The path to becoming a guitar god is well documented:
- Step 1) A young prodigy spends hours alone practicing to perfect his craft
- Step 2) He meets other like-minded musicians and form a band
- Step 3) World dominance is achieved!
Guitarist Brian May added a significant step to his process, coming before the traditional “step 1,” he couldn’t afford a guitar in the early 1960’s so he and his father built one from scratch. This was no cigar-box – ukulele here. On his first attempt, young Brian May created the tool which he would use in his band, Queen for the next 40+ years.
The project started in 1964, Brian and his father, Harold, took inspiration from the family’s old banjo and acoustic guitar to create the “Red Special,” which might just be the most famous guitar in the world.
Little did they know that what they created was durable enough to last 40 years of touring and constant wear.
Creativity is an understatement when discussing the work of Brian and Harold.
The neck of the guitar is crafted from a mahogany mantelpiece supported by a steel rod. While the body is made of an old, oak table and blockboard. Not many people can say the became famous from living room furniture, but that’s not even the start of the unique factors that set this instrument apart from the crowd.
Both the tremolo and the pickup switching systems are designed to function better than any guitars on the market at that time.
The tremolo is what allows the whammy bar to adjust the tightness of all six strings at one time. And in the 1960s, companies like fender and gibson had difficulties keeping the strings in tune after the use of the whammy. So, the father-son duo had to come up with an out-of-the-box solution.
Their revolutionary system put the strings in individual roller saddles to avoid as much friction as possible. Though this system makes for a better sound, it doesn’t come without problems. The rollers are not captive in the system, so if a string were to break during a show, there would be a loose roller somewhere on the stage. Brian had to make sure he had plenty of spares on him at all times.
The pickup switching system really distinguishes the “Red Special.” Other guitars have two or three switches, but Harold created a six-switch matrix to give his son more flexibility. The switches allow Brian to short or invert each pick up, and the options really show in Queen’s music. Just Bohemian Rhapsody alone uses almost every combination of the six different switches.
After almost 40 years of playing, the “Red Special” never encountered a major complication. But in 1997, when professional luthier, Greg Fryer, successfully created three replicas of the guitar and gifted them to May, he was allowed to aid in the restoration of the famous guitar under the watchful eye of Brian himself.
Brian May could have had any guitar in the world once he joined Queen, but he continues to prefer the “Red Special” he and his father built all those years ago.
For more details about the creation of the Red Special, visit
To see the restorations step-by-step, check out Greg Fryer’s blog
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