Hi. I’m Keith Decent and this is From the Ground Up. A podcast about how we make what we make, the materials, the tools, and the stories behind the things we build.
It’s 1966. London England. Rock and roll is inescapable. The Kinks, the Zombies, Cream, the Who, and of course, The Beatles have taken over the airwaves around the world. The city of London has become the epicenter for pop culture and fashion not only of England, but almost anywhere. Just about every teenage boy of alive is dreaming of picking up an electric guitar, walking out on stage, and playing to a crowd of thousands of screaming fans. Many are following that dream into town halls, pubs, onto street corners, and just about anywhere else that has a stage. Playing these small gigs, parties, and any gathering that needs tunes for barely enough money to cover transportation, trying to become the next John, Paul, George, or Ringo. This particular evening, one lanky, nervous kid, is walking out on stage for the first time with his band at the Molesey Boat Club on the foggy banks of the River Thames, holding what will become one of the most iconic instruments of all time, an electric guitar that he built at home with his dad out of scraps, named…. The Red Special. Moving forward 19 years and 20 miles to July 1985 at Wembley Stadium in London. The boy, now a man with a lion’s mane of wild hair in a crisp white shirt and jeans, is standing with his band in front of over 70,000 fans and being live-cast to over a billion more in 110 countries. The world is literally watching. The set begins, and it isn’t long until he is wailing away on that very same guitar, almost entirely unchanged since he built it, in one of the greatest live performances ever recorded in rock and roll history. The band, Queen, It’s guitarist Brian May and his trusty Red Special are officially rock legend.
But back in 1963, unable to afford a real guitar, the future looked a lot different to May. A devoted student, he excelled in school and was on track to go to college and even graduate school, like his father, Harold, wanted him to. Harold was an electronics engineer in the Royal Air Force during World War II, and designed landing systems for the Concorde for a living. He was exceptionally talented, having set up a workshop in the family’s spare bedroom where he built many of their appliances by hand, including the television.
While Harold knew he couldn’t buy his son a professional guitar, he figured he could probably make one that was just as good. The first problem became, where to find the materials to do so. See, electric guitars had only really risen to popularity in the last 15 years or so, and the parts were not cheap or easy to come by.
Los Angeles, 33 years before Harold and Brian set to work, another man was having a similar issue, except instead of trying to make an electric guitar, he was toiling away trying to make THE electric guitar. George Beauchamp had been working in guitar manufacturing for the past decade or so, having been a steel guitar player dissatisfied with the poor sound projection many of the instruments had when played with a band. He sought to make a louder guitar, and had been minorly successful through mechanical modifications in the past. His last venture, however, imploded due to volatile partnerships and George now found himself without a job or a new project. He had been chasing the dream of a fully electric guitar for years, as had many others, but now it was time to really get to work. Beauchamp started experimenting with various PA systems and microphones, finding eventual success with a prototype. A single string guitar, made from a 2x4, with a pickup from a Brunswick Electric Phonograph. He was finally on the right track.
At the time, it was known that passing metal through a magnetic field could cause electrical current in a nearby wire coil. Taking this into account, George wound a coil around 6 metal poles, each one positioned under a string. He then took two large, broad, horseshoe shaped magnets and surrounded the entire apparatus, including the strings themselves. Working at his dining room table, George had to wind the coil using the motor from his washing machine. It worked incredibly well. Beauchamp enlisted his friend Adolph Rickenbacker to help him with the manufacturing, and the electric guitar was born. While popular with a few professionals, jazz musicians, and some blues players, the electric guitar didn’t really come into its own until the 1950s, with the birth of rock and roll. New designs by companies like Fender and Gibson had turned what was seen as a novelty into the heart and soul of American music.. The guitarist, once drowned out by the drums and other instruments, was now loud and clear, out in front of their band, and at the forefront of pop culture.
Brian and his father had opted to build a hand-cranked pickup winding device for their project, and spare their mother the inconvenience of taking apart the family washing machine. Brian was able to wind the fine copper wire thousands of times around a couple of button magnets he’d bought at the hardware store, using a bicycle odometer to keep count.
Harold and his son had come up with all sorts of ways to gather and use materials in this manner. Without the access to professional parts or tools, they scavenged what they needed and scrounged to buy what they couldn’t make at home. They used only hand tools, and along with Harold’s characteristic perfectionism, it became an incredibly long and detailed process.
The main structure of the body was made from a hard oak section of an old dining table. The neck was made from a mahogany mantle, already 100 years old at that point. It was full of nail and bug holes, which Brian filled with matchsticks, an old carpenter’s trick, as he carved it to shape. The outer portion of the body was made with a sort of engineered hardboard, faced with a veneer, called blockboard. The body was finished with several coats of a brand of lacquer called Rustin’s Plastic Floor Coating.
Whenever faced with a difficult portion of the build, the Mays would toil away until they reached a solid solution. No shortcuts were taken, and every iteration was documented, studied, and improved upon until they were satisfied with the work. Without knowing much about how guitars work, it may be easy to underestimate how amazing the Red Special truly is. Harold and Brian, through their exhaustive and painstaking process, came up with design solutions that were on par with, or even exceeded those of contemporary manufacturers. The tremolo system, which allows the player to alter the tension of the strings via a control, or whammy bar, is one solution that blew other guitar designs out of the water.
The ability to rapidly change the pitch on the strings is a staple of any professional rock player’s guitar, and so Brian’s would be no different. They spent a huge chunk of their time figuring out this very complex system and came up with version after version in their dedicated testing bed for the device. They needed to get as close to a friction less design as possible. The whole contraption rests on a knife blade, tempered with case hardening compound over a stove burner. The strings ride on rollers to further eliminate friction. Brian made each roller by hand using a drill as a lathe.
The tremolo system relies on heavy duty springs to return the bent strings back to their original tuning once released. Most guitar designs use tension springs in the back of the guitar to pull the strings into place. The Red Special, flips this around and uses valve springs from a motorcycle as a compressive force in the front of the body to push the apparatus back into position. The control arm itself was made from a piece of a bicycle luggage rack, tipped with a part of one of his mother, Ruth’s, knitting needles.. A first time guitar builder, and his teenaged son, had accomplished a feat of engineering and design that was out of the reach of some of the most experienced professionals in the world, in a spare bedroom with a bunch of scavenged parts, and they didn’t stop there. The pickups on most guitars are wired in parallel, allowing a switch to choose between them and change the tone of the sound, according to their position on the body. They are also typically wired in phase, to create as full a sound as possible. Brian didn’t want to restrict himself to any one type of sound, and so he and Harold did something unprecedented. They wired the pickups in series, adding a row of switches that turn off each individual pickup, and another row that switches the polarity of the pickup, toggling it into or out of phase. This switch matrix allowed the Red Special to output a number of tones and sounds far greater than anything else available at the time, and most guitarists who have managed it since then have copied May’s design.
The love and care and attention to detail put into this guitar was beyond compare. Harold and Brian had built one of the most advanced and innovative pieces of technology available to any guitarist at the time. In fact, the only modification Brian made was to purchase some professionally manufactured pickups due to a strange sound issue with his homemade versions when he bent strings.
The build had also brought them closer together. The guitar had symbolized to Brian the lengths to which his father would go to make sure his son wasn’t found wanting, despite their modest means. “The Old Lady,” as Brian refers to the instrument, served him well, from his first performance with his band, 1984, up to the formation of Queen. Throughout it all, Brian had been working his way through university, studying physics, then making his way through a doctorate program in astrophysics. However, as Queen’s popularity took off, Brian felt he had to choose, and in turn, disappoint the man who had worked so hard to get him there. Harold didn’t understand, or want to understand, Brian’s eagerness to throw away his career in academia to become a pop star. Brian would often plead with his dad, the man who built the guitar he was still using to perform to sell out crowds around the world, to understand that this was their hard work paying off. His success in music was a result of everything he had learned while they worked together those two years, on their masterpiece.
Still, it would take a family crisis to bring the two back together. Their coldness toward each other had driven Ruth into terrible distress. It took her being hospitalized after a nervous breakdown to prompt her family to bury the hatchet. Shortly after her recovery, Brian flew his parents to New York to watch his band perform a sold out show at Madison Square Garden, in 1977. The crowd was amazing. Their response to the band was vivid and electrifying. Afterwards, Harold took his son’s hand, shook it, and told him that he finally understood and was okay with Brian’s choice. He had actually wanted to take off after leaving the RAF and join a band. But with a wife and new child on the way, he needed job security. Watching his son chase the dream he himself had abandoned was a difficult thing for Harold, and as Brian became wealthy and famous, he couldn’t help but feel like a failure himself. After admitting this later in life, his son assured him that he was a wonderful father. Harold was able to pass on his values and his knowledge, his curiosity and ingenuity to Brian through their work together. Despite not believing in his path as a musician, he never stopped believing in his son’s potential. His son, as a result, had become an incredible person. He was one of the most influential musicians of all time, an unparalleled success, and eventually, also held a PhD in astrophysics.
To this day, Brian still uses The Red Special at every performance. When it’s unavailable, he uses replicas that are built to excruciatingly accurate detail, though he says he can feel the difference. Harold passed away in 1991. The guitar serves as a constant reminder. Each motorcycle spring holds the memories of countless hours at the workbench. Each matchstick filled wormhole and carefully wired switch, a lesson in Harold’s motto, which Brian still lives by today. “If anything’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”
Tim Sway is the founder of New Perspectives Music, a company in which he manufactures instruments from reclaimed and recycled materials. An avid upcycler and reclaimer himself, I asked him for his insights into building guitars using salvaged materials and about spending time in the shop with his son, Vance.