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Notes & Lines

Notes & Lines discusses the intersection of math, science, and technology with performing and visual arts. Topics include bizarre instruments, technically-minded musicians, and cross-pollination of science and art.

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Queen's Home-Engineered Instruments

Posted January 03, 2019 12:50 PM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: Brian May john deacon Queen

Although the British rock band Queen has never totally faded since their 1970 founding, the band and its members have been especially newsworthy lately. The (not-quite-historically-accurate) film Bohemian Rhapsody introduced the band to an entirely new generation of music-lovers last year, and guitarist Brian May, who earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics in 2008, attended NASA’s flyby of Ultima Thule on January 1 and wrote a song about the event.

May is not the only band member with a technical or scientific degree: bassist John Deacon earned an honors degree in electronics before Queen hit it big, and drummer Roger Taylor holds a BSc in biology. It should then surprise no one that two of the band’s members essentially engineered their sound from the ground up, whether listeners knew it or not.

May built his first and main guitar – affectionately dubbed “Red Special” due to its dark red finish – in the early 1960s with his father. The two men fashioned the semi-hollow body out of softwood strips sandwiched between plywood, with oak inserts from an old table. The neck was shaped from wood from a discarded fireplace mantel, and the position markers on the fretboard were hand-shaped from mother-of-pearl buttons.

May playing Red Special in 2017. Image credit: Raph_PH / CC BY 2.0

The guitar’s electronics are even more unique than its materials. Electric guitarists nearly always select their instrument’s magnetic pickups – which convert a string’s vibration into an electrical signal – using a simple toggle switch, but May and his father assigned two on/off switches to each of Red Special’s three handmade pickups. The top set simply turns each pickup on and off. This is unique in itself, because traditional three-pickup guitars can only select two pickups adjacent to each other. May can use the on/off switches to select only the outer two pickups without the middle one, resulting in a unique sound.

The three pickups are also wired in series, rather than in parallel as is normal for electric guitars. Assigning each pickup its own switch and wiring them in series allowed May to double or triple Red Special’s output by selecting two or three pickups, respectively. On a typical guitar wired in parallel, selecting two pickups instead of one changes the tone but not the output level.

Red Special's unique wiring. Image credit: The Guitar Wiring Blog

The bottom set of switches reverses each pickup’s phase, allowing May to further refine the instrument’s tone. If more than one pickup is active and one has its phase reversed, the common signal between the two is canceled, giving a raspy, overtone-rich sound. Most three-pickup guitars in the 1960s were capable of five different pickup combinations at most, but between both sets of switches Red Special could produce as many as 15 unique sounds. According to some accounts, May used all of the guitar’s combinations when recording the song “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

May and his father also concocted a homebrew solution to a pervasive problem. Contemporary guitars often had a vibrato bar that, when bent during playing, would change the tension of the strings, resulting in a “twanged” sound. After a particularly heavy bend of the bar, the guitar’s strings would go out of tune until the guitarist had a chance to stop and retune.

Red Special's unique rolling bridge and tremolo, complete with valve springs.

May and his father mounted Red Special’s tremolo to a knife edge shaped into a V and added two valve springs from a motorbike to counter the guitar’s string tension. They fitted each string with its own saddle and a roller that allowed the string to return to its previous position after a bend, keeping it perfectly in tune. The drawback of this approach is that the rollers fall out of the saddle when their string breaks, leading May to bring a pocketful of extra rollers with him on stage during live performances.

May still uses the original 50+ year old Red Special on stage along with newer copies of the same instrument.

Less than a decade after Red Special’s birth, in the early days of Queen, bassist John Deacon used his electronics know-how to build a practice amp from a circuit board and some wire he spotted hanging out of a dumpster in London. The device could not have been simpler: Deacon intentionally built it to constantly play at full volume, and he liked the warm tone from its germanium transistors, so the amp lacked both typical volume and tone controls. It also had no switch to turn it on; Deacon simply wired it to a 9V PP-9 battery pack.

Deacon used the “Deacy amp” for private practice, but Brian May took an immediate interest in it when Deacon brought it to show the band. May plugged in Red Special and ran it through a treble booster, and found he loved its warm and malleable sound. Queen’s recording personnel loved it as well: its consistency of tone meant they could record layer upon layer of guitar tracks and make the final product sound like one instrument. The latter attribute was key to defining Queen’s hit-making sound, and May has used the Deacy amp on many recordings throughout the band’s long history.

Hearing a precisely layered track like “Good Company,” featuring a combination of guitar tones imitating a jazz band, one would never guess that its player was using an instrument built from discarded wood run through a stripped-down amp consisting of only a speaker and trashed electronics.


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Re: Queen's Home-Engineered Instruments

01/03/2019 1:28 PM


That gives them a whole new gravitas and greatly enhances their bona fides.

They were true musicians in every sense of the word.

And a different slant on Fat Bottomed Girl!

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Re: Queen's Home-Engineered Instruments

01/07/2019 9:31 AM

Mr. Best in Show and I watched some of the Golden Globes last night. When the camera panned over the Queen table Mr. BIS asked me who that guy with the wild grey hair was. I thought he'd seen a recent pic of Dr. May. Bohemian Rhapsody did OK last night and New Horizons did great last week -- not a bad run.

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