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This article was originally published in issue #40
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For many years guitarists have been asking for a totally authentic replica of Brian May’s legendary Red Special guitar. A very early attempt at this was by luthier John Birch, who famously built Brian a blonde/gold replica of the Red Special as a back-up. The guitar never worked for Brian, suffering from terrible tuning issues, and eventually was snapped during a frustrating solo spot at a Queen concert. The next attempt at a more authentic replica came in the early 1990s when Guild released the BM01. This was a more accurate version than the first run of Kahler loaded Guilds produced around 1984, in both construction and styling. But although the new Guild featured a more authentic tremolo and a chambered body, it still fell short of the fans' expectations, with a lack of attention to detail being betrayed by unauthentic features including a smaller neck, edge binding on the scratch plate and Seymour Duncan replica Tri-Sonic pickups.
Later came the release of first the Burns Special and then the BMG Special, so it seemed that a totally accurate production model was never going to be. Some individual luthiers built Red Special guitars with Brian’s endorsement, including Greg Fryer, and Andrew Guyton. These builders offered exquisite totally accurate replicas that Brian himself played, but they were restricted to limited numbers, and would cost you as much as a small new car if you ordered one. So the fans turned to unofficial builders who offered a more authentic version of the Red Special at more sedate prices. One such luthier from Japan was Kazutaka Ijuin of KZ Guitars who was producing very accurate and beautifully built unofficial replicas. BM Guitars enlisted him and along with Greg Fryer they designed the original run of Supers, that were manufactured by KZ in Japan.
That Original Super was hugely successful with the fans, and Brian himself used one on tour. But the guitar was only available for a short period before production halted.
Fast-forward to 2015 and a new builder in the Czech Republic joined forces with BM Guitars, and the second edition Super became available. I had personally been talking to Barry Moorhouse at House Music (which looks after BMG) since the tail end of 2014 when I heard that the new Super was going into production. I had been using an original KZ/Fryer Super on the We Will Rock You German tour since 2012, and was very keen to see and hear how the new Super would stand up against the original Super. As you can imagine, I was keen to get the guitar into the pages of Guitar Interactive to give you a closer look and compare it to the original, along with the BM Special, which has its own review in this issue.
Comparisons are never easy but I have been lucky enough to have played the original Red Special, built by Brian and his father, on numerous occasions and I have also played one of Brian’s Fryer replicas. As well as this I have also borrowed Brian’s green Guyton replica when I toured with Brian May and Kerry Ellis, so I have a pretty good idea of how all of them feel and play, which I've borne closely in mind while playing this latest Super.
To start with, visually the BMG Super is very authentic looking, with a more accurate red colour than the BMG Special boasts. For the real devotee, this shade is based on the red wood dye and layers of Rustin’s Plastic Coating that Brian and his father had applied to the original. The scratch plate and tremolo are also pretty much the same as on the original. As with the BMG Special, there are few differences that make that make the guitar more cost effective, as you might expect. BM Guitars say the Super is meant to bridge the gap between the very affordable BM Special, and the exquisite and 'reassuringly expensive' Guyton.
Starting with the body, the Super is constructed from two-piece quarter sawn mahogany, with a two-piece quarter sawn, book matched mahogany top. The dimensions of the body are faithful to the original RS, with some slight modifications to the acoustic chambers and the control cavity. The body is coloured with an attractive antique cherry stain and features a white double edge binding.
The headstock and fingerboard radius are also faithful to the original Red Special, as is the neck profile, which is very chunky! The neck however is glued on, as opposed to the single large bolt on Brian’s 'Old Lady'. BM Guitars has also opted for a clear lacquered ebony fretboard as opposed to painted oak on the original - a choice not many would argue with!
The guitar features 24 frets and a zero fret which are Dunlop 6130s, with a Graph Tech Black TUSQ-XL nut. The fingerboard features attractive mother of pearl face and side dot markers; Brian made his dot markers from shirt buttons from his mother's sewing box, saving the most colourful markers for the 24th fret! The headstock matches the exact dimensions and angle of Brian’s 'Old Lady', which aids straight string pull for excellent tuning stability. The headstock houses six Gotoh Magnum Lock machine heads, three on each side. The headstock is decorated with a mother of pearl “May Star” decal and the “Super” Brian May signature. The truss access is located on the headstock with the cover matching the scratch plate.
A huge difference between the Special and the Super is that on the Super neither the pickups nor the six slider switches are mounted on the scratch plate, as they are on the Special. This scratch plate is identical to the one on the original guitar, with the pickups being mounted directly into the body, resulting in both a more resonant sound and a neater less cluttered looking design.
As for those pickups, they are three Adeson Burns Tri-Sonic single coil pickups, constructed by Adrian Turner under license to Burns. These are exact recreations of the Burns Tri-Sonic pickups built between 1960 and 1965, using original components, and wound on an original late 1950s Burns winding machine. These are the same pickups used in the Andrew Guyton RS, and are exact to Brian’s pickups. The sound of these is not as hot as the standard Tri-Sonic pickups, or the Brian May branded pickups found on the Special, in fact it's a lot warmer and fuller, with that direct mounting aiding sustain.
The Super is fitted with six Switchcraft slider switches, three to engage the pickups and three acting as phase switches. These six switches are fitted directly to an aluminium mounting plate under the scratch plate. The Super is wired in series, and can produce a wide range of tones thanks to its unique switching capabilities. The guitar features two rotary controls, one volume and one tone, with authentic lathed aluminium “flying saucer” knobs, and 250k pots.
The knife-edge tremolo tailpiece is an exact replica, built to Brian’s original design and specification by Kazutaka Ijuin of KZ Guitars, with the bar crafted from Greg Fryer’s templates. This tremolo and tailpiece is visually stunning, and the performance is fantastic, with an accurate response, fantastic pitch return and tuning stability.
One of the design compromises you will find on the Super is the bridge, however, with Brian’s roller system being replaced with a custom modified Wilkinson roller bridge. The bridge on the original is a totally hand made unit that Brian designed, hand tooled from a block of aluminum and to manufacture units such as this would again effect the retail price drastically, pushing it into the realms of the Guyton.
So the Super is visually stunning - a really beautiful looking guitar, and having played Brian’s 'Old Lady' on numerous occasions I can tell you that it felt every bit like the Red Special. That said, one has to remember that there was something Zen like, or magical about how the original was built. Would Brian have produced a second guitar that felt exactly the same as the original if he had the exact same materials? I think not; my point is, that many people get very picky when discussing Red Special replicas. The only guitar the truly feels like the original Red Special is the original; but this guitar does a bloody good impression of it!
To play, the Super feels nice and light and is very well balanced, which is surprising when you consider the thickness of the neck. Thick and sturdy, its sheer size obviously goes hand in hand with the chambered mahogany body helping the production of long sweet sustaining notes. Unamplified, the Super was zingy, vibrant and loud. Plugged in it was heaven. You really can notice a difference between the standard Brian May branded pickups and the Adeson Burns, as well as the fact they’re screwed directly into a chambered mahogany body.
Engaging the bridge and middle produced a thick growl, but with plenty of space and highs. I used a Fryer treble booster (and a sixpence!) into a TAE pedal for the demo, and I think you’ll agree the tone is superb. The neck pickup is much more mellow than the Special's, and has a rich warm character, that morphs into a creamy sustain as the guitar volume is increased. Start combining pickups and knocking one out of phase and the Super screams with plenty harmonic overtones - wonderful!
This is a magnificent guitar, and I loved playing it; and coming with a hard shell case and a numbered certificate signed by Dr. May makes it a very special and collectable package. Personally I wish BM Guitars would go the whole hog and use an authentic bridge, but that’s me being ultra picky. How does it compare with the Special? I think the Special holds its own very well - especially bearing in mind its price - but there are just a few details that make this feel like the real deal. How does it compare with the original Super? If anything I felt that this guitar performed better than the original Super production that I had played close to 1,000 shows on; I loved it!!
Like the Special, this is a guitar with hidden depths. If you suspect it is only for Queen tribute bands or dedicated Brian May fans, then you are wrong because it offers a level of versatility you simply won't get from the obvious alternatives. Choosing a Brian May Special or, even better, a Super, will set you apart from the crowd in a way that may, or may not, appeal - but that aside, you will get a fabulous guitar in either case and one that will go places other guitars simply cannot venture into.