Brian May and the Red Special, an electric guitar that marked his career

Brian May at first did not have the necessary resources to acquire a professional electric guitar. But this did not stop him and, together with his father, he built a unique and unrepeatable instrument, which has nothing to envy to the models patented by the big brands.


Brian Harold May, who stands out as a songwriter, vocalist and guitarist for the famed British band Queen, was not always wealthy, recognized and successful. However, the artist was always in contact with music. In fact, for many years he practiced with his acoustic guitar, but with the passage of time the instrument did not allow him to reproduce certain tunes related to the musical style that he liked. 

The need for an electric guitar was obvious, but he did not have enough money to buy equipment that would suit his needs, such as the models patented by the big firms such as Gibson Les Paul or Fender Stratocaster, which, incidentally, they were among the most expensive on the market.

Crashing into this reality, Brian May and his father decided to make their own electric guitar with a design named by themselves as “unique”, which inadvertently was the starter to the future that awaited him as an iconic guitarist.


Fabrication process

It was the year 1963 and Brian May was 16 years old, being a rising talent and with the desire to have in his hands the guitar that, together with his father, he would design and build.

Once the decision was made, father and son adapted an empty room in the May house, to be the operations center in which they would carry out this project.

They began to gather the necessary materials, such as a sturdy 100% mahogany table, used to bring the instrument’s soundboard to life. The recovery process was a bit cumbersome, since with the help of sandpaper they had to remove all the imperfections that time had caused on the table.

For its part, for the neck of the instrument they made use of an old fireplace, being necessary to completely cover all the holes with a type of wood known as matchstick and added a coating of Rustin’s Plastic Coating, which is a kind of glue with which they varnished this and other areas of the guitar.

They also took on the task of shaping the tremolo arm, using a piece of steel, balancing with the help of a pair of old springs belonging to a motorcycle, which a friend gave them. We cannot fail to mention the incorporation of an ingenious switch system and, in addition to that, a button that offered a “fuzz” type effect.




And the tools?

Once the project started, nobody stopped them. The lack of tools was not an obstacle, as they improvised some of them. This is how they resorted to Brian May’s mother’s sewing kit, extracting some pearl-shaped buttons and sewing needles from it, which served as markers on the guitar fretboard. In addition, in the area that joins the body of the guitar with the neck, it was only necessary to use a sandpaper and a penknife.

As we can see, it was a fairly traditional process, which completely respected the environment, since they used recycling materials and tools adapted by themselves, resulting in a high quality instrument at a very low cost, taking into consideration that the only thing they had to buy in a store were the ropes, which by then represented an investment of 18 pounds.


The results

Finally, after a year and six months of hard work by the Mays, they were able to see this ambitious project completed before their eyes. An “original” electric guitar that they christened the “Red Special”. It only remained then to start practicing with it, producing fine, clean sounds with great rhythmic precision.

In search of perfection, Brian May made some arrangements to improve the sound of each of the tunes, highlighting among them the adoption of a silver peñique as his new pick.


Transcendence of the instrument

If you thought that so much effort on the part of father and son had not transcended, we will tell you that it was not like that. This electric guitar not only accompanied Brian May during his adolescence, but was also part of all of Queen’s recordings. Of course, with a few exceptions, such as the songs Princess of the Universe, Play The Game, Black Chat and Crazy Little Thing Called Love, which were performed with the help of electric guitars Washburn RR-V, Fender Stratocaster, Roger’s Fender Telecaster Taylor and black Fender Telecaster, respectively.




Influence of the “Red Special” in the musical instrument market

The “Red Special”, also known as “the chimney” or the “old lady” is the best electric guitar with a manufacture considered unique and unrepeatable. There have been many manufacturers and luthiers who have tried to copy his design to reproduce it en masse, but unfortunately the results do not match the manual work carried out by Brian May and his father.

Among the main brands interested in commercializing this unprecedented instrument with a robust body, made of mahogany and with an attractive reddish aesthetic, we can highlight Guild and Burns, who have exact replicas among their purchase catalogs. In fact, some of the samples have a variant of the button that offered a “fuzz” effect, which during 1973 was removed from the genuine instrument and covered with a sticker. This was a decision made by the guitarist precisely for the recording of one of the band’s albums. This story is an example that when you want something there are no impediments, as long as you work hard and you have supportive help from family and friends.


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