Queen’s Red Special: The key to their sound

Queen’s Red Special: The key to their sound

We all know that they were, and still are, brilliant musicians. Their typical sound made sure you’d never forget them. Not only the polyphony or the legendary lead vocal of Freddie, but also Queen’s Red Special shaped their unmistakable sound. To this day you can still hear something and say “that sounds just like Queen”.

Contemporary bands are still very much inspired by that remarkable sound and feel of those legendary Queen hits. How does that sound exactly? If we’re looking for a chord progression that could have been written by a member of Queen, we don’t need to look any further than Foxy Shazam’s ‘Unstoppable’. It doesn’t matter if you’re a musician or not, anyone can clearly label the vocal harmonies as the harmony of the guitar and the overall bombastic feel in Muse’s ‘United States of Eurasia’ as a ‘Queen sound’. Give them a listen!

Mother Mercury doesn’t just want to cover the Queen hits. They strive to approach the sound and energy as close as possible to guarantee the most authentic Queen experience. We started investigating by examining countless hits through a magnifying glass and dissecting them completely. You’ll be able to read about our findings in the following blog posts. We’ll talk about guitar sound, vocal harmonies, studio tricks, vocal techniques,… In this first article we’ll take a closer look at the incomparable guitar sound of Brian May.

Red Special

Growing up, Brain May didn’t have enough money to buy a decent electric guitar. He decided to build one himself together with his father, Harold May. Over a period of 18 months, these two men would build a guitar that would go down in history as an icon of rock history: Queens ‘Red Special’.

The body of the guitar was carved out of a table top and the neck was shaped out of a piece of wood from a 100-year-old mantlepiece. Because of this, Brian nicknamed the guitar ‘Fireplace’. ‘Red Special’ proved to be a bit more convincing and was attributed to the brownish red colour the guitar had because of the many layers of ‘Rustin’s plastic coating’. The guitar was equiped with a unique electrical system. This made sure it’d be able to create as many different sounds as possible. The axe was deliberately designed to create a lot of feedback. Feedback is the high pitch you hear when you hold a guitar in front of an amplifier on a high volume. The microphones in the guitar recapture their own sound from the amp and send it through 

the amp again. Because of this you get an endless loop between the guitar and the amp. Brian May had seen Jeff Beck perform live. There he saw how Jeff was able to create various sounds by holding the guitar at certain angles relative to the speaker of his amp. Brian was baffled by this effect and also wanted a ‘living’ guitar that could interact with him and the space surrounding them.

In all honesty, Mother Mercury’s members didn’t have the patience, nor the know-how to build such an instrument themselves. Luckily there has been a variety of copies made available over the past 20 years, which are being sold by Brian May himself.

The Sixpence

As a guitar pick, Brian May uses a British coin that isn’t being used anymore nowadays: the sixpence. Out guitarist tried to play with a 5 eurocent piece, but since these are magnetic and the guitar also works with magnetic components to amplify the sound, it didn’t seem to be an ideal alternative. However, we were able to find a large number of sixpence coins quite easily and this proved to be essential for that legendary Brian May sound.

Another crucial component for Brian May’s sound was the amplifier: the Vox AC30. You can see Brian perform live in front of a stack of no less than nine AC30s. Of those nine, only three are actually being used. For every amp there’s a spare on the second row, which can be swaped immediatly, in case of an emergency. The amps on the top row only contain speakers in case something goes wrong and they need to be exchanged on the spot.

Let's compare

In the live setup the signal of the Red Special first goes through a treble booster to clip the signal a little more. After that one could send it through a phaser or a wah-pedal, depending on at which tour you’re looking. Subsequently the signal is split into three equal signals of which each one of those is being redirected to an individual AC30. One of those amplifiers (central) gets the pure unaltered signal. On the other two (left and right) some effects will be used like a reverb. (See Brian’s setup on the left)

Technologie has advanced quite a bit since the 70s. We were able to choose a practical and more budget friendly alternative for Mother Mercury to recreate  that Brian May setup. Our guitarist soldered a treble booster to match Brian’s scheme. This signal is then split into three equal signals of which one goes straight to a real Vox AC30 and two go to a digital simulation of that same amplifier with the same effects as Brian May, but then all in one unit. (See Thomas’ setup on the right)

Next up are the studio tricks Queen used to sound like an enormous choir with only three voices. Think of songs like Bohemian Rhapsody and Somebody to love. You can read that article right here.

Would you like to know more about Mother Mercury? You can find their home page right here. If you’d like to keep up to date, then please do visit the Facebook page or the Instagram account.

Author – T.D.S. & S.V.P.
© Mother Mercury 2023

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