Celebrating Brian May's Red Special Guitar

Queen are easily one of the biggest rock bands of all time, and it’d be fair to say that Brian May’s guitar, the Red Special that he’s used almost exclusively for his entire career, gets almost as much attention as any of the four members. What makes the guitar so, well, special, is that Brian conceived, designed and built it from scratch with his father Harold over an 18 month period between early 1963 and late 1964.

The book Brian May’s Red Special tells the whole story of the guitar’s life in Brian’s own words, ably assisted by this writer, and is illustrated with some incredible photographs, including many from the guitar’s build.

To whet the appetite, here are 10 factoids about the world’s most famous electric guitar.

  1. Arguably the best-known part of the guitar is the piece of mahogany that forms the neck. It was part of a 100-year old fireplace that was ‘…kicking around the workshop…’ and Brian shaped and worked it with various tools, some of which he designed and made himself.
  2. The neck mahogany sits on top of a sturdy piece of oak within the guts of the guitar, and it’s the latter that takes the strain of the strings and keeps the whole shebang stable. Brian wanted an ebony fingerboard but settled for oak that he stained black and polished by hand.
  3. Unlike, for example, a Fender Stratocaster, the guitar was deliberately designed to allow the scratchplate to be removed without any of the electronics coming with it. Made from black Perspex, it’s in pretty decent shape even today, although three new pickup surrounds were required during a restoration in 1998.
  4. The three Burns Tri-Sonic pickups are still the original units that Brian bought during the guitar’s build. He’d tried making his own, but even his ingenuity couldn’t overcome certain problems, so it was off to the Burns Shop in central London. They cost for three guineas each.
  5. The vibrato arm is a strut that supported a saddlebag on the front of a bicycle and Brian tipped it with part of one of his mother’s kitting needles that, again, he shaped using a method he devised himself. He uses the vibrato a great deal when he plays, adding a characteristic flavour to his tone.
  6. Each of the 16 fingerboard dot markers is a mother of pearl shirt button liberated by Brian from his mother’s sewing box. Each was meticulously shaped and filed by hand to just the right size and Brian saved the most colourful for the trio at the 24th fret.
  7. Although most guitar repairers, should they get the chance, would strongly recommend a complete re-fret, every fret save the zero fret by the nut is original. Many are severely pitted and marked after 50 years of use, but Brian’s lightness of touch means that he feels making any replacements is unnecessary.
  8. Talking of frets he made the complex calculations to work out their exact spacing on the fingerboard himself. In fact, he went so far as to use one of the world’s very first computers to get the values to 100 decimal places.
  9. It has appeared on virtually every song Queen have ever recorded. Exceptions include obscure album tracks such as the jazzy My Melancholy Blues (from 1977’s News Of The World) and the far more familiar Crazy Little Thing Called Love, for which Brian used a Fender Esquire owned by Q drummer Roger Taylor.
  10. It’s arguably the most famous electric guitar on the planet and, as such, the security measures undertaken to keep it safe whilst on the road are thorough to say the least. For example, during Queen’s infamous tour of South America in 1981, it was under armed guard at all times. Don’t point, even.

Brian May’s Big Red Special is published by Carlton, and is out now.