Very few individual electric guitars are so instantly recognisable or have achieved such iconic status as Brian May’s Red Special. The instrument that he and his father built from scratch in 1963 has seen service throughout May’s career with Queen and beyond and was seen by a television audience of an estimated 200 million people when he played the National Anthem on the roof of Buckingham Palace at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. To describe it as an unusual instrument would be an understatement; the semi-hollow body is fashioned from a combination of blockboard and Oak taken from an old fireplace and the tremolo system is engineered from a kitchen knife with springs from a motorbike. It was also kitted out with re-wound Burns pick-ups. The Red Special is much copied – May actually owns two replicas made by Australian luthier Greg Fryer as well as a green replica by East Anglian maker Andrew Guyton – but to offer a more affordable alternative, he set up Brian May Guitars in conjunction with retailer/distributor House Music to offer the Korean built Brian May Special.
The Brian May Specials are built differently to the original. Working with Brian and his guitar tech Pete Malandrone to make the guitar attractive to players other than just BM fans, House Music re-specced the bridge assembly – installing a Wilkinson trem system with brass bridge saddles and BM Custom tremolo arm – and refined the electronics, as well as expanding the colour finish choice to ten. With other new features including an acoustically chambered Mahogany body with pinstripe binding, a Mahogany neck, 3-ply scratch plate – including the ’half moon‘ plate behind the bridge – the Special is as near as it gets for a fraction of what a Fryer or Guyton replica would cost. Scale length is still set at 24″ like the original and there’s still room for 24-frets, installed on a very attractive looking Ebony fingerboard. Hardware and plastics are gold instead of black and white – including the Grover GH305 locking tuners – and the Special has been fitted with a dual truss rod system, graphite nut and zero fret. Electrics are three Burns Tri-Sonic pickups wired in series, with a master volume and tone control and three on/off switches and three in phase/out of phase switches for the individual pick-ups, again just like the Red Special. The guitar includes a Deluxe Gigbag.
Although the review Special needed a slight adjustment to the truss rod, it came pretty well set up. The trem arm needs to be secured by tilting the bridge forward an tightening a small Allen screw. Once done, the Wilkinson system operates impressively smoothly and returns to pitch without any tuning problems. Unlike the tree-trunk proportions of the neck on the original guitar, we get a manageable handful of Les Paul sized comfort, with easy access to all parts of the fingerboard including the very top frets. Finishing is good, with only a tiny blemish on the edge of the fingerboard in evidence, something which could be touched up with no problem. Acoustically, there’s a nice ring to the Special which bodes well for its plugged in properties. Of course, everyone around is gagging to hear whether the Special is capable of producing Brian May’s signature tone and so hooked up to an Orange Thunderverb (a single VOX didn’t have enough gain) we attempted to recreate it. With the switching system as it is, there’s a myriad of sounds on offer by selecting different combinations of pick-ups and switching the phase. Setting the amp up with a clean sound, The Special is quite capable of producing Strat-style sparkle or Tele-type gnarl as well as softer tones but it’s through the dirty channel with the Shape control set to boost the mids that we eventually arrived in classic May territory, especially with the bridge and middle pick-up together in phase. If you can turn out a passable rendition of the solo in Bo Rap (I can’t) then this is the nearest you will get from any guitar.
Whether you’re a Brian May fan or not, the Special is a stonking little guitar with some highly individual sounds and a surprisingly addictive short scale. The Korean build means that it’s pitched in the low to mid-price bracket and the choice of colours means you don’t have to associate yourself totally with the man and the image – massively well-respected though he is – if you just like the look, feel and unique sounds on offer from the Brian May Special.