life of the Old Lady will know that various wiring changes have been carried out over the years; gain boosters fitted and removed and feedback addressed. Whats the instruments current electrical state?
Over the last couple of years, Ive done a lot of development work on the pickups Ive used in my own guitars, which are Kent Armstrongs latest editions of Burns Tri-sonics. But Ive changed them to my own specifications and worked out ways to decrease the microphonic squeal, which is always a problem on pickups with a metal cover and metal base. So, based on my developments there, Brian suggested it would be worthwhile to see what I could do with his pickups. So Ive taken them all apart and done some work on them; nothing has been changed in the coil, of course. Two of them were potted in Araldite, but Ive done things which should improve the microphonic squeal. So, hopefully, they should sound the same but just have a better tolerance to feedback at high levels.
Im going to be shielding the internal cavities too. Ive cleaned up all the electrics; there were shreds of sixpence over everything; there was all this green stuff and it was bits of sixpence that had been chopped away as gritty little bits; the jack socket was full of that. There were several wires that were hanging on by a thread, so some of those joints have been re-done.
In my guitars I use an adhesive backed copper foil and, because theyre very quiet, Brian thought itd be nice to do the same. Theres been a bit of work on the scratchplate as well. Ive got to glue a little piece down near the bridge pickup, which had been broken for a long time, and fill different holes; one in particular, where the fuzz box used to be.
The shafts of the volume and tone controls had quite a bit of movement too, especially the volume, so those have been re-centred and re-drilled, so now, theres only the smallest movement. Its all coming together really well and Im expecting to finish the job in a week or so.
Dont stop him now
This incredible project has kept Greg Fryer occupied since early January of this year. Brian Mays beloved Old Lady is now back in tip-top condition after a spell of love and care that even BUPA would be more than proud of.
Its been an incredible three-and-a-half months, says Greg. Its been very in-depth and taken a huge amount of research, down to finding out the exact properties of the materials were dealing with.
In every area, weve got in touch with experts in the field and done loads of experiments to make sure that all of these procedures were going to work out properly.
We havent just ploughed straight in. The preparation has taken two or three times the length of the end process because with this guitar, everything had to be exactly right. And when I say that, I mean its got to be sorted first time round!
Although Gregs involvement with the guitar is now over, hes certain to be called on for further servicing and general upkeep of the Old Lady.
In the meantime, Brian May is in heaven, as hes using possibly the best back-up guitars hes ever owned; these are three instruments built by Fryer to exacting specifications.
Know as John, Paul and George Burns respectively (that last play on words, of course, referring to Beatle George Harrison, Burns pickups and the wry old American Comic), these guitars are nothing short of stunning. We know because weve played them.