Like many of you out there, I am a big fan of Queen and particularly of Brian May. Queen was a stupendously good group, a combination of four superb musicians whose skills were much broader than the instruments they were known for playing in the band. Further evidence of their individual skills can be found in their solo work, and if you aren’t familiar with Brian May’s two main studio albums (“Back to the Light” and “Another World”), then you should go and listen to them. The song “Resurrection” is brilliantly rocky, for example, with one of Dr. May’s best guitar solos anywhere.
He’s now well known for his other interests in subjects such as astronomy, animal welfare, 3D photography and ladies’ underwear (yes, really!). He seems like a lovely chap to boot, and I had the pleasure of meeting him briefly at Starmus in 2014. And incidentally he owns a guitar company.
The history of Brian May and Queen is also the history of Brian’s famous guitar, variously called the “Red Special”, the “Old Lady” or even the “fireplace” in honour of its origins. It is a guitar without parallel, as far as I know, in the entire history of rock music. What other musician has used a single guitar for almost everything he has done, which is instantly recognisable both in looks and in sound, and which he made himself? There are other iconic rock guitars – Blackie, The Beast et al. – but none with quite the pedigree of the Red Special.
I shan’t go further into the history of the guitar, as that is very well documented elsewhere. Instead, we come to the copies. Several companies have, at different times, been given the task of manufacturing copies of the Red Special for public sale, but eventually in 2004 Brian decided to manage it himself, together with his guitar tech Pete Malandrone. Hence the company Brian May Guitars exists, and sells Korean-made copies of the Red Special in various colours, together with a few other models (a bass, an acoustic guitar, a short-scale guitar and a ukelele).
The Brian May Special guitars are unusual in several respects, although they are not exact copies of the original because the Red Special has components taken from all sorts of places, and includes, for example, a floating bridge that Brian and his father, Harold May, designed and built themselves. It would be impossible to create a custom part like that for a guitar intended to have a mass market price point, and so they use Wilkinson floating bridges. There is a “Brian May Super” model which has more authentic custom parts, but that is four or five times the price of the normal guitar. Anyway, the BM Specials have a unique switching system for the pickups, which gives 13 distinct tones, a zero fret, the instantly recognisable shape and a short, 24″ scale length. It also has an ebony fretboard which isn’t so unusual, but was my introduction to that wood, and which I like a lot. The neck is quite chunky, although apparently not as big as the neck on the real Red Special, which really is a handful according to those who have played it.
I was very lucky to be given one of these guitars by my girlfriend for Christmas 2013. I chose which one I wanted, and I decided not to go for the classic red colour, but I thought the black and gold version looked rather smart. I managed to find a Queen guitar strap that also goes well with that colour combination, so it worked out well (I spend a lot of time looking for the right straps for my guitars).
This guitar is also unusual within my collection because it’s my sole guitar with only single coils. I generally prefer the “Marshall and humbucker” sound to the “Fender and single coil” sound (this was made very clear to me at the British Guitar Show in February 2016, where I attended demos by both companies). The BM Special shines because of its flexibility, though, which is much greater than a traditional Strat (for example) because of its switching system, and although Brian says that he’s used all of the settings at different times, his most common settings are combinations of two pickups, often out of phase (the solo in Bohemian Rhapsody uses the neck and middle pickups out of phase).
I will, in the interests of honesty and impartiality, say that this guitar has been built to a price point, and in some areas it shows. The quality is not quite up with that of my more expensive guitars – some of the materials feel a bit cheap and there’s the odd wonky screw. This is nitpicking, though, and you do get quality, named brand components, so I certainly think it’s worth the price.
I’m not good enough to really try to copy Brian’s guitar style, and I have other guitars that I prefer overall, but I’m happy to have a Brian May Special hanging on my walls which I sometimes take down and play for a change. It’s special to me in several ways, and not just because of the name.
Full specifications are available on the Brian May Guitars website.