Guild Brian May Limited Edition

The Brian May guitar sound remains one of the most easily identifiable in the history of rock. From the first to the last Queen album and now taking centre stage in his solo work, Brian’s distinctively smooth, highly melodic, distorted tone has been achieved on just one guitar – his homemade ‘Red Special’. TGM’s Dave Burrluck speaks to Brian about his original guitar and evaluates Guild’s ’93 replica.

In 1984, 20 years after the original guitar’s birth, Guild produced the first official replica of Brian’s Red Special. (Typically, it took a Japanese company, Greco, to build the first unofficial copy – the BM 80 – in the early/mid ’80s). Only 316 ‘close counterparts’ of the guitar were made but due to the highly original construction of Brian’s axe this guitar failed to satisfy either Brian or the market.

Visually the solidbody ’84 version looked similar and used DiMarzio-made Brian May Signature pickups and a Kahler tremolo. The latest ’93 version, a limited edition of 1000 pieces, is a far more accurate copy including an accurate remake of Brian’s original tremolo and specially-made Seymour Duncan pickups.

Brian’s original guitar, designed and handbuilt by Brian and his father in ’64, gave him a chance to indulge his vision of what an electric guitar should really be like. ‘I didn’t really base the design on any other guitar,’ explains Brian. ‘I wanted to start from scratch, totally. For the shape I wanted to start with a classical Spanish guitar and do my own cutting away and see what worked. I didn’t want it to be distorted the way a Fender was. I also knew I wanted 24 frets; I could never understand why people stopped at 22. 24 is a nice, neat double octave.’

A key feature of Brian’s original guitar and the ’93 Guild replica is its short 24″ scale length. How did that come about?

‘I think I’d read somewhere that Burns had done a 24″, or at least a shorter scale guitar and that it had a more brilliant tone, and I figured it’s got to make fingering easier down at the lower frets. Mind you, we did a lot of experimentation, like putting strings over bits of wood to see what happened. I just liked the sound of that scale. I was designing the guitar for myself, you see. I didn’t have to follow any rules at all.’ (NB. Indeed Burns did offer a short scale guitar in the early ’60s. Their first production solid, the Vibra Artist, made between ’60 and ’62, had three Tri-Sonics, 24 frets and a 23 3/8″ scale length. It also featured a cherry finish, glued-in neck and black scratchplate.)

Brian’s ‘Red Special’ has a mahogany neck (‘a beautiful bit of well seasoned timber from an old fireplace… including a couple of worm holes’) glued to a solid oak centre block that runs up to the tremolo. The actual body is, or rather was, formed from veneered blockboard…

‘Actually there’s virtually no blockboard left because it’s been hollowed out, leaving the top and bottom layers, then veneered on top so it’s very “live”. The blockboard clearly wouldn’t take any strain but it doesn’t have to; it’s simply stuck on the sides of that centre block to form the body.’

Like Brian’s original, but unlike the ’84 repro, the ’93 Guild is a semi-solid guitar, The body, made from mahogany, has two large, routed cavities (‘almost exactly the same as mine’ confirms Brian) in the flanks of the rounded, ES335-esque, lower bouts. A top of solid mahogany (approx 4mm) creates the impression of a solid lump (there are no sound holes), the join masked by the white plastic edge binding which lines the front and back. Decoration also includes a black/white/black/white inner purfling detail.

If that scale length is unusual then so is the neck. Made here from one-piece mahogany it’s glued into the body, like the original. The headstock’s distinctive lollipop shape is quite long at 180mm but the practical advantages include the three-a-side machinehead layout that allows the strings to pass over the string guide and zero fret in pretty much a straight line. Truss rod access is under the black laminate cover bearing an embossed BHM script logo. On the back of the headstock is a Brian May transfer ‘signature’ and the stamped serial number BM20107.

But check the nut width; it’s nearly 47mm (the overall string spacing is 40mm). Most production 6-strings vary between 40-43mm. Now that might not sound like a great deal but to your left hand, believe me, it’s wide (like fretting a strat around the 5th or 6th fret!). It also creates the impression that there’s little taper in the neck width, that the strings are almost parallel, and in fact the bridge spacing is narrow at 49mm. In depth, too, the neck has a slightly flat-backed U-shaped feel. Neither is it particularly thin, and the back tapers little – in fact it’s virtually parallel to the face of the board.

Like most features of the guitar, the chunky neck is not a mistake that Brian’s lived with all these years – it was an intended feature of the ‘Red Special’.

‘In width, it’s very close to my original guitar,’ adds Brian. ‘It just seemed the best way to keep the feel the same all the way up the neck. I had the same feelings about the zero fret, which was pretty unusual at the time. The idea was that the feel at the first fret should be the same as at the 24th. My guitar neck is very thick in depth (the production model is thinner, more in line with current trends) – almost like an extra fingerboard thickness on top of the neck!’ Again this was by design: ‘For me, I get a more even finger pressure.’

The ’93 Guild features 24 frets well installed on the 9″ radiused ebony board. Each fret is low and wide and replicates the original wire installed by Brian. ‘I got that from Clifford Essex in Cambridge Circus – it was the only place in London you could get thin enough banjo strings. The fretwire they sold was very thick and high so I made a jig to file it down to the lower profile I wanted. To me if you have thin wire with a lower mass it doesn’t really anchor the string properly. I believe the heavier wire contributes to the sustain.’

Note the position inlays (there’s a lot of ’em!); are we to believe Brian has problems finding his way around the board?

‘Well, I thought the standard dots weren’t very informative; they all looked the same, so I simply added a double dot at the 7th and 19th fret and three dots at the 12th and 24th. It just gave me more signposts.’

Likewise, on the fingerboard side there are small plastic dots; three at the 12th and 24th positions, two at the 7th and 19th, and the rest are single. Brian’s original guitar has an oak fingerboard, with numerous layers of Rustin’s plastic coating (also used to finish the rest of the guitar), while every one of those position dots were hand shaped from mother of pearl buttons!

As for hardware, on the ’93 Guild we have Schaller machines and a specially made – again by Schaller – tremolo and roller saddle tune-o-matic style bridge. While the ’84 Guild featured a flat-mount Kahler with custom spring tension, this one replicates Brian’s original design very closely. The tremolo is recessed into the body in a heart-shaped cutout. The strings anchor on a small lip that protrudes above the body face and large black laminate coverplate. Underneath that cover you can see the rest of the block and the knife-edge pivot point. To counter the string tension there are two springs, mounted on large bolts that compress when the tremolo arm is depressed. The trem block floats (ie. there’s a little bit of up bend too), and, as set with .009″s, the band range is down approx one octave on the G string and up three semi-tones, with excellent return to pitch. The tune-o-matic style bridge has overall height adjustment via two thumb wheels, each saddle is adjustable for intonation separately, while each string breaks over a free-moving roller. There’s a good behind-bridge angle too, contributing to the clean, ringing sustain of the guitar.

At the other end of the neck the strings pass over a zero fret and through a graphite string guide. There’s little pressure at this point, and therefore little friction, due to the low (approx 4 degrees) headstock angle. For a mid-’60s design the tremolo is nothing short of revolutionary. Okay, so Burns did have a knife-edge tremolo – the Rezo-tube trem appeared in ’64 on the Burns Marvin – but it wasn’t designed to ‘dive bomb’. Many of the earlier Burns trems, apparently to avoid Fender patents, also mounted the springs behind instead of below the tremolo. All Burns guitars – along with a number of other European makes – had zero frets too, but it was Brian’s vision of a wide-travel, non-locking tremolo system that was so advanced.

Brian seems, not surprisingly, a little vague about the origins of his design.

‘There was certainly the Bigsby with the ball races around at that time, but I don’t know where we got the idea to try the single pivot, a knife-edge which was hardened steel, bearing into a V in the body. I don’t know if there was anything around like that. Most that I’d seen were the loose-screw (Fender) idea. However, the knife edge meant less friction,as did the roller bridge we added. It was all done by hand. I didn’t have a lathe, so those little rollers I made by putting 3/16″ stainless steel rod in a vice and just filing away at it! Again, at the nut end I wanted the strings to go straight through, more or less with just enough bearing force over the zero fret to provide anchorage. The Kahler we used on the ’84 version was okay but there’s so many moving parts, they seem to soak up the sound. It’s definitely night and day compared to the new tremolo; I’m really pleased with the Schaller system. I think I claimed to have the first tremolo that would go down an octave and come back in pitch!’

Perhaps he should have taken a patent out on it!

Electronically, the new guitar uses three specially wound Seymour Duncan single coils enclosed in chromed covers stamped with a Duncan/Brian May logo. Visible are what appear to be six large diameter slug, flush magnets. Each pickup is direct-mounted to the body via two screws hidden from view under the scratchplate. There’s no height adjustment whatsoever unless you change the height of the wooden shims under the pickups used here to compensate for the slight, 2 degree neck pitch.

Brian originally made his own pickups, which he liked the sound of but, because the magnets were little horseshoe-type things, the dual polarity of each magnet created a rustling noise when he bent a string. So he installed Burns Tri-Sonics and potted the coils, to reduce microphonics, with Araldite epoxy.

Electronically, the guitar differs radically from any other production electric I can think of. Each pickup passes to two small 2-position slide switches. The first is on/off, the second is phase reverse. A major difference is that the pickups are combined in series, not parallel as with a Fender strat. So adding the middle pickup, for example, to the bridge pickup (in phase) increases output and produces a fatter, darker tone. All the switches are mounted on the black-faced scratchplate, where the chrome-knobbed master volume and tone also sit – the volume at the bottom the tone above. The output jack is a pro-spec Switchcraft barrel-type on the body’s edge, but strange, small strap buttons are included – a silly oversight on an expensive guitar like this.

‘The wiring was again a result of experimentation’ explains Brian. ‘I didn’t really know how a Fender or Burns was wired. So I wired it up with crocodile clips and kept swapping things around. That’s where I discovered that the sound changes were so dramatically different, something very fat to something really very thin – I couldn’t design a circuit that used a regular Fender or Gibson type switch.’


How does the ’93 Guild perform? Well, the first hurdle is the unusual feel of the neck, but once you’ve adapted to that the string spacing doesn’t feel as odd as it may sound. The semi-solid nature creates a light, rather insubstantial feel that takes further adjustment. Plugged in, with a clean amp tone, the bridge pickup alone is a little weedy but quite Strat-like, the mid pickup louder and fatter with a good crisp attack. The neck pickup compares in volume to the middle, but adds a fuller low end and a softer attack.

Now the fun starts. As you combine pickups, in phase, the overall volume increases. Adding the middle to the bridge adds power and knocks off some top end, while neck plus bridge equals a warmer, more powerful Strat-type mix. Middle and neck creates a thick semi-solid Jazz style voice.

Activating the phase reverse switch typically lends a thinner, weedier tone to a dual pickup mix; but with three pickups on you can experiment as to which ones are in/out of phase for subtle and sometimes rather dramatic differences. The down side is that you can mistakenly go from a really thick combination to a chicken-thin screech. ‘Oh yeah,’ laughs Brian, ‘sometimes I do that… it makes it interesting! But seriously it’s quite a sensitive instrument and there are lots of options.’

Cranked up, the guitar is quite resonant, and at really high gains is pretty hard to control. The pickups don’t suffer unduly from squeal but string damping is essential here. Those out of phase tones really begin to make sense in this environment, adding a cutting harmonic edge, while Brian’s most used tone – bridge and mid pickup in phase – certainly replicates a modern middle-heavy humbucker. Add to that the tremolo, which has a light, responsive feel and reasonably good return-to-pitch, and you have a very unique axe. Interestingly, what with the resonant ‘live’ tone, the wide travel tremolo and the series pickup options (offering that big ‘humbucker’ sound), what you see in Brian’s original Red Special are the building blocks of the modern metal guitar.

One thing to realise is that even with a cranked amp you probably won’t sound like Brian! That’ll take a lot of studying, plus three Vox AC30s, the centre one dry, the left and right laden with stereo chorus and delay effects. Then you’ll need that little treble boost, according to Brian a ‘simple transistor amplifier with a bit of bass cut via capacitor coupling – it’s very primitive.’ Oh, and of course a sixpence as a plectrum. But surely he must have run out of them by now?

‘Well, we got the Royal Mint to make us some, with my head on them. I figured I was the only person in the world who didn’t have their own signed, personal picks!’

Certainly, compared to any other ‘signature’ guitar I’ve played the ’93 Guild Brian May is easily the most individual. It seems expensive but Guild have clearly gone to an awful lot of trouble in replicating Brian’s ‘Red Special’ and Brian is very impressed. He’s using a couple as back ups – one for dropped D tuning – on his current solo tour, so clearly the timing is quite handy. ‘My original is beginning to show signs of wear – the same as me really – but only recently. I’ve started doing a bit of repair, though I don’t want to do too much or it’d ruin the character. I’m resoldering the electrics amd I’ll maybe do a bit of refinishing, but the neck, for example, by a miracle, has never needed refretting in 25 years and it’s still okay.’


(in mm unless stated)

Scale length 610 (24″)
Width of neck
…at nut 46.7
…at 12th fret 51.4
Depth of neck
…at 1st fret 21.6
…at 12th fret 23.4
String spacing
…at nut 40
…at bridge 49
Action as supplied
…at 12th fret treb 1.5
…at 12th fret bass 2.0
Weight (approx) 8.0 lbs
Depth of body 38.9
Headstock angle 4 degrees
Neck Pitch 2 degrees
Fingerboard Radius 9″
Fret Gauge 2.4 x 1.2