The Red Special, the Fireplace, the Old Lady – Brian May’s famed and much-nicknamed geetar ranks alongside Clappo’s Blackie and Jimi’s Woodstock Strat as one of the most fabled tools in rock histroy. Sean Walker recounts the story behind a most esteemed plank – and its many imitators…
The Red Special was born in 1963, the result of 18 months hard work and development between Brian and his genius electrical engineer father, Harold. Dissatisfied with the coveted Strats and Les Pauls of the day – and, anyway, unable to afford any of them – the pair set about designing and building their interpretation of the perfect electric guitar.
The guitar earned its nickname ‘The Fireplace’ because the huge one-piece mahogany neck was laboriously hand-carved using a penknife from just that – the column support from an old mirror-type fireplace that a family friend happened to be throwing out. At the nut the Red Special’s neck is about 46mm wide, with a string spacing of 40mm: most production electrics vary between 41-43mm at the nut with a string spacing of around 34mm. Add a depth of 29mm at the 1st fret (thickening to 31mm at 12th) and you’ve got a chunky affair that puts even Jeff Beck’s ‘baseball-necked’ Strats firmly in the shade.
The glossy fingerboard is actually made of oak, painted black with that classic British DIY substance known as Rustin’s Plastic Coating and dotted with hand-filed pearl buttons pinched from Brian’s mother’s sewing box – as was a knitting needle end that would soon find a new home as a vibrato arm tip.
The guitar featured 24 frets – ‘a nice, neat double octave,’ according to Brian – with a zero fret and a loose-tensioned 610mm (24″) scale length – the latter, in theory, making for a more bend-friendly playing experience despite the 184mm (7.25″) fingerboard radius which toughens the feel of May’s favourite .009″-.042″ strings.
The neck joins the body via a paddle-like heel extension which slots into a rectangular cut-out in the body, stopping just short of the bridge pickup. Although originally designed to be glued in, the snug neck/body join is also secured by the single bolt visible on the back of the guitar. This bolt also acts as an anchor for the truss-rod end which the Mays bent into shape on the kitchen cooker.
The central section of the body was formed from an old oak table. The rest – including the distinctive curves – were made up from two layers of blockboard, hollowed out to create acoustic chambers, then stuck onto the sides of the oak insert. These acoustic chambers are the key to much of the guitar’s incredible high-gain resonance (in truth, May originally planned an f-hole but never got round to it). The whole body was finally covered in a mahogany veneer, stained a deep brick-red colour and then lacquered with Rustin’s, rounded off by binding sourced from some readily available shelf edging.
But the May’s ingenuity didn’t end there. Brian wanted a wide-travel vibrato that would drop an octave and (gasp!) actually return to pitch after use. They realised that most vibratos of that era were riddled with flaws, the main culprit being friction in the strings’ path of travel.
After building a few prototypes they settled on a design which used six individual aluminium bridge pieces screwed straight into the body, each supporting a low-friction steel roller saddle, Intonation was handled by small slots cut into the top of each bridge piece; if the intonation was out on an individual string, the roller could be popped out of its axle and moved back or forward accordingly to an appropriate slot. Behind these, a handmade trem block rocked against a case-hardened steel knife edge hidden under the top body veneer. Unlike a conventional Strat fulcrum trem – which stretches the springs when the arm is depressed – this design used two heavy-duty tension-adjustable motorbike valve springs suspended on cavity-mounted bolts. When the trem arm (sourced from a bicycle saddlebag holder) was pressed down the trem plate compressed the springs giving a positive, substantial feel. With almost straight string pull to the tuners and a shallow 4 degree headstock angle causing very little friction through the black bakelite string guide, this system allowed excellent return to pitch for a non-locking unit. For its time, it was nothing short of revolutionary.
And of course when it came to the electrics, the egghead May family just couldn’t keep it simple. Brian had originally wound his own pickups; they’d sounded good, but under string-bending the unhelpful north/south dual polarity of the small horseshoe magnets he’d used created a nasty rustling noise. After spending three guineas at the Burns shop in St. Giles’ Circus, Brian became the proud owner of a set of the fabled metal cased Burns Tri-Sonics.
First, the coils were potted in Araldite epoxy to help reduce their microphonic tendencies. Next the pickups were direct mounted to the body, and after much experimentation the pair eventually settled on an arrangement where each pickup passed to two small 2-position slider switches, the first row, nearest the pickups, being on/offs for each pickup and the second row allowing phase reversal for each. These switches and the volume and tone pots were all mounted on a shielding-aiding aluminium plate underneath a black perspex scratchplate.
This wiring allowed a number of different pickup configurations and tones. With two or more pickups on together the sounds combined in series – not parallel, as on a Strat, for instance – increasing the output and giving the guitar its famously fat, resonant humbucking tone when combined with a treble booster into a Vox AC30. But when May flicked up one of the phase reversal switches it cancelled out the low end harmonics, creating a chiming clean tone or the trademark screeching lead sounds typified by the Bohemian Rhapsody solo (neck and middle pickups together, out of phase).
Its owner has described the guitar as a cross between a Strat- and a Les Paul-sounding tone. Add the humbucking options and the wide travel trem and the Red Special displays a remarkable number of elements of the modern metal guitar. Not bad for two inexperienced guitar builders working in a spare bedroom in the early ’60s…
Reds under the bed: Copies and Replicas
Pity the poor Brian May fan. A Hendrix freak could always save and buy a perfectly good Strat – but unofficial copies of the closely-guarded Red Special were often very wide of the mark.
The probably first-ever copy was commissioned by May himself from British guitar builder John Birch in the mid-70’s. The Birch model closely aped the outline and electrics but the all-maple construction, steeper headstock angle and the bound fretboard were quite different. It was used as a concert backup guitar until the early-80’s, appearing in the We Will Rock You video and playing a cameo role on the Live at Milton Keynes TV extravaganza.
The Japanese were the first to commercially produce unofficial copies. Queen always were huge in Japan but it took until 1981 before Greco brought out the BM 900. Retailing at around 90,000 Yen (£450), these were high quality copies – visually quite close, including the tremolo, but lacking a zero fret, and adding a tortoiseshell scratchplate with six mini toggle switches in place of the sliders. Another effort of the same era, the Fresher BM270, shared most of the Greco’s constructional details and almost certainly came from the same factory.
Since then more Brian May models have appeared, though none have ever been exported – at least, not legally. Jap company Kid’s have kept the flag flying though the ’90s with the 260BM model (’91-’94 and costing 260,000 Yen or £1300) and the BM Special (up until ’98 and priced at 200,000 Yen or £1000). For those with 500,000 Yen (£2500) to fling about in 1995 they also made the BM dragon, a kind of Brian May/PRS mongrel.
Back in the Western world, it was 1984 when Brian May at last got together with Guild to produce the first official replica. Only 316 ‘close counterparts’ – ie not particularly accurate replicas – were made. These BHM-1 models had the correct body outline but a solid mahogany construction, glued-in necks and ebony fingerboards. The hardware was very different, too: the black-faced Dimarzio BHM pickups seemed to sound the part but the larger scratch plate and custom tension Kahler tremolo system with locking nut were way off the mark. The man himself used examples on video shoots – most noticeably 85’s One Vision – and as a live backup until as recently as 1993’s Back To The Light tour, but the guitar ultimately failed to satisfy both Brian and the punters and was discontinued. Although rare, these guitars still turn up occasionally between £1000-£1500.
After some discussions with the British Eggle company (which unfortunately fell through), Brian let Guild eventually try again in ’93. The result, the BM Ltd Signature model (later called the BM Pro) was a lot closer, with a semi-solid mahogany body construction, a more accurate (if not exact) Schaller trem system and Seymour Duncan pickups designed to look and sound like the original Tri-Sonics. To the eagle-eyed trainspotter the most obvious differences are the tune-o-matic style Schaller roller bridge, slightly different scratchplate (black/white/black – yuk), the shallower neck (21.6mm at the first fret), the 9″ radius fingerboard and the shorter headstock. At around £1750 the guitar sold quite well – and current secondhand values lie between £1500-2000.
But what about the average player? Guild decided to make changes with two new models: the BM Special (£1299), which kept the general dimensions and semi-solid construction but gained a hardtail bridge/tailpiece and a different pickup arrangement, and the even-cheaper BM Standard (£845) with solid, unbound construction and a choice of three pickup configurations – twin humbuckers, a humbucker at the bridge and a Duncan Tri-sonic at the neck, or three single coils plus a 5-way selector. The guitar also lacked a scratchplate and was offered with a narrower, more regular 41.3 nut width. Brian May seemed to like the BM Ltd Signature models, using a pair of ’em for the heavier dropped-D moment on his first solo tour. Sadly, though, when Fender bought out Guild a couple of years ago the entire solid body range was rationalised… and the Brian May models became victims of the new regime. Will they rise again? No word – but watch this space.
Red or Dead
It was early ’96 Aussie luthier Greg Fryer approached Brian May with an interesting offer: to build some exact replicas specifically for him, using original materials as much as possible. With May’s permission, Fryer took exhaustive measurements of the old gal and returned a full two years later with three guitars.
Two of the guitars (since named John and Paul) were exact replicas, the closest yet in looks, feel and sound to Brian’s faithful but battered original. The third, dubbed George Burns, was a little different, being made with New Guinea rosewood (not really a true rosewood, botanically speaking – more a brighter-sounding type of mahogany) and Brazilian rosewood for the fingerboard instead of the original non-exotic mahogany and veneered bockboard. These new woods combined to give George Burns a tone that, while still sweet, had a more aggressive edge which could cut through more easily.
But by now the original was not in such great shape. After nearly 30 years of constant gigging it had began to show serious signs of wear, the finish so worn in places that the veneer had began to tear, allowing moisture to seep into the potentially fragile plywood body. Encouraged by Greg’s replace work and with a tour looming, May decided it was high time the Red Special had a complete overhaul to get it back up to gigging spec and after much soul-searching decided to give the go-ahead for Greg to perform major surgery.
The 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. Greg re-finished the neck and body in Rustin’s Plastic Coating over the existing finish. Fingerboard wear was repaired and a long lost dot marker replaced; incredibly, although very worn, the original frets have never needed replacing. The electrics were re-wired and overhauled, the metal pickup covers – in poor shape after suffering serious and prolonged sixpence abuse – were carefully panel-beaten back into shape and given new surrounds, and various holes and cracks in the scratchplate were filled and repaired.
With the Red Special now back in top form and with a trio of faithful replicas waiting in the wings, Brian May’s distinctive guitar tone looks to be with us for a long time to come. Greg is currently developing a whole range of Brian May products including pedals and various versions of the guitar. Contact: Fryer Guitars and Pickups, Oittswater Road, Brookvale, Sydney, New Australia 2100. Our thanks to Greg Fryer and Mark Reynolds for their help and additional info.
Some people’s love, it seems, knows no bounds. Here at TGM we’ve received photographic evidence of a number of DIY Red Specials down the years. Here’s a few of the best…
Alan Marshall of Northworthy guitars was recently commissioned to build a working replica of the Red Special for Phil Teague of Queen tribute band QE2. Alan’s basic brief was to ‘make it however I wanted, as long as it worked properly and looked like the real thing’. No problem, though Alan, and apart from some changes requested by Phil – namely mini-humbuckers in Tri-sonic cases to cut down on noise, and maintenance-friendly rear trem access in case of knife edge wear – the guitar certainly looks the part.
Midlander Mark Reynolds spent countless hours of research and woodshedding creating his own faithful version. Despite working initially from just photos he’s managed to get incredibly close.
Julian Hemmingway has spent years in pursuit of the perfect replica, making three versions to date. The first was made in the early 80’s and was good enough to earn him an invite to meet Brian at a Capital Radio recording in 1983. After taking a close look at May’s original, he set about making another, closer copy – eventually ending up with twin copies.