Building a Red Special replica guitar.
UPDATE December 2020
Well at long last its finished and Ive given it to my younger brother. He has told me of a couple of things I got wrong (because I know nothing about playing one!) which was the nut needed to be a little deeper for the ‘thicker’ strings, well the first two… And secondly the strings were too far away from the frets at the neck end.
So with a Covid distancing he came over and showed me the 2 areas requiring work and after an hour or so all was as he wanted. He then gave a demonstration of his playing ability and with a few Queen songs on his posh amp.
I was asked by my younger, and much taller brother David, if I would make him a Red Special replica guitar. I like Queen and their music, but where I like, he is a mega fan. Not only that but he has musical talent. I have zero. His strategy to get my commitment to make him a red special was for him to say that I could make things in wood. I liked electronics and I really like metal work.
Building him a replica red special would enable me to utilise all three skills. And I fell for it! I looked at the web and saw some other builds and then at the specific electrical, wood and metal work required and said I would give it a go.
Not having any knowledge of playing any instrument, it seemed to me relatively simple. Only and idiot who new nothing, would think that, and I am that idiot.
To be fair to me though, it does break down to the three elements and each one on its own is relatively simple. Although the quality produced by the instrument now weighs heavily on my shoulders. However, I am fortunate enough to have both David and a ‘man I know’ Roger, who do know how to set it up. Roger is a Brummie that was a professional artiste in his earlier life. He certainly can play a guitar. So as soon as its assembled it will handed over to those who know to make it work.
My lack of musical knowledge has seen me making a few decisions to ensure I do not hand over just a lump of wood. Only suited to a skiffle group! The popularity of the band and the Brian May story of making his own guitar with his dad, has meant there is quite a lot of information about. Indeed there is even a shop that sells ‘bits’ for those who wish to make a Red Special.
I considered that the hardware was a big part of the sound so I decided to buy the 3 pickups from the Brian May shop, along with the scratch plate and other perspex bits. My reasoning for the scratch plate in particular was using it as a template to check on the body outline. I searched for a set of plans which proved more difficult that I expected. In the end I bought a set from a man in Peru. Paddington bear was asked what he thought of their quality but unfortunately he was busy making a film at the time. Which was a shame really, since when they arrived they had several flaws.
The person who drafted them may have been a brilliant player and/or builder but they would not past muster in any engineering shop! Simple maths on dimensions and even basic drawings standards leave a lot to be desired. One example on the main tremolo block shows the position of two 13mm diameter holes. To find the centre to drill you had to measure 1mm up from the base then the 13mm diameter hole was drawn with 9mm from the edge of the hope to the top of the part! So instead of a simple point being 7.5mm up from the base there were 3 measurements to find it! Very frustrating.
When the plans arrived the scratch panel was laid upon them and the drawings we way out. In the end I had to glean many dimensions from several sources (Brian’s book supplying most of them) and amending the plans. That said, they did at least give a bases for the build. With buying parts from the shop, its as near as I can get to originality versus performance.
Brian May’s endorsed Shop.
As Brian May himself says on the shop website “I was concerned that it ought to be me personally who controlled the design and manufacture of these instruments and so I have teamed up with Barry Moorhouse of House Music and Pete Malandrone, my long-time tech man”(from the website main page). Therefore any purchases via that shop had to lend some sort of ‘originality’ factor. I also purchased Brian’s book on the red special which also covers its history and how he collaborated with his Dad.
Its a fantastic story in its own right. They produced the guitar using such methods as a drill to act as a lathe! His Dad wound the pickups and switching system! I didn’t want to get involved in making the pickups both because of time and would they be any good? I could spend a lot of time making the guitar only for a rubbish sound! So I purchased the 3 pickups and quite a bit of hardware.
The book can be bought in many places. The one below links to Amazon UK sale.
(If you do follow the link then I may receive a very small commission which goes toward the running of the website, at no costs to yourself).
Photo’s of the Tremolo in the making as per the original Brian May red Special. If you know of any sources for the motorbike springs to be used to balance the tremolo please email me. Many thanks.
The right parts?
When writing up this article I checked the link for the shop the parts were purchased from and saw the video below under their blog. I thought it useful to also add it here as it gives a good explanation of the switches and their purpose. Also it shows the tremolo used. When I bought the pickups I also bought a tremolo and when starting the build proper it was obvious it was wrong and wouldn’t fit. It was completely different. So I thought it must be the wrong one I ordered (another disadvantage of no guitar knowledge) and therefore started the tremolo I show on this article.
You can therefore understand my surprise when the video below shows a large black panel on the rear of the guitar. On close inspection I see that its to accommodate the very same tremolo purchased! It is being sold to those building the red special, but I still think that the ‘original’ design is the one to go for. I don’t really like the big ball panel and also won’t it affect sound? The answer is a no. When he plays popular clips it sounds to me(!) like it right. The idea as it were is cast. Were going old school!
Its not all metal work. A couple of pictures showing that at least a start on the woodwork is underway.
Pickups, switches, scratch plate, copper shielding tape, and bridge