As well as being a great guitarist, Brian May is also noted for his superb guitar tones. His rig is rather unusual and is substantially custom built.
The Red Special
Brian’s guitar, the Red Special is unique. He built the guitar himself, with some help from his father, when he was still at school. Incredibly, over 40 years later, this is still Brian’s number one guitar and he regularly uses it both on stage and in the studio. One of the unique features of the Red Special is its series wiring for the pickups. Most guitars are wired in parallel, but Brian equipped his guitar with 3 single coil pickups wired in series. Each pickup has a switch to turn it on and off and a phase change switch. This allows a huge variety of sounds as different pickups and different phase combinations are used. The neck of the guitar is mahogany, from an old fire-surround. The centre block and fingerboard are oak and the front and back of the body are a mahogany veneer over blockboard.
The construction is semi-solid with large routed areas either side of the centre block of the body. Brian made his guitar from the materials he had available at the time – these included motorbike valve springs (tremolo springs), shelf edging (white binding) and mother of pearl buttons (neck position dots). The pickups were originally home-made but Brian was unhappy with the sound and replaced them with Burns Tri-sonic single coils, which he potted with epoxy resin to prevent them becoming microphonic. Unusually for its time, the guitar features a 24 fret (2 octave) neck and a tremolo system which will ‘dive bomb’ and come back perfectly in tune. It cost him just £8 to build the guitar and it is now surely one of the most unique and valuable guitars in the world.
Brian’s main amps are VOX AC30s. The AC30 is a classic British valve amplifier, which was first used by the likes of The Beatles and The Shadows. It is a class A amplifier, which is noted for its smooth rich tones. Brian uses the ‘normal’ channel on his AC30s and he has them turned up full, controlling the sound with the volume control on his guitar. With everything turned up full, the AC30s are pushed into natural valve distortion.
When playing live, Brian will usually use a stack of 9 AC30s. They are not usually all on at once, but he uses a custom switching unit which will allow him to switch between amps seamlessly, to avoid damaging any of the amps by running them on full power for too long. His configuration generally has the amps grouped for normal, delay 1, delay 2. He often uses a little chorus effect to give the sound a slight sparkle.
Brian likes to have his monitors set very loud on stage, so that he gets lots of interaction between the guitar and amps to give the good sustain which is central to his sound and style. His amplifiers are essentially ‘stock’, although he has them modified for road use to remove the channels he doesn’t use and to make them more robust, which has an effect on the tone and increases overall gain slightly.
The choice of valves in an AC30 can affect the tone quite substantially and Brian needs to change the valves in his amps regularly because he runs them so hard.
The Deacy Amp
Brian also uses a small amplifier in the studio, which was built by Queen’s bassist, John Deacon. This amp is affectionately known as the Deacy amp. Brian used this amplifier to produce many of the ‘guitar orchestrations’ which have become part of his trademark sound. This amplifier is often overlooked, but it undoubtedly contributed substantially to many classic Queen tracks. It is a solid state (germanium transistor) combo amp with a small speaker, which John adapted from a hi-fi amp and speaker that he rescued from a skip! VOX sell a commercial copy of this amp, the Vox Brian May Special
Brian uses the Deacy amp with his treble booster, which pushes it into a very smooth-sounding overdrive. To cut down on the treble, Brian will sometimes put a coat over the amp when recording!
Brian’s rather unusual choice of guitar pick is a coin – an english sixpence, which is a small circular coin with a serrated edge. He chose to use the sixpence as a pick because he finds plastic plectrums too flexible. He holds the coin very lightly and occasionally uses its serrated edge against the strings to produce a rasp. For quiter sections, Brian will often pick the strings with his fingers and only use the coin for the louder sections where more attack is required. For his first solo tour, Brian actually had some sixpence sized coins specially minted and these were on sale during the tour.
In conjunction with the AC30s, Brian uses a treble booster unit to remove some of the lower frequencies from the sound and to allow him to push the amps into natural valve distortion. This is a very simple transistor device. Brian originally used a Dallas Rangemaster booster pedal, which was lost when he left it at a gig in the early 1970s. His Father came to the rescue by building a new version for Brian, based on the same circuit design. Effects guru Pete Cornish later produced an improved version of this device for Brian, with reduced noise levels and this has been further improved recently by Greg Fryer. Pete Cornish also built the custom system Brian uses to switch between amps when playing live, which was eventually incorporated into a rack system, with a pedalboard.
Brian uses a variety of effects both in the studio and playing live. He often uses a chorus effect to give a warm stereo sound. His most famous effect is probably the twin delays used in the Brighton Rock solos. These were orignially acheived using tape delays, but Brian now uses custom digital units. The first delay is around 800ms and the second at 1600ms. The three signals (instantaneous, first delay, second delay) are sent to three separate amplifiers, to prevent any intermodulation distortions. Using this system, Brian is able to build up three-part harmonies, giving the impression that there are actually three guitarists playing simultaneously.
Brian has used a Foxx foot phaser pedal in the studio and this features on recordings such as Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You and White Man. He has also occasionally used a wah pedal. He doesn’t often use the wah pedal in the conventional manner (i.e. rocking the pedal backwards and forwards to give sweeping tonal effects), but tends to use it in fixed positions as a tone filter, to give different sounds.
For live work, Brian’s rig has the twin delay units, along with chorus and Phaser pedals. He has also occcasionally used harmoniser units for Chinese Torture type effects.
Brian endorsed Zoom effects units some time ago and contributed several patches to their more expensive machines.
In the studio
In the recording studio, Brian often makes extensive use of multiple over-dubs to create his instantly identifiable ‘wall of guitars’ sound. He will often build up harmony layers using different guitar settings or a wah-wah pedal (in various fixed positions) to give different ‘voices’ He also uses techniques such as backwards recording to give interesting new sounds and textures. The intro and outro to the album ‘A Day at the Races’ is a good example of Brian’s studio work. The sound is actually a backwards recording and is produced from many overdubs. Brian described it as being the audio equivalent of M.C. Escher’s famous never-ending staircase picture.