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This article was originally published in issue #40
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Brian May’s home made Red Special guitar is one of the most distinctive looking and unique sounding guitars in Rock history. Constructed totally by Brian and his father Harold, the Red Special has graced pretty much every recording made by Brian that features electric guitar. Over the years he has been involved in several collaborations with various guitar companies, to produce a close replica at an affordable price. Early attempts by US manufacturer Guild resulted in the first official Red Special style/replica guitars. Following a departure from Guild, Brian next collaborated with Burns, producing a highly successful replica of the original guitar. This version introduced variations on the original that made the guitar much more affordable than the high end, totally authentic, replicas produced by luthiers like Greg Fryer from Australia, KZ from Japan, and Andrew Guyton from the UK.
Brian eventually moved production of the Burns over to his own company, Brian May Guitars, which he set up with the help of Barry Moorhouse of House Music, and Brian’s long time guitar tech Pete Malandrone. The company now produces several variations of the Red Special including various BMG Specials in a variety of finishes: the BMG Super, the BMG Vision, a stripped down twin humbucker version, the BMG Mini May, the BMG Bass, the BMG Rhapsody Acoustic, and the BMG Uke.
We've actually reviewed a BMG Special in Guitar Interactive before, way back in issue 14, but we felt it deserved a second glance in a feature which is bound to spur readers to wonder what this surprisingly affordable instrument could offer them that they aren't already getting from other guitars. It also seemed pretty much essential to compare the BMG Special with the BMG Super, which we are taking a first look at in this issue.
To ring the changes at least a little, BMG sent us something a bit different from the normal Special everyone will immediately recognise and we were delighted to open the box to find a BMG Special Limited Edition in striking Windermere Blue - a pale metallic blue that gives the Special more than a hint of retro chic.
Visually there is no mistaking that this is a Brian May guitar, with the look and construction faithful to the original. There are obvious differences, though, which have all been considered to produce the highest quality replica of the original guitar that won't break the bank. Another interesting point that came up when I was talking with Pete Malandrone (see our interview in this issue) is that he discusses how BMG is trying to produce a guitar that isn’t just for Brian May fans, but is something that stands up on its own against other popular brands.
The body shape is faithful to the original, and although is constructed from different wood to Brian’s 'Old Lady', it features a chambered mahogany body with the chambering based on Brian’s original design. This is finished off with a book matched mahogany top, with a six-ply pinstripe front and rear binding. The body and neck are finished in a high gloss lacquer and I have to say the finishing and binding are exquisite; no finish bleeding into the binding and no roughly finished edges. The guitar features a 24” scale one-piece glued-on mahogany neck, with an ebony fingerboard loaded with 24 jumbo frets. The neck features a “D” profile, and measures 45 mm at the nut. The neck also includes a graphite nut and a zero fret.
The neck and neck joint are one of the biggest differences between the BMG Special and the original. The original neck was constructed from a huge thick piece of 100 year old mahogany, with a huge profile, that is attached to the body with a large bolt that secures to the truss rod; the end of the truss rod being a hoop that hooks round the bolt. The neck of the BMG Special, on the other hand, has a very modern, contemporary feeling profile, which is both stable and comfortable to play on, especially for long periods of time.
Moving further down the neck we come to the headstock, which is authentic in design and shape to Brian’s original. The headstock finish matches the body and sports Brian’s signature as the guitar’s decal. The angle of the headstock is minimal, to aid straight string pull from the bridge through to the machine heads, which minimises friction and tuning instabilities. The headstock is loaded with six Grover Rotomatic internal locking cam machine heads. These offer fast and tidy string replacement and solid tuning stability, as well as a smooth accurate rotary motion. The headstock also includes the truss rod access, which is covered matching the scratch plate and half moon decorative plate.
Back on the body, the pickups and six pickups switches are mounted onto the scratch plate. There are three pickup on/off sliding switches, and three pickup in and out of phase sliding switches; two switches per pickup. Once again the scratch plate is one of the slight differences between the BMG Special and the original. The original features a plate where the screws holding the switches are hidden, whereas the plate on the BMG Special has the screws exposed, front mounting the switches. The pickup mountings are also slightly different to the original's, with the pickup height adjustment screws visible on the Special. These slight differences help to keep the cost of production of the guitar down.
The guitar includes a single volume and tone control that globally controls all three pickups. Once again there is a slight cosmetic difference with slightly smaller plastic chrome finished knobs, as opposed to the larger aluminium “flying saucer” knobs. The BMG Special also uses 250k pots.
Another difference is the pickups found on the BMG Special. The original features Burns Tri-Sonic single coil pickups, which Brian purchased to replace the pickups he had hand-wound himself. The Burns Special featured genuine Burns Tri-Sonic pickups, although they were a modern equivalent. The BMG Special features Brian May branded Tri-Sonic style pickups, which are based on the original '60s Burns pickups. These three single coil pickups are wired in series. With the aid of the six switches, myriad tones can be produced, with countless pickup configurations, both in and out of phase.
These pickups also add to the authentic look and styling of the guitar, keeping it close to Brian’s 'Old Lady'. Once again, the production of Brian May branded pickups helps to keep the cost of the guitar down.
Probably the biggest difference between the BMG Special and the original Red Special is the tremolo. The original features a floating system that balances the pull of the strings against the tension of two motorcycle valve springs set under a plate on the front of the body! The arm of the bar was made from part of a bicycle saddlebag support, with the tip being made from one of his mother's larger knitting needles, filed down. A beautiful brass bolt fixes the arm into the body. To produce a similar unit would push up the price of the BMG Special considerably. As Burns did, Brian May Guitars opted for a traditional vintage tremolo system but, unlike the original Burns vintage trem, which suffered with tuning issues, BMG opted for the Wilkinson WVP Knife Edge system, with brass saddles and a custom BM bar. At the rear of the bridge a half moon decorative plate has been added to keep the styling as close to the original as possible. This plate matches both the scratch plate and the truss rod cover.
I am very familiar with the feel and sound of the BMG Special. I own a green Special from a slightly older production run, around 2009, which has had some modifications made, including hand wound Adeson Burns Tri-Sonic pickups, as found in the BMG Super. Having played well over 1,000 performances of the Queen musical We Will Rock You, I know how to get the most out of the Special’s unique electronics, so I was pretty keen to play this more up to date model, as it features some slight improvements and changes.
First off, the guitar balanced perfectly when seated and standing; it's not neck heavy at all. The guitar feels relatively light, due to the chambering, and when playing unamplified, it produced a loud vibrant sound. Plugged in, the guitar really came to life. I ran it into a Fryer Brian May treble booster, and into a Thundertomate TAE pedal, direct into the desk. I started off by switching in the individual single coil pickups before experimenting with combinations. The great thing about the way the Special is wired is that when the bridge and middle pickups are engaged, they act like a humbucker. This is one of Brian’s favourite combinations, producing a rich warm tone, with a crisp clear top end presence. Backing down the volume, the guitar cleans up beautifully, ideal for the clean shimmering chord arpeggios of “Under Pressure” and “Days of Our Lives”. Cranking the guitar volume up aids a thick overdriven tone and I can’t help but launching into “Hammer to Fall” and “One Vision”. The neck pickup has a warm woody quality, and with the volume set around half way you get the smooth solo tone of “Killer Queen”. One thing I will say is that it takes a little while to get used to the position of the volume control as its set above the tone. Also the six pickup switches can be a little fiddly and may take some getting used to.
Experimenting with the out of phase switches with various pickup configurations produces some very interesting tones. When reversing the phase a lot of harmonics and overtones are produced, and with the guitar fully cranked with a treble booster you can achieve some screaming leads! One of Brian’s most favoured out of phase combinations is using the neck and middle pickups, with one of them reversed. This is the solo tone for “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which produces high octave harmonics, especially when attacking the strings with a sixpence. Another great combination is the bridge and neck pickups engaged, with one of them reversed. These two pickups really pull and fight against each other, with some very interesting tonal results. Just sitting with this guitar and experimenting for a short time you get to hear how much of a useful studio tool it is,
The Wilkinson tremolo system fitted on the BMG Special is one of the best vintage tremolos I have ever used. Fully floating, it allows upward and downward motion, and is equally at home adding light vibrato to chords as it is dive bombing and wrenching up screaming out of phase harmonics. You can even flick it to get the Steve Vai “blubber” effects. The stability is fantastic, returning to pitch from a healthy dose of abuse. This is obviously aided by the guitars straight string pull construction and locking tuners.
I have used a variety of Brian May signature guitars over the last 10 years of working on the show. In London I started out using Burns version, and the first incarnation of the BM Special. Touring in Europe I used the original KZ/Fryer Super and, as I mentioned, I own a 2009 BM Special, which had a huge amount of build and hardware improvements from the original first generation Special, so I had plenty to compare this production guitar with.
And the verdict? The BM Guitars team has yet again made further improvements, making this a very well constructed, versatile, and unique sounding instrument, offering great build quality and fantastic playability, at a very budget friendly price. It also comes with a premier padded gig bag with a stitched Brian May logo.
Perhaps the $64,000 question is, does this guitar only work for Brian May fans? My answer is no - it has a lot more potential. Most working guitarists reach for either Les Paul or Strat style guitars, both producing specific tones in their own right. The BM Special has its own unique voice, and is capable of producing a wider range of tones to most guitars. This guitar would make a great addition to any working guitarist's tone tools.