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This article was originally published in issue #40
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Brian May’s tone is one of the most recognisable in Rock and consists of some very unlikely components. If having a totally home made guitar that was built using any materials he and his father could lay their hands on wasn’t enough, many of his finest moments were record using an amplifier built from parts found in a skip (aka dumpster)! Songs such as 'Good Company', 'Killer Queen', 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and 'A Winters Tale', to name just a few, all contained sections recorded with this very distinctive sounding homemade amp. Combined with the Red Special and a treble booster, the 'Deacy', as it was dubbed, produced a very cutting crisp distorted tone, which when manipulated with the pickup and phase switching capabilities of the Red Special, different mic positioning, and the use of a wah as a tone control, enabled Brian to produce symphonic orchestral like sounds from his guitar. The Deacy became very much a part of Queen and Brian’s voice in the studio.
Brian wasn’t the only academically gifted member of Queen, nor was he the only one to have experimented building musical equipment with anything that came to hand. Queen's bassist, John Deacon, was an Honours electronics student studying in London and found the circuit board that formed the basis for the Deacy amp discarded in a builders skip in 1972. His attention was drawn to the wires hanging over the side of the skip, and on closer investigation he discovered the circuit board attached to the other end. John decided to use the circuit board to build a small practice amp for playing guitar through. He mounted the circuit inside an old bookshelf speaker he had lying around, and mounted a jack socket on the rear of the speaker. There was also a power lead coming out of the back of the speaker that connected to a PP9 battery. The 'Deacy amp' was born! It had no controls and produced a warm, slightly distorted tone, but history was about to be made when John took the little amp along to a Queen rehearsal. Brian May was intrigued and plugged in his Red Special and treble booster. Driving the amp with the treble booster pushed both the input and output stage, producing a very unique distorted tone that Brian has never been able to achieve on anything else, analogue or digital. From that point on the Deacy amp became part of Brian’s arsenal of tone tools; often blending it with his darker AC30 tone.
Brian and his tech Pete Malandrone eventually decided that they wanted a replica of the Deacy made as a back up for Brian, as well as producing a unit to sell. Around thirteen years were spent painstakingly researching and building an exact replica; Brian even allowed the original Deacy to be taken apart to match the speakers, circuit board and transistors correctly to produce the legendary Deacy tone. This task was originally undertaken by Australian Greg Fryer and ultimately concluded by Nigel Knight, who has an extensive knowledge of vintage electric components. Everything was researched and analysed to the utmost degree, even down to cabinet thickness and the weave of the grille cloth. Experts at Celestion Speakers aided Nigel, with extensive analysis of the speakers that would eventually result in exact recreations. Eventually the finished replica was sat with Brian’s original Deacy, and Brian took part in a “blind” test, resulting in him choosing the replica when asked which one was his original!
I had been lucky enough to see the original Deacy at Brian’s studio when I was there for a rehearsal once, although I had never heard it in the flesh, so this was a first for me. For our review, Pete Malandrone very trustingly allowed me to use one of Brian’s spare Deacy replicas, that had in fact been used on the Queen and Adam Lambert tour. Brian integrates the Deacy amp into his live rig, and uses it on such songs as 'Last Horizon'.
As previously mentioned, this is an exact replica of Brian’s original amp, as handbuilt by John Deacon and is constructed from veneered chipboard, with a sapele finish. The cabinet is a sealed box, with mitred corner joints; the interior features a front and rear chipboard baffle. The push-pull 0.75 Watt four transistor amplifier drives two speakers; a 6” low/midrange frequency 30 Watt twin cone speaker, and a single 3” paper cone high frequency speaker. The amplifier can be powered in two different ways; either a 9V DC PP9 battery or with the KAT Deacy amp battery Simulator unit. I used the battery simulator for our review, which faithfully emulates the battery supply conditions of the PP9. The battery emulator is mains powered and features a control that lets you adjust how much power the battery has, for example Brian prefers the sound of the Deacy when the battery is running out. With the battery emulator you simply turn down the battery level control.
For the demo, I used the BMG Super (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) into a Fryer/KAT treble booster deluxe; I also used a sixpenny piece. Straight away from the first chord I hit you could hear the distinctive Brian May tone. The distortion is very saturated, and with a moderate compression. Even though this amp is transistor based and has no controls at all, the tone is rich, and has a very distinct top end. Turning down the volume, the amplifier cleans up, and as the guitar volume is increased there is a steady gain increase. For the main part I used Brian’s most favoured tone, with the bridge and middle pickups, creating a thick humbucker style tone. But switching to the neck and middle and kicking one pickup out of phase creates some very familiar tones.
To sum things up this is an excellent amp for several reasons. First, it’s the Brian May tone in a box, so for the fan/fanatic this really is a must have. Second, its simplistic design is one of its winning features. Guitar amps are often so over the top with way too many controls, that they become confusing and intimidating. The Deacy on the other hand just sounds fantastic, with no controls. The only variables are the pedals in front, and how you operate your guitar. Third, if like me you have a home studio this is a great low wattage amp for recording, with a tone that is just perfectly designed for placing the guitar in the correct position in the mix. Let's face it, if you look at the hits it has been used on, that's not a bad track record at all!
However - and take this as a warning - if you have decided you really want one of these unique amps don't delay, thinking you will be able to pick one up in a few years! Knight Audio says it is now on the last 20 that will be produced. The obsolete components used are now unobtainable so rather than compromise with make-dos and 'maybe good enoughs’, Knight Audio has ceased production and says it will build no more.