Brian May isn’t just the guitarist in one of the most iconic rock bands of all time. Beyond the inimitable music he’s created with Queen, May has lived a rich life as an astrophysicist, activist, author, and Victorian stereophotography enthusiast—as if being a member of the band isn’t enough! To top it all off, the guitar he and his father built themselves—the legendary Red Special—has enjoyed quite a bit of fame of its own over the course of May’s career.
Brian May and his father designed and built the Red Special when he was a teenager in the early ’60s.
Few guitar players can say they’ve personally built the instrument they play, especially those at the astronomical level of Brian May with Queen. Every aspect of the guitar bears a personal touch and is what helped define his style and sound with the band.
Consider, for instance, the fact that the Red Special was built to intentionally feed back very easily, which May wanted as a feature after seeing Jeff Beck perform and manipulate guitar-amplifier feedback in a creative way. He wanted a guitar he could interact with, that would come alive as he played, and what better way to achieve this than to make it himself?
May has used the Red Special almost exclusively on albums and live since Queen started in the early ’70s. The guitar’s reputation is right up there with the man who plays it!
The Red Special gets its name from the layers and layers of plastic coating used to finish the instrument.
The Rustins brand finishing coat gave the guitar it’s famous reddish-brown color, and the company still produces plastic coating today. Red Special has been referred to as the Fireplace as well, due to the fact that the neck was built out of a hundred-year-old fireplace mantel!
Nearly every part of the original Red Special was custom designed and built. Various official and unofficial replicas have been produced over the years.
From the mahogany mantel neck to the oak body and fretboard, Red Special is the epitome of do-it-yourself. The project took May and his father, Harold, about two years to complete after they started in 1963. The neck wood itself was acquired from a family friend who throwing out the mantel. It was then hand-shaped, but the poor quality of the material meant that many holes in the neck had to be filled with matchsticks along the way.
The 24-fret neck was finished off with an oak fretboard, and even the fret markers were personalized with two dots at the 7th and 19th fret and three at the 12th and 24th.
The Red Special body was put together from what’s called blockboard: strips of softwood sandwiched between plywood. Pieces of oak from an old table were added in the top and bottom layers before it was all covered with mahogany veneers on the top, bottom, and side to make it look like a solid-body guitar.
In reality, it was a semi-hollow body, with the original design leaving room for f-holes which were never made.
Even Red Special’s tremolo system was custom-made into a steel knife-edge with motorcycle valve springs. May and his father had to calculate the appropriate tension on the springs too, which is 79 pounds! The tremolo arm itself was taken from a bike saddlebag holder, and the tip of the arm was topped with a piece of plastic knitting needle.
Other unique features of the original Red Special include pickups wired in series, dedicated on/off switches for each of the three pickups, and phase switches for them as well.
Brian May Guitars has produced the BMG Special as a quality, affordable replica since 2004.
House Music teamed up with May and his longtime guitar tech Pete Malandrone to establish Brian May Guitars in 2004. The first version of the BMG Special came with improvements in design, spec, and construction over the original handmade model.
Subsequent models released in 2006, 2012, and 2017, have further refined the iconic instrument into an affordable, pro-level guitar capturing the sound and mojo of the one-of-a-kind original.
- Acoustic Chambered Mahogany Body
- Two-Piece Scratch Plate
- Set-In Mahogany Neck
- 24″ Scale – 24 Fret Ebony Fingerboard
- Grover Locking Rotomatic® Tuners
- Dual Truss Rod
- Graphite nut
- Wilkinson WVP Knife Edge Tremolo Bridge with BM Custom Trem Arm
- 3 x BM Brand Tri-Sonic Style, Series Wired, Single Coil Pickups
- Aluminium Replica “Top-Hat” Volume + Tone Control Knobs
- Original BM Style Electrics – Individual Pickup ON/OFF + Phase Switching System
The original Red Special even has an entire book dedicated to its construction and history.
As a tribute to the guitar’s 50th anniversary, May and Simon Bradley wrote Brian May’s Red Special: The Story of the Home-Made Guitar that Rocked Queen and the World, from which you can learn even more about one of rock music’s most legendary instruments!