This article appeared in "Guitar" in August 1973. The first interview that Brian May did with a guitar magazine.
The man who made his guitar: Brian May, lead guitarist of Queen, talks to Jeffrey Pike
Queen is a four-man band for whom people in the know are prophesying big things. Their music is fairly heavy, but with more definable melody and harmonies than many rock bands. Vocally, they can belt out a strong three-part harmony which often pushes the instruments into the background.
The talented lead guitarist of Queen is a young man with a physics degree, who must be unique amongst rockers in that he built the solid guitar he uses on stage. I asked Brian May why he made it: "Partly from the interest of doing it-I'd always been interested in making things, like I was interested in stereo photography and I made stereo viewers and things like that. And I made a steel guitar, a very simple thing. So when I started playing lead guitar in a group, I needed a good electric guitar. And I just couldn't afford one! I think I just wanted to make one that was better than any of the things that anybody had, to put in all the things I would like to have on a guitar."
So what was wrong with the guitars that were available at the time? "Apart from the fact that I couldn't afford them? Lots of things. For instance, tremolo arms were very much in vogue at the time (1963-4), and a lot of guitars suffered a bit of neck bending because of all the extra strain. I wanted a truss rod that was genuinely adjustable, so it would be perfectly stressed.
"Also, tremolos tended not to return exactly to their original position when you pressed them. There was always a danger of playing out of tune. So I wanted something that would return accurately. This thing uses a knife-edge principle which has got virtually no friction. The strings are attached to a plate which pivots on the knife-edge, and the pull of the strings is balanced by a couple of springs in compression at the back- the springs came from motorbike valves." Our picture shows the proto-type tremolo arm and plate, which Brian rigged up to test the effects of string tension.
The bridge is of an original design. "It's similar to the Micromatic: you can change the string length of individual strings, to compensate for wear and tear on the strings and to keep the octaves exactly right. But the new feature is that each one of these little separate bridges is a roller, so when you move the tremolo arm they roll with the string: you don't get any string wear that way. Thus they keep their tone for a long time and don't break at the bridge."
The May guitar is not just a collection of tricky mechanical devices. Brian also knows what's what in the fields of electronics, acoustics and resonance- and of course he's a musician. So the handsome cherry-red body of his guitar is more than just a plank of wood for mounting elaborate metalwork on: it was lovingly designed to give exactly the resonant qualities the designer wanted. I'd heard a rumour that it was made out of an old fireplace, but then pop publicists will tell you anything these days.
"No, that's quite true. This old fireplace just happened to be around; it's about 100 years old. It's laminated actually. The thing that takes the strain is oak, a square section, on to which is bolted the mahogany neck. The rest of the body is a softer wood, and it includes some acoustic pockets. All the parts are very closely coupled together, screwed and glued, so the whole thing acts as one resonator."
Acoustic pockets? "Yeah, I wanted to get some feedback assisted by the body. The pockets are roughly the size at which the air would resonate, around the middle of the guitar's frequency range. It worked out fairly well. This has a bit less feedback than a semi-acoustic guitar, but a bit more than a solid." The photographs of the guitar in the construction stage show clearly the size and shape of the acoustic pockets.
As you might have guessed by now, Brian also knew exactly what he wanted from his pick-ups, so instead of buying a factory-made set, he designed and constructed his own. "I was determined to make pick-ups that didn't whistle. You know, you can play electric guitar in three ways: first, as an amplified acoustic guitar, at fairly low volume, with all the natural decay of notes. Then you can turn it up to the level where the feedback just about counteracts the friction in the system, so you can sustain the note indefinitely- the sort of Clapton thing. Or you can go one stage further and turn it up so that the loop gain is greater than One: then the thing is bursting forth of its own accord all the time. That's the sort of level I like to play at. But it's got to burst forth at the frequencies you want it to burst forth, not with some nasty whistle somewhere up the top.
"The sound from these pick-ups is fairly warm, with a slight edge to it. Though it's possible to take the warmth out of it by anti-phasing. Yes, there's a phase reversal switch for each pick-up, so you can make any pick-up work against the other two." Next to the phasing switches is a little bright red two-way switch. I asked Brian what it's for. "That's the on-off switch for a built in fuzz box! Actually, I don't use it so much these days. Occasionally it's nice for an effect, but at the levels at which I play I don't need the fuzz for sustain, and I don't particularly like the fuzz sound now."
I wondered if he now regards the guitar as perfect, if it does everything he wants from the guitar. "I think so, yes. If I was designing it again, I'd have the neck slightly thinner to get a little bit more access. But in fact I've got so used to this neck now that anything else feels a bit strange. I've got a Stratocaster - it's an old pre-CBS model, a good one - and I've done it up a bit so it's a really nice guitar. I get on well with it, but after a while I always come back to this."
Brian caressed his guitar lovingly and tried to define what the guitar-makers greatest asset is . . . should he be primarily a woodworker, an electronics wizard, a musician? "I think the most important thing must be to have a feel for what you're aiming for, and not to lose sight of the end product and get absorbed in things that don't make any difference. In other words, you need a feel for the sort of music it's going to be playing. But then, you need a bit of every sort of skill. For instance, it doesn't have to be finished that well in order to perform its function, but you want it to be. Like, I spent a lot of time inlaying these position markers on the fingerboard - they're made from old mother-of-pearl buttons incidentally. That took ages, but to me it's worth it. I'm glad it's something that's nice to look at as well as to play.
Having made one instrument that's nice to look at and nice to play, Brian is in no hurry to make another one. "I can't see myself making another guitar for a few years anyway. There's so much work involved, and I just don't have the time now. It's difficult to know where to draw the line: you can get so keen on making things that you want to make everything. Then you get to the point where you're spending too much time on it instead of playing music." Which is not to say that Brian May hasn't spent a lot of time making things. He built the very clever tape echo unit he uses with Queen, and has made several amplifiers. But doesn't use them. "I never much liked the amps I made. I suspect you can't really design the sound of an amplifier - you just try and try till you find something that's exactly right. I find the old AC30s are just right for me. I use two of those on stage, three if it's a big place, straight, coupled together. They're miked into the PA, so I can vary the sound a bit there.
"I really love the AC30s very much. I bought two of mine for about twenty quid each five years ago. When I tried to get another one last year, they were asking about sixty for it! It's incredible how popular they've become again. But they are really good - and the older they are, the better. The really old ones were built more solidly, and the old speakers seem to respond better. A transistor amp doesn't really work for this sort of thing: it doesn't distort in the right way. It's designed to give a perfectly linear response up to a certain point, then it distorts catastrophically. Whereas a valve amp goes smoothly into distortion and you know exactly where you're sitting."
I asked him about that echo unit. What does it do that other tape echoes can't? "The problem with conventional echo units is getting them synchronised with what you're playing. I wanted something I could synchronise without thinking. So this repeat box has the usual record head and playback head (both stereo heads, by the way) and erase head. The trick is that the playback head moves along a rail, to give greater or less delay in the playback. And it moves at exactly the same speed as the tape: it starts to move when you press a foot-button, and it stops when you press another one. So the time delay between when you play and when the echo comes can be exactly what you want, up to about 8.5 seconds. Then you can use the stereo to feedback from one half to the other, for instance an eight-second delay on one channel and sixteen seconds on the other."
Their album "Queen" released last month, features the Brian May repeat box on several numbers. The guitars he uses on the record are the hand-made special and an old acoustic, which, needless to say, Brian has been unable to leave alone. "I put a new bridge on it and touched it up here and there, and it sounds very nice on the record. I've found, in common with a lot of other people, that you can spend an enormous amount of money on an acoustic guitar which may sound great on stage, but records like a lump of old socks. And yet some cheap old acoustic guitar might just have the sort of sound that records nicely. This one of mine has an amazingly crisp sound."
The release of a first album is always a traumatic moment for any band. Was Brian happy with what is on the record? "I'm quite pleased with it. But it's been such a long time - the band's been together for three years and most of the songs were written about three years ago. We just feel that, as a band, we've gone past what's on the album. We put it down in order to progress to different things.
"We like some of the stuff on it, but we sometimes fell into the trap of over-arrangement. You know, the songs changed over the years and some of them probably evolved too much. You can get so far into something that you forget what the song originally was. On a personal level, it was frustrating for me to take so long to get to this point. I wanted to record things with, for instance, tape echoes and multiple guitars five years ago. Now I've finally done it, but in the meantime so have other people! Which is a bit disappointing. But you have to get away from the idea that playing music is a competition. You should just keep on doing what you think is an interesting thing to do."
details about the Red Special
source of the following article: Guitar Magazine Vol.10 No 2 , October 1999
The Red Special, the Fireplace, the Old Lady - Brian May's famed and much-nicknamed guitar ranks alongside Clappo's Blackie and Jimi's Woodstock Strat as one of the most fabled tools in rock history. Sean Walker recounts the story behind a most esteemed plank - and its many imitators...
The Red Special was born in 1963, the result of 18 months hard work and development between Brian and his genius electrical engineer father, Harold. Dissatisfied with the coveted Strats and Les Pauls of the day - and, anyway, unable to afford any of them - the pair set about designing and building their own interpretation of the perfect elecric guitar.
The guitar earned its nickname "the Fireplace" because the huge one-piece mahogany neck was laboriously hand-carved using a penknife from just that - the column support from an old mirror-type fireplace that a family friend happened to be throwing out. At the nut the Red Special's neck is about 46mm wide, with a string spacing of 40mm: Most production electrics vary between 41-43mm at the nut with a string spacing of around 34mm. Add a depth of 29mm at the 1st fret (thickening to 31mm at 12th) and you've got a chunky affair that puts even Jeff Beck's "baseball-necked" Strats firmly in the shade.
The glossy fingerboard is actually made of oak, painted black with that classic British DIY substance known as Rustin's Plastic Coating and dotted with hand-filed pearl butons pinched from Brian's mother's sewing box - as was a knitting needle end that would soon find a new home as a vibrato arm tip.
The guitar featured 24 frets - "a nice, neat double octave", according to Brian - with a zero fret and a loose-tensioned 610mm (24") scale length - the latter, in theory, making for a more bend-friendly playing experience despite the 184mm (7.25") fingerboard radius which toughens the feel of May's favourite 009"-042" strings. The neck joins the body via a paddle-like heel extension which slots into a rectangular cut-out in the body, stopping just short of the bridge pickup. Although originally designed to be glued in, the snug neck/body join is also secured by a single bolt visible on the back of the guitar. This bolt also acts an anchor for the truss-rod end which the Mays bent into shape on the kitchen cooker.
The central section of the body was formed from an old oak table. The rest - including the distinctive curves - were made up from two layers of blockboard, hollowed out to create acoustic chanmbers, then stuck onto the sides of the oak insert. These acoustic chambers are the key to much of the guitar's incredible high-gain resonance (in truth, May originally planned an f-hole but never got round to it). The whole body was finally covered in a mahogany veneer, stained a deep brick-red color and then lacquered with Rustin's, rounded off by binding sourced from some readily available shelf edging.
But the May's ingenuity didn't end there. Brian wanted a wide-travel vibrato that would drop an octave and (gasp!) actually return to pitch after use. They realised that most vibratos of that era were riddled with flaws. The main culprit being friction in the strings' path of travel.
After building a few prototypes they settled on a design which used six individual aluminium bridge pieces screwed straight to the body, each supporting a low-friction steel roller saddle. Intonation was handled by small slots cut into the top of each bridge piece; if the intonation was out on an individual string, the roller could be popped out of its axle and moved back or forward accordingly to an appropriate slot. Behind these, a handmade trem block rocked against a case-hardened steel knife edge hidden under the top body veneer. Unlike a conventional Strat fulcrum trem - which stretches the springs when the arm is depressed - this design used two heavy-duty tension adjustable motorbike valve springs suspended on cavity-mounted bolts. When the trem arm (sourced from a bicycle saddlebag holder) was pressed down the trem plate compressed the springs giving a positive, subtantial feel. With almost straight string pull to the tuners and a shallow 4 degree headstock angle causing very little friction through the black bakelite string guide, this system allowed excellent return to pitch for the non-locking unit. For its time, it was nothing short of revolutionary.
And of course when it came to the electrics, the egghead May family just couldn't keep it simple. Brian had originally wound his own pickups; they'd sounded good, but under string-bending the unhelpful north/south dual polarity of the small horseshoe type magnets he'd used created a nasty rustling noise. After spending three guineas at the Burns shop in St. Giles' Circus, Brian became the proud owner of a set of the fabled metal cased Burns Tri-sonics.
First, the coils were potted in Araldite epoxy to help reduce their microphonic tendencies. Next the pickups were direct mounted to the body, and after much experimentation the pair eventually settled on an arrangement where each pickup passed to two small 2-position slider switches, the first row, nearest the pickups, being on/offs for each pickup and the second row allowing phase reversal for each. These switches and the volume and tone pots were all mounted on a shielding-aiding aluminium plate underneath the black perspex scratchplate.
This wiring allowed a number of different pickup configuations and tones. With two or more pickups on together the sound combined in series - not parallel, as on a Strat, for instance - increasing the output and giving the guitar its famously fat, resonant humbucking tone when combined with a treble booster into a Vox AC30. But when May flicked up one of the phase reversal switches it cancelled out the low end harmonic, creating a chiming clean tone or the trademark sreeching lead sounds typified by the Bohemiam Rhapsody solo (neck and middle pickups on together, out of phase).
Its owner has decribed the guitar as a cross between a Strat- and a Les Paul-sounding tone. Add the humbucking options and the wide travel trem and the Red Special displays a remarkable number of elements of the modern metal guitar. Not bad for two inexperienced guitar builders working in a spare bedroom in the early '60s...
REDS UNDER THE BED:
COPIES AND REPLICAS
Pity the poor Brian May fan. A Hendrix freak could always save and buy a perfectly good Strat - but unofficial copies of the closely-guarded Red Special were often very wide of the mark.
The probable first-ever copy was commissioned by May himself from British guitar builder JOHN BIRCH in the mid-70's. The Birch model closely aped the outline and electrics but the all-maple construction, steeper headstock angle and the bound fretboard were quite different. It was used as a concert backup guitar until the early-'80s, appearing in the We Will Rock You video and playing a cameo role on the Live At Milton Keynes TV extravaganxa. The Japanese were the first to commercially produce unofficial copies. Queen always were huge in Japan but it took until 1981 before GRECO brought out the BM 900. Retailing at around 90,000 yen (450), these were high quality copies - visually quite close, including the tremolo, but lacking a zero fret, and adding a red tortoiseshell scratchplate with six mini toggle switches in place of the sliders. Another effort of the same era, the FRESHER BM270, shared most of the Greco's constructional details and almost certainly came from the same factory. Since then more Brian May models have appeared, though none have ever been exported - at least, not legally. Jap company KID'S have kept the flag flying through the '90s with the 260BM model ('91-'94 and costing 260,000 yen or 1,300) and the BM Special (up until '98 and priced at 200,000 yen or 1,000). For those with 500,000 yen (2,500) to fling about in 1995 they also made the BM Dragon, a kind of Brian May/PTS mongrel.
Back in the Western world, it was 1984 when Brian May at last got together with GUILD to produce the first offical replica. Only 316 "close counterparts" - i.e. not particularly accurate replicas - were made. These BHM-1 models had the correct body outline but a solid mahogany construction, glued-in necks and ebony fingerboards. The hardware was very different, too: The black-faced Dimarzio HHM pickups seemed to sound the part but the larger scratchplate and custom tension Kahler tremolo system with locking nut were way off the mark. The man himself used examples on video - and as a live backup until as recently as 1993's Back To The Light tour, but the guitar ultimately failed to satisfy both Brian and the punters and was discontinued. Although rare, these guitars still turn up occasionally between 1,000-1,500.
After some discussions with the British Eagle company (which unfortunatley fell through), Brian let Guild eventually try again in '93. The result, the BM Ltd Signature model (later called the BM Pro) was a lot closer, with a semi-solid mahogany body construction, a more accurate (if not exact Schaller trem system and Seymour Duncan pickups designed to look and sound like the original Tri-Sonics. To the eagle-eyed trainspotter the most obvious differences are the tune-o-matic style Schaller roller bridge, slightly different scratchplate (black/white/black - yuk), the shallower neck (21.6mm at the first fret), the 9" radius fingerboard and the shorter headstock. At around 1,750 the guitar sold quite well - and current secondhand values lie between 1,500-2,000.
But what about the average player? Guild decided to make changes with two new models: the BM Special (1,299), which kept the general dimensions and semi-solid construction but gained a hardtail bridge/tailpiece and a different pickup arrangement, and the even-cheaper BM Standard (845) with solid, unbound construction and a choice of three pickup configurations - twin humbuckers, a humbucker at the bridge and a Duncan Tri-sonic at the neck, or three single coils plus a 5-way selector. The guitar also lacked a scratchplate and was offered with a narrower, more regular 41.3 nut width. Brian May seemed to like the BM Ltd Signature models, using a pair of them for the heavier dropped-D momment on his first solo tour. Sadly, though, when Fender bought out Guild a couple of years ago the entire solid body range was rationalised. And the Brian May models became victims of the new regime. Will they rise again? No word - but watch this space.
RED OR DEAD
It was early '96 Aussie luthier Greg Fryer approached Brian May with an interesting offer: To build some exact replicas specifically for him, using original materials as much as possible. With May's permision, Fryer took exhaustive measurements of the old gal and returned a full two years later with three guitars. Two of the guitars (since named John and Paul) were exact replicas, the closest yet in looks, feel and sound to Brian's faithful but battered original. The third, dubbed George Burns, was a little different, being made with New guinea rosewood for the neck and body (not really a true rosewood, botanically speaking - more a brighter-souding type of mahogany) and Brazilian rosewood for the figerboard instead of the original non-exotic mahogany and veneered blockboard. These new woods combine to give George Burns a tone that, while still sweet, had a more aggressive edge which could cut through more easily.
But by now the original was not in such great shape. After nearly 30 years of constant gigging it had begun to show serious signs of wear, the finish so worn in places that the veneer had begun to tear, allowing moisture to seep into the potentially fragile plywood body. Encouraged by Greg's replica work and with a tour looming, May decided it was high time the Red Special had a complete overhaul to get it back up to gigging spec and after much soul searching decided to give the go-ahead for Greg to peform major surgery.
The damaged veneer on the back of the guitar was removed and new pieces scarfed in. The binding was removed, and various nicks and dents in the top were repaired. Greg re-finished the neck and body in Rustin's Plastic coating over the existing finish. Fingerboard wear was repaired and a long lost dot marker replaced; incredibly, although very worn, the original frets have never needed replacing. The electrics were re-wired and overhauled, the metal pickup covers - in poor shape after suffering serious and prolonged sixpence abuse - were carefully panel-beaten back into shape and given new surrounds, and various holes and cracks in the scratchplate were filled and repaired. With the Red Special now back in top form and with a trio of faithful replicas waiting in the wings, Brian May's distinctive guitar tone looks to be with us for a long time to come.
Greg is currently developing a whole range of Brian May products including pedals, pickups and various versions of the guitar. Contact: Fryer Guitars and Pickups, Oittswater Road, Brookvale, Sydney, New Australia 2100, Tel 612 9938 3379, fax 612 9938 3236. Our thanks to Greg Fryer and Mark Reynolds for their help and additional info. (...)