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Brian May is one of the most immediately identifiable guitarists of all time, and part of his sonic mojo comes from his unique 6-string—the Red Special. Let’s explore this instrument to learn how it works and discover how you can mod a production or custom replica to make it even more versatile. Once you understand the electronics, you’ll even be able to rewire a Strat to Red Special specs.
Red Special history. Guitar freaks know the story about May’s main axe and how as a kid he built it with his father in the early ’60s. From the moment May started playing with Queen—filling stadiums worldwide and recording monster hits—the Red Special’s distinctive tone has been essential to his music. What makes this guitar different?
The Red Special boasts three single-coil pickups, Telecaster-style master volume and master tone knobs, and individual on/off and phase switches for each pickup. Like some older Danelectros, its pickups are wired in series rather than in parallel, and this yields a very fat, loud sound.
The theory behind series wiring is that the ground wire of one pickup is connected to the hot wire of another pickup. As a result, they become a kind of compound pickup with one ground and one hot for both.
When wired in series, the pickups’ impedance (resistance) is summed and the output is very high. (To learn more about series wiring, read “Stratocaster Parallel/Series Switching.”)
May’s original Red Special is constructed with unusual materials. The body is made of oak and blockboard, and topped with a mahogany veneer. Its center block and neck consists of an unknown wood taken from an old fireplace mantel, and the fretboard is oak. The result is a kind of semi-acoustic guitar that’s almost impossible to copy, but a standard Strat isn’t a bad foundation.
Wiring diagram courtesy of guitarwiring.blogspot.com
If you’re intrigued with the idea of configuring a Strat à la May, Image 1 is the wiring diagram for a stock Red Special. Naturally, you can physically arrange the on/off and phase switches to your personal taste.
There’s nothing fancy about the controls. The original Red Special has two 220k audio pots (a common value in the ’60s), but you can substitute two readily available 250k audio pots. The original also has a 0.02 µF paper-in-oil cap with a metal casing on the tone control. Such caps are still available today, at least with the modern 0.022 µF value.