B  R  O  A  D  S  I  D  E

A    J O U R N A L

I S S U E   9:

In Which I Read About Brian May’s “Red Special”
and Promptly Get Into the Guts of an Electric Guitar

[Started in mid-March, 2016.]

A few weeks ago, at this year’s Boskone, my friend Lis Riba showed me her copy of the book about the guitar that Brian May and his father built when he was a kid (Brian May’s Red Special). Even a brief look was enough to get me excited, so I bought myself a copy, went through it like a hot knife through butter, and started to wonder where I was going to get a guitar to hack on so I could try his circuit for switching the pickups, which sounded particularly interesting. It would also be fun to try making a 24-fret neck [which is so logical!], but I’m not equipped for work at that level right now.

A week or so later I was visiting my landlord, who is a brilliant researcher and a strong candidate for World’s Best Landlord, and in the course of our conversation we got into music. When I mentioned what I wanted to try, he offered me his electric guitar and practice amp, which he wasn’t using (!). He dropped them off the following morning on his way to work.

The guitar is a Burswood, of the type that allows you to record onto an SD card. Although that’s handy, I have disconnected the recorder for now: I wanted to get the switching in place and debugged before I went for the increased complexity, though it really isn’t much of an increase.

I will note that in addition to the switch hacking, I put a wide neck on the guitar. I have largish hands, and my fingers don’t fit easily on a standard neck. If I were a lot younger I might just work on it for a decade or two; but that isn’t a good option for me now, if indeed it ever would have been. (I have my doubts.) My current take on learning things is that [assuming you haven’t misunderstood any important parameters] it is nearly always counterproductive to make things any harder than they need to be. Putting a new neck on an electric guitar is not entirely trivial, but it only takes an hour or so unless there are unexpected complications. Even if there are, it isn’t likely to take more than a couple days. That’s a whole lot quicker than 10 or 20 years, and a lot less frustrating to boot. (Just be sure you get it lined up correctly... the first one I did is canted off at a slight angle, which causes one string to be too close to the edge of the fretboard at the pickup end. Some day I will grit my teeth and fix it, but the instrument is playable as is, and I have many other things going on, so it will be a while before that happens.) Back to the continuing saga:

I got the wide neck from “Big Lou”. (Note: if you want a guitar with a wide neck but you aren’t up for attaching one yourself, he does build and sell guitars. As far as I can tell, he makes the necks available as a courtesy to DIYers.)

I am not currently in a position to do major surgery on the body cavities of the instrument, so I didn’t have a lot of room to work in. I decided to remove one of the Tone controls (which I don’t generally use anyway), and move the Volume knob over to where it had been. That gave me enough space for half a dozen mini toggle switches. (As you can see in the photo, I used a piece cut from a popsicle stick to fill the slot that was formerly occupied by the shaft of the 5-way switch.) I added one other switch, so I can take the remaining Tone control out of the circuit. Here’s a pseudostereo photo that shows the switches and controls after I made the modification:

(Click the photo to enlarge it if you want more detail; you may have to squeeze the larger version a bit for comfortable freeviewing.)

Side note: the stereoviews here are in RLR format, which I refer to as “XU” because the left and middle images are for crosseyed viewing, and the middle and right images are for walleyed viewing. I made each of them from two separate pictures that I took with an iPhone 6 Plus, aligning key features in the scene with grid lines that are available in the camera app, and very carefully moving the phone straight to the side — when you do these, you do not want to change the angle of the camera on any axis. I will note that I took more than two photos each time, and chose the best pair from a given set, ...if there was a best pair — in one case I think I tried 6 or 7 sets before I found a suitable pair of images.

Here’s a view of the wiring on the underside:

You can see one and a half of the little NIB magnets that I added to the existing ceramic magnets on the pickups, at the upper left. My impression is that these cause the pickups to generate a somewhat stronger signal, but probably at the expense of a decrease in the treble response. At some point I may remove the ones on the bridge pickup to determine whether I’m correct about that.

[Yes, I violated the standard color code for this sort of wiring. I used what I had on hand, and I wired the switches before I had a full sense of which way they would be oriented after I got the thing put together, so I’m not too badly offended, nor embarrassed. Besides, the pickups already violated the color code.]

With this switching arrangement, the differences in voicing are quite a bit more prounounced than they are with the usual 5-way switch on a Strat knockoff, and the range of available voicings is wider. I’m not a professional guitarist, and there is essentially zero chance that I will ever become one, so I don’t actually need this; but it’s a ton of fun to learn things and hack things, and I’m quite pleased with the way this one is turning out. It produces more hum/buzz than I’d really like, which is annoying, but at some point when I have the thing open again I will line the cavity with copper foil or conductive paint, and connect it to the guitar’s ground. That won’t be as good as a proper Faraday Cage, but it should help quite a bit.


The string length with the original neck, nut to saddles, was about 25½". With the wide neck, it was closer to 26". This seems to have been a problem: as far as I can tell, the fret spacing on the wide neck is designed for the shorter string length. As a result, I was unable to set the intonation correctly. I made temporary extensions for the saddles, which are more or less satisfactory as far as the sound is concerned, but which are a set of wretched kludges [and I mean that in the full Scottish pejorative sense; I use the other spelling for things that are crazy but not necessarily bad] —

I am currently (0316) making more robust ones that are a bit longer, so that I will actually have some room for adjustment if that becomes necessary. These are pieces of rectangular brass tube, 1/8" x 3/8", reinforced with epoxy and bamboo, and they have brass rod epoxied to them, to carry the strings:

(The larger version is only 700 px across; I didn’t use a macro lens to take the photo.)


Those didn’t work well, but they gave me enough information that I was able to think up a third version. My attempt to construct v3 led me a bit of a merry chase, though — when I went to the hardware store I failed to find the pieces I wanted, and I ended up using something they had on hand. The resulting extensions look like this:

These are made from pieces I cut off the ends of 7/16" café rod brackets. They were a bit thin and I was afraid they would flex too much, so I reinforced them with pieces of ¼" brass bar, 0.032" thick, which I epoxied on. (You can see the ends protruding a bit.) I used short sections of thin brass rod to support the strings. They are too far forward, and I’m out of adjustment room on 5 of the 6 saddles, but the next time I change strings I will move them back a little.

Here’s an overview of the instrument as of early April, 2016:

In Closing:

Many thanks to Brian May and Simon Bradley and their editors and publisher for putting the book together, and to Lis Riba for turning me on to it. Thanks also to Lindsay Wilson (inventor of the AxiDraw) for excellent advice.

To the Index

For contact information, please see the Index.

Last modified: Sat Apr 9 11:47:16 EDT 2016