An in depth review of some of the best Red Special replicas ever made
- written exclusively for www.brianmayworld.com -
Something for the Rich, Something for the Poor, Something for those who Want Even More –
“A Tale of Three Red-Special Guitars”.
by Mark Barnett aka Yogi (UK)
To pity the poor Brian May fan, or to not pity the poor Brian May fan, that is an interesting question! I propose to answer it in full in this article, in which I will attempt to give you, the Brian May fan a full report on the relative merits of the three currently commercially available Red-Special Guitars from Burns, RS and KZ, from the privileged position of having playing experience of all three instruments and owning two of them.
The Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Stratocaster are the most famous guitar designs ever conceived. Both are comfortable instruments, easily playable, with a sound versatile and good enough to cater for many applications, so it is with little surprise that many famous guitarists have chosen their personal instrument from one of these.
Naturally, Fender and Gibson always welcome such patronage, as this helps to ensure that the guitar-playing public will automatically gravitate towards buying their instruments, in a bid to emulate the sound and playing style of their heroes.
But, think back to 1983…. Mostly ignorant of the few derivative guitars that a small Japanese company called Greco had made, you had to feel for the guitar playing fans of Queen and Brian May. Not for them was the easy road to fame by the purchasing of a Les Paul or Stratocaster, as no real copies of the Red-Special had ever been commercially available. A few brave individuals, sensing the problem, spent months constructing their own Red-Special guitars, after spending months in those pre-internet days literally hounding round libraries examining every single book on Queen for information on the fabled but also enigmatic (in these days anyway) Red-Special. The majority though, were left empty handed.
The Original, much copied, 1963 conceived ‘Red-Special’
By 1984, the American Guild Guitar company with some aid from Brian had changed the situation a little. A Red-Special style guitar had become commercially available, the BHM1. Despite being (or perhaps because of being) the first commercially available Red-Special, this guitar was not as good a copy of the instrument as many people would like, and only 334 instruments were made. Pickups were by Dimarzio, the tremolo a Floyd-Rose variant from Kahler. The look was close, the sound was also close, but a true authentic Red-Special guitar it was not. If one could be tracked down, current value is around 1500 pounds, which is not expensive for a limited run custom instrument and is perhaps explained by these guitars not being close authentic replicas.
The 1984 Guild BHM1
Again Guild tried to produce a Red-Special, this time with further more detailed input from Brian, and in 1993 the BM01 Brian May Signature/Pro was released. This was a much closer copy than the previous instrument, and around 2000 instruments (including cheaper modified variants on the Red Special theme) were released. The production run was terminated when Guild started to modify the instruments without Brian’s permission. These instruments are slightly less rare than the 1984 Guitars, but will fetch a similar market value. They look quite good, having a close Schaller reproduction of Brian’s home-made knife-edge tremolo and also sound quite good with Seymour Duncan this time being tasked to produce Burns Trisonic sound-alike pickups. Until 2001, these were the best commercial copies of the Red-Special produced. Perhaps the most sought-after version of this guitar is the Green coloured variant, a colour Brian asked to be made available.
The 1993 Guild BM01 Signature/Pro in both authentic ‘Red’ and the special ‘Green’
Ignoring the restoration of the Red-Special guitar itself, and the subsequent building by Australian Greg Fryer in 1998 of three of the closest replicas yet seen, which at 5000 pounds each put them out of the reach of the guitar-playing public, all again went quiet on the commercially available Red-Special front.
The Fryer Red-Specials, John, George and Paul. In 1998, the best replicas yet.
So, from 1984 to 2001, a few thousand close replicas of the Red-Special had been made, each of which would sell for amounts in excess of 1000 pounds. Despite best efforts, to own a Red-Special guitar was still totally impossible to the majority of Queen fans. Additionally, to those owning a replica, the Guild instruments, though good, were not perfect. Pity the Brian May fan!
However, in 2001, within a period of a few months, the production of Red-Special replicas by three completely separate unconnected guitar manufacturers began again. For the Brian May fan, almost without warning there was now for the first time a real choice of three Red-Special ‘replicas’ on the market, each offering differing degrees of authenticity; one of these guitars was wholly conceived with the aim that everybody could afford one. For the remainder of the article, I intend to discuss the relative merits of these three still-currently-in-production Red-Special replicas, beginning with the cheapest.
These three current commercially available instruments, all Red-Specials, but still ‘different Red-Specials’, are manufactured by Burns Guitars (www.burnsguitars.com) in London, RS Guitars (www.rsguitars.com) in Arizona, and KZ Guitarworks (www.kzguitarworks.com) in Japan. The prices range from 500 pounds for the first of these, to almost 3000 pounds for the last. The authenticity also ranges from ‘quite-close, closer than the Guild BHM1 but not quite as close as the Guild BM01’ for the Burns instrument, ‘much closer than anything by Guild, very close to the true Red-Special, with a few minor variations’, for the RS instrument, through to ‘almost complete perfection, an absolute replica’ for the KZ instrument. The Brian May fan can now choose a Red-Special guitar based on his needs of authenticity, and the requirements of his budget. So, not to pity the Brian May fan? Well, not quite!
Before I describe each individual instrument, mark each on merit in a number of different areas and finally give you some insight as to what I personally think of these instruments, and what sort of ‘Red-Special experience’ you can expect from each one, let me describe the features they all share.
Unlike the first Guild model, all of the current production Red-Specials feature the acoustic chambers in the body. These are very important to enable the guitar to respond to high-gain, ‘just on the edge of feedback’, playing. The size and location of the chambers are critical to achieving the right degree of this feedback.
All of the instruments also feature close variants of the Burns Trisonic pickups. These are also very important to the sound of the Red-Special, offering according to Greg Fryer a “very wide but also even frequency response, with no sharp spikes in either bass, middle or treble ends”. In the case of the Burns guitar, Burns have themselves started production of the Trisonic pickups to the same design as they were first manufactured in the 1960s. The other instruments offer Trisonics produced by British pickup manufacturer Kent Armstrong. These pickups were made ‘under license’ for Burns by Kent Armstrong for other Burns instruments, and are very similar to genuine Trisonics in all aspects.
The Burns Trisonic Pickup – One of the new production run
specially commisioned for the Burns Red-Special Guitar
It is important to know that the current production of the genuine Burns Trisonics have slightly more coil windings in the magnets than the 1960s original design, and it is these ‘hotter Trisonics’ that are standard fit on the Burns Red-Special. The Kent Armstrong Trisonics can also be acquired in this hot overwound version, in addition to a lower-winding more vintage sounding pickup, labelled the Trisonic V which is more similar to the pickups in the original Red-Special. A choice between these two pickup variations is available on either the RS instrument or the KZ instrument. Whilst the Trisonic V will give a Red-Special sound more close to the original, the overwound Trisonics sound warmer, and offer additional drive and power for more modern music styles.
Although the three guitars offer different takes on the Red-Special tremolo, all guitars are fitted with locking machineheads to aid tuning stability. On the RS and KZ guitars, the machineheads are Schallers with the locking thumbwheel on the rear casing, whilst the Burns instrument features Grovers with an automatic locking mechanism fitted to the shaft. Both options work equally well. However, the Grover tuners have a large rear casing necessary to include the locking mechanism and this means that the machineheads cannot be mounted with the tuning key aligned perpendicular to the headstock surface like the real Red-Special.
As of the instruments also feature a ‘zero-fret’, a fret just below the nut, to act as a string guide, setting the string height above the fingerboard. This is used in combination with a regular nut, to regulate the string spacing across the width of the fingerboard.
Of interest, during the 1998 restoration of the original Red-Special, the machineheads were exchanged for locking Schallers.
The Burns Brian May Signature Model, 580 pounds with case
The Burns Guitar, in authentic Red.
Currently available in Cherry Red and Vintage Sunburst. Soon to be available in Green, Black, and Sunburst (with gold hardware and flamed maple body top).
Left-Handed Versions Available (650 pounds with case).
Build Quality: Made in Korea, and you can tell. However, it is amongst the best finished Korean guitar I have ever experienced. Some of these guitars are very good, seemingly having extra care spent on them, whilst others appear atrocious. Mine (number 0156) was unfortunately one of the latter, most however are good. I would recommend checking a potential purchase over in person prior to buying, paying particular attention to the quality of the binding and the seating of the scratchplate screws.
Unlike the real Red-Special, the neck on this instrument is not bolted to the body, but fixed by glue, whilst the body contains no Oak components.
Playability: Properly set-up, as good as any other instrument in this price range. Although the neck has the correct Red-Special 24 inch scale and the 45mm nut-width, the neck thickness has been considerably slimmed. This, in comparison to the very thick neck on the actual Red-Special has made the neck a strange-shape and it can be difficult to feel comfortable with. Despite removing mass from the neck, the guitar is very neck heavy and needs supporting with your left-hand under the neck whilst playing. When the Stratocaster variant tremolo (fitted to keep the total price under control) is properly set-up, the tremolo range of this guitar exceeds that of the Red-Special itself, allowing more flexibility to use this instrument in modern applications.
Sound: With the genuine Burns Trisonics, this instrument when properly setup and with the pickups set to the right height, an all too often overlooked aspect when trying to reproduce the Brian sound, sounds very close to the genuine guitar. A personal demonstration by Brian May, available at the Burns website, compares the sound of this instrument very favourably with the genuine Red-Special guitar. However, in comparison to the RS and KZ instruments, some of the pickup selections can sound less distinct, more harsh and lacking warmth on the Burns Guitar, and hence these particular selections become less useful. The ‘main tones’ are present though, and solid sounding.
Sound samples of the instrument are available at http://www.burnsguitars.com/clubseries/brianmay.php.
Value for Money: No question here, it is excellent. Burns have priced this very competitively, with little profit margin. Second-hand value offers even better value, with examples around 350 pounds.
Plus Points: ‘The Whole Concept’ – a genuinely affordable Red-Special. Brian May Endorsement, with a choice of attractive colours. Genuine Burns Trisonics.
Negative Points: Also, unfortunately, ‘The Whole Concept’. The Red-Special is a unique guitar, and this makes it expensive to produce properly. In some ways, this instrument is a compromise too far…
For example, the tremolo arm, positioned much further forward than on Brian’s guitar, interferes and obscures access to the six pickup selector switches.
Although the instrument does include the acoustic chambers, the size, number and location of the body chambers in this Red-Special are not truly authentic. The incorrect placement of the chamber around the top-body area is a strong reason why the on-strap balance of this instrument is so poor.
Overall ‘Red-Special’ Impressions: Offers superb value for money and a great introduction to the world of the ‘Red-Special’ guitar. Apart from lacking the unique Red-Special tremolo, this guitar looks close, sounds close, and is cheap enough to allow everybody to experience what makes the Red-Special such a unique guitar. This is a genuine Brian May endorsed instrument, built to a budget so at last a Red-Special guitar is within everybody’s reach. In order to do this, compromises were necessary, in particular the tremolo, the black pickup selector switches instead of white, the lack of pickup surrounds, and also the incorrect positioning of the acoustic chambers (see more below), but this is still an excellent guitar in its own right.
These instruments are proving extremely popular in Queen tribute bands. However, when used for these professional duties, I have noticed in two such bands that some hardware changes have been made, in order to improve aspects of the instrument. In particular, swapping of the Grover tuners for lighter, more effective, but also more authentic looking Schaller examples, and also either the fitting of a new higher quality lower friction nut in place of the original nut or the complete removal of the zero fret.
If you can cope with the look of the guitar using the Stratocaster tremolo and the need to constantly support the guitar neck, this instrument does sound and look like a Red-Special.
Brian himself, showing off the first Sunburst Burns Red-Special
The RS Guitars Classic Model, 1800 pounds with case (UK price, based on UK import tax, at time of writing early 2003)
The RS Guitar, again with their take on the authentic Red Colour
Many finishes available.
Left-Handed versions currently unavailable, although work with this aim is in progress.
Build Quality: Hand-Built in Arizona, from components that have been CNC routed and cut with complete precision. The attention to detail in the construction is very good indeed, with the top and bottom binding on the body being the best example of binding-quality I have ever seen.
The chosen Mahogany for the body wood, as can be seen in the example image shown above, shows excellent grain structure, whilst the body finish is deep, even, and has a wonderful lustre. The Ebony in the fingerboard is also of good quality, although colour and extent of the figuring in the normally black Ebony by small chocolate coloured flecks can vary between guitars. However, a request can be made when ordering to gain the desired figuring in the Ebony.
The bodies acoustic chambers are all present, and are correctly proportioned.
An option is given on ordering, whether to accept the thick Brian May neck or a thinner-version similar in feel to the Burns Guitar. I have always felt the Burns neck was not particularly comfortable, but worried that the original Red-Special neck dimensions would be just too thick. After having played this instrument, I am surprised by just how comfortable the thick neck is, and would recommend the thick option to anybody considering a Red-Special guitar of this quality. The neck possesses a smooth C-profile, and feels wonderful, solid and substantial under the playing hand.
If PRS, Tom Anderson or any other premium guitar builder was to offer a Red-Special type guitar, I would think that they would be very much satisfied if their product matched the build-standards represented here.
Playability: Whether the option has been taken to order the original neck profile, or a slimmed version, the playability of this guitar is again equal to anything that the premium worldwide guitar manufacturers can produce. Both neck profiles are comfortable, and by utilising a slightly shallower fingerboard radius (12 inches, as opposed to 7 and 1/4 inches on Brian’s guitar), the guitar is more familiar feeling to the more modern players who appreciate the flat fingerboards on instruments such as those produced by Jackson and Ibanez in particular.
(It should be noted that a slightly different playing feel is present on true Red-Special guitars though, due to the employment of a 24 inch scale, instead of the more popular 24¾ inch Gibson scale, or 25½ inch Fender scale. This different feel can be noticed in all of the instruments here reviewed, and causes the strings to feel lighter and easier to bend).
The knife-edge tremolo system employed on the instrument is a very close replica of Brian’s original design, with a similar light and responsive feel, giving great ‘feedback’ to the player. The bridge design, although not exact to Brian’s design, actually performs better than the original and returns to correct pitch almost always.
A major improvement of this guitar (and the KZ instrument described below) is the on-strap balance of the guitar. Despite the body being lighter in mass than the Burns instrument due to it possessing the correct cavity dimensions, and the increase in mass due to the extra-thick neck, the guitar as a whole balances well and does not require the neck to be supported with the fretting hand. This further allows the player to concentrate on producing the required sound, and further aids the playability, giving a fuller experience of playing a musical instrument instead of trying to play an instrument whilst also holding it up.
Sound: Although the Trisonic pickups available with this instrument are not the genuine Burns versions as available on the Burns Red-Special, the tones generated by the Kent Armstrong original Trisonic V pickups or modern Trisonics again produce a guitar which can sound very close in tone to the genuine Red-Special. However, where this instrument further improves on the Burns guitar is that some of the less widely used tones, such as the Neck-Bridge out-of-phase tone as used for the ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ riff seem to have more much power, clarity and warmth on the RS instrument. Also, as the body possesses the correct number and size of hollow body chambers, it is also more resonant and sustaining than the Burns guitar, helping notes launch with greater ease into the controlled harmonically pleasing feedback Brian likes to use so often. Sound samples of this instrument can be found at www.rsguitars.com/home.com.
Value for Money: Although considerably more expensive than the Burns guitar, this guitar offers a real close reproduction of the Red-Special, and outside of the Fryer or KZ Replicas, is the closest production model yet seen, better even the Brian-endorsed Guild models. It is very well built, looks stunning, includes a high-quality case, and sounds (no doubt aided by the Oak body insert) and plays (due to the thick neck option) very close to the original indeed. Due to the small production levels of this guitar, and constructed with as higher build-quality as can be obtained, these guitars are, at time of writing, very rare. However, the reputation of this company is increasing, and these guitars are good enough to become collector’s items. So, value-for-money is guaranteed, and I expect a second-hand resell value at a price close to current retail for the instrument in new condition.
Plus Points: RS Guitars have researched the Red-Special design very well indeed, and this guitar employs a good reproduction of the correct tremolo design, a roller bridge, the right strapped on feel and balance, and a much closer collection of sounds than the Burns instrument. Also, more of the possible variants can also be used due to the overall sweeter warmer sound. Finally, this Red-Special by using the correct tremolo design (and a better more accurate looking bridge), looks more authentic than any of the Guild or Burns instruments.
Negative Points: Although the tremolo used on the instrument is correct in design and looks, a considerable advance in both technology and cost over the tremolo on the Burns instrument, the bridge is not quite the correct design. The chosen bridge does make use of the rollers, although as this is a more modern take on Brian’s original design it does in fact work better, and tuning stability is excellent. However, the look is not quite right.
Secondly, Brian’s guitar was built employing strange non-typical choices of wood and finishes (in particular, Blockboard for the body, Oak for the fingerboard in addition to the centre core of the body and Rustin’s plastic coating as the finishing medium). This gives the real Red-Special a quite distinctive grain pattern in its woods, a slightly rippled look in the gloss plastic body finish, and a very shiny black texture to the fingerboard. This guitar, whilst employing the same body and neck woods as the Guild instruments, and indeed the Burn’s instruments, is finished with modern laquers. This immediately gives it a ‘production guitar’ look. Any other guitar brand would be extremely envious of the quality of woods and finish achieved on this instrument. However, it is not truly authentic. Let me point out that this is only a minor criticism though.
Overall ‘Red-Special’ Impressions: Although in excess of three times more expensive than the Burns instrument, the increase in build quality, sound, feel, playability and authenticity, all of which are better on the RS guitar, total up to give a Red-Special that is considerably better as both a guitar in the basic sense, and a Red-Special in a true-sense than the Burns-instrument.
For a much closer Red-Special experience, at a price less than the recommended retail price for new Gibsons or PRSs, both of which are ‘computer-constructed’, this hand-made Red-Special is a wonderful instrument, which due to the very high build quality will last for a long time.
Anybody wanting to further the authenticity of the instrument, through the fitting of a authentic Brian-May design roller bridge, or the fitting of a new scratchplate that incorporates the correct mounting of the pickup selection slider switches can easily accomplish this.
The KZ GuitarWorks Model, 3000 pounds with case
(UK price, based on UK import tax rate, at time of writing mid-2003)
The KZ GuitarWork Guitar, another variation of the Red colour
Only one finish available
No lefthanders currently available. No plans for left handed either.
Before commencing with the review of this instrument, it would be useful if the reader took time to actually study this guitar and the KZ GuitarWorks website. This would aid the understanding of this instrument and its raison d’etre. It should be said that this guitar is probably the closest ever replica, including the Greg Fryer replicas, that have ever been produced.
Build Quality: With employing the exact same woods and finishing techniques as the original Red-Special, it might be expected that some of these unorthodox woods would not provide the same degree of quality and longevity as other more common guitar woods. However, the original guitar of which this is perhaps the closest replica yet created, played over 600 Queen gigs worldwide from 1973-1986, and only finally needed a restoration in 1997-1998, 34 years after its conception. As would be expected of an handbuilt instrument of this price, the construction of this instrument is totally flawless, and possibly better than the original instrument. Thus, it should last extremely well.
Playability: This guitar, being an even closer replica than the RS guitar again demonstrates a similar playing experience. By using the 7 and 1/4 inch fingerboard radius with the large original neck dimensions, this guitar feels even further removed from a modern guitar. Despite the neck’s quite huge dimensions it still manages to feel comfortable, with the clear gloss plastic coating on the fingerboard making for a very slick playing experience. Again, with repeated playing, any unfamiliarity in the feel of Red-Special guitars, and the KZ instrument does feel the most removed, will disappear.
Sound: Identical to that heard on every record to which the original Red-Special has performed, from 1973 to present day. However, only limited sound samples are available concerning the tone of the KZ instrument:
(see http://www.geocities.co.jp/Bookend-Ango/6409/kz_sound.mp3, http://www.geocities.co.jp/Bookend-Ango/6409/brighton.mp3,
http://www.geocities.co.jp/Bookend-Ango/6409/rockyou.mp3 as examples), but its tone should be familiar.
Value for Money: At around 3000 pounds, this guitar is priced at similar levels and hence in direct comparison to some of the world’s absolute finest guitar makers. This may cause any potential purchasers of this guitar to think twice about some of the alternatives before parting with these levels of cash.
However, KZ Guitarworks is a small Japanese company, producing with almost unbelievable care these instruments. Each one takes around a month to construct, allowing for three months for the body lacquering to cure to the required hardness, and has the owner’s name imprinted on the rear of the headstock, for the ultimate in exclusivity. At time of writing, less than twenty have been made. Although PRS and Gibson occasionally produce anniversary or limited edition guitars, objectively they still produce the same design guitar, with the same feel and sound as the thousands of other more typical guitars that they have sold. This guitar is something genuinely different, with sound, build-quality and playability every bit the equal of any other manufacturer. However, this is genuinely a limited edition instrument. Value for money is totally assured, either as a playing working guitar or as an exhibition instrument.
Plus Points: A totally accurate replica, due to it being built by a highly accomplished guitar-builder, totally obsessed with obtaining an identical replica in every detail to the original guitar. Somehow especially when new and still relatively unplayed, it looks not mass-produced (as the Burns), or custom-built (as the RS Guitar), but homemade (like the original Red-Special), although it is debatable whether Brian actually achieved the flawless wood shaping and application of lacquer and plastic coating on the fingerboard which has been achieved here. This guitar really looks like the Red-Special.
Negative Points: The original ‘Red-Special’ guitar, as originally designed by Brian May and his father is a peculiar instrument in many ways, construction, tremolo design, wood choice and wiring in particular. As this guitar is such a close replica anybody unused to some of these mentioned peculiarities will easily notice them and find the instrument at least initially uncomfortable or difficult to play. Also, due to the exactness of this instrument they are more easily noticed in this replica than in either the Burns Guitar (as it lacks the exact woods in its construction, the ‘thick’ neck, and the tremolo in particular), and the RS Guitar (as it lacks the original bridge design and the plastic-coated fingerboard). However, it may be argued that the need to acclimatise to these peculiarities further adds to the exclusivity of this quite stunning instrument.
Hence, to anybody considering the purchase of this instrument, although complete reassurance can be given as to the quality of the guitar they will receive, what cannot be guaranteed especially if they have not experienced some of the ‘individualisms’ of the Red-Special, is whether they would be able to adjust to it. I would therefore recommend anybody with an interest in this instrument to first sample either the Burns guitar, or preferably the closer-to-original RS guitar before committing to its purchase.
Overall ‘Red-Special’ Impressions: Expensive, but this is “The Red-Special”, as it would have looked when new in 1964. The ultimate Red-Special replica for those to whom only the best, and the most accurate, is good enough. A phenomenal guitar in its own right also though.
To conclude let us answer the initial question - to pity the poor Brian May fan, or to not pity the poor Brian May fan? Well with these three fine instruments currently available on the world market, there has never been a better time, or easier way to obtain a Red-Special Guitar…… So don’t expect any pity from me!
The author wishes to thank Oliver Tamminga, Barry Gibson, Kazutaka Ijuin, Steve Turpin, for their help in the preparation of this article.
Special thanks to Mark Reynolds who kindly loaned both his prototype KZ Guitar and RS Classic Guitar for lengthy periods to aid in the review of these instruments. Due to the subsequent impressions that both these instruments made, the author has subsequently decided to order one of each.