Guitar Pickups

I often get asked about which guitar pickups are best to reproduce Brian’s tone. There are a few options, so here goes…

“By Matthew Pickles”

Burns Tri-Sonic

burns tri-sonic

The original! These are the pickups which Brian has on the Red Special and he bought them in London in the 1960’s. These can be found on the used market, but they tend to fetch rather high prices and because of their age, they could be in poor condition. There were originally five different versions of the Tri-Sonic pickup, so be careful before purchasing!

Burns London have recently re-introduced the Tri-Sonic pickup, a reproduction of the original and these are available new. The pickups are made in Korea and there are some differences between the original 60’s pickups and the re-issue, such as the impedence – the modern version has a slightly higher impedence, but these are still a very accurate reproduction.

A lower impedence version, known as the Tri-Sonic V is also available. These pickups have less windings than the standard Tri-Sonics and therefore give a brighter sound, which is closer to the sound of the original Tri-Sonic pickups Brian has on the Red Special.


The DiMarzio Brian May signature pickups were used on the 1984 Guild BHM-1 guitars. These pickups look rather different to the Burns units, featuring black plastic covers with Brian’s initals, BHM, in gold script. Tonally they are not bad, perhaps a little more modern sounding than the Tri-Sonics. They are still available new and any decent guitar dealer will be able to order a set.

Seymour Duncan

duncan pickup

The Seymour Duncan pickups were used on the 1993 Guild Brian May guitars. These pickups are visually and tonally a reasonably close approximation of the original Burns Tri-Sonics. One important difference compared to the originals is that the Duncan units have a higher impedence, which can lead to a loss of higher frequencies. They were never sold as separate units, but if you talk very nicely to the custom shop people at SD they can make you up a set to the same spec. As with all custom shop jobs, don’t expect them to be cheap!

Kent Armstrong no longer makes the Tri-Sonics pickups and they are becoming more difficult to find. As used on Burns guitars and Greg Fryer’s copies of Brian’s Red Special these pickups sound pretty close to the real thing. Two models were offered, the standard model and the low impedence Tri-Sonic V.

Greg Fryer used to sell these pickups, modified to the same specification as he used on his super-accurate copies of Brian’s Red Special. Greg’s modifications included changes to the windings, magnets and casing.



Adeson make the best reproduction of the original Burns Tri-Sonic pickups. Adeson use traditional hand-made manufacture for their pickups and reports from users are that the tone is excellent. They are also very good value compared to the official Burns pickups. Ask to Adrian Turner for the BM Spec set and you will get teh best sound for an exellent price.

Pickup wiring

A major difference between the Red Special and most other guitars is that Brian has his pickups wired in series rather than the usual parallel wiring. This was a deliberate choice because this wiring system, combined with phase change switches, allows a much wider range of tones to be produced. If you own a guitar with 3 single coil pickups wired in parallel (such as a Fender Stratocaster), changing the wiring to series will dramatically alter the tone.