This is the guitar Brian May built with his father Harold in the early 1960s, and the one he has used as his main recording instrument ever since. It is one of the most unique guitars in rock music history because it is the only guitar that was actually built by the guitarist himself from scratch and used in albums and songs that reached billions of people.

The construction

The inspiration for building the Red Special, as Brian explained, came from the first acoustic guitar he ever had: an Egmond parlor guitar. Brian played this acoustic for a while, even made a small pickup to “electrify” it at one point, but eventually together with his father, who was an electrical engineer, he decided to try to make a real electric guitar.

The construction process took about two years and was completed when Brian was about 19 years old. The materials that Brian and his father used to build the guitar came from all kinds of sources.

For example, the neck was constructed from an 18th-century mantelpiece that had hot holes, which Brian filled with the same matches and wood glue. The inlays on the fretboard were made from old mother-of-pearl buttons that Brian ‘s mother had lying around, which Brian shaped all by hand to fit the holes he drilled in the fretboard.

The guitar has a semi-hollow design, and the center piece that is part of that design, which basically connects to the neck and handles all the tension, was built from a piece of an oak table. The exterior of the body was built with chalkboard and veneer.

After being assembled, the guitar was painted with several coats of Rustins plastic coating that produced a dark red color. Recently, the guitar received another top coat for protection, which was done by Greg Fryer of Fryer Guitars in Australia. By that time, Greg had also made some replicas of Red Special for Brian.

If you want to see photos taken during the restoration process and read Greg’s explanation of each step he took, be sure to visit the Fryer Guitars – Red Special restoration 1998 website.

It appears that the guitar was refinished again in 2016, by Andrew Guyton, who posted a short video of the guitar before restoration on his YouTube channel.

The pickups

Originally Brain personally made the pickups for the Red Special. Unfortunately, they had a major flaw and Brian considered them impractical. So he headed to a local Burns store and purchased three brand-new Burns Tri-Sonic pickups for three Guineas each.

Brian liked the pickups immediately, but he found that they had a lot of strange loud feedback when he brought them close to an amplifier. He also found that this feedback would stop if he kept his hand on the pickups, so he decided to fill the coils of the Burns pickups with Araldite epoxy to reduce these unwanted microphonics.

Guitar Controls

The controls on Brian ‘s guitars are set so that he can turn each pickup on and off and make each pickup in phase or out of phase. This allowed for some unique combinations that were not available on other popular guitars at the time.

For example, the Fender Stratocaster model at that time had only a 3-way switch, which meant that only one pickup could be used at a time. Later this was replaced with a 5-way one that allowed two pickups to be used simultaneously. But on Brian‘s guitar, for example, you could use all three pickups at the same time or use the bridge and neck pickups together.

In addition, each pickup also has a phase switch, which obviously allows for even more unique combinations. If you want to learn more about what in and out of phase means when it comes to guitar pickups, check out this excellent article by Seymour Duncan: Pickup Polarity and Phase Made Simple.

Brian himself often uses the bridge pickup and middle pickup together in phase and has noticed that this is his favorite sound. However, he obviously uses different combinations for different songs and occasions.


Brian used this guitar extensively during the Queen era, in every single studio song except “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

There were also several replicas of the Red Special made from 1975 to the present, and Brian occasionally uses them as backup guitars, or for songs that require a different tuning.





  • As close to the May sound as you’ll get
  • Good price


  • Nothing for the money
Mechanics and Electronics

Final Verdict

The Red Special was said to have been designed to recreate Brian’s childhood dream of creating an orchestral sound but without the budget to buy a Strat. What developed was a very distinct tone, always teamed up with the iconic Vox AC30 amp. The Brian May Signature features the Tri-Sonic pickups, controlled by individual on/off phasing switches, along with a chambered mahogany body and ebony fingerboard. The result is the closest you’re going to get to Brian’s sound without having The Red Special yourself. And at under $850, it’s a lot of guitar for the money and one of the cheapest in this guide