James’s “We Will Rock You” axes

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A look at the axes behind the Queen musical “We Will Rock You.”

A few weeks ago at a work function, I met a Queen fan named Brett. We got to talking about guitars and he mentioned he had a friend who had played guitar in the Queen musical for the last ten years and wondered if I’d like to meet him and check out his guitars. James had auditioned in front of Brian May himself and over the years has played over 1700 performances of the hit musical around the world. He’s in Australia between tours and is off again in January, so I took the chance to check out his guitars.

Understandably, James uses the Brian May Red Special guitars to get the authentic sound he needs. He bought his first Red Special when they first came out and had it specially imported to Australia. This was before he’d gotten the Queen gig… James was such a big Queen fan that he knew he needed one.

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These were the first series when they were made by Burns. Brian has since set up his own company to make them himself. A big part of the sound are the authentic Burns TriSonic pickups and the pickup switching that Brian developed with his father.

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I’d been looking forward to playing one of these as I’d read so much about them and they’re really scarce in Australia. The neck is quite full, kind of like a Les Paul Standard but with a wider width. Brian’s original Red Special is famous for having a neck like a tree truck, so I think this profile is a good compromise. It’s comfortable to play and fret access is great.

James does two modifications to his stage guitars to make them road worthy. First is that he replaces the input jack with a Switchcraft and then the machine heads get swapped for locking Sperzels.

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The main compromise from the original Red Special to these is the Strat style tremolo. Brian’s original is a little too complicated to produce cheaply and effectively, so this made sense. The tremolo floats so you can warble up and down and works fine.

James’s other work axe is a newer black Red Special. This is the version made by Brian’s own guitar company and has a few little differences to the Burns version.

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The tremolo is now a Wilikinson knife edge tremolo and the pickups now have Brian’s signature on them. James isn’t sure if they’re the same spec as the original versions but they sound the same. Also, they’ve added a black plastic plate under the tremolo to make it look a little more authentic.

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The neck guitar was a bit of a surprise. This was a gift to James from Brian. It’s the acoustic version of the Red Special, called the Rhapsody.

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It’s body is quite small, and so has a bit of a ukulele sound to it . James says the inboard pickup system makes up for it and it sounds quite impressive. The neck is pretty big for a guitar this small. It’s almost similar to a classical guitar. Also, it’s been signed by Brian which James has had professionally covered to protect it.

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I was pretty impressed with these guitars. They sound fantastic and really can almost do anything. James mentioned that Brian is really specific with how the songs are played, down to which pickups used in certain part of the songs with which phase switching and what volume setting.

I’d actually be interested in getting a Red Special one day… I could see myself playing one. I’ve seen that there are tremolo conversion kits available that make it even closer to the original, so that might be an option.

Thanks to Brett & James. It was great meeting you guys and seeing these guitars up close.
Check out James’s website here: James Barber Music

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••update: I just came across a Guild Brian May for sale on eBay. While these are made beautifully, they’re known by Brian May fans for not really being that close to the original…. which is why Brian finished his association with them. Still, it looks pretty damn nice!

Here’s a link to the auction: Guild Brian May Red Special.