The Red Special guitar is an iconic rock n’ roll symbol, deemed as one of the most famous guitars globally. It’s the homemade guitar played by Queen guitarist Brian May, which he has used almost exclusively throughout his career.
But just how much money would you need to pony up to own this iconic axe? We explore that question below, along with some other fascinating facts about Brian May’s guitar.
How much is Brian May’s guitar worth? Like any unique object with significant sentimental value and history, the original Brian May Guitar is priceless. It cannot be replaced at any cost. However, you can buy its authorized replica, BMG Special, from Brian May Guitars for around $840 to $1,000.
What is the Red Special?
The Red Special is an electric guitar designed and built by Brian May of Queen. It is considered one of his most treasured possessions, completed in 1964 but not publicly revealed until 1966 with his first band 1984. The guitar made its first appearance on stage with Queen in October 1973 when the band went on tour with Mott The Hoople.
May famously built the guitar by hand alongside his father when he was just a teenager. Back in the 1960s, he didn’t know how it would feature on every single Queen album and at historic concerts, including Live Aid and the closure of the 2012 London Olympics – among countless others. On tour, the Red Special guitar has its own bodyguard. It has become a brand – Brian May Guitars – producing affordable replicas.
The Story of Brian May’s Guitar “Red Special”
When teenage Brian May could not afford to buy a high-quality electric guitar, Harold and his father decided to build their own one. It was a natural decision for Brian to make the guitar with his father since Harold was an electronics engineer who liked to build things entirely from scratch. Harold May had built a TV, radio, and pretty much anything electronic the family needed.
Brian May wanted the guitar to have a capability beyond anything out there at the time. Brian and his father designed the hand-built guitar to be more tunable, with a greater range of pitches and sounds, with a better tremolo, and with a capability of feeding back through the air in a “good” way, like he’d seen his hero Jimi Hendrix do.
After two years of spare-time work, exclusively with hand tools, Brian May and his dad successfully built the “Red Special” instrument. The signature guitar has been a part of Brian May’s long career, played on every Queen album and in all of the band’s live shows.
Brian May’s Guitar Name
The Red Special is also known as the Fireplace or the Old Lady. The moniker Red Special originates from the guitar’s reddish-brown tint after it was stained and coated with multiple layers of Rustins’ plastic coating. The name Fireplace comes from the wood used to build the neck, which originated from a fireplace mantel. May dubbed it the Old Lady after his guitar tech compared his responsibility of caring for the guitar to that of caring for a spouse.
The value of Brian May’s Red Special
Brian May’s Red Special is a priceless instrument. It was custom built by Brian May, and there are no more like it in existence. It’s one of rock history’s most impressive works of craftsmanship and electronics. Even getting an appraisal from a company or individual expert in evaluating handmade guitars would be difficult. The value of Red Special remains nearly immeasurable and can only ever be accurately described in purely qualitative terms.
What did Brian May’s guitar originally cost?
In the book “Queen and I: The Brian May Story” by Laura Jackson, it was revealed that building Brian May’s guitar cost £17.45. If you adjust that for inflation, £17.45 or $48.68 in 1964 is equivalent to about £368.44 or $506.86 in 2021 (considering the dollar-pound exchange rate between those 57 years).
With that price, Brian and Harold May were able to build a guitar that had tonal range and depth far exceeding those of most commercially available instruments at that time, using materials that were sourced right from their household.
According to an abridged extract from “Brian May’s Red Special” by Simon Bradley and Brian May, the guitar’s neck was part of an old fireplace mantel. There are wormholes at the back of the neck filled with smoothed-off matchsticks. Brian and Harold also hand-carved the inlay on the fret out of old mother-of-pearl buttons.
The tremolo arm was made from a bicycle saddlebag holder, and its tip was made of one of his mother’s knitting needles. The center part of the body was made from a piece of an oak table. The deep reddish-brown wood of the guitar had inspired Brian to call this treasured and remarkable instrument the Red Special.
Where can I get my own Red Special?
Through the years, there has been a multitude of replicas of the Red Special, built by amateurs and professionals, including two major commercial issues, with Guild Guitars of the USA and Burns Guitars of the UK.
Currently, only Brian May Guitars (taking over manufacture from Burns) manufacture authorized replicas of the Red Special at a budget price point. Their BMG Special, inspired by Brian May’s legendary Red Special, sells for £620.83 to £745.00 or around $840 to $1,000.
Brian May Guitars
In 2006, Brian May launched Brian May Guitars to sell commercial Red Special replicas. Brian wanted to have a hand in the manufacturing of these iconic instruments, so he teamed up with Barry Moorhouse of House Music and his long-time tech man Pete Malandrone to launch the brand. Their aim was to make the best product at an affordable price so that all may enjoy the unique sound and feel of a Brian May guitar.
Overall, it seems that Brian May’s guitar is very much beyond the reasoning of pricing. It is priceless and invaluable, as it is a relic of a legendary musician. As Brian May and Queen toured the world playing sold-out shows, this guitar was a priceless reminder of the legacy of one of music’s most prolific and innovative guitarists ever.
Michaela Jyra Melo is a freelance writer, music obsessive, and professional content creator with a passion for sharing her experiences and knowledge with the world. Michaela is a music lover first and foremost. She's passionate about new music and artists, but she also loves to dig into musical instruments and equipment. Michael studies communication at the University of the Philippines. When she's not writing or listening to new music, she can be found reading on her Kindle or traveling somewhere new with friends.