A First Look At the DigiTech Brian May Red Special

Man, it must suck to work for DigiTech’s guitar-product research team these days. What manner of self-abusing tech head would subject himself to countless meetings with legendary—or merely fabulously popular—guitarists to discuss mundane things such as tone, craft, and creativity? You’d have to be even sadder to lock yourself up in famous recording studios to continuously play classic songs from the original master tapes for the sole purpose of decoding the sounds that changed rock and roll. And who would want to sit next to someone like celebrated engineer and producer (and DigiTech Senior Production Modeling Consultant) Eddie Kramer for hours upon hours as he used his platinum ears to dissect every nuance and timbre from those tapes, and then helped replicate the sounds and feels and vibes for some stupid little pedal? I mean, wouldn’t you get tired of him talking about recording Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Kiss, the Rolling Stones, and scores of other truly important

Yeah. Aren’t we glad we don’t work for DigiTech? Especially since they just released another of their awesome Artist Series stompboxes: The Brian May Red Special ($249 retail/$199 street). Like the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Eric Clapton Crossroads, Scott Ian Black-13, and Dan Donegan The Weapon pedals, the Red Special utilizes DigiTech’s digital Production Modeling technology to clone Brian May’s singular tones from classic Queen songs so that you and I can become rock royalty by merely stepping upon its treadle. The pedal even simulates the sound of May’s famous, homemade Red Special guitar, as equipped with its trio of vintage Burns Tri-Sonic pickups. All you do is turn the Guitar Knob to HB if you play a humbucker-loaded instrument, and to SC if your guitar is a single-coil model. The pedal does the rest, and you can even fine tune the timbre by jockeying the knob. (Players who actually own a Red Special replica need only click the knob to Red Special.)

Users can choose to bask in May’s tones, or opt to adapt or mutate his sounds through the Red Special’s Gain, Bass, Treble, and Control knobs, and its expression pedal. (The parameter options allowed via the expression pedal and Control knob are dependent upon the digital model selected.) Seven models are provided with one variation each for a total of 14 May-rific sounds. In an arrangement of blissful simplicity, you just toe click the expression pedal for Toe Mode (the first seven models), and heel back for Heel Mode (the second seven models).

The Red Special’s seven, dual-sound presets are derived from “Keep Yourself Alive” (intro and solo), “Bohemian Rhapsody” (first solo, rhythm and finale orchestral fanfare), “Tie Your Mother Down” (intro and solo), “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions” (the solo tones for each song), “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (acoustic intro and Telecaster solo), “Brighton Rock” (May’s live solo tones: three amps with delay and chorus, and orchestral hamonizer), and “A Winter’s Tale” (an unprocessed model of the infamous “Deacy” amp built by Queen bassist John Deacon, and the song’s solo tone).

Three Flexible Output Modes let you easily configure the pedal for use with a mono or stereo amplifier, or a mixing console (where the pedal’s stereo output can be assigned to two individual channels on the mixer). An optional DigiTech FS3X footswitch is available if you wish to select models without bending down to twist the pedal’s Model knob. The FS3X can also toggle between the Toe and Heel modes. Power is handled by an included AC power supply (the Red Special cannot be powered by batteries). The package also includes a lush Artist Series gig bag, as well as a sixpence coin that you can use as a pick—just like Brian. The pedal is even colored and wood grained to represent the finish of May’s Red Special guitar. Talk about accurate “modeling.”

Test Your Mama Down

If it was me, I’d be worried sick about simulating the tones of one of rock’s most unique and individual sonic stylists, but, hey, these guys cloned Hendrix for the Experience pedal, so what’s the worry? This is, however, where you learn that the Guitar Knob is no joke. Purposefully spinning the knob to the wrong settings, I plugged in my Burns Red Special replica, Fernandes Ravelle, Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster, and Gibson Les Paul Junior (with P-90s) and Les Paul, and got very May-like sounds that didn’t quite stand up under A/B testing with the original tracks. (Tests were made using a Mesa/Boogie Stiletto and 1x12 cabinet, and going direct from the pedal to an M-Audio Firewire 410 to Pro Tools.) Once I put everything right, setting-wise, the sounds became spookily accurate—even allowing for the fact that (a) I’m not Brian May, (b) I don’t play like Brian May, and (c) I wasn’t playing this stuff in the mid ’70s surrounded by mid ’70s technology. The highs and mids matched right up, and the verisimilitude of the effects and ambiences were astounding. The chunky bits sounded a bit chunkier on the reference recordings, but not by much. (Eddie Kramer! Eddie Kramer!)

The real mind blower was the three-part harmony model for the “Brighton Rock” solo. Stunning textures and guitar harmonies are May’s fortes, and you certainly don’t want to be assaulted by a cheesy emulation. This isn’t. In fact, it made me laugh my ass off how much I “sounded” like Brian May when using this preset. The accuracy and vibe is astounding, and the harmonies—and the sounds of those harmonies—are dead on. They didn’t just model one foundational tone, and then harmonize it. They must have nabbed each harmony pass from the master tape to ensure that the subtle tonal phrasing between overdubs was captured. Damn.


I’m a Queen fan who will never get Brian May to lend me his Red Special or his Deacy amp, so this pedal is the closest I’m ever going to get to channeling his sonic presence. If you dig Brian’s sound, there’s nothing to fault here, and the pedal is even built tough enough to take on the road when you get tired of impressing your dog with the “Tie Your Mother Down” lick. Just don’t forget your sixpence.