How astrophysicist and Queen musician Brian May made his own guitar

Brian May, the lead guitarist and composer for Queen, is a multitalented guy. A Guitar World readers poll ranked him as the 2nd greatest guitarist of all time. He also has a PhD in astrophysics from Imperial College London was on the science team for NASA's New Horizons Pluto mission. He also made his own guitar with his father in the 1960s, which he called The Red Special. Hackaday has the build notes.

Every part of the Red Special was a process of trial and error. This is the true hacker spirit behind the guitar. Most trials didn’t work the first time, but Brian and Harold iterated until they reached their goals. An example of this is the pickups. Brian’s experimentation with pickups started with his Egmond guitar. He bought some Eclipse Magnetics button magnets from the local hardware store. These formed the core of the pickup. Harold then helped him build a coil winding machine, which allowed Brian to manually wind thousands of turns of fine copper wire around the pickups. It even had a wind counter built from a bicycle odometer.

Brian didn’t have an amplifier yet, so he plugged into the family’s radio. The pickups worked! They were very bright sounding, but had one flaw. When bending notes, Brian found there would be an odd sound as the string moved across the pickup. He attributed it to the North-South alignment of the disk magnet poles. Cutting the magnets was beyond the tools he had, and custom magnets were out of the budget. The pickups worked, and these were the original devices used in the Red Special. Eventually, though, Brian had to fix the string bending problem. He headed off to the store and bought three Burns Tri-Sonic guitar pickups. He coated these in epoxy to reduce the microphonics and then installed them in the Red Special. These same three pickups still reside in the guitar today. It’s worth noting that the pickups on the Red Special receive an incredible amount of abuse. This has a lot to do with Brian’s choice in plectrum. Most guitarists use a plastic pick. Brian has always used a sixpence coin. It’s an integral part of his style and sound, the serrated edge sure does a number on the pickup covers.

In 2014, May co-wrote a book called Brian May's Red Special: The Story Of The Home-Made Guitar That Rocked Queen And The World.