How Queen's Brian May Built His Iconic 'Red Special' Guitar

Queen guitarist Brian May is one of rock and roll's most legendary guitarists and songwriters.

In his career, May has played tens of thousands of sold-out arena shows with Queen. He has 18 number one albums on his resume and, by some estimates, as many as 300 million albums sold worldwide.

And while rock and rollers from the '70s are known for excess, one of the most exceptional things about May is that he's stuck with one guitar his entire career: Red Special.

May says Red Special was born from necessity. He was a young guitarist with no guitar and no money to buy a guitar. But he was a bright, enterprising 17-year-old and his father was a brilliant electronics engineer. The two decided if they couldn't buy a guitar, they would build one.

"It was like, 'Make a guitar and that's the only way.' So that was it," May told Premiere Guitar. "Having taken up the challenge, it was, 'Let's make something better than anything that's ever been out there. 'Cause both me and my dad had that kind of attitude; if it's worth doing, it's worth doing to the max." 

So the Mays set about designing the instrument with the objective of making one of the greatest electric guitars ever built. More incredibly, the father-son duo had no power tools and no experience making guitars.

"In some ways, I think we succeeded," May says of the project. "Partly by luck, partly by good design. But, you know, there's a lot of things about this [guitar] that became standard later on, which were our ideas. So I'm pretty proud of what we did."

It took two years to build Red Special. May says the guitar was made out of materials -- wood and metal parts, that were "just lying around" -- with a few exceptions (the fret wire and the tuners were purchased from a local banjo and mandolin shop).

He tells Absolute Radio that some of the oak the used on the guitar was from an old tabletop. The neck was culled from an old fireplace, which was over 100 years old in 1963, when the build began. There are depressions in the neck from worm holes, which May filled in using match sticks. 

"This was all just done with spoke-shaves and sand paper and chisels," he recalls. 

"I'm actually shocked myself that it's still here," he tells Premiere Guitar. "And it's been around the world I don't know how many times. But she still works, with very little maintenance, really."

May plays Red Special for about 90 percent of the time he's onstage. He has a few replicas of Red Special made by Australian luthier Andrew Guyton. One of the copies, May uses as a backup just in case he breaks a string, another he uses for "Fat Bottomed Girls" -- which is performed in the dropped-D tuning -- and one semi-hollow version of the guitar which he uses to simulate an acoustic guitar in "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."

The guitar hero says he built one other instrument -- a lap steel, "Hawaiian" guitar -- but never really had time to try another project as ambitious as Red Special. And because Red Special turned out so well he never had the motivation to do so. But he did design the semi-hollow version of the guitar, which Guyton eventually built for him.  

"This is the only guitar really that I ever made and functioned with and it became a part of me."

Photo: Getty Images