The original hand-drawn plans for the Red Special. Note the f-hole that didn’t make it to the final product.
Jimi Hendrix played new guitars that were more or less bought off the rack. Jimmy Page didn’t work on his instruments. Eddie Van Halen, who is widely credited with ushering in the modern era of DIY guitar construction, basically assembled a kit guitar. There is only one rock guitar legend who conceived, designed, and built his own guitar, and that guitar legend is Brian May. As a teenager, with help from his draftsman father, Harold, May envisioned a guitar that would not only give him the unique tones he heard in his head, but would also improve upon every other design in existence. Why can’t you get all the combinations of the three pickups on a Strat? Why should you run out of frets at the high D on a Les Paul? Why do trem systems have to go out of tune? Why shouldn’t feedback be musical and controllable? Why must you choose between 24 3/4" or 25 1/2" scale lengths? These were questions that May demanded answers to, as a 16-year-old in 1963.
This x-ray clearly shows the acoustic chambers, valve springs in the whammy cavity, trussrod, and more.
He was motivated partially by financial concerns: “I made that guitar because my family couldn’t afford to buy one.” He was also driven by words of wisdom from his father: “He told me if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. It was an opportunity to try to make something that was better than anything that had been before. So we kind of took on the world.” May and his father spent two years realizing this vision, and their efforts culminated in the guitar that would come to be known as the Red Special.
It’s a great story, and even if the result of that work produced a guitar that he only played for a month, or a year, or on Queen’s first record before moving on to “proper instruments,” it would still be a great story. But the craziest part of this father/son guitar-building project is that they got it right. The very first time. With the exception of the original pickups (that Brian wound by hand, on a winding machine that they built, that actually sounded amazing but made a strange “wooshing” sound when he bent strings because of some polarity anomaly), the guitar that he has played on every Queen album, on every Queen gig, for five decades is the very one that he and his dad created. It’s a guitar that they built out of fireplace wood and motorcycle valve springs, with fret placement calculated to 100 decimal places from an iterative program that Brian wrote and plugged into a computer in 1964. It is a guitar that even now, in 2015, still has never had a fret job or a neck adjustment.
This is the story that is told, in words and pictures, in the new book Brian May’s Red Special: The Story of the Home Made Guitar that Rocked Queen and the World [Hal Leonard]. Written by May with Simon Bradley, it’s a rare and amazing look into the conception, construction, and execution of one of the most unique guitars—both visually and sonically—of all time. Every aspect of the instrument is examined, and there’s a story behind every part, component, and decision. The book will be fascinating for players and non-players alike, but it’s a must-read for Brian May fans, and if they want to grab a piece of Red Special magic for themselves, they should go to guitar-player. com/BrianMayContest for a chance to win an autographed Red Special replica. It’s interesting to note that the other great guitar hero/guitar designer, Les Paul, once said, “Can your mom recognize you on the radio?” Anyone with ears can recognize Brian May playing the Red Special after only one note.
The roller saddles, made by hand by Brian, plus the pencil drawing showing how it fits into a bridge block.
A great guitar is a recipe, but it’s a recipe that never works exactly the same way twice. Your guitar was a brand new recipe in terms of the materials, the scale length, the hardware, and the electronics. And, with the exception of those original pickups you wound, you nailed it on the very first try. When you finally got it done and plugged it in, were you surprised that you got it right?
Well, I got it different, and I didn’t know that it was right in the first few months. I just knew that it didn’t sound like anything else. I think in the beginning I was wanting to make it sound like my heroes—like Hank Marvin playing a Stratocaster or somebody playing a Les Paul. But it was so different, I think it took me by surprise a little bit.
Your choice of three single-coils seems like a Strat thing, but you wired them in series, not parallel. How did that come to be?
Well, I tried it both ways. All the wires were on crocodile clips and I could wire it up any way I wanted. I think at one time I thought it would be nice to be able to switch between parallel and series so I could get a massive range of sounds. I chose to go in series, though, because I liked the warmth of the reinforcing combinations.
The motorcycle valve springs of the trem system.
You didn’t stop there. You also made it so you could switch between in-phase and out-of-phase.
What I found was, when you have them in parallel and you put one or the other out of phase, the difference is quite subtle, whereas when they’re in series you would really get this huge choice of very different sounds. So in the end I thought the series wiring was more exciting, and I settled on that for the time being. I think it was always in my mind that I might change later on. But I soon realized that it had a certain personality of its own. The guitar assumed a character, and I decided that I liked that character and it stayed that way.
There wasn’t really anything on the market like this. Had you seen that design somewhere or did you just create it out of thin air?
No, I had never seen it before. It just happened. When I experimented with changing the phase I was just really knocked out with the dramatic effect that it had, and I found myself wondering why nobody had done it before. Maybe they had, but I’d never heard of it. In fact, to this day I’ve never heard of anyone doing it. A designer at Fender a few years afterwards said to me, “I love this switching system and we’re going to put it on a guitar.” He made a Stratocaster with that switching system to try it out and I liked it, but then I think they had a fire at the factory so the whole thing got shelved.
The bridge blocks were cut from a single piece of aluminum and hand shaped by Brian.
Your whammy system is an incredibly elegant, effective design. What was your thought process for that?
The enemy of a guitar with a whammy staying in tune is friction. So I had this idea that you had to get rid of the friction at every place along the string. At the whammy end I did it with rollers on the bridge, so the rollers have very little friction. But at the other end, at the nut end, I really didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want rollers up there because they’d get in the way. I had a nice zero fret, but what I did in addition to the zero fret is so simple. Most strings bend a lot as they go through the nut. In my case, with that headstock design, I was able to run all the strings almost straight through. There’s almost no sideways friction there. Some people, like Floyd Rose, have solved the problem by clamping the strings at the nut so there’s no friction. But to me, that changes the feel of the guitar. My way of dealing with friction was to stop the deviation—minimize the deviation in the nut. That’s just a little trick, which is very hard to notice, but it does make a big difference.
I didn’t realize until I read this book that the roller saddles don’t have any mechanism to hold them in place except for the strings. If you break a string, those rollers can just go flying off and get lost forever.
Yeah, they could and they did, and I just made some more. It did go through my mind that I could put a little comb of thin shim steel on top to hold them in. But actually, it was never enough of a problem to warrant modifying and making them captive. Strangely, these days they don’t seem to fall off. I don’t know why that is. That’s a modification I could have done, but I just never really found it necessary.
The springs for the system are very interesting.
Yes. They’re English 500cc Norton valve springs in compression. They’re unusual, but they work quite well.
Talk about the frets. How did you choose the gauge and how did you install them originally?
They are Clifford Essex standard fret wire, which I bought at a wonderful little shop in Cambridge Circus called Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar—BMG. Strangely enough, Brian May Guitars comes out as BMG as well, which is kind of odd for me. Anyway, I bought standard fret wire and it was monstrously high and I thought it was going to wreck my fingers. So what I did was design a jig—a template so that I could file them all down to a consistent height. I think I probably halved the profile. I halved the height of them and then rounded them all off and smoothed them off and polished them. Then I made a jig to curve them so that they would sit comfortably on the curved fingerboard, to bend them just the right amount. I made a different kind of jig, which was like a vise, and they were gradually pressed in until they hit the spot. I made the fret slots very exact. I think we put a little bit of glue in there, but basically they were very snug fitting.
How much work has been done on them over the years?
That’s easy: none. Absolutely no work has been done on them over the years, except replacing the zero fret. That’s the only thing that’s ever happened to the whole fretboard, apart from a little bit of repairs to the black part of it, which is kind of my version of ebony, because I didn’t have any ebony and I wanted it to look that way. It’s actually a very nice piece of oak but we put dozens of coats of Rustin’s Plastic Coating on it and then sanded it so it would look like wood. But the frets have been there ever since it was finished.
In close-up shots, you can see deep divots in the frets under every string. When you’re bending notes, do the strings catch on those?
If they do, I’m not aware of it. It doesn’t seem to be a problem. They’re very smooth divots, I guess. I made one mistake in the very early days. I’d seen Pete Townshend use a microphone stand as a slide so I tried it one day and I discovered that I made gouges in the frets, which really did mess things up. I had to smooth them off, and then I never did that again. The frets, for some reason, just seem to hang in. I’m cautious of doing anything, because trying to fix things when they’re not broken is not a good idea.
Do you still enjoy tinkering around with your guitar?
I have been technical in my life. I was brought up as a scientist and my dad kind of made me into a craftsman as well. But I think once you get deeply into your music, you don’t want to be technical. You want that stuff to be somewhere else and you don’t want to have to think about it. It’s a great help that I have [longtime tech] Pete Malandrone, who can do all the technical stuff and repair anything that goes wrong, so I can keep my mind on the music. That’s really very important for me.
It’s rare that any musician has such an identifiable voice as you do with this guitar.
I was lucky in that way, because I had the sound in my head. Fortunately I was able to find it in reality fairly quickly. Once I found it, I didn’t need to think about it anymore. I was free to create.
You’re a humble guy but you’re also a very aware guy. Do you have a sense of how big this guitar you built truly is? No rock guitarist has ever done what you’ve done by creating and playing the Red Special.
I appreciate that. My dad and I just had big dreams. We had big ideas and we tried things out and presto—some of them worked. It was a great experience, and I’m very proud of it.