Brian May: Why he never uses a guitar pick and how he built his Red Special guitar

Brian May plays his Red Special guitar in 2014

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Queen are currently celebrating their 50th anniversary. Incredibly, the guitarist’s iconic instrument is even older than that. In a fascinating interview, Brian gave a extraordinary insight into how he has always forged his own unique path, from hand-building his original guitar (which he still uses today) to deciding to throw away standard guitar picks in favour of something rather unexpected. SCROLL DOWN FOR THE FULL INTERVIEW

Brian never uses a standard plastic guitar pick to coax those extraordinary riffs from the strings.

He said: “I used to use very bendy picks because I thought it was good for getting speed. But I gradually discovered that I wanted more and more hardness in the pick, and the more rigid it is, the more you feel what’s happening at the string in your fingers.”

The solution was something anybody could literally find lying around on the pavement.

Brian added: “So in the end, I picked up a coin, and it was just perfect. That’s all I needed. And I changed the way that I held the pick, sort of bending one of the fingers around, and I never went back from that point.

“The sixpence has another great advantage – it’s hard enough to, you know, give you all that contact, it’s also soft enough not to break your steel strings because it’s made of nickel silver, or whatever.

“And it has this lovely serrated edge, and if you turn it at an angle to the strings, you get a lovely kind of splutter.

“So to me, the guitar is like a voice, and that splutter is one of the consonants that helps to make the guitar talk.”

For anyone wondering, the sixpence is no longer in circulation. The classic coin, incredibly, dated all the way back to 1551 and was finally taken out of circulation in 1980. Whether Brian has a special stash or has found a replacement coin he doesn’t say.

Later in the interview, he also gives extraordinary detail into how he built his first-ever guitar, the Red Special. The instrument is now manufactured and Brian has his own range of guitars but always goes back to that original.

He said: “I’m able to use a couple of those on stage and they’re great. But the original is something else, it’s like a piece of my body.”

It was built by hand at home with his father, Harold, between August 1963 and October 1964. 

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Brian said: “We had no money, and that’s why we made the guitar. We couldn’t possibly buy a Stratocaster or a Gibson. It was unimaginable…So we decided we’d make the guitar, me and my dad.”

The original Red Special was so-called because it was stained a reddish-brown by many applications of Rustins Plastic Coating, a varnish commonly used on floors, bartops and, indeed, guitars. 

Brian revealed why it is also nicknamed the Fireplace: “It was all made from stuff that was lying around, and it was a hundred-year-old fireplace, a piece of that that I made the neck out of, all with hand tools – chisels, planes, spokeshaves, and sandpaper.”

Brian deliberately designed the guitar to feedback after seeing Jeff Beck playing live and observing how he could make different sounds just by moving the guitar in front of the amplifier. 

Even though it was made from an oak mantelpiece and an old family table, Brian made innovations to keep it as light as possible.

He said: “It’s not as heavy as a Gibson Les Paul. It has less weight because I put these acoustic pockets in it, so a lot of it is hollowed out.

“That’s very deliberate to try and make it feedback in the right way. So I claimed to be the first person to make an electric guitar that was designed to feedback rather than not feedback.”

For anyone who wants to know more, the star also published a book, Brian May’s Red Special: The Story of the Home-made Guitar that Rocked Queen and the World

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