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This article was originally published in issue #40
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When it comes to a detailed knowledge of Brian May’s guitars and rig requirements, Pete Malandrone is the fount of all knowledge.
When it comes to a detailed knowledge of Brian May’s guitars and rig requirements, Pete Malandrone is the fount of all knowledge. For more than 20 years he has been Brian’s right hand man, responsible for keeping an idiosyncratic array of products working for some of the biggest shows in earth. Jamie Humphries met with Pete to look at some of Brian’s guitars and discuss the fascinating development and history of the many Red Special replicas and derivatives.
How do you go from one day being a British Telecom engineer to the next being the guitar tech for one of the biggest Rock guitarist in the world? Well that’s what happened to Pete Malandrone, who holds the title of having possibly the most coveted guitar tech gig in the industry. It’s Pete’s role to know exactly what Brian May wants when it comes to his guitar set-up and his rig so it goes without saying that he knows the world famous ‘Old Lady’ guitar inside out, and is responsible for taking care of what is probably one of the world’s most instantly recognisable guitars. Pete’s role also includes setting up Brian’s rig from show to show, as well as maintaining it, and also handling guitar teching duties; changing strings, (Brian uses his own signature set of gauge .009 Optima Gold strings in case you were wondering), general maintenance, and the various guitar changes called for in a set. On top of this Pete is responsible for switching Brian’s effects during a live performance, essentially becoming part of the performance himself.
Pete is kept busy working for Brian constantly. When he’s not on the road he’s working at Brian’s studio on the outskirts of London. He’s also involved heavily with Brian May Guitars, overseeing R&D, and production, and also looking at ways the guitars can be improved.
On a personal note, I’ve known Pete for many years, and have toured with him when I was in the Brian May/Kerry Ellis Anthems band, and over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen quite a few of Brian’s guitars and play them. Brian even lent me his Green Guyton RS replica that I toured with for several months. After chatting with Pete about putting this feature together we decided it would be great to look at how the Red Special replicas have evolved over the years, and get as many of them out as possible for our video shoot. I also felt it would be great for readers to have a chance to hear the kind of things that a tech for a world-class guitarist has to do.
Before looking at the replicas let talk a little bit about the ‘Old Lady’ herself. We decided not to feature the original in our video, incidentally, as Brian spoke about the iconic guitar in his interview section. I felt it was important just to look at some of the key differences between the originals and the reproduction guitars, albeit that the Fryer and Guyton guitars are pretty much exact.
The original Old Lady was constructed from a variety of woods; the body is built around a thick piece of oak that takes the strain of the neck, while the body shape is made from block board. The body is largely hollow, and was originally going to sport an “F” hole. The hollow body was a deliberate choice of Brian’s, to make the guitar more “alive” and aid controllable feedback. The body was completed with a mahogany veneer, with the edge binding made from plastic shelf edging. The body was stained with a wood dye, and then coated with Rustin’s Plastic Coating. Between coats Brian would polish it with fi ne sand paper, and eventually worked it to a high gloss fi nish. The three Burns Tri-Sonic pickups are mounted directly to the body, with the six switches, three on/ off and three phase in and out switches mounted to a metal plate, fi xed inside the electronics cavity. The scratch plate and tremolo spring cover plate are made from black Perspex, with the lathed aluminium volume and tone knobs mounted to the scratch plate, that covers the cavities. The tremolo features a knife-edge fl oating design that made use of two motorbike valve springs that are balanced against the pull of the strings. The straight string pull resulted in zero friction, giving fantastic tuning stability. Brian designed and hand tooled a roller bridge system that eliminated friction at the bridge end.
The neck is made from a thick piece of mahogany sporting a painted oak fi ngerboard, with mother of pearl hand-fi led shirt buttons as dot markers. The headstock and nut design were also an integral part of a low friction based design at the opposite end of the guitar. Brian designed the placement of the machine heads and designed a nut where the strings pretty much fl oated in the slots, all to minimise friction. The truss rod was fi xed to a large bolt that was screwed through the guitar body. The neck joint at the body included a “hoop” shape carved into the wood that the “hooped’ end of the truss rod slotted into. The only production shop bought parts of the guitar were the machine heads and the replacement Burns pickups; Brian originally wound his own pickups.
John Red Birch Special
Although there was an earlier unofficial RS replica produced by Greco, (you can see Brian using one on the “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy” Top of the Pop’s performance) the first official replica commissioned by Brian was the famous John Birch RS. This guitar can be seen in the “We Will Rock You” and “Spread Your Wings” music videos (YouTube is your friend!). It featured a solid maple body and neck construction, and although it resembled the Old Lady, it fell short in performance, and suffered from dreadful tuning instabilities. The guitar met its end during Brian’s solo spot on a show in Chicago on the “Hot Space” tour. Brian threw the guitar in anger, resulting in it snapping in three places. Andrew Guyton eventually fi xed the guitar.
Guild RS Replica
For a long while Brian’s only backup that resembled the Old Lady was the John Birch, which was now in pieces and in the hands of John Page, who worked for Fender. There was talk of Fender producing a replica, but this never materialised. Brian experimented with a Strat, a Les Paul and a Flying V as backup solutions, but none of them came close to his beloved Old Lady.
Eventually, Guild collaborated with Brian during the early 1980s, releasing the BHM1, the fi rst offi cial production Red Special style guitar. This guitar was produced in a limited run (around 330 of them) and featured a solid mahogany body, ebony board, Kahler tremolo and Brian May signature DiMarzio pickups. This guitar is famously featured in the “One Vision” video, and was Brian’s backup for a number of years. The production models featured a slimmer neck profi le, although Brian’s featured a large neck. I myself play a replica of one of these guitars, and although this Guild wasn’t featured in this video, I have played one of Brian’s prototypes.
Around 1993 Guild released the BMH01, a more authentic replica of the original, featuring a chambered mahogany body, a closer replica of the trem, and Tri-Sonic style pickups produced by Seymour Duncan. Around 2,000 of these guitars were made. These models featured a slimmer neck and Brian occasionally used these live. Both the ‘93 and the ‘84 Guilds were used until the Fryers were built.
Brian was approached by Australian luthier Greg Fryer about building him a replica RS. Brian gave Greg the go-ahead, and he produced three exact replicas of the Old Lady - John, Paul and George! Brian kept two, one of which is his main backup. These guitars were produced around 1995, with Greg spending time measuring the original to get the replica as close as possible. Greg tried to match the woods as best as he could, and only made one modifi cation to the roller bridge. With the introduction of the Fryer Brian had a much more authentic backup and drop D guitar, producing the same sound, and offering pretty much the same feel.
Burns BM Guitar
The Burns BM model was introduced around 2001, and offered a more cost effective version of the famous Old Lady. Alterations were made to make the guitar more affordable, but for the fi rst time a good quality affordable instrument was available. Constructed from mahogany, the Burns featured acoustic chambering, three Burns Tri-Sonic pickups, a slimmer profile neck, and an ebony board. The main difference was this guitar was fi tted with a Strat style tremolo. The body dimensions were similar to the original, with Burns working closely with Brian to produce a high quality guitar with an attractive price. The Burns BM was a highly successful guitar, winning various awards.
Brian May Guitars
Around three years later, production of the Brian May Special swapped over to Brian May Guitars; a company set up by Brian May, Barry Moorhouse of House Music fame and Pete Malandrone. The idea was to prioritize production, as well as make some changes to the instruments in looks and performance. Check out the guitar in this video, and compare it to our review BMG Special in this issue; you can really see how the guitar has evolved. BM guitars continue to grow and fl ourish as a company, with many variations on the famous Old Lady available. See our reviews in this issue!
Andrew Guyton RS Green
The next guitar of Brian’s I am very fond of! When I toured with Brian May/Kerry Ellis, Brian actually lent me this guitar. I took it home with me and used it to practice on for the run up to the tour, and subsequently used it for much of the tour. Andrew met Brian when Pete approached him to restore his old Egmond acoustic. Work began on building a replica of the Red Special, which resulted in a limited run of production guitars. Not only did Andrew measure and photograph the original, but he had it X-Rayed at St Barts Hospital in London. The result was the most authentic reproduction of the Red Special to date. Brian now has a variety of Guyton Specials in his collection, with a new archtop version now available.
Andrew Guyton Badger Guitar
The Badger guitar was built for Brian to use on the Queen and Adam Lambert tour. This guitar followed the original drawings produced by Brian and Harold May, to include the original F hole design that never made it onto the Red Special. Something that was new to the design was the stunning Archtop, and the way Andrew managed to shape the Perspex scratch plate to follow the Archtop’s contours. This guitar features a piezo bridge, producing authentic acoustic sounds, with the magnetic and piezo signals sent out of two separate outputs. The guitar also features a small mother of pearl badger on the scratch plate.
The BMG Super was introduced as Pete says to “bridge the gap” between the BM Special and the Guyton. The Super was the result of a collaboration between Fryer and KZ guitars. The Super was a close BMG replica, to satisfy the fans that wanted something more authentic than the Special but without being a handmade custom instrument. Some compromises were made in terms of wood, and some of the hardware, but this was a much closer affordable replica. The guitar in the video was actually used by Brian on the Queen and Paul Rodgers Tour. The Super is no longer built by KZ, and is now produced by a Czech company for BMG.
Guyton Double neck
Here’s another example of Andrew Guyton’s vision for pushing the boundaries - a double neck RS! This guitar came about after Andrew showed a design to Pete that was fi nally put together in time for the fi rst Queen outing with Adam Lambert. This guitar uses the same construction materials, oak and block board body, mahogany veneer, and large profi le mahogany neck with an oak board. Like the other Guyton RS gui tars it features the Adrian Turner custom wound Adeson Burns Tri-Sonic pickups. Brian originally used this to perform “Under Pressure”.