There is a wide choice of equipment commercially available today to help re-create Brian May’s fabulous trademark sound. So what should you buy? Here is my personal view of the best guitars, amps, treble boosters and pickups.
“By Matthew Pickles”
Choosing a Brian May guitar depends on how close you want to get to the original and how large your budget is. Brian’s original Red Special has a huge neck, both in width and depth, which many of the commercial copies do not attempt to copy because they are expensive to make and many players would not find them comfortable to play. If you must have an authentic neck profile, the K’z, RS, Sei and Guyton guitars all offer this. If you are looking for a super-accurate Brian May guitar the Guyton is definitely the most accurate (and endorsed by Brian). The K’z Guitar Works Red Special is also very accurate, but at around 8000 US dollars they don’t come cheap. Kazutaka goes to great lengths to ensure accuracy of construction and materials, but he has not had access to the Red Special (as Guyton has).
For those on a more realistic budget, the RS and Sei guitars are a good option and are the modern equivalent of the Guild signature models – a pretty close copy at a high but realistic price for a pro-quality guitar. One advantage of the RS guitars is that they have many custom options, so you can select the guitar which is perfect for you.
At a lower price still, the Burns Brian May Signature guitars have a lot of features, plus Brian’s official endorsement and they are great value for money. There are obviously compromises in the construction and quality of hardware, but these are still excellent guitars for the money and the demo Brian recorded for Guitarist magazine shows that the Burns guitars can get very close to Brian’s signature tone.
The best value for money Brian May guitars are the Dillion VBM02QT and Jim Reed. The Dillion is available at under 400 US dollars if you shop around and the Jim Reed is not much more. Both have some nice features and are worth a look if your budget is tight.
On the face of it, there isn’t really much choice here – it has to be a VOX AC30. The model to go for is the AC30TBX with the blue speakers. If you really want to be authentic, Dave Peterson at Chandler Guitars (UK) can modify an AC30 to the full Brian May spec, which involves removing the extra channels and installing hand-wired internals. These modifications are not reversible though and they do alter the tone of the amp, so think carefully before you go ahead.
If your budget is tight, I suggest you look at the Laney LC30 or VC30. These are nice amps with a similar design to the Vox (using 4 x EL84s) and can get you close to that elusive tone for much less money. Other amps can be used, but try to go for a valve (tube) design, preferably Class ‘A’ with at least one 12″ speaker. One of the main problems with so-called practice amps is that they have small cheap speakers which strangle the tone.
Another option is the Vox Valvetronix range. These are not true valve amps (although they do have a valve power stage), but offer a very good AC30 simulation. They also contain a built-in treble booster which allows instant access to Brian May-style tones in a single unit.
For those Deaky amp tones, the Vox Brian May Special is the only amp currently available. Not only are they officially endorsed by Brian, but they are also great value for money, so try one!
Again, a wide choice of boosters are available. For modern Brian May tones, the best choice is the officially endorsed Greg Fryer treble booster. If you prefer Brian’s mid-period tone (mid-70’s to mid-90’s), the Pete Cornish booster gives a closer tone for a similar price.
If your budget is tight, I suggest you look at Scott Humprey’s Crispy Cream booster, which offers great tones at a realistic price.
As an alternative, the V-stack BHM simulator will give good Brian May tones through a variety of amplifiers and is a great alternative if you don’t have an AC30 or want to make direct recordings.
With the availability of the re-issued Burns Tri-Sonics, the choice here has narrowed. I would avoid original 60’s pickups unless you are certain that the wiring is in good condition, because reliability could be a problem. The best choices today are the Kent Armstrong Tri-Sonic V and Adeson pickups. Make sure you shop around as prices can vary.
The Ultimate rig?
If money was no object, the ultimate rig has to be: A Guyton Red Special guitar (or perhaps even two so you have a spare), 3 Dave Peterson special VOX AC30s, a Greg Fryer Treble Booster and of course a 1960s English Sixpence. String the guitar with Maxima Gold strings, add a good quality chorus pedal, a Foxx phaser if you can find one and two digital delay units for those Brighton Rock moments. Then all you need to do is plug in, turn everything up to the max and just revel in the tone. It will set you back over 15000 dollars, but if you want the best, this is it.
Please note that these are only my opinions. If you are seriously considering buying any of the guitars, amps, pickups, boosters etc. mentioned here, make sure you do your homework. Try before you buy! For products where you can’t try them out (e.g. web only retailers), check the returns policy before buying. Good luck!