Guitarists are a special breed, and many of them have a close connection with the instruments they play. It might be a specific brand of guitar, or a certain setup required to achieve the sound they’re looking for. No one has a closer bond with an instrument than Brian May to his Red Special. The guitar he toured with and played through his career with Queen and beyond had very humble beginnings. It was built from scratch by Brian and his father Harold May.
It was the early 1960’s and a young teenaged Brian May wanted an electric guitar. The problem was that the relatively new instruments were still quite expensive — into the hundreds of dollars. Well beyond the means of the modest family’s budget. All was not lost though. Brian’s father Harold was an electrical engineer and a hacker of sorts. He built the family’s radio, TV, and even furniture around the house. Harold proposed the two build a new electric guitar from scratch as a father-son project. This was the beginning of a two-year odyssey that resulted in the creation of one of the world’s most famous musical instruments.
Brian was already an accomplished guitarist, learning first on his dad’s George Formby Banjo-ukulele, and graduating to an Egmond acoustic guitar. Brian’s first forays into electric guitars came from experimenting with that Egmond. If you look close, you can even see the influence it had on the final design of the Red Special.
Body and Neck
The neck of the guitar is mahogany, made from a Victorian era fireplace mantle. The building which housed the fireplace was long gone, and Harold happened to have the mantle in his workshop. Brian filled the wormholes with matchsticks as he carved out the neck.
The center body of the Red Special was created from oak, the wood recycled from an old table. The sides of the guitar could be made of weaker material since they don’t have to support the string tension. These were made from blockboard — an engineered material made from blocks of softwood sandwiched between two pieces of veneer. All this wood was cut, carved, and shaped using only hand tools. Oak and mahogany are hardwoods, so one can imagine how long it took to carve a block of it into something resembling a guitar neck.
The neck isn’t a solid chunk of wood. Most guitar necks include a steel rod called a truss bar. This rod helps the wood pull against the tension of strings. The Red Special is no different. Brian and Harold heated one end of a steel rod, then bent it into a loop. The loop was bolted at the body side of the guitar, while the rest of the bar runs through the neck to the headstock end.
Brian originally wanted the guitar to be semi-acoustic, so he carved resonant chambers into the block board. He even planned to make an F-hole in the guitar body. Once the guitar was done though, he couldn’t bring himself to cut a hole in the mahogany veneer which makes the outer skin of the Red Special.
Rock guitarists need a tremolo (or vibrato) system. This is the “whammy bar” which can add or remove tension on the strings, allowing the guitarist to bend all six notes at once. The problem with tremolo systems on guitars is that they don’t always come back to a clean neutral point when the musician is done bending the notes. One or more strings will be out of tune. The Fender synchronized tremolo had this issue, and the problems always came down to friction.
Brian and Harold spent a lot of time on the tremolo system. They used the neck of the guitar-in-progress to create a tremolo testbed. The pair went through three revisions before settling on the final design. Friction is eliminated everywhere possible. The entire tremolo assembly rides on a knife edge, which Brian and Harold hardened using case hardening compound over the kitchen stove. The strings ride in roller saddles. Brian made each of the rollers using a hand drill as a sort of manual lathe. The rollers aren’t captive — so a broken string during a show means a roller is bouncing around on stage somewhere. Switching to a captive design would force Brian to change his playing style, so he just keeps a healthy supply of spare rollers on hand. Overall, this was a groundbreaking design. In Brian’s own words “…everybody was saying I should have patented it, but patents are a pain in the neck, and why not share everything with the world?”
The nut, or headstock end of the strings, is also a frictionless design. The Red Special uses a zero-fret, so the strings don’t rely on touching the nut to stay in tune. It simply is a guide between the zero fret. Even with friction eliminated, something still has to provide enough force to hold the strings in tune, yet remain light enough for the guitarist to use the tremolo bar. Most tremolo systems use tension springs in the back of the guitar for this. Brian and Harold went with compression springs mounted on the front of the guitar. Specifically, they used valve springs from a motorcycle. Depending on who is telling the tale, it’s either a Norton or a 1928 Panther motorcycle. Two holes in the bottom of the guitar near the strap button allow Brian to adjust the tension in the overall system.
The tremolo arm is probably the most talked about piece of the Red Special. The arm itself was built from the arm of a bicycle luggage rack. The sharp metal end of the rod would make playing the Red Special a painful experience. Brian solved this by raiding his mother’s knitting supplies. A large knitting needle, cut and formed just right, serves as the tip of the tremolo arm.
The pickup switching system is one of the most striking differences between the Red Special and ordinary guitars of its day. Most guitars have a two or three position switch to select one of the three pickups. The Red Special has six switches. When the Red Special was initially built, Brian tested out different configurations for pickup wiring. The pickups could be wired in parallel or series, and wired in phase or out of phase. Brian couldn’t decide on only one or two configurations, so he and Harold created a switch matrix which gave him more flexibility. The pickups are wired in series. The top row of switches (from the guitarists view) enables or shorts each of the three pickups.The short effectively acts as an on-off switch for that pickup. The bottom row of switches invert the polarity of each pickup, changing the phase. The different sounds Brian was able to achieve have been displayed on different songs. It’s not uncommon for Brian to change settings during a song — while recording Bohemian Rhapsody he used just about every switch combination.
Every part of the Red Special was a process of trial and error. This is the true hacker spirit behind the guitar. Most trials didn’t work the first time, but Brian and Harold iterated until they reached their goals. An example of this is the pickups. Brian’s experimentation with pickups started with his Egmond guitar. He bought some Eclipse Magnetics button magnets from the local hardware store. These formed the core of the pickup. Harold then helped him build a coil winding machine, which allowed Brian to manually wind thousands of turns of fine copper wire around the pickups. It even had a wind counter built from a bicycle odometer.
Brian didn’t have an amplifier yet, so he plugged into the family’s radio. The pickups worked! They were very bright sounding, but had one flaw. When bending notes, Brian found there would be an odd sound as the string moved across the pickup. He attributed it to the North-South alignment of the disk magnet poles. Cutting the magnets was beyond the tools he had, and custom magnets were out of the budget. The pickups worked, and these were the original devices used in the Red Special. Eventually, though, Brian had to fix the string bending problem. He headed off to the store and bought three Burns Tri-Sonic guitar pickups. He coated these in epoxy to reduce the microphonics and then installed them in the Red Special. These same three pickups still reside in the guitar today. It’s worth noting that the pickups on the Red Special receive an incredible amount of abuse. This has a lot to do with Brian’s choice in plectrum. Most guitarists use a plastic pick. Brian has always used a sixpence coin. It’s an integral part of his style and sound, the serrated edge sure does a number on the pickup covers.
After the build
The Red Special guitar was completed in the early 1960’s. Brian went on to play the guitar in his bands 1984 and Smile. It wasn’t until Queen in the 1970’s that he really hit it big. Since then the Red Special has been all over the world and played in countless shows. Brian has had backups made, but his primary instrument is still the same one he and his dad built all those years ago.
One might think that a handmade instrument like this would require a ton of upkeep. It turns out that the Red Special was so well made that it never had a major problem. After nearly 40 years the Special was showing its age though, so in 1998, the Red Special was overhauled and refinished by the careful hands of luthier Greg Fryer. His website details the work done, and includes some amazing photos of the internals of the Red Special.
If you do want to read more about the Red Special, definitely check out by Brian May and Simon Bradley’s book on the subject. The book shows the level of detail Brian and Harold went to — not only in building but in documenting the Red Special. These include full-scale dimensional drawings and handwritten reports on each process used to build the guitar.