The Red Special

The Red Special guitar

'The Red Special' is the affectionate name for Brian May's distinctive guitar which he made by hand with his father in the early 1960's. It is undoubtedly one of the most famous guitars in the world, and has a number of unusual features which give it it's unique sound.

The photographs below are all of a reproduction Red Special, purchased from Brian May Guitars in 2016 (the BMG Special), while the details are mostly taken from the 'Brian May's Red Special' 2014 book, co-written by Brian. My knowledge of guitars is very limited, so if you have any corrections, please email me.

The guitar was hand-crafted by Brian and his father Harold, beginning in August 1963. It took two years to complete, and Brian's first public performance with it was in 1966. The guitar is known by a number of names, most commonly the Red Special, the Fireplace, or the Old Lady.

The guitar is notable for using a number of household objects in it's construction. The neck of the guitar is made from a hundred year old fireplace, with matchsticks used to fill worm holes, while the centre body is from an old oak table. The tremelo system itself is unique, and features a hardened-steel knife edge, with two British Norton motorbike valve springs to provide tension. The tremelo arm was made from a push bike saddlebag support, with the tip from a knitting needle. The fret markers have a bespoke arrangement and were crafted from mother of pearl buttons.

The unique sound of the Red Special partly comes from the pick-up arrangement, which features the three pick-ups wired together in series, rather than in parallel, while each one also has it's own on/off and reversal switch. This means that any combination of pick-ups can be in use at the same time, so the guitar is capable of producing a much wider range of sounds. It was also intentionally designed to produce feedback, which is an essential part of Brian's guitar solos.

Over the years, a number of replicas and reproduction models have been produced. The first was made by John Birch, as a back-up for live performances, and features in the promo videos for 'We Will Rock You' and 'Spread Your Wings' (as Brian didn't want to expose the original to snow). This is noticeably different as it was made out of maple and is a much lighter colour. At some point, Brian destroyed it, then had it repaired some 20 years later and still owns it.

The first commercially available models were manufactured by Guild Guitars from 1983 to 1985 (known as BHM-1) and 1993-1995, and a further model was produced by Burns Guitars in 2001, with guidance from Brian. Brian May Guitars is now, unsuprisingly, the only authorised manufacturer, and models are available in a variety of colours. The BMG Special is aimed at budget players, while the BMG Super is aimed at enthusiasts. The company also produces a left handed version, a bass guitar, a ukulele, and an acoustic guitar (the Rhapsody).

Brian's original guitar was restored between 1996 and 1998 by Greg Fryer, who took extensive measurements and photographs of the elements of the guitar, and produced three models named John, Paul and George Burns. Brian himself owns two copies (one as a backup for live performances, and one which is used when playing songs in a different key, such as 'Fat Bottomed Girls') and the other belongs to a Japanese collector. An interesting page about his restoration is available here.

Andew Guyton produced 50 models (40 in red, 10 in green) in 2004, to mark the 40th anniversary of the guitar. As part of this, X-rays were taken at St Batholomews Hospital in London, some of which were used in the 'Brian May's Red Special' book.

The below details are taken from the book:

Body: Cambered blockboard with central oak insert, mahogany veneers, white front and rear binding, and black perspex scratchplate, pickup surrounds and vibrato cover
Neck: Mahogany
Fingerboard: English oak, painted with black plastic coating, 16 pearl button dot markers, 184.15mm (7.25") radius
Scale length: 609.5mm (24")
Body thickness: 40mm
Width at nut: 46mm
Width at 12th fret: 50mm
Width at 25th fret: 51.5mm
Weight: 3.63kg (7.99lbs)
Strings: Optima Gold 2028BM, 0.009-0.42 guage set, steel core plated with 24 carat gold
Frets: 24 plus zero fret
Pickups: Three Burns Tri-Sonic single coils, wired in series
Controllers: Volume and tone, plus three on/off pickup switches and three pickup phase reversal switches
Hardware: Aluminium bridge with individual steel roller saddles, sprung vibrato tailpiece comprising mild steel block and case-hardened steel knife-edge, aluminum control knobs and Schaller locking M6 tuners
Finish: Mahogony red with Rustin's clear plastic topcoat

The Red Special guitarThe Red Special guitarThe Red Special guitar

The Red Special guitar....

The Red Special bodyThe Red Special body

....the body of the guitar....

The Red Special bodyThe Red Special tremelo system

....the body and tremelo system....

The Red Special headThe Red Special headThe Red Special head

....the head of the guitar....

Brian May Guitars boxBrian May Guitars case

....outer box and soft guitar case....

Brian May Guitars cleaning clothBrian May Guitars sticker

....a cleaning cloth and sticker....
(these came with the guitar as part of an accessory pack)

Brian May plectrumBrian May plectrum

....and plectrum
(this came with the guitar as part of an accessory pack; the surface makes it hard to photograph)