If there was a Mount Rushmore of British guitar heroes, undoubtedly, Queen’s Brian May would grace that mountain. We caught up with May and his longtime guitar tech Pete Malandrone on Queen’s summer tour with Adam Lambert to talk about his minimal effects, Vox amps, and of course, the Red Special.
Brian May’s entire career has been almost exclusively spent with the guitar that he and his father built in 1964. “Red Special” is a three-pickup, double-cutaway guitar with Burns pickups and a very unique (at the time) switching system that allows May to cover a huge range of tones. According to May, everything on the guitar is still original from when it was built except for the tuning pegs and the rollers on the bridge.
During a typical show, May switches guitars during two songs. “Fat Bottomed Girls,” which is in dropped-D tuning, is played with a Red Special replica that's green and was built by British luthier Andrew Guyton.
For “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” he uses another Guyton Red Special replica with the addition of an f-hole—which was featured on May's original designs for the guitar—a non-trem bridge, and an internal piezo pickup that is utilized during the opening parts of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” All his guitars are strung with Optima 24 Carat Gold .009–.042 strings.
May rocks his various Red Special models with the help of sixpence coins because they give him the ultimate touch-sensitivity control allowing him to feel every contact the coin has against the strings. Plus, he enjoys using the serrated edges of the coin for an added bite.
Instead of hitting a dirt box for distorted tones, May simply uses the volume control on his guitar to wrangle all he needs out of his trio of Vox AC30s. The amps are set up in a wet-dry-wet configuration with the center amp receiving a totally dry signal and both of the outside amps getting a different delayed signal. The ping-pong effect is mirrored in the onstage monitors as well. Each amp has been heavily modded to remove all the unnecessary (at least to May) reverb and tremolo circuits.
The only real effects May uses is his Fryer Treble Booster mounted on his guitar strap, a Dunlop rackmounted wah, and a pair of TC Electronic G-Major 2 delay units (one set to 800 ms and the other 1600 ms).
Malandrone handles all the switching offstage via a KAT MIDI controller.