Photos and info about the repair work done by Brian May and Greg Fryer to the Red Special guitar during 1998 at Brian’s “Allerton Hill” studio:
It was very nice to be asked by Brian to contribute photos and text about our 1998 Red Special restoration to his book written with Simon Bradley (formerly of ‘Guitarist’ magazine): “Brian May’s Red Special – the story of the home-made guitar that rocked Queen and the world”.
Brian and I talked many times between 1998 and 2011 about writing such a book and early in the piece I had some preparatory work sketched out, but unfortunately because we were both so busy with many other things the project got put aside. It was therefore probably timely that Simon came along with his proposal.
My website piece here below detailing our 1998 work will hopefully whet appetites for Brian and Simon’s book which covers the whole story of the Red Special guitar in detail.
Please also see Brian’s website, loaded with information: http://www.brianmay.com/
The ‘Red Special’ was designed and built by Brian May and his dad Harold between 1964-1966 and is one of the most extraordinary, innovative and creatively complete electric guitars ever built.
To put it simply, the ‘Red Special’ is a work of genius which addresses many design issues such as the tremolo tailpiece/bridge system and headstock design far better than any of the other very successful contemporary guitars of the time (think Fender Stratocaster, Gibson SG & Les Paul etc). Particularly in the two areas of headstock design and tremolo tailpiece/bridge system, no guitars since the middle 1960s have bettered Brian and Harold’s innovative design.
The unique beautiful flowing lines of the Red Special’s guitar body and neck have few equals and are on a par with the greatest electric guitars ever designed such as the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul.
And since the 1960s due to Brian’s equally extraordinary playing, the ‘Red Special’ has become one of the rock guitar world’s great icons.
Greg Fryer background:
In 1980 I began repairing and building guitars in Sydney Australia with the great Romney Godden who was Sydney’s best guitar repairer/builder during the 1970s and 80s. Romney left Sydney and I set up my own business in 1983 and during the following 13 or so years worked with local and touring acts including such as INXS, Midnight Oil and Pink Floyd. From my teenage years I was fascinated by Brian May’s guitar and tone, and especially by its ‘space age’ unique look, and I tried to learn as much as I could about Brian’s guitar and signal chain from the literature available in the 70s and 80s.
By good coincidence I was already experimenting with transistor treble boosters courtesy of my friend Nick Thurn who had a very good grasp of guitar valve amp and transistor electronics and who was the first guy I ever heard playing an AC30 (an amazing fluid player). After owning several types of guitar amplifier I settled on the Vox AC30 amp as preferred choice of amplifier in my own playing with rock bands around the Sydney area during the 1980s.
Red Special guitars:
In early 1996 my interest was reignited in Brian’s wonderful guitar and his whole guitar sound again, mainly because my girlfriend played me several Queen albums and after not having heard their music for several years I once again fell in love with Queen’s music and Brian’s superb playing. Because my work as guitar repairer/maker since 1980 had involved me in repairing, analysing and being intimately familar with the pros and cons of the best guitar designs of the day (Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Ibanez etc), it seemed to me that it was the right time to look more closely and understand more about Brian’s unique guitar.
I wrote to Brian’s management with the objective of making for him the most accurate replica of his guitar to date, a guitar that he would consider worthy of using as a spare. After meeting with Brian in July 1996 to discuss the project, I then spent a very intense eighteen months thoroughly researching the parts materials components building techniques needed, obtaining everything I needed, and then building the three replicas at my workshop in Sydney.
In late 1997 the guitars were finished and I arrived in London at Brian’s studio. Brian gave the guitars names to help personify and distinguish them from each other, and to add a touch of wry good humour as well. The guitars became known as ‘John’, ‘Paul’ and ‘George Burns’ (with an obvious nod to The Beatles, Burns Trisonic pickups and the famous American comic George Burns), and it was a very great honour and also a great relief to have Brian tell me that my instruments were wonderfully close in sound and feel to his original unique Red Special. At the end of my stay in London I took ‘Paul’ back to Australia whilst ‘John’ became Brian’s main backup for the Red Special and ‘George Burns’ is Brian’s main dropped-D tuning guitar for songs like ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ etc.
Red Special restoration:
In December 1997 Brian decided that it was the right time for us to take apart his Red Special guitar and begin some long needed repairs. Brian paid me the most wonderful compliment in saying that he was happy to use my three guitars to complete the recording of his album ‘Another World’ whilst we took apart and repaired his own Red Special.
The Red Special was in need of repairs to many areas, although considering that the guitar had been used solidly for over 30 years of live playing around the world, it was also in surprisingly good overall shape especially given the the extremes of temperature and humidity that it would have encountered. Harold and Brian had made a very solid and dependable instrument.
Brian’s guitar tech Pete Malandrone told me that the Red Special had hardly been touched repair-wise during its 30 odd years of playing around the world, something that again validated the quality of its build.
Examples of the work needed: some areas of the guitar such as the white binding needed immediate attention because it had become unglued and was barely hanging on. Most other areas needed general repair and maintenence or parts replaced for better quality ones such as the tuning heads. The 3 Burns Trisonic pickups were giving Brian difficulty at high amp volume levels and causing micophonic feedback. Vibration in and around the pickup and its metal cover was causing the bad feedback at loud amp volumes, so it was my job to work out ways to improve this and also to repair many years of damage to the metal pickup covers from Brian’s sixpence.
All the work was conducted at Brian’s Allerton Hill studio near London, and many of the tasks were either assisted or supervised by Brian.
As the project began and we discussed the general approach to the repairs that were needed, Brian’s confidence grew in what should be tackled (and probably also in me, still a relatively unknown quantity) and he began to add items to the repair list. Some of these were scary and difficult and most required materials and techniques that I had not previously encountered in conventional guitar repair or the building/repairing of Gibson and Fender style guitars. Fortunately we began to build up a team of specialists from different areas such as paints, glues, plastics, metal machining etc who we could draw on for advice or to make specialist parts where needed.
When Brian was otherwise occupied by the recording of his album and couldn’t assist in the repair processes, at the beginning of each day over a cup of tea he and I would discuss the ongoing repairs and the priorities. Brian would usually pop in during a break in recording to see how things were going with the guitar.
At times it was nerve-wracking handling a legendary instrument that wasn’t insured, worth millions of pounds, irreplaceable and much of it in a delicate condition. I certainly needed a strong drink after some of those days! All humour aside however, even at the most difficult times in the repair process I realised that it was a tremendous privilege and opportunity to be working with Brian and his guitar tech Pete Malandrone, and that I had great responsibility to be as consistent and reliable as possible, and to not be nervous otherwise the results might suffer. It was certainly very helpful having Brian around to discuss the guitar and many other things with, and Brian and Pete were very gracious hosts indeed.
Neck: mahogany dowels made for glueing into various screw holes in headstock, these screw holes were from the first set of tuning heads which Brian fitted when the guitar was made, and also from the Gotoh locking heads which were fitted sometime in the 1980s.
New Schaller locking tuning heads were then fitted, white pearloid oval shaped plastic buttons were adapted to obtain a similar look to the original tuning heads’ white buttons.
5th fret dot replaced with a new mother of pearl dot which I handshaped using the same tool and method that Brian used to make the original fingerboard dots from his Mum’s pearl buttons.
White fingerboard side dots and longitudinal stripes were originally painted onto the Red Special’s neck, but we realised because these were painted on top of the Rustins Plastic Coating that they would disappear as soon as we started sanding the surface for overcoating with fresh Rustins. Brian asked if I could inlay these dots/stripes into the surface in a similar way to how I did them on my 3 Red Special replicas.
For this task I set the neck up sideways in a milling machine and used a 1/16″ diameter end mill, the dots and stripes were milled into the fingerboard edge approx 3/32″ deep and then were filled with a white epoxy resin filler that I had previously used on my custom guitars and also on boats which the product was originally designed for. The white epoxy mix when dry was then carefully sanded down flush with the surface, avoiding sanding through the surrounding thin black fingerboard paint. The neck was finally overcoated with Rustins Plastic Coating with several coats both brushed and sprayed on.
Pickups and Electrics:
3 Burns Trisonic pickups: these were taken apart and the brass covers panel-beaten to get them flat and straight again after years of being pounded by Brian’s sixpence, coils and baseplate were then reassembled with materials such as 0.5mm rubber to dampen microphonic feedback and finally the whole pickup with cover attached was soaked for 45 mins in a parrafin wax solution for further feedback reduction.
Switches, pots and jack were all examined and cleaned, any suspect areas of the wiring were resoldered.
Binding reglued around top of guitar and parts of the binding reglued on the back of the body.
Mahogany veneer repaired or pieces replaced in several areas.
Body overcoated the Rustins Plastic Coating with new Rustins brushed and sprayed on.
Mark Reynolds kindly arranged use of his stepfather’s spray painting booth at Leicester, and this proved to be perfect for the job.
Body control cavities for the electrics were shielded in copper foil tape for reduction of electrically induced noise from lighting systems etc
Section which had broken off was reglued and reinforced across the break with black acrylic (perspex) piece and brass sheet inlaid, surfaces then fine sanded and hand polished to look same as rest of the scratchplate. Rectangular hole in the scratchplate where a switch for the original fuzz/distortion unit had been was filled with a black acrylic piece glued in, then sanded flat and then a mother of pearl “May Star” inlaid into the surface, sanded flat and hand polished.
Pickup surrounds made from 1/8″ or 3mm thick black acrylic (perspex) for 3 Burns Trisonic pickups, these were made by hand and were set up in a jig in the milling machine and then milled down in thickness from the standard sheet thickness of approx 3mm to 1.75mm which was a very similar thickness to Brian’s original pickup surrounds. The originals had broken away over many years.
After Brian told me how he wanted the thinner pickup surrounds to look, I completed sets for the Red Special and also for my guitars ‘John’, ‘Paul’ and ‘George Burns’. For this I used some of the surrounds that that I brought from Australia, but because I didn’t have enough for the 4 guitars, several perspex 1/8″ thick blanks were also kindly cut out and supplied by Mark Reynolds from Leicester. The edges of the pickup surrounds were then rounded and fine sanded by hand and then hand polished, then glued onto the scratchplate surface with a special purpose .005″ thick 3M #467 acrylic double sided tape.
Bridge and Tremolo Tailpiece:
Extra bridge rollers were made for Brian’s Red Special and for the 3 Fryer Red Specials by Andrew May and Richard Den Brinker in Sydney Australia. Andrew Pritchard was very helpful in sending over specialist tools and supplies from my Sydney workshop.
Tremolo tailpiece was taken apart cleaned measured rust sanded off tailpiece top and polished with silicone car polish to seal the mild steel surface as best as possible against further corrosion.
Hardened steel knife edge cleaned de-rusted and finally polished to reduce corrosion, then teflon paste applied for lubrication between it and tremolo tailpiece. Everything lubricated and adjusted.
Repairs to the guitar neck:
March 1998: Brian examines under a microscope the Red Special’s 5th fret dot marker hole after the temporary red wooden dot was removed. The fingerboard area surrounding the dot marker hole had worn greatly over the years and this posed a difficult repair dilemma
Red Special dot work #2
Red Special new 5th fret mother of pearl dot glued in
5th fret new dot glued in close up
5th fret dot closer view
Red Special fingerboard after dot and black epoxy resin mix were filed and sanded level with the fingerboard surface
Red Special new 5th fret dot sanded and polished level with
the surface. In fact the surface of the fingerboard was anything but consistent having had 30 years of playing wear and this posed problems when sanding the pearl dot and black epoxy mix.The worn egg shaped ‘crater’ that the former red wooden dot was sitting in can be seen here especially visible to the left and right of the dot and is easy to see here in this photograph due to the reflection of the strong light used. The mother of pearl dot was handshaped using the original handmade method and tool that Brian used for the making of his original fingerboard marker dots from pearl buttons.
Red Special 24th fret end of fingerboard showing wear before repairs. This pic illustrates how much Brian played his beloved guitar and what damage the sixpence occasionally did to the fingerboard. Interesting to see the 2 brass 6BA hank rivet nuts used as connectors with red wires inlaid into the mahogany neck for the original neck pickup that Brian first used in the guitar, these being the pickups that Brian designed and made that were later replaced by the 3 Burns Trisonics.
Close up of the wear and tear to the fingerboard at the 24th fret end
Red Special fingerboard and neck heel/tongue 9th Jan 1998
24th fret fingerboard painting. Brian and I discussed the best way to go about repairing the damage, and Bri thought that (after preparing the damaged area thoroughly) he would try brushing on layers of Rustin’s Plastic Coating with black stain mixed in, pictured here. It took several goes of brushing on coats and sanding back carefully to get a flat surface each time and gradually the damaged sections were filled up.With the benefit of hindsight and experience I think we would have preferred to have filled the crevices here in the fingerboard with West System epoxy resin and then painted black Rustins on afterwards. This worked well for other areas of the body and neck which I later worked on when Brian got too busy to help with the repairs, and as we went on we learned that the West System resin gave a more stable base for the top coats of Rustins and this meant less likelihood of the top coats crazing later due to movement in the underlying layers. Later the whole of the fingerboard and neck was overcoated with clear Rustins during the spray painting process.
neck heel tongue #2 9th Jan 1998
Neck heel tongue #3 9th Jan 1998
Red Special neck head 9th Jan 1998
Back of headstock gouge to be filled
Guitar body repairs:
Body edge veneer damage
Red Special body Feb 1998, light in this photo shows the undulating surface of blockboard ply and mahogany veneer plus crazing of the Rustins Plastic Coating
Veneer ripples/undulations and lacquer crazing
Close up of Red Special lacquer crazing and fracturing near left hand side upper cutaway
Close up #2 of damage from 30 years of playing, undoubtedly the sixpence is the main offender here causing the fracturing and gouging
Red Special body Rustins experiments with overcoating. Brian and I decided to brush Rustins Plastic Floor Coating onto a couple of relatively inconspicuous areas to see how the lacquer under would look and if there was going to be any adverse reaction. We first degreased thoroughly and prepared the surface with several abrasives including mainly the excellent 3M multi-flex abrasive pads supplied by my friend Alan Bottle from 3M Sydney. These pads allowed us to sand better into the difficult surface ‘crevices’ so that the fresh Rustins would have good adhesion to the worn fractured surfaces. Soon after however, Martin James from ‘Foxell and James’ in London told Brian and I about the original style Rustins Plastic Coating. Other paint stores had told us this didn’t exist and the Rustins Plastic Floor Coating was the only product now available, but Martin having had decades of experience in the paint trade knew his subject well and sourced us the original Rustins Plastic Coating which apparently didn’t have the melamines and other additives which made the ‘floor coating’ product more flexible but less see through. The two closeup photos above are of the area that we painted near the binding
Red Special body to neck join 9th Jan 1998. 4 brass 6BA hank rivet nuts can be clearly seen here inlaid into the long neck heel/tongue along with red and blue wires soldered to the underside of the nuts. These were used as connectors which took the electrical signal from the original pickups that Brian designed and handmade to the switches and controls. Because the original pickups had one major drawback: they produced a strange ‘whooshing’ type of sound when strings were bent across the polepieces, Brian decided to buy the set of Burns Trisonic pickups which have been in the ‘Red Special’ ever since. The orignal single coil pickups sounded very good in themselves, but the whooshing sound was caused because the Eclipse magnet design produced polepieces of alternating polarity across the pickup ie north south north south north south etc, so when a plain string was bent across from being over one polepiece to another the whooshing sound was heard.
Red Special body and neck cavity 9th Jan 1998
Red Special body and switchplate 9th Jan 1998
Red Special body and switchplate #2 9th Jan 1998
Red Special body 29th Jan 1998
Red Special body #1 29th Jan 1998
Red Special body #2 29th Jan 1998
Red Special body #3 29th Jan 1998
Red Special body #4 29th Jan 1998
Bridge mounting brass inserts and original bridge pickup cavity. The black piece which usually fills up where the deeper original bridge pickup sat is made Brian told me from a piece of rubber sole from a shoe. This gave us a source of endless Beatles ‘Rubber Soul’ jokes!
Bridge mounting brass inserts #2
Bridge mounting brass 6BA hank rivet nuts were glued in place with Araldite epoxy resin, with the thin cupped edge facing upwards. The same hank rivet nuts were used (with thin cup edge facing downwards) in the long neck tongue/heel as connectors for the first set of handmade pickups that Brian designed and wound.
Red Special 6BA nuts, screws and 7/16″ long threaded rod sections. Thanks to Mark Reynolds for the correct term for these brass nuts: ‘hank rivet nuts’
Closeup of 6BA screws and hank rivet nuts with a nice sixpence in the middle. Threaded 7/16″ long section at left is what Brian used for the 6 posts which were screwed into the guitar body, soldered at the top end and had the pickup wires then soldered to them
Tremolo tailpiece and springs:
Tremolo bolts and springs: the 2 Panther 1928 motorcycle inner valve springs give Brian and Harold’s unique design a superior ‘feel’ to any other tremolo system in the world
Tremolo Tailpiece 29th Jan 1998: a work of genius by Brian and Harold and undoubtedly the best guitar tremolo system ever designed
Tremolo tailpiece 29th Jan 1998 : Brian screwed ‘winglets’ onto left and right ends of the main tremolo block, this allowed for placement of the arm at either right or left hand ends, although Brian told me that after he tried the arm in its ‘top E’ side position pictured above he decided that it felt right and never tried it at the other end. The whole block is made from mild steel, and the top section was originally painted but over the years had shed its paint and developed the surface rust that we can see above. I then sanded back the surface rust using a little wooden block and silicone carbide abrasive paper going through the grades from 360 to 1200 grit.The surface was then polished using a silicone car polish so that this would ‘seal’ the mild steel to prevent corrosion as best as possible and keep the ‘steel’ metal look which Brian liked. At first we discussed repainting this top area like it was originally but Brian said that he had grown to like the bare metal look over the years. The plan was that every year or so this area would be cut back lightly and polished again to maintain its appearance.
Tremolo arm and spring: the spring came from a 1928 Panther motorcycle inner valve spring, the arm from Brian’s bicycle saddle bag holder and the tremolo arm tip was fashioned from one of Mrs May’s knitting needles. The bronze bush was silver soldered by Brian and Harold onto the steel chrome plated arm
Red Special scratchplate repairs: the glued-in piece at the lower right posed a dilemma because of the likelihood that if the broken perspex (acrylic) piece was simply glued back on with a butt-join that it would break off soon after due to flexing in the narrow join area. This part of the guitar top isn’t particularly flat and the pickup foot and its screw also stick up a little above the surface which probably led to this piece breaking off in the first place. So I called my friend Alan Bottle who is a plastics and abrasives expert at 3M Sydney and asked his advice. Alan also happens to be a very keen guitarist and a Telecaster devotee. Alan sent over some special 3M black plastics glues which he thought would have the right aggressiveness to ‘bite’ into the perspex but would also have the flexibility not to break under flexing. He recommended that I first butt join the broken piece onto the rest of the scratchplate, then when the glue was dry using a Dremel tool and base like a mini router, to rout across the joined section as far down as I dared so the join ‘isthmus’ might be 1.0mm or less in thickness.Remember that the scratchplate is made from 1/8″ or 3.2mm thick perspex which has a limited amount of flex but is quite brittle compared to the other plastics usually found in guitar scratchplates. This routed section was probably about an inch long. Alan then told me to prepare a brass piece which would be glued onto the thin narrow routed area. The brass added both strength and flexibility across the join. When its glue was dry the surface was prepared again with 120-180 grit silicone carbide abrasive paper and a new piece of black perspex glued onto the brass. The perspex piece gave back the look of the scratchplate and added some bulk and strength. When that glue was dry the repaired two layer section was sitting higher than the rest of the scratchplate and was then carefully dremelled, filed and sanded lower so that it was the same overall thickness as the scratchplate. The inner pickup side edge was filed so that the pickup foot would still fit and the outer edges were filed and sanded to the same bevelled angle and round as the rest of the scratchplate so that the join was nearly invisible to the eye, and the whole area then fine sanded to 2000 grit and polished with Brasso. The brass insert which would have been visible from side-on as a thin stripe was then painted black. This pic above shows the fine sanding of the underneath of the scratchplate after repairs to the section described above, as well you can see at the left hand side the little rectangular piece glued in to fill the switch hole which Brian had originally made to turn on or off the inbuilt Vox distortion unit. After the distortion unit was removed in the late 1960s the rectangular hole was covered by either pieces of black tape or a red sticker over the years. Brian asked me to inlay a mother of pearl star into the front side of the scratchplate where the hole had been filled with the black perspex piece. I think I have some photos somewhere of that procedure.
Practice pieces for inlaying the mother of pearl Maystar shape into: above Brazilian Rosewood practice run of several for George Burns’ gold pearl star; and below a piece of black perspex/acrylic being one of several practice runs for the inlaying of the white pearl star into the Red Special’s scratchplate. This shows a glue that I decided not to use because of the whitish voids which happened especially around the points of the star. Again it was one of Alan Bottle’s 3M glues which was used for the glueing of Brian’s scratchplate star
Pickup surrounds: completed ones and Mark’s machined blanks plus the holding jig that I used to file and sand the edges then polish the completed surround. Brian preferred the polished look rather than the 1200 grit fine sanded matte look. Brian also asked me if I could thin out the 1/8″ (3.2mm) thick acrylic surrounds to be closer to the thickness of his original 3 pickup surrounds which over time had cracked up and perished and still had some pieces of these left which I could refer to. I took all the semi-finished new pickup surrounds to a nearby factory and used their milling machine (with the surrounds held in a jig with little felt lined clamps) to mill them to approx half their original thickness: between 1.60 and 1.75mm. From there I finished the surrounds by hand using the holding jig pictured above and finally polished them with Brasso – voila! The pickup surrounds were then glued to the scratchplates of the Red Special, John, Paul and George Burns using Alan Bottle’s .005″ thick 3M #467 doublesided acrylic tape after first degreasing the scratchplate area with isopropyl alcohol. The 3M #467 tape did a very strong, permanent and near invisible job.
Closeup of the completed polished pickup surround 1.75mm thick and rounded edges. Mark’s machined blanks are at top
Burns Trisonic pickups:
Red Special bridge pickup cover showing many years of sixpence attack
Red Special bridge pickup without cover, this pickup’s coil and magnets were encased in Araldite epoxy resin. On all 3 pickups I added a piece of 0.5mm thick rubber which sat on top of the coil and underneath the metal cover in order to help damp vibrations which could lead to microphonic feedback. The saturation of the coil and structure with wax further helped reduce vibration. The metal pickup covers also had an earth wire soldered to their inside before assembly and waxing which made the connection to earth more solid than before.
Red Special bridge pickup without cover, bottom view
Red Special middle pickup without cover
Red Special middle pickup without cover, upside down view
Red Special neck pickup without cover, upright view. This coil was also encapsulated in Araldite by Brian, however the middle pickup was not.
Red Special neck pickup without cover, bottom view. Brian removed the baseplate from this pickup and encased the coil and magnet in the epoxy resin Araldite, easily seen in this pic. Having no baseplate gave the pickup a lower inductance and a different sound to the other two Burns Trisonics and therefore created some very interesting sounds when used by itself or combined in or out of phase with the other two pickups. The famous ‘neck and middle pickups out of phase’ Brian May sound would not have come about if the neck pickup had its baseplate as per usual. The swirling harmonics and overall tone of that particular sound happens because of the disssimilar pickups combining in the interesting way they do…. and also because of the little matter of Brian’s incredible ‘feel’ and deft touch as a guitar player
Red Special pickups in 60 degrees Celsius melting point paraffin wax bath
Red Special pickup waxing #2
Red Special parts 29th Jan 1998, putting the frying pan lid to good use
Spray painting at Leicester:
At Mark Reynolds’ spray booth at Leicester #1
Spray painting old style Rustins Plastic Coating kindly suppiled to us by Martin James of Foxell and James London
Don’t want to upset the Rustins people but I am not a big fan of their Rustins Plastic Coating
Leicester spray booth
Back at Mark’s place at 3am with the paint still very soft and hardly touch dry yet, the guitar spends the night on the couch
Greg in ‘the lab’: pics taken by Brian January 1998
Greg Fryer and Red Special body and neck in the lab…don’t blink!
Greg Fryer and Red Special body and neck in ‘the lab’…Bri you didn’t take my photo when I was blinking did you?? Haha! even though many of the difficult repairs to the Red Special made me lose a lot of sleep at night there were also so many funny hilarious moments that I lost count of them. Brian reminded me very much of my mentor and good mate Romney Godden, both very generous and exceptionally talented people who also have a highly developed sense of humour
more pics when I get some spare time soon folks