The Red Special is an electric guitar popularized by Queen's guitarist Brian May, with the very first built by him and his father, Harold, when May 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 feedback after he saw Jeff Beck playing live and making different sounds just by moving the guitar in front of the amp. He wanted an instrument that was going to be alive and interact with him and the air around him.
As his main guitar, he has used it 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 Rustins' Plastic Coating.[note 1] 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 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 two wormholes in the neck of the guitar.
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 oak from an old table, blockboard (strips of softwood sandwiched between two plywood skins) and mahogany veneer; the final result was technically a semi-acoustic guitar – the central block is glued to the sides and covered with two mahogany sheets to give it the appearance of a solid-body guitar. It was originally intended that the guitar would have f-holes but this was never done.
White shelf edging was then applied as binding. It was then completed with three pick-ups and a custom-made bridge. May purchased a set of Burns Tri-Sonic pick-ups but re-wound them with reverse wound/reverse polarity and "potted" the coils with Araldite epoxy to reduce microphonics. 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 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 knock-off guitar based on 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 (also the reason he used a cheap Satellite-badged copy instead of a real Strat). 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 two separate companies manufacture "Red Special" models, Brian May Guitars (taking over manufacture from Burns) and KZ GuitarWorks (replica-quality, hand-made in Japan by master luthier Kazutaka Ijuin).
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, an Australian guitar luthier, produced three copies of the Red Special in 1996/97 with permission from May, who allowed Fryer to X-ray the body for information on its internal cavities, taking exhaustive body measurements for CAD/CAM reproduction. 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, while Fryer kept Paul. 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. When May plays George Burns live, he tunes it to Drop D tuning, to play "Fat Bottomed Girls", and occasionally "Another One Bites the Dust".
In 2004, Andrew Guyton, a guitar luthier from East Anglia in the UK, manufactured 50 copies 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. May has recently had Guyton make another Red Special copy with a scalloped fretboard.
Dillion Guitars (built in Korea) makes unofficial "Tribute Guitars" in two models. A second unofficial manufacturer, RS Guitars (hand-built in Arizona, US), discontinued production of their models in January 2011.
In 2006 Brian May Guitars introduced a "Mini May" guitar, based on a scaled-down Red Special (even including 24 frets but 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 fingerboard 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 pick) 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 jack. Despite all of this work, the original frets (other than the zero fret) have never been replaced.
- Series wiring
- 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.
- On/Off switches
- 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.
- Phase switches
- 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, as it features a knife-edge) is unique and was designed by May and his father. The tremolo rocks on the knife-edge, which is linked to two motorbike valve springs in the guitar; when the tremolo arm is pushed down, the springs are compressed so the pitch of the note drops (as it would in a normal tremolo) and then when the arm is raised the note returns with extreme accuracy to pitch. The tremolo-arm itself was made from an old bicycle saddle-bag carrier, and the arm tip is from a knitting needle of his mother's.
- Oak from an old table and blockboard (with a mahogany veneer), semi-solid body
- Depth: 39 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 small 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 copies feature a Set Neck.
- Mahogany from a "hundred-year-old-ish" fireplace mantel
- Neck Pitch: 2°
- Headstock Angle: 4°
- Width at nut: 47 mm
- Width at 12th fret: 51 mm
- Depth at 1st fret: 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: 610 mm
- Number of frets: 24
- Fret gauge: 24 x 1.2
- 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: 41 mm
- String spacing at bridge: 49 mm
- Strings used – Optima Gold Brian May Custom Gauge – .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042 supplied by A Strings
- Plastic Coating is an acid-cure urea-formaldehyde resin clear varnish made by Rustins. It is commonly used for hard-wearing finishes on wooden floors, bar tops and guitars.
- "The Red Special Story". "Brian May Guitars – The Official web site". Retrieved 28 December 2009.
- Huntman, Ruth (17 October 2014). "Brian May: Me, my dad and ‘the old lady’". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 October 2014.
- Hey, what's that sound: Homemade guitars The Guardian. Retrieved 17 August 2011
- Brian May Interview The Music Biz (1992). Retrieved 17 August 2011
- Songwriters Hall of Fame – Brian May Biography Songwriters Hall of Fame. Retrieved 17 August 2011
- "Blockboard". Design Technology Department website. Retrieved 27 October 2014.
- Blackett, Matt. "Renaissance Man." Guitar Player Magazine Jan. 2008: 92. Print.
- Gjörde, Per (2001). Pearls and Crazy Diamonds. Göteborg, Sweden: Addit Information AB. pp. 62–63.
- "Greg Fryer's Red Special Replicas". "Guitarist magazine via Brian May World web site". Retrieved 18 January 2011.
- Guyton Red Special Guitars Brian May Central. Retrieved 17 August 2011
- "RS Guitars website". Retrieved 15 September 2014.
- Guitarist: "Brian May on Guitar" on YouTube.
- May, Brian; Bradley, Simon (21 October 2014). Brian May’s Red Special: The Story of the Home-Made Guitar that Rocked Queen and the World (1st ed.). Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 9781480341470.