Hi Simon, and thanks for granting this interview. This interview is an honour for us, and we are so thrilled to find out more about Brian May’s Red Special book, and about its co-author.
In your book’s introduction, you describe yourself as a “staunch Queen fan”. So, what is your musical background, and in which way have you been keen, for the first time, on our Four Queens? Have you ever been to one of their gigs?
I come from a very musical family and my two younger brothers and I really benefitted from our parent’s love of classical music. I took bassoon and piano lessons at school, although not for long (!), and once I’d got to middle school (at age 12) I got more interested in modern music. I was aware of Queen thanks to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (my friends and I used to chase each other around the playground shouting ‘Bismillah!’ at each other because we’d seen the video so many times!) but I became friends with a lad at middle school who had a few of their albums, so I asked him to lend me one. It was ‘A Night At The Opera’, I think, and I thought it was pretty good without really knowing why. However, wishing to fit in, I bought the new Queen album when it came out and, as it was 1978 at the time, it happened to be ‘Jazz’. I remember putting it on and listening to ‘Mustapha’ for the first time and when that descending tripled guitar line came on it was like being hit with a hammer. I didn’t even know it was a guitar then, but I was totally hooked. I bought all the albums soon after that, although I left ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ until last because I didn’t like the cover (!), and became utterly enamoured, not just by Queen, but by Brian. Funnily enough, I do remember putting ‘Hot Space’ on for the first time and being utterly dismayed and almost betrayed by the music. I blamed Freddie for not letting Brian play guitar (well, I was a kid at the time!) and kept playing ‘Put Out The Fire’ over and over, simply because it had some guitar in it.
I had all the posters and as much merchandise as I could get my hands on from the local market: I was a total Queen nut. I was into playing guitar by then too, and I used to look at pictures of the Red Special and wonder what it would be like to play it. As any guitar player will tell you, you have to have one main guy who you’re mainly influenced by, and mine’s Brian. Still is.
I was a member of Queen tribute band Fat Bottomed Queens for a while, which was great fun. Their singer, Mark Dagger, does a great Freddie and we did sound quite good. I used a Matchless DC-30 amp as an AC30 was just too loud for the places we were playing. The Matchless is a little more controllable and sounds good at lower volumes. I had a custom treble booster made by Greg Fryer that he’d given me, and a Burns Red Special. Rock!
In 2001 I auditioned for one of the two guitar slots in the band for the original production of ‘We Will Rock You’ and got down to the last three… That was a great experience too as final auditions took place at Roger Taylor’s house. We had to play with a band in front of Brian and director Mike Dixon, and I broke a string! I was so nervous that I blew it, to be honest, but I was glad I’d done it.
I’ve seen Queen live twice: at the Birmingham NEC on 24th November 1979 and again, also at the NEC, on 5th December 1980. The first time scared me to death! The volume, the lights and the sheer size of the crowd! But by the end of 1980 I’d been to a few more gigs so knew what to expect, and it was an incredible experience. I didn’t take my eyes of Brian for the whole show even though Freddie was owning the stage, and I can still remember his delay solo 36 years later!
I’ve not seen Queen more recently, with either Paul or Adam. While I respect Brian and Roger’s right to continue, I’ve seen them with Freddie and that’ll suffice. All the haters saying that they shouldn’t continue? Well, if you don’t like it, don’t go to the gigs! Brian loves playing live and why shouldn’t he continue to do so? Just my opinion.
When did you first meet Dr. Brian May? Did someone introduce you to him?
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I first met Brian when we interviewed him for Guitarist magazine in 1998, when Greg Fryer was in the middle of restoring the Red Special: the guitar was in pieces. The time went by in a kind of haze and I was very nervous throughout, but he was very welcoming and the interview went well. It’s when I first met Pete Malandrone too, which I’m equally thankful for!
A year later, and thanks to my friendship with Pete, I was able to book Brian for a 45 minute slot at an industry show Guitarist magazine’s parent company put on in London at the Wembley Conference Centre. He came along and chatted in front of an audience of over 1,000, which was great, and he played too (link on the left). I had to deal with Jim Beach, which was humbling, but I think it was then that Brian realised I was an alright kind of guy and that he could trust me to treat him correctly and be true to my word. That’s also when I got to play the Red Special for the first time…
The book wouldn’t have happened without Pete, As I’ve said, we’re good friends now and I can always get in touch with him, as he can with me, about anything. We can talk in more detail about this with some of the questions below, but he was my first call with regards to the book and we both drove the whole thing from there.
When he told me that Brian had kept all the original drawings and plans of the guitar, that he still had the mahogany offcut from the neck, and some of the original pearl buttons used to make the fret markers, I knew this would be something really special. And it is!
His relationship with Brian is a very good one too, as he’s directly responsible for making sure Brian can go on stage, or go into the studio, and not have any issues with his equipment. Their relationship is all about trust, and Brian trusts Pete 100%. Pete talks about what looking after the Red Special is like in the book, and he takes it very seriously indeed. Brian’s rig is deceptively simple but it does need regular maintenance and Pete is the perfect guy for the task.
We know Brian May not only as a Guitar God (mention him just about “six strings” isn’t quite enough…) and Founding Member of Queen. But he’s also very, very involved in social, full of passions that he continues to cultivate, and commitments of all kind. What was it like working with him for the book, especially in a period when he’s so active on several fronts? We know Brian is a top perfectionist and he likes to have everything under control. Did you feel under pressure or did you have much freedom of action?
Brian was involved in the book from the beginning and everything we did went through him. That’s one of the reasons the book took so much time to do as he needed to see and approve everything we did, and quite rightly. I had several email conversations with him about various things as we went along, as well as face-to-face meetings to refine and improve the basic concepts and ideas I’d had about the book. There was a mechanism in place that allowed me to request time with him when I needed it but I was very aware of his busy schedule, so I tried to keep those to a minimum. Again, Pete was often able to help with the majority of the requests I had.
I did have to pinch myself from time to time when we were doing this, as being sat in a room with my guitar hero, talking about stuff with the Red Special on a stand beside us was a very big deal. But, having been a professional guitar journalist for so long, I know how to act in the company of artists of that stature and it was never a chore.
Pressure? Only when we were coming up against immovable deadlines and it did get somewhat fraught towards the end of the schedule. However, every publication has those sorts of demands and I loved every second of doing the Red Special book.
Did it really take 3 years to develop the book? Who was the one who had the final idea for its concept?
It did take three years, yes! Actually, from that first call I made to Pete to the launch date was actually just over three years. That was due to Brian’s availability, really, as well as the sheer amount of work involved, and we were all aware of this before we even started.
It began when I saw a copy of a book that David Gilmour’s tech Phil Taylor had done on David’s main black Fender Strat and while it was interesting, I really felt that the production values weren’t all they could have been. Going by his introduction to the book, David didn’t seem that bothered either. That got me thinking about how great a similar book on the Red Special would be because I knew Brian would really be into the idea. As he’s said, he’s been meaning to do a book on the RS for years, but I was fortunate to be able to make the approach to him at just the right time. Brian trusted me to do a good job and it all came off. It was hard work and I had to be 100% certain of my facts, but the plan worked and we’re all really pleased with the finished thing. I know Brian is too.
I want to make sure that you guys know that, although my name’s on the cover alongside Brian’s, this was wholly a team effort and the book would have died fast and quiet without help and guidance from the likes of Pete, Richard Gray, Denis Pellerin, Andy Guyton, Nigel Knight, Roland Hall and Greg Brooks, let alone people in Brian’s office. I came up with the first flatplan of the book – the chapter list, what they should cover and so on – but if it wasn’t for the team, and Brian, constantly refining what I was doing, it would have been a very different and no doubt inferior book. My initial idea was to do a very technical book without any of the family or personal accounts: imagine how boring that would have been!
Talking of his family and personal accounts, Harold May’s ingenious versatility amaze everyone who read his son Brian’s stories. Is there any other story that you can tell us about his beloved father, something you’ve been told and not included in the book?
I don’t really want to talk too much about this as it’s private, but it was apparent throughout the whole process of putting the book together that Brian was very close to both of his parents.
You worked together with Greg Brooks ─ the Queen Archivist ─ for the book. Could you tell us your feelings, as a fan, while talking with the one you know is Queen’s living archives? Did you get in touch with unpublished rarities, working with Greg?
Greg’s knowledge is ridiculous (in a good way!) and he really helped with a lot of things, not least captioning the pictures with the correct dates. I used his book ‘Queen Live!’ a great deal during my research, as it was so detailed. He’s a good guy.
As also in the book, Brian mentions countless artists as musical influence for him, since his teens. According to you, since you have spoken directly with him and seen his expressions while he was speaking, which may be his greatest musical influence? One over all...
Jimi Hendrix, without question. He talks a lot about his influences in the book, of course, but whenever we came to talk about Hendrix, Brian would certainly be eager to chat about what he was like and what an effect his playing had. Rory Gallagher, Hank Marvin and George Formby too, but always Jimi.
Has he ever talked about the emotions felt while playing with his band on the same stage with Jim Hendrix, that night, back in 1967?
Not to me, although he has in interviews that are out there. Imagine your band playing with Hendrix, though? Wow…!
You mentioned the late Rory Gallagher. In fact, not all guitarists are able to take advantage of a Vox Amp’s peculiarities (Brian is well known as an AC30 enthusiast). Do you think that, during his career, he has ever considered the idea to turn to another manufacturer? Or even just appreciated other manufacturers?
Having played through numerous AC30s, and not just ones for Guitarist magazine but some of Brian’s too, I can understand why he loves the sound so much. But, boy, are they loud! They have to be to get the right amount and character of power tube overdrive, but it’s quite an experience standing in front of three AC30s going a full blast.
As far as I know he’s never seriously considered using anything else. I do know that some companies have got in touch with him about using their amps over the years, but I can’t imagine he’d ever change, especially now.
Truth is, nothing sounds like Brian unless it’s a treble boosted Red Special guitar plugged into an AC30 turned all the way, up. Oh, and you do need the sixpence too.
Have you had the chance to listen to some amateur recordings of Red Special’s first sounds? Brian himself said having some recordings saved somewhere…
I’ve not heard them, sadly. I’m not even sure if the recordings have been found in Brian’s archive. I’ll ask Pete!
Talking about his stunning guitar, Brian revealed in the book where the names “Red Special” and “Old Lady” really come from. The latter comes from his first guitar technician he ever worked with, who said that his job was like taking care of a wife! Is there anything else you can tell us about this 50 years wedding?
Well, the guitar is a true part of him now. There are so many great copies these days – Guytons, the Brian May Supers, KZs, Fryers and so on – that he could retire the original Red Special and never be at risk of it being damaged or lost. But Pete and I have undertaken several sound tests over the years in which we compared the sound of the Red Special with one or other of the copies, and nothing sounded quite the same. It’s a terrible cliché but the guitar really does have a kind of magic (sorry!).
Is it true that sometimes Brian slept with the Red Special, as he said in a video-interview in the ‘90s?
Well, I’m sure he doesn’t now! If he said he did, than I’m sure it’s true. It’s funny. Whenever we got the Red Special out of its case to check a detail or something, we’d all go quiet and just look at it in awe. Then Brian would come in and grab it, then put in on a table, or prop it up against a chair or something. I used to have dreams that I’d drop it or damage it in some way…argh!
Just crazy, I can believe you.
Still about the unique relationship between Brian and the Red Special, is there anything more that has transpired of his feelings at seeing it disassembled in 1998, when he commissioned the Australian luthier Greg Fryer an extra-maintenance? At that time he was committed on his solo album “Another World”. You spoke to him for Guitarist Magazine in those days. Was he worried about seeing the Old Lady in pieces, since he was going on tour soon?
We spoke to him during that time, and I think he was more interested than worried. Greg is an absolute genius – almost a mad professor! – so the guitar was in good hands and Brian trusted him completely. He knew how much time he had and he did a wonderful job, as we know.
I think Brian was a little more concerned when we took the guitar apart for the book, but I’ll always admire him for allowing us to do that. I had come up with the idea of taking the Red Special apart, stripping it down and photographing it in all its detail quite early on, and I knew it make a great centrepiece of the book. Even Pete wasn’t sure that Brian would give the go ahead, but I pitched him the idea during a meeting and he said ‘yes’ pretty much straight away. A word for my friend Andrew Guyton and Nigel Knight, who had to take it apart and, more importantly, put it back together again. It was a great day for me, but those guys – and Pete! – were a little worried to say the least. Needless to say it all worked out and I’m so glad that we were able to show this all off in the book for everyone to see.
There’s something that haunts me: who made X-ray scans of the Red Special? I mean, I don’t think you can go to a nuclear medicine department with a doctor's prescription… We can notice something by the pics from the book. Can you tell us anything else about it?
I’m not totally sure of the story, but I know that they used a hospital MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging) machine to X-Ray the guitar and it uncovered details about the construction even Brian had forgotten about. They’re great, aren’t they?
Yes, those pictures have such an effect.
About the Red Special’s technical specifications, it’s shown that it weighs 7,99 lb. I’ve heard that it’s a bit unbalanced compared to other guitars, but it’s not clear if it’s referred to the weight distribution or not… Is it so? What can you tell us about the guitar’s physical characteristics?
Yes, the guitar is neck-heavy due to the lightness of the hollow body and sheer weight of the mahogany neck, but that doesn’t really affect how it plays when it’s strapped on. It’s an unusual guitar to play due to its short scale length and it has a very low string action too. The neck is huge, as we all know, and the frets are notched and battered, but it still amazes me that they got the design so right.
The vibrato is perfectly balanced, thanks to the Mays’ knife-edge design, and it always stays perfectly in tune. Up close you can see that it has had some knocks but it still works just as it did back in 1964, which is truly astonishing considering what it’s been through.
As said before, the book “Brian May’s Red Special” is simply wonderful, because is a mixture of human and technical details. There’s the story of this magnificent instrument in it, told by Brian’s own words. Obviously, the Guitar’s life crosses continuously the history of Queen. During a concert in East Rutherford ─ New Jersey, in 1982 ─ Brian May literally shattered a John Birch replica (the one used in We Will Rock You and Spread Your Wings videos). After that, he said to the audience that he could shatter all the guitars he had, that night. But I can’t believe a thing like that could really happen to the Red Special…! Do you know anything else, more details, about that occasion? Is there any other story about the Red Special with Queen that you know and not eventually included in the book?
We did touch on that during our chats and he went as far as confirming what had happened. Apparently he broke a string on the Red Special during a song, so he grabbed the John Birch and almost immediately broke a string on that, leading it to be thrown over the backline in frustration. I suppose we all get stressed from time to time and react in different ways, but I can’t imagine that he would have done the same thing to the Red Special. Brian still owns the John Birch and I’ve played it. It’s a beast and sounds nothing like the RS, so I do sympathise with him!
What do you think is the moment, the occasion or the time, in his life with Queen that Brian would cherish most?
I’m not sure. I know he loved doing Live Aid and how that reinvigorated Queen. Also, as described in the book, when he brought his parents over to see Queen play at Madison Square Garden in New York. He still has little tour diagrams that his father used to draw – we put one in the book – and loads of photos that his mother took during their trip too. A special family time.
I think the one thing he cherishes above probably everything else is the music that both Queen and himself as a solo artist have produced.
Have you ever had the chance to see Brian’s well-known ukulele-banjo, took home by his father when he was still a child?
I have! Guitarist magazine did a feature that concentrated on his other gear. So we got our hands on the Burns electric 12-string he played on ‘Long Away’, the Ovation 12-strings he used to play ‘Love Of My Life’ on stage and even the Tokai acoustic he used in the studio to play the intro to ‘Love Of My Life’. There was the black ‘Crazy Little Thing…’ Fender Telecaster, the John Birch and even the Skull guitar from the ‘It’s A Hard Life’ video. Brian’s kept all these things and amongst them was the banjolele. He used it both in the studio and on stage to play ‘Bring Back That Leroy Brown’ and I did have a quiet strum. The bridge is propped up on sixpences, which is funny! The link to part of the story is below:
If I had to pick one, it’d be the Guyton Green Special simply because I know Andy Guyton really well and know how much work he puts into each guitar he makes. That said, the double-neck is pretty special too! And so’s the Fryer…
As far as you know – after acoustic guitars, basses and even ukuleles – there will be other surprises for us from BMG?
Barry Moorhouse (who’s integral to BMG) and Pete do talk regularly, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised. The BMG guitars are really good for the money and are the best place to start in a search for the BM tone. Then you’ll need 15 AC30s, a treble booster and some talent!
Biographer Kirk Blows refers that Brian once said to him “I’m not normal”. Assuming we believe that, seriously, how do you think he’s able to do all those things? I mean, I have half his age and I find hard just to follow the updates concerning him…!
Well, he’s a very intelligent man, as everyone knows, and he enters into things with 100% focus and an unwavering dedication. He’s as busy as ever yet he’s able to continue to do so many diverse things: music, animal welfare, stereoscopy, and everything else. It’s admirable for a man in his position and of his stature. If it were me, I’d be on a beach! Not normal? Well, he’s certainly unique!
He’s just incredible.
Have you ever thought about writing another book, a sort of "sequel", not only about the Red Special, but about Brian May in general? Have you ever thought about writing a book on Queen too, maybe stories about tours, with a more technical point of view?
I do have a few other ideas for books, but it’s probably best to keep them quiet for now. There haven’t been any discussions concerning another book. Yet! I don’t think I’d be up for a book about Queen as I really don’t believe there’s anything more to be told. With Freddie no longer with us and John out of the picture, I don’t know what else there is to say. As a fan, I’d be tempted to leave it alone but books about Queen always seem to sell well, so what do I know?
On “Guitarist magazine” YouTube channel you’ve uploaded a couple of tutorials/reviews. Are you planning to make similar ones using the Red Special, or even a copy?
Yes, I must have filmed hundreds of videos for Guitarist over the years. Seems like that, anyway. A Red Special demo or two? Watch this space…
Sure, we can’t wait!
Would you like, , to work on an official documentary about Brian May in the future, like (for example) “Under Review - 1973 / 1980”?
Certainly. Again, there’s so much more to him than ‘Brian May of Queen’ and I do think it’s a story worth telling. Whether he’d be interested is another question…maybe. I consider ‘Days Of Our Lives’ to be the best Queen doc so far, so it’d need to be on that level. Needless to say, it’s not down to me, but I’d like to watch it if nothing else!
Have you ever been in Italy? What do you know about our Country? Do you like anything in particular?
Yes, I’ve been to your beautiful country many times. I’ve visited Rome and Venice, and have even gone skiing in Bardonecchia just west of Turin. The weather’s great, and the food’s amazing! My wife and I had a pizza at a little place in Rome that was so wonderful we still talk about it today.
Thank you very much Simon for your kindness and endurance in answering these questions. It was a real pleasure for us. Thanks also to Brian May’s Management and Staff, for giving us the privilege of this exclusive interview. Comunità Queeniana Italiana is grateful. We hope you’ll be back in Italy soon.
- Barbara Mucci: questions and Ita-Eng / Eng-Ita translation
- Claudio Tassone: supervision, questions, internet references and web mastering
- Leonardo Pelz: questions
- Raffaella Rolla: support and consulting
- Simon Bradley: answers and internet references