Brian May, the legendary guitarist of the rock band Queen, is closely associated with a very distinctive electric guitar known as the Red Special. This guitar holds a unique place in rock history due to its homemade origins and the unmistakable sound it helped create for one of the world’s most iconic bands.
Designed and built by May himself with the assistance of his father in the early 1960s, the Red Special is far more than just an instrument; it’s a symbol of innovation and a piece of rock and roll lore.
While the Red Special remains his primary guitar, May has used a variety of other guitars throughout his career. These include various makes and models for different sounds or specific songs, which broadened the aural landscape of Queen’s music.
The unique sounds he crafted came not only from his guitar choice but also from his use of amplification, effects, and specially designed accessories. Despite experimenting with other guitars, May’s technical expertise and creative alterations have consistently made the Red Special his instrument of choice, embodying his musical journey, influence, and legacy.
- Brian May plays a custom-built guitar known as the Red Special.
- Other guitars and technical modifications have contributed to his distinct sound.
- The Red Special is integral to May’s musical influence and Queen’s legacy.
Brian May’s Iconic Guitar
Brian May, the legendary guitarist of Queen, wields a distinct homemade electric guitar known as the “Red Special” which plays a pivotal role in his unique sound.
Origins of the Red Special
The Red Special was born out of the collaboration between Brian May and his father, Harold. They constructed the guitar in the early 1960s to craft an instrument capable of producing a variety of tones.
Mahogany provided the core material taken from an old fireplace mantel, contributing to the guitar’s durability and tone. The neck was constructed from oak and faced with a mahogany veneer, while the body was fashioned out of blockboard with an acoustic chamber and covered with a mahogany veneer.
Unique Features of the Red Special
Equipped with a custom-made tremolo system and a distinct tremolo arm, fashioned out of a piece of a knitting needle, the Red Special provided extraordinary control over pitch and sustain.
The neck features a 24-inch scale and a fingerboard made from oak with striking mother-of-pearl inlays. Unlike most guitars, the pickups of the Red Special are wired in series rather than parallel, and with switches that enable out-of-phase tones, the guitar allows for a wide variety of sounds.
Another defining feature is May’s use of a sixpence coin as a plectrum, which contributes to his guitar’s signature bright and controlled attack.
Red Special’s Role in Queen’s Music
The Red Special is inextricably linked to Queen’s music. It is the sound behind iconic tracks such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You.” May’s ability to coax a distinctive growling, singing feedback from the Red Special, combined with his out-of-phase pickup settings, gave Queen’s music its characteristic harmonic richness and depth.
This guitar has been an integral part of May’s arsenal for decades, shaping the band’s sonic landscape and influencing the world of rock music at large.
Amplification and Effects
Brian May’s distinctive sound is a product of his unique approach to amplification and effects. He favors the rich overdrive and dynamic range of vintage amplifiers, while his judicious use of effects pedals contributes to his instantly recognizable tone.
Vox AC30 Amplifiers
Brian May’s amplifier of choice is the Vox AC30, a tube amp known for its bright and jangly sound that has become synonymous with his sonic identity. He prefers using multiple AC30s in tandem, which allows for greater control over volume and the complex harmonics that characterise his guitar work.
This setup is a crucial factor in achieving the orchestral feedback and sustained notes that are a hallmark of May’s playing.
Treble Booster and Effects
The treble booster is a key component in shaping May’s tone. He commonly uses a treble booster to drive his AC30s harder, which not only increases their gain but also accentuates the upper frequencies of the guitar signal.
This setup helps to cut through the mix with clarity. In addition to the treble booster, May incorporates other effects such as chorus, phaser, and vibrato to add depth and movement to his guitar tones.
Iconic Guitar Tones
The result of this meticulous combination of amplifiers and effects is a spectrum of iconic guitar tones. From the singing leads that mimic orchestral violins to the bell-like chimes that define many Queen rhythms, the intricacy and versatility of May’s setup allow for a wide range of expressive sounds.
Whether churning out crunchy riffs or soaring solos, the interaction between his Vox AC30s, treble booster, and suite of effects remains central to the unique and influential sound that has inspired generations of guitarists.
Strings and Accessories
Brian May’s sound is distinct not only due to his guitar but also because of his choice of strings and unique accessories. His meticulous attention to detail in these areas contributes significantly to his iconic tone.
Choice of Strings
Brian May opts for a specific set of strings to complement his Red Special guitar. He uses the Optima 2028 BM strings, which are his own signature set. These strings are known for their gold plating, which reportedly enhances their sustain and warm tone.
Use of Sixpence Coin as a Pick
Instead of a traditional plastic guitar pick, Brian May famously uses an English sixpence coin. The rigidity of the coin allows for greater control over how he attacks the strings, contributing to his signature playing style.
Other Guitars Used by Brian May
While Brian May is synonymous with his iconic Red Special, he has on occasion used other guitars for specific tones and songs. His arsenal includes models from Fender and various other brands, each chosen for its unique contribution to Queen’s sound.
- 1978 Fender Telecaster: May utilized this guitar notably for the rhythm parts of Queen’s hit “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. It helped achieve the twangy, bright tone that the song is known for.
- 1970s Fender Stratocaster: Though less common in his rotation, May was seen with a Fender Stratocaster occasionally, adding its signature crisp and bell-like tones to his recordings and live performances.
Other Brands and Models
Apart from Fenders, May’s collection branched out to other notable brands and models:
- Gibson: Different Gibson models have been infrequently incorporated into his work.
- Burns Double Six: For twelve-string parts, he played a Burns Double Six, offering a jangly richness to the arrangements.
- John Birch: A bespoke guitar maker, Birch crafted instruments tailored to May’s requirements.
- Andrew Guyton: To replicate the feel and sound of the Red Special, May turned to luthier Andrew Guyton for finely crafted replicas.
- Replicas: Various other luthiers have created replicas of the Red Special, allowing May to preserve the original while still harnessing its distinctive sound.
Custom Guitar Creations
Brian May is renowned for his distinctive guitar playing as well as the unique instrument he plays it on. The partnership between May and his personally designed guitars contributes significantly to his signature sound.
Brian May Guitars
The cornerstone of Brian May’s sound comes from his hand-built “Red Special”, created with his father in the early 1960s. This guitar, often affectionately referred to as the “Old Lady,” has been used by May throughout his career with the band Queen.
Its distinctive tone comes from non-standard design choices, such as semi-hollow body construction, a unique tremolo system, and handmade pickups.
Notable Features of the Red Special:
- Body: Semi-hollow mahogany with an oak insert
- Neck: Mahogany with a thick ebony fingerboard
- Pickups: Three custom-wound single coils
- Tremolo System: Custom-designed by May and his father
Replica Models and their Makers
The demand for replicas of Brian May’s Red Special has led to several craftsmen and companies attempting to recreate the magic of the original. Among them, Greg Fryer is notable, having been commissioned by May to create accurate replicas for touring purposes.
Another key name in the world of Red Special replicas is John Birch, who created a — now highly sought-after — replica in the 1970s.
These replicas have been used by Brian May as backups and alternates for live performances, ensuring that the tonal quality and feel of the Red Special are always within reach.
Replica Craftsman Notabilities:
- Greg Fryer: Commissioned by May for tour-use replicas
- John Birch Replica: 1970s creation known for its authenticity and rarity
Developing from these individual efforts, the official “Brian May Guitars” brand now offers several models inspired by the original Red Special, accessible to fans and musicians worldwide. These commercially available guitars aim to capture the essence of May’s creation while providing a durable and consistent option for everyday use.
Technical Aspects and Modifications
Brian May’s legendary guitar, the Red Special, is famed for its unique sound and custom modifications. These tailored adjustments allow for a distinctive tone and playability that has become synonymous with May’s music.
Pickup Configuration and Electronics
Brian May’s guitar boasts a trio of single-coil pickups that he and his father hand-wound. These pickups are arranged in a series of wiring as opposed to the typical parallel wiring found in most guitars.
This configuration contributes to the Red Special’s rich and warm sound. The switching system of the Red Special is highly complex, allowing for a wide range of tonal combinations.
Each pickup is equipped with an individual on/off switch plus a phase inverting switch, resulting in seven possible pickup combinations. The volume control is strategically placed, providing May with the ability to make nuanced adjustments swiftly while performing.
Neck Adjustments and Maintenance
The neck of the Red Special is designed with a double-acting truss rod, enabling precise neck curvature adjustments. This is essential for maintaining the guitar’s action and playability over time. For maintenance, May uses motorcycle valve springs under the tremolo arm to maintain tuning stability, a unique solution that contributes to the guitar’s signature feel and reliability. Alongside these, the guitar employs a custom-made aluminum bridge with steel knife-edge rollers to reduce friction and enhance string bending performance, further assisting in maintaining stability and tuning.
Brian May’s Musical Journey
Brian May’s transition from astrophysics to music established him as one of the most iconic guitarists in rock history, creating a unique sound that would resonate with millions. His tenure with Queen, defined by significant performances and milestones, has forever etched his name in the annals of music history.
From Astrophysics to Music
While pursuing a degree in astrophysics, Brian May co-founded the band that would become Queen. The band’s unique blend of rock and opera culminated in the classic hit “Bohemian Rhapsody,” showcasing May’s distinctive guitar sound which became inseparable from Queen’s identity. He crafted this sound using his homemade “Red Special” guitar, an instrument built with his father from materials around their home.
Notable Performances and Milestones
- We Will Rock You/A Day at the Races: Queen’s 1977 album, “A Day at the Races,” featured the anthem “We Will Rock You,” spotlighting May’s rhythm guitar mastery.
- Fat Bottomed Girls: The 1978 hit “Fat Bottomed Girls” became notable for its drop-D tuning on the Red Special, adding a raw edge to the band’s sound.
- Live Performances: May performed at monumental venues including Wembley Stadium, where Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985 is still celebrated.
- Collaborations: Post-Queen, May has worked with vocalists Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert, adding new dimensions to Queen’s music.
- Honors: Brian May’s exceptional contributions to music have been recognized by Rolling Stone magazine, and in 2002, he performed the national anthem on the roof of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
Influence and Legacy
Brian May’s work with his iconic Red Special guitar has left an indelible mark on the landscape of rock music, influencing a wide array of guitarists across various genres.
Impact on Music and Guitarists
Brian May’s distinctive playing style and the unique sound of his home-built Red Special guitar had a significant impact on music and particularly on the role of the electric guitar in rock.
He is often cited alongside legends like Eddie Van Halen and Tony Iommi for pioneering much of what would come to be known as the heavy metal guitar sound. With Queen’s album “A Night at the Opera,” for instance, the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” features one of the most memorable guitar solos in rock history, showcasing the expressive range of May’s technique.
May’s ability to blend the rawness of rock guitar with the intricacies of blues and classical influences has inspired guitarists across multiple generations. Guitarists such as Nuno Bettencourt credit May with shaping their approach to melody and tone. Beyond just technical skills, May’s use of guitar harmonics, feedback control, and multi-tracking has expanded the creative landscape for musicians everywhere.
Recognition and Awards
Throughout his career, Brian May has received numerous recognitions and awards that highlight his standing as one of the best guitar players in the world. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Queen and received various accolades, often spotlighting his guitar work. For example, his legendary performance of “God Save the Queen” atop Buckingham Palace for the Golden Jubilees concert at Twickenham has been a widely celebrated moment in rock history.
Moreover, lists and rankings from respected music publications frequently feature Brian May. These commendations underline his contribution to the industry and influence on future generations of guitarists who seek to emulate his distinctive sound and innovative techniques.
Frequently Asked Questions
Brian May’s Red Special guitar has a storied history and a unique sound that is integral to his music. Each replica of the Red Special offers fans a taste of May’s iconic tone.
How was Brian May’s Red Special guitar originally created?
The Red Special was hand-built by Brian May and his father in the early 1960s using non-traditional materials, including wood from an old fireplace, hence its nickname “The Fireplace”.
What is the significance of the Red Special to Brian May’s sound?
May’s Red Special is central to his distinct sound, thanks to its homemade construction, unique electronics, and the fact that it was used on practically every Queen recording, providing a wide range of sonic possibilities.
Can you purchase a replica of Brian May’s Red Special guitar?
Yes, replicas of the Red Special are available for purchase. These replicas embody the distinctive design and sound that have become synonymous with Brian May’s music.
What are the unique features of the Red Special guitar?
Key features of the Red Special include a semi-acoustic construction, a custom tremolo system, and bespoke electronics that facilitate a range of switching options.
Who has been involved in the manufacturing of Brian May guitars?
Brian May Guitars, as a brand, has worked with both UK and international manufacturers to produce the Red Special replicas, ensuring fidelity to the original design.
How do Brian May Guitars compare in quality to other guitar brands?
Brian May Guitars are generally well-regarded for their quality and fidelity to the Red Special’s iconic sound, offering a playing experience much like the original.