The Red Special is the electric guitar designed and built by Queen's guitarist Brian May and his father, Harold, when Brian was a teenager in the early 1960s. The Red Special is also sometimes referred to, by May and by others, as the Fireplace or the Old Lady. A guitar that would define May's signature style, it was intentionally designed to feed back after he saw Jeff Beck playing live and making different sounds just by moving the guitar in front of the amplifier. He wanted an instrument that was going to be alive and interact with him and the air around him.
May has used the Red Special almost exclusively, including on Queen albums and in live performances since the band's advent in the early 1970s. The name Red Special came from the reddish-brown colour the guitar attained after being stained and painted with numerous layers of Rustin's Plastic Coating. The name Fireplace is a reference to the fact that the wood used to make the neck came from a fireplace mantel.
In celebration of the instrument's 50th anniversary, a book about its construction and history, Brian May’s Red Special: The Story of the Home-Made Guitar that Rocked Queen and the World, was written by Brian May with Simon Bradley.
Unlike the primary instruments of most musicians, the Red Special was built by its player, May, along with his father. They began to work on the guitar in August 1963, with the project taking two years to complete. The neck was constructed from wood from a "hundred-year-old-ish" fireplace mantel that a friend of the family was about to throw away. The neck was hand-shaped into the desired form, a job that was made more difficult by the age and quality of the wood. According to May, there are worm holes in the neck of the guitar that he filled in with matchsticks.
The neck was finished with a 24-fret oak fingerboard. Each of the position inlays was hand shaped from a mother-of-pearl button. May decided to position them in a personal way: two dots at the 7th and 19th fret and three at the 12th and 24th.
The body was made from blockboard (strips of softwood sandwiched between two plywood skins) with oak inserts in the top and bottom layers sourced from an old table. It was covered with mahogany marquetry veneer on the top, bottom and side to give it the appearance of a solid-body guitar. The final result was technically a semi-acoustic guitar. It was originally intended that the guitar would have f-holes but this was never done.
White plastic shelf edging was then applied to the top and bottom edges to protect them from damage. The guitar features three single-coil pick-ups and a custom-made aluminium bridge. May purchased a set of Burns Tri-Sonic pick-ups and covered the coils of two with Araldite epoxy to reduce microphonics. The middle pickup remained uncoated and this is understood to have been modified in the early 1980s when DiMarzio examined the Red Special when designing pickups for the first Guild replica. The magnet was turned over to change its polarity and the wires on the solder posts swapped (to mimic a reverse wound coil) which made his favoured pickup combination of bridge and middle in phase humbucking. He originally wound his own pick-ups, as he had for his first guitar, but he did not like the resulting sound because of the polarity of these pick-ups: alternating North-South instead of all North.
The tremolo system is made from an old hardened-steel knife-edge shaped into a V and two motorbike valve springs to counter the 79 lbs string tension. The tension of the springs can be adjusted by screwing the bolts, which run through the middle of the springs, in or out via two small access holes next to the rear strap button. To reduce friction, the bridge was completed with rollers to allow the strings to return perfectly in tune after using the tremolo arm (the arm itself was from a bicycle saddlebag holder with a plastic knitting needle tip). For the same reason, at the other end of the neck the strings pass over a zero fret and through a bakelite string guide.
Originally the guitar had a built-in distortion circuit, adapted from a mid-1960s Vox distortion effects unit. The switch for this was in front of the phase switches. May soon discovered that he preferred the sound of a Vox AC30 distorting at full power, so the circuit was removed. The switch hole is now covered by a mother-of-pearl star inlay, but was originally covered by insulation tape.
May still uses the original but he has used replicas in some performances. Two notable occasions on which the original guitar was not used were in the videos "We Will Rock You", and "Spread Your Wings", using his John-Birch-made Red Special copy (see Replicas section below) which differs from the original in its all-maple construction and natural maple colour, since he did not want to expose the Red Special to snow. The Birch was also used live as a back-up for the Red Special until it was destroyed by May. He also opted not to use the Red Special for the "Play the Game" video, instead using a budget Satellite-badged replica of a Fender Stratocaster, since at one point in the video, Queen singer Freddie Mercury would snatch the guitar from May and "throw" it back to him. Another video that did not feature the Red Special was "Princes of the Universe", where May used a white Washburn RR11V (for reasons unknown, and this guitar is often mistaken for a Jackson Randy Rhoads). He also recorded the original of "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" on Queen drummer Roger Taylor's Fender Esquire but performed the accompanying video and live performances of the song until 1992 with a Fender Telecaster.
The first official copy of the Red Special was made by British luthier John Birch and was used as a back-up for live performances until it was destroyed by May. The Birch was used in the music videos for "We Will Rock You" and "Spread Your Wings". The guitar differs from the original in its all-maple construction and natural finish. After its destruction May sent the guitar to American luthier John Page, who kept the remains for over 20 years before sending them back to May. May then had the guitar restored by Andrew Guyton and still owns it.
Other official replicas of the Red Special have been manufactured in varying numbers and in multiple models (i.e. a higher-end full-featured model, and a lower-cost one lacking some of the intricacies of the former) several times during the 1980s and '90s, most often by the Guild Guitar Company from 1983–85 and again from 1993–95, and by Burns Guitars from 2001 (mass-produced models made in Korea). The Burns model, produced with guidance from May, was awarded "Best Electric Guitar of the Year 2001" by Guitarist Magazine. Currently, only Brian May Guitars (taking over manufacture from Burns) manufacture authorised replicas, the Special at a budget price point and the Super Mk2 at a higher price point aimed at enthusiasts. KZ Guitar Works manufactured the original Red Special Super model which was hand-made in Japan by master luthier Kazutaka Ijuin. This model has been discontinued and production of the revised Super model taken up in the Czech Republic for Brian May Guitars (BMG).
The Brian May Guitars version differs from the Burns original in several ways; for example, the tremolo was a two-point synchronised tremolo with rear access plate. These models also feature a half-moon scratch plate behind the bridge to emulate the original. The switches were also changed from black to white to match May's guitar. They still use the Burns Tri-Sonic pick-ups. 24 guitars were made in a rare baby blue color with a pearloid pickguard and gold hardware. The guitars come in Antique Cherry (a similar color to that of the Red Special), White and 3-Tone Sunburst with chrome hardware. They also have Honey Sunburst, Black and Gold with gold hardware.
Greg Fryer, of Fryer Guitars an Australian luthier, produced three replicas of the Red Special in 1996/97, and with permission from May, made exhaustive measurements of the original guitar. Fryer named his three replicas John, Paul and George Burns (after two members of The Beatles and the famous American comedian). May has two of these guitars, John and George Burns; Fryer kept Paul for some years and used it for testing modified Vox AC30 amplifiers and his range of treble boosters until he sold it to a Japanese collector for an undisclosed sum. While the woods used in John and Paul are more faithful to the original, George Burns was built with New Guinea rosewood for a "more aggressive edge" tonally. John is May's main back-up Red Special, and is tuned to standard. His green Guyton has replaced George Burns for Drop D tuning duties to play "Fat Bottomed Girls" live.
In 2004, Andrew Guyton of Guyton Guitars, a luthier from East Anglia in the UK, manufactured 50 authorised, limited edition replicas of the Red Special: 40 in red to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the guitar, and ten in green, as he had previously seen a green Guild copy that he liked. Pete Malandrone, May's guitar technician suggested having x-ray images made of the original guitar to allow more accurate reproduction of the internal chambers. This was done in 2003 at St Bartholomews Hospital in London. May has since commissioned Guyton to make several other Red Special variants, e.g. with a scalloped fretboard, a double neck and an arch top semi-acoustic.
CQuadro Guitar Works in Sicily made authentic Red Special replicas (the Basic and the Extreme) but ceased production in 2016.
Dansan Guitars makes authentic Red Special replicas hand built in France.
Dillion Guitars (built in Korea) makes "Tribute Guitars" in two models.
RS Custom Guitars run by Everett Wood makes a variety of Red Special style replicas hand-built in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
RS Guitars which were hand-built in Arizona, U.S. by Steve Turpin discontinued production of their models in January 2011.
In 2006, Brian May Guitars introduced a "Mini May" guitar, based on a 3/4 sized Red Special body shape with a 24 fret, 19” scale (but with no zero fret) featuring a single pick-up, no switches and a maple neck.
An acoustic guitar, featuring a 24-fret neck and the body outline of the Red Special went into production in 2007. This model is named the "Rhapsody", after the Queen song "Bohemian Rhapsody".
A bass guitar called the Bri-Bass was announced on May's website and is available. It looks like his normal guitar but with four bass strings. It features a bound mahogany body and 31.5" scale neck, topped with a 20-fret ebony fingerboard. Pickups are a Gibson EB0 type chrome-covered humbucking neck pick-up and a rear-position single coil pick-up hooked up to a passive volume/volume/tone circuit.
The Guild models of the early 1990s featured three major configurations. Of the three, the "Signature" model was closest to May's guitar, although it was made of mahogany (body and neck) and ebony (fingerboard) and sported Trisonic-styled "Brian May" pick-ups made by Seymour Duncan and hardware (including the unique bridge) from Schaller. The "Special" model featured a stop-tailpiece rather than a vibrato, the middle pick-up was moved back next to the bridge pick-up for a humbucking look, and the back of the guitar had no binding. The "Standard" model featured a more common Strat-style 5-way pick-up selector switch, a longer scale neck, and a deeper headstock angle. Andrew Guyton made May a double-neck version, which has never been a production model.
After viewing the replicas and taking note of the wear and tear the Red Special had suffered during nearly 30 years of constant touring, May had Fryer restore the original Red Special in 1998 using as much original and time-period specific material as possible. Damaged veneer on the back of the guitar was removed and new pieces scarfed in. The binding was removed and various nicks and dents in the top were repaired. Fryer re-finished the neck and body in the original Rustin's Plastic Coating used in the creation over the existing finish, and fretboard wear was repaired and dot-markers replaced. The original electrics were also re-wired and overhauled, and cosmetic work was done, such as filling in holes and worn areas on access panels, pick-up covers (worn by May's use of a sixpence as opposed to a standard plectrum) and the front scratchplate.
At the end of the Queen + Paul Rodgers tour in 2005, May had several revisions made to the original Red Special, including having the zero fret replaced for the first time (this had been judged unnecessary at the time of the 1998 restoration) and making a larger opening for a new, modern 1/4" jack socket. Despite all of this work, the original frets (other than the zero fret) have never been replaced.
Andrew Guyton of Guyton Guitars, carried out a limited restoration in April 2016 . This work involved making good all the cracks in the Rustins Plastic Coating lacquer finish, repairing damage to the end and edge, and touching in of the fretboard and replacing one of the mother-of-pearl marker dots. Various parts, including the tremolo and bridge assembly were removed, serviced, cleaned and lubricated then refitted. The zero fret was also replaced again.
- The pick-ups are wired in series rather than the more usual parallel configuration. The output is also added together when wired in series, meaning that with all three pick-ups turned on the output is tripled.
- Each pick-up has its own dedicated on/off switch. This allows for the additional pick-up combinations of "all three on" and "neck and bridge on", combinations not commonly available on three pick-up guitars.
- Each pick-up has a phase switch which reverses the pick-up wiring, therefore reversing the phase of the signal from the pick-up. This means that when more than one pick-up is active and one has the phase reversed, the resultant tone is what remains after the signal common to the two pick-ups is cancelled out, and only the differences from pick-up position remain.
- The position of the volume and tone controls is transposed compared to most guitars, with the tone being nearest the pick-ups and the volume furthest away.
- The tremolo (known as a knife-edge tremolo) is unique and was designed by May and his father. The knife-edge acts as a fulcrum on which the tremolo block, or tailpiece, pivots.
- Oak from an old table and blockboard (with a mahogany veneer), semi-solid body
- Depth: 1 9/16" (40 mm)
- Bolt on, one large bolt which sits beneath the fingerboard and goes through a hole in the body then a nut is then attached; it is also screwed down by two wood screws at the tenon end which ends just before the bridge pick-up. The Greg Fryer, Burns/Brian May Guitars, Guild, John Birch and Greco replicas feature a set (glued) neck.
- Mahogany from a Victorian fireplace surround mantel
- Neck pitch: 2°
- Headstock angle: 4°
- Width at nut: 47 mm
- Width at 12th fret: 51 mm
- Depth at 1st fret: 1" (25 mm)
- Depth at 12th fret: 27 mm
- Though using a 24-fret fingerboard, the scale length of the Red Special is a short 24" (609.6 mm); compared to the Gibson standard of 24.75" (628.65 mm) and Fender's common 25.5" (647.7 mm) scale lengths, this creates a looser feel for the strings, which is conducive to May's extensive use of string bending and his wide vibrato.
- Black-painted oak
- Radius: 7.25"
- Scale length: 24" (610 mm)
- Number of frets: 24
- Fret gauge: 2.4mm x 1.2mm
- Inlays: 3°, 5°, 9°, 15°, 17°, 21° (one dot), 7° and 19° (two dots), 12° and 24° (three dots)
- "Zero" fret with Bakelite string guide
- String spacing at nut: 1 13/16" (46 mm)
- String spacing at bridge: 2"
- Strings: Optima Gold Brian May Custom Gauge (.009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042)
- Pickups: three modified Burns Tri-Sonic
- Tremolo arm: self-made from bicycle saddlebag parts
- Pickguard/pickup surrounds/tailpiece: black Perspex
- Controls: master volume, master tone, on/off (slide) switch for each pick-up, in/out of phase switch for each pick-up
- Weight: approx 8 lbs (3.6 kg)
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Plastic Coating is an acid-cure urea-formaldehyde resin clear varnish made by Rustin's. It is commonly used for hard-wearing finishes on wooden floors, bar tops and guitars. ("Two-part cold cure") (Contains formaldehyde, 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene, naphtha, mesitylene, ac412/80ip, isobutyylated melamine-formaldehyde resin.)
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