Red Special: Brian May’s guitar history and characteristics

Red Special: Brian May’s guitar history and characteristics
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Red Special, is the name of the mythical guitar of Brian May, Queen’s guitarist, which was built by him together with his father, we will tell you its history and secrets.

Brian May’s Red Special Story

Why did Brian May build the Red Special?

It was 1963, and Brian May, then 16, had an acoustic guitar that his parents had given him, which he still keeps today. But to play the music he wanted, he needed an electric guitar. Unfortunately, his family did not have the money to buy a Fender Stratocaster or a Gibson.

Harold May, Brian’s father, was an electronic engineer and a great builder, a true craftsman. So the father and son discussed building an electric guitar themselves. The musician even says that they said: “Maybe we can do something better than anyone has ever done.” In this way, both began an ambitious project, which meets Brian’s own requirements and was of the highest quality and with avant-garde concepts. Thus, it was that the Red Special was built one of a kind, and its history is fascinating.

The construction process took about a year and a half, beginning in August 1963, ending in 1964.

What is the name of Brian May’s guitar?

The name of Brian May’s electric guitar is Red Special, but he also has other nicknames such as the Old Lady and The Fireplace, since it was made with a part of a home from an old house.

A young Brian May posing with the Red Special equipped with his own made pickups and the initials on the headstock: Brian Harold May's BHM
A young Brian May posing with the Red Special equipped with the picku
ps made by him and on the headstock the initials: BHM by Brian Harold May

Features of the Red Special

Red Special, a real Diyer guitar

One of the most surprising things about this guitar is that it was made with, for the most part, recycled materials that the Mays had on hand, using rudimentary and simple tools that they had.

With the exception of the frets and pegs they bought at a store near the house, everything was designed and manufactured by them. The bridge, tremolo, and other pieces were made by them. The pickups were initially made by May, but later they bought the definitive Burns pickups, which Brian rewound and modified.

A recycling product

The main materials with which the guitar was built were things they had on hand. Guitar neck is made from wood from an old fireplace mantel that was over 100 years old at the time. Tremolo lever cap and inlays are made with buttons and a knitting needle from the musician’s mother. Parts of an old table were used for the body. For the binding of the body, they used white plastic from some shelves.

Brian May with the Old Lady


An avant-garde instrument

Although the fact that the majority of the guitar was made by hand and with recycled materials is really remarkable, probably the most surprising and admirable thing is the quality and the avant-garde designs and concepts with which the Red Lady was built.

Undoubtedly the first example of the high level of innovation and engineering that this iconic guitar has is the roller bridge and zero fret to minimize friction when using the tremolo. In this way the tuning is not affected by sudden tension changes caused by the “lever”.

Another excellent example is the 24 frets it has. Something very rare back then, and even today considering it has a scale of only 24 inches.

The variety of audios on the Red Special remains remarkable even today. With three ON / OFF switches – on and off – and three independent Phase / Out of Phase switches for each of the three pickups, they deliver a variety of exceptional tones. In this way you can achieve Stratocaster-like audio by connecting a single pickup or the combination of neck and middle, while connecting all three can achieve the gain of a Les Paul.


Red Special, a unique guitar for an extraordinary guitarist

Brian May’s signature audio comes from this unique guitar connected to the Normal channel of a Vox AC30, Sixpense’s coin instead of a pick, and of course Brian’s fingers.

May made this whole guitar with specs to his own liking and desire, for example one of the things he looked for was to achieve coupling or feedback. Brian confesses that playing with it fascinates him. For this, he was inspired after seeing Jeff Beck playing live and making different sounds simply by moving the guitar in front of the amplifier. He wanted an instrument that was alive and interacted with him and the air around him.

Brian May in action with the "Old Lady".

Brian has used the Red Special almost exclusively and uniquely on Queen albums and live performances since the band’s inception in the early 1970s. Virtually all of Queen’s songs are recorded on this instrument, with the exception of Crazy Little thing called love, which used the old and effective Telecaster and some tracks recorded with acoustic guitars.

Brian has said several times that when he started touring, a friend of his who was a journalist told him not to take the Red Special. The guitarist told him that he couldn’t, that if he didn’t wear it, a part of him would be missing. Fortunately, the “Old Lady” has survived all those trips, remaining in excellent functional condition.

Construction of the Red Special

Building the guitar was arduous and difficult work. Brian May himself has said that they did not have sophisticated tools. The few they had were simple household tools, such as chisels, penknives, sandpaper, etc., and in some cases they had to build their own specific tools in order to move forward with the construction.

An anecdote told by the musician that illustrates how difficult the process was was that while working on the oak of the guitar body, Brian, using the chisel, damaged part of the wood. The teenage guitarist got so frustrated and angry that he threw everything out the window, then calmer, went back to work.

Another example that May has mentioned is that for the neckpocket, the part of the body where the neck fits, and the heel of the neck, the part that is inserted into the body, all the tools he used were a penknife and sandpaper.

General Specifications of the Red Lady

The Red Special, also known as The Fireplace or The Old Lady, is a guitar with a mahogany neck with an oak fingerboard screwed to a hollow body composed of oak, pressed wood and an aesthetic sheet of mahogany. and double binding.

It has a short 24 “scale and 24 frets without considering the zero fret -Zero Fret-. It has a tremolo system and a roller bridge designed by Brian and his father, which works perfectly.

The pickups are three Burns Tri-Sonic with independent activation and switches that allow connecting them in phase or out of phase giving a large amount of available audio.

X-ray of the Red Special: allows to appreciate the hollow body
X-ray of the Red Special: allows you to appreciate the hollow body

Neck of the Red Special

Red Special neck was made from wood from a mantelpiece. This plank was approximately 100 years old, more than enough time for a good parking and drying of the wood without question. The wood was a mahogany that was moth-eaten, however Brian and Harold May saw the potential that ancient wood had.

Neck profile was hand-crafted into the shape desired by Brian, a job made difficult by the age and quality of the wood. The guitarist explained that the holes made by bugs were covered with matches and a layer of Rustin’s Plastic Coating.

Tensor end of the neck of the "Old Lady".
Tensor end of the neck of the “Old Lady”.

Regarding the tensioner or web, Brian and Harold heated one end of a steel rod, then bent it into a hook. Said hook is screwed into the side of the guitar body, while the rest of the bar goes through the neck to the end of the headstock.

Fingerboard of the “Fireplace”

The neck has an oak fingerboard or fretboard painted black, simulating ebony which is a precious and very expensive wood. It has 24 frets, something very innovative and even today it is still strange, especially when you consider that the guitar is built with a short scale of only 24 inches. The instrument still retains the original frets, at least that was until 2014, the year the Queen guitarist told about it in an interview with Absolute Radio.

The radius is 7.25 “, like the Fenders of the time. Each of the inlays or are mother-of-pearl buttons that his mother gave her. May, giving it a personal touch, decided to position them in an original way: two dots on fret 7 and 19 and three on 12 and 24.

Red Special neck heel
Red Special neck heel

Nut: Zero Fret of the Red Special

Another incredible detail of Brian May’s ingenuity and innovation is that instead of a standard nut, he incorporated a zero fret along with a Bakelite string guide, similar to a nut so that the strings slide well when using the tremolo. In 2005, the “Old Lady” has received a new zero fret.

Headstock of the “Old Lady”

The headstock of the guitar is designed to maintain the least possible friction of the strings, achieving almost a straight line. In this way, Brian made the entire tremolo and tension system of the instrument work perfectly, with minimal friction, without affecting the tuning.

Headstock of the "Old Lady"

Body of the “Old Lady”

The center of the body is made of oak taken from an old table. Brian says it was very difficult to work with because it was “hard as steel”. The outline of the body is made of pressed wood, that is strips of softwood sandwiched between two sheets of plywood. Finally, to give it a better appearance, the cabinet is covered with mahogany veneer on the top, bottom and sides that give it that image of a solid mahogany body guitar. 

Semi-Hollow Body

Brian, in addition to a large cavity for the controls, left an acoustic chamber in the upper part of the body. The end result was technically a semi-acoustic guitar. He did this to achieve a more “live” interaction with the amplifier, and to have the possibility to play with the feedback and easily achieve coupling with the amplifier, inspired by Jeff Beck.

x-rays of the Red Special guitar.

May has said that originally the idea was that the guitar had holes type “f”, but never got to do it.

A white plastic shelf trim was then applied to the top and bottom edges to make the bindings giving it a sleek, high-end guitar look.

The Red Special pickups

The guitar has three singlecoil pickups installed. Originally, it featured some pickups made and wound by Brian, which he said sounded good. The problem was that when I bended they had a strange behavior and sound. Which is why he later ended up buying some Burns Tri-Sonic pickups. He rewound two of these and covered the reels with Araldite Epoxy to reduce miking. The middle tablet remained without rewind or coating.

Red Special Cap

In the 80’s DiMarzio examined pickups to design pickups for Guild’s first replica of the Red Special. At that time, the magnet was turned to change its polarity and the wires soldered to the posts were exchanged to mimic a coil wired backwards – “reverse wound coil” -. This made Brian May’s preferred combination of humbucking phase bridge and middle pickups.

Pickup Switches on Brian May’s Electric Guitar

The pickup change system is one of the most notable differences between the Red Special and any other guitar. Most guitars have a three or five position selector switch to select between one of two or three pickups. The “Old Lady” has six switches.

Red Special Switches
Red Special Switches

When it was initially created, Brian tested different configurations for the wiring of the pickups. The pickups can be connected in parallel or in series, and connected in phase or out of phase. May couldn’t decide just one or two settings. This is how he and Harold created a switch matrix that gave him more flexibility. Pickups are wired in series. Top row of switches turns each of the three pads on or off. The bottom row of switches reverses the polarity of each pickup, changing the phase. In this way, the guitar achieves audio versatility. It’s not uncommon for Brian to change settings during a song, while recording Bohemian Rhapsody he used almost every combination.

Brian May’s guitar bridge

The bridge is made of aluminum to measure by May himself. To reduce friction, the bridge was completed with rollers to allow the strings to return perfectly in tune after using the tremolo. In this way, he eliminated the problem that tremolos systems usually have that do not return to their initial position affecting the tuning of the musical instrument.

Brian made each of the rollers using a hand drill as a kind of hand lathe. The rollers are not attached to the guitar bridge, so a string dropped during a recital means that a roller falls off and is lost. So you need to have spare rollers on hand at all times.

Tremolo of the “Special Red”

The tremolo system is made from an old hardened steel with a V blade shape and edge and two motorcycle engine valve springs – some say they are from a Norton while others claim they are from a 1928 Panther – to counteract the tension of the strings which is 36 kilograms or 79 pounds.

The tension of the springs can be adjusted via screws, which pass through the middle of the springs, in or out through two small access holes on the button side of the rear strap.

Father and son ran three tests before deciding on the final design. Friction is minimized, as discussed with the Zero Fret, aligning the strings with the headstock and bridge rollers.

The tremolo lever is made with a bracket from a luggage rack or bicycle pack holder with a knitting needle tip that was from Brian’s mother.

This system was an innovative and effective design, so Brian has been suggested many times to patent it, but according to the musician: “patents are a headache, and why not share everything with the world?”

Built-in distortion circuit

Originally, the guitar had a built-in distortion circuit. Brian took a Vox fuzz and adapted and installed it inside the body. The switch was next to the pickup switches. Later, May found that he preferred the sound of a Vox AC30 at full power distorting. So he ended up removing the circuit. The switch hole is now covered by a mother-of-pearl star inlay, although for a time it was covered with electrical tape.

Brian May’s “Red Special” book and its history

In 2014, with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the instrument, May together with Simon Bradley, wrote a book on the construction and history of Brian May’s guitar: “Brian May’s Red Special: The history of the homemade guitar that shook to Queen and the world.”

Video of the presentation of the book of “Brian May’s Red Special” and its history

At the beginning of the video you can see the acoustic guitar with which he began to play.

Restoring the Red Special

In 1998, Brian brought the Red Special guitar to Australian luthier Greg Fryer to fine-tune it. They argued over whether they should restore it or not. The musician did not doubt it, and commissioned Greg to restore it.

Greg said the neck was straight, even though the tensioner never had to be adjusted in the entire history of the Red Special – that’s more than 30 years.

You can see pictures of the guts from the “Red Special” on Greg Fryer’s site.

But restoring the Red Special and fine-tuning was not the only job May commissioned Fryer. He also asked for the construction of two replicas of the Red Special that Brian would use as spare parts for his much-loved “Red Lady.”

Brian and the Red Special, an inseparable couple

Brian May, despite all the warnings, takes the guitar wherever he plays, wherever it may be. His set is completed with several replicas that he also uses alternately in his performances, some acoustic guitars and telecasters.

But like everything, there are a few exceptions in which May does not appear with his beloved Red Special in the history of the mythical British band Queen.

Times you didn’t use the Special

There is one occasion when the Old Lady was not used, and it is in the videos for “We Will Rock You” and “Spread Your Wings” that were filmed together. The videos were filmed in the snow and the guitarist did not want to expose the Red Special to such conditions. In its replacement he used a copy made by the luthier John-Birch. This guitar was built entirely in maple with a finish that looked like natural wood. It was also used as a backup at recitals until May destroyed it during a performance.

We will Rock you video

Another opportunity in which “the red” was not used was in the video of “Play the Game”. Instead he used a cheap replica of a Fender Stratocaster, as at one point in the video, Queen singer Freddie Mercury snatches the guitar from Brian May and then throws it back at him. Another video that did not feature the red special was “Princes of the Universe”, where the musician used a white Washburn RR11V. The reasons are unknown. The instrument is often mistaken for a Jackson Randy Rhoads. He also recorded the original “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” on a Fender Esquire from Queen drummer Roger Taylor, but performed the video and live performances of the song until 1992 on a Fender Telecaster.

Moment when Freddie rips the guitar out of May’s hands and throws it at her

Without a doubt, the history of the Red Special is fascinating and captivating.

The Red Special and its replicas

In a Brian May “Rig Rundown” that did Premier Guitar on Queen’s 2014 tour, you could see the guitars the musician uses.

The musician has, of course, the Red Special, with which he plays most of the songs, except for a few. The second guitar, which is the spare in case you cut chords with the Red Special. It is one of the replicas made by Greg Fryer, a fairly faithful replica of the Red Lady. This is used only, when the Old Lady has a string broken and until his technician replaces it with a new string.

Fryer Red Special Replica.
Red Speical Fryer Replica

Technician Pete Malandrone says Brian uses 0.09 gauge string. Fairly light, but used to use 0.08 before but cut string very often, especially since it plays with a coin instead of a pick. He clarifies that he is holding the coin very gently, that’s why he drops a lot of coins, probably about 10 a night, he says.

The third guitar is another copy of the “Old Lady” made by the English luthier Andrew Guyton. It is a “Green Special” as it has a green finish. It is tuned to Drop-D and is used only for the song “Fat Bottomed Girls”. The fourth guitar is another Greg Fryer that is tuned to Drop D and is the replacement for the green one. The peculiarity of this guitar is that it has the pickups a little hotter than the rest.

Guyton “Green Special”

The Queen’s Jewel, the Red Special Guyton “Boutique”

The fifth and last guitar is another Guyton, it is a “Red Special” but “Boutique”. This instrument is a true beauty with peculiarities that make it unique. It has an arched top, instead of a classic flat one. The top is made of very showy quilted maple. It has an f-hole, as was the original design of the Red Lady. Very striking that the pickguard is also arched. Finally, it has a fixed bridge and internal piezo pickup. This guitar is used for solo for “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”.

Guyton Red Special with F-holes, maple top, arched top, fixed bridge and piezo.
Guyton with F-Hole and arched maple top

For more information on the guitar, visit Greg Fryer’s site.

Related Post: Eric Clapton’s Blackie: History of the Great Fender Stratocaster and David Gilmour’s Black Strat, and its incredible story.

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One thought on “Red Special: Brian May’s guitar history and characteristics

  1. Yes, I read about Brian throwing everything out the window years ago. To my memory, he had to start all over again, but I can’t remember where I read it to be sure.

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