You can’t argue that Brian May’s style of playing and guitar sound aren’t both instantly recognisable. Brian has religiously stuck to his guns when it comes to his choice of guitar, being his own handmade Red Special and preference of the mighty VOX AC30. There are a few other smaller components, which contribute towards his sound that we are also going to highlight in this article.
For nearly 20 years Dan has tried to replicate Brian’s sound in his own live and studio setups. In this article we share these experiences as well as suggest several ways you can try to get the Brian May guitar sound for yourself in your next recording.
Let’s cut straight to the chase, the best way you can achieve a Brian May guitar tone for yourself in your studio is by using IK Multimedia’s latest Brian May Collection for AmpliTube.
We’ve tested it and feel that IK Multimedia have left no stone unturned. This collection incorporates Brian’s tone, guitar sound and the gear in great detail but in order to fully understand this software in its entirety, as well as get an idea of the lengths IK went to develop this collection it is really helpful to understand the history behind Brian’s sound and some of the mainstream signature gear that came before this, all of which we will cover in detail in this article. However, If you are already familiar with the story behind Brian May’s sound then you can skip down this article to read our Test And Review Of IK Multimedia’s Brian May Collection.
What Gear Has Brian May Used Over The Decades?
The Guitar - It’s Rather Red Special
In the early 1960’s Brian and his father Harold May set out to build an electric guitar. Even by today’s standards this sounds very ambitious doesn’t it? They didn’t really have a choice as they couldn’t afford to buy, what were then, expensive off-the-shelf Stratocasters or Les Pauls. With no prior experience they spent several years designing and building the guitar from the ground up, which would later be known as Red Special using spare bits and bobs they had around their family home in Feltham. They didn’t set out to copy any other guitar available at the time, instead they chose to take small bits of inspiration from some of the big hitter brands, while implementing their own smart ideas into the design such as a 24 fret fingerboard and phase reverse pickup switching system for the Burns Tri-Sonics, which they chose to fit into the body.
The story behind the Red Special has been covered in great detail by many guitar publications over the years. One of the best Red Special resources out, especially if you are a fan of Queen, is a book Brian published to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Red Special. The video below is from the launch of the book “Brian May’s Red Special”.
In this video, Brian goes into great detail about the history of this iconic instrument. He also shares what his thought processes were behind the design, how the guitar works, why he prefers to use it over any other guitar and of course… he breaks out some tasty licks.
As you can imagine, The Red Special has seen a lot of action over the decades of exclusive use. So much so that it has needed to be restored several times to repair damage caused by the sixpence that Brian uses as a plectrum. The most recent restoration of his guitar was back in 2016 in which master luthier Andrew Guyton worked his magic. Andrew documented his work on the Red Special that you can read on his blog - Working on the original Red Special.
The video below is a rare up close and personal look around the original Red Special in all her war torn glory before the restoration work.
We’ll talk more about Andrew Guyton later in this article as there are several reasons why Brian and his team trusted him to undertake such important work on The Red Special.
Hopefully this chapter has showed you how the Red Special contributes towards Brian’s overall sound. We’ll come back to the Red Special later and explore several mainstream replica guitars you can buy.
What else does Brian use in his typical rig?
Pedals - One In Particular You Need To Know About
There are countless well known guitarists out there who are known for their sizeable pedal and rack gear collections, Brian isn’t one of them. His approach is far simpler but no less important. We have already established that the Red Special plays a big part in his sound, but what does Brian plug his guitar into?
Between his guitar and amp he uses a treble booster, but what does it do? The name gives it away really. These types of pedal simply boost the signal from the guitar, mostly in the top end, helping valve amps to really sing. Rory Gallagher inspired a young Brian May to experiment with treble boosters and VOX amps as Brian wanted his guitar sound to have a similar voice like presence. He put a treble booster to work and the rest you could say is history.
Treble boosters come in all shapes and sizes. They typically have simple on/off switches and single boost dials but many are just simple inline boxes with no controls at all. Brian has used many flavours of treble booster over the years. He used Rangemasters in early Queen records but moved to other models over the years, which changed his tone ever so slightly but not enough to say that any treble booster can’t get you most of the way of getting the Brian May tone for yourself with a valve amp.
We’ll touch on treble boosters again later in this article.
The Amps That Brian May Uses On Stage And In The Studio
The VOX AC30 was introduced in the late 1950s. It was developed as a direct response to a number of guitarists at the time complaining about their AC15s not being loud enough to carry their sound in venues filled with their adoring fans screaming at the top of their lungs. The AC30 simply doubled the power of the AC15 and went of to be an overnight success.
Brian has always used the AC30 in both the studio and on stage. His model of choice is the AC30TBX that have the Blue Alnico speakers in the back. He opts for the normal channel and cranks the pots to full fat for full flavour. In the studio he has used all manner of techniques from single amp setups to multiple cabs. On stage he uses what appears to be a wall of 12 AC30 cabs, but looks can be deceiving. In reality, Brian only uses three AC30 amps at any given time when performing live. The other six are backups which are ready to roll if any of his main three amps decide to bottle out on him.
The three amps he uses, which are always the bottom row, are setup in a wet-dry-wet configuration. The left and right AC30’s are used for effects such as chorus, delay and pitch shifting. The centre AC30 is dry being totally unaffected for pure direct AC30 sound. Over the years he has had several AC30s modified, or shall we say stripped down, as many of the standard components in the AC30 he doesn’t use. This is claimed to improve the reliability of these amps when on the road. His amps are so stripped down they only have circuitry for the normal channel.
The video below was published by Premier Guitar. It is an interview with Brian’s Guitar Technician Pete Malandrone who shares the secrets behind Brian’s stage rig. This video provides an excellent insight into Brian’s sound and shows us just how simple a setup it really is.
The Deacy Amp
Queen’s bassist John Deacon was a bit of wizz kid with electronics. In the early 1970’s John put together a little battery powered amp for Brian that, legend has it, was built from old hi-fi bits found in a skip. This went on to be known as The Deacy Amp and played a huge role in Brian’s studio sound.
The Deacy amp produces a very distinct upper mid range tone, which contrasted the sound of the guitar tracks Brian recorded with AC30s. On its own The Deacy Amp can sound quite boxy if used for rhythm parts but its forte was to be found as a tone machine. It pronounced the tonal differences in Brian’s unique Red Special pickup variations which Brian found, albeit with a rain coat thrown over it from time to time to tame the highs, helped him to realise his guitar orchestra sections. These fanfare-like guitar sections became a massive part of his sound in many Queen records and can be heard throughout every chapter of the band’s discography.
Later in this article we’ll discuss a few ways that you can get Deacy Amp sounds in your recordings.
Discontinued Brian May Signature Products
So far we’ve covered the basics behind Brian May’s Sound. Now we’re going to get into the fun part in which we highlight several ways that you can get the Brian May sound in your next recording. Over the years there have been a number of attempts at reproducing Brian’s sound in mainstream pro audio gear. The following products were at the time quite well received but were discontinued fairly quickly. Dan has owned a few of the following products and thought they were quite good.
Brian May Red Special DigiTech Pedal
The Red Special DigiTech pedal was released in 2005. It was the first proper attempt at modelling most of Brian’s iconic guitar tones from over the decades. Legendary recording engineer Eddie Kramer was the project's lead modelling consultant on this and what resulted was a good product that did indeed give us easily accessible Brian May sounds in a box. There was also a Jimi Hendrix pedal similar in design to this but that, in my opinion, wasn’t as well thought out. This provided 14 of Brian’s most recognisable tones available at a turn of a dial. They even managed to model the pickups of Brian’s Red Special. All you needed to do was dial in a source guitar’s pickup type, being either hum-bucker or single-coil, and you were ready to reach for your sixpence… which was also included in the box!
This was a decent enough first attempt at providing the Brian May sound in a box, but it wasn’t perfect. I felt that this product lacked sustain and often sounded too digital. As a one-stop-shop for getting a Brian May sound this had a lot to offer but not enough in terms of feel and realism for the player. Alas, this was discontinued after a few short years but you can find these pop up from time to time on eBay.
VOX VBM-1 Brian May Special Amp
VOX released the VBM-1 amp in collaboration with Brian May in 2003. It was an interesting amp as it combined both a treble booster circuit and the sound of The Deacy Amp. I bought one and I remember it sounding… what’s a polite way of putting it? Trebly and fuzzy. This turned out not to be an everyday amp. The only application I found this useful in was for layering Queen like guitar harmonies in a DAW, which it did very well indeed.
I ended up selling it, a decision I would later regret as these unique little white amps appreciated in value quite a bit on the second hand market. Why did I sell it? I had my sights set on another VOX amp as I wanted a rig that could give me a more rounded Brian May sound that I could use more of the time in my then live career and studio setup.
The quest to reproduce the sound of The Deacy Amp luckily didn’t end when this was discontinued. We’ll explore what options followed this later in this article.
VOX released a limited edition Brian May AC30 back in 2006 called the VOX AC30BM. It commanded a hefty price tag of over £2,500 and had only one control being volume for the only channel it had being normal. Like the VBM-1, this was also developed in collaboration with Brian May and only 500 units were produced. The amp had a built-in treble booster and was capable of switching between 30 and 15 watts.
The design of this amp wasn’t too dissimilar to the modified amps Brian uses today, which we highlighted earlier. Sadly I never had the privilege of owning one of these, nor had an opportunity to play through one but the examples I have heard in online videos do tell me that these amps are a no compromise amp fully capable of giving us a genuine Brian May Sound in the hands of talented guitarists. The last of these amps were sold in 2007 and you'll be lucky to find one listed on Reverb or eBay as they are considered to be quite a collector’s piece.
How You Can Get The Brian May Guitar Sound In Your Next Recording
Pick A Guitar
There have been several attempts at replicating Brian’s Red Special guitar. In the 1980’s Guild produced a few models with a couple of the later variations being kept on standby as backup guitars when Brian played live. The most mainstream Red Special-esque guitar was produced by Burns Guitars and were released back in 2001. These were the first affordable Red Special guitar to date and had the seal of approval from Brian. However, production and control of these instruments were to move from Burns to Brian and his team as the design and build quality of these instruments needed to be improved. These days Brian May Guitars produce a range of Brian May Red Special guitars under the name of BMG and they are very well made and great instruments in their own right. These are available in a range of different finishes and colours which is great for those who want the Brian May sound but not so much the image.
To learn more about BMG guitars check out our review video below in which we show you the controls and demonstrate a selection of sounds it can produce.
There are a couple more options of Red Special that you can buy if your budget can afford them. The BMG isn’t the only range on offer, there is also a premium Red Special called the Brian May Super, which is very much a hardcore replica. One of these will set you back around £3,000 and you’ll have to wait as they only produce around 100 each year. My name has been on the waiting list for one of these for several years.
At the top end of the scale is a replica made by Andrew Guyton who we mentioned earlier in this article. Andrew produced a very limited number of Red Specials in beautiful deep green and traditional red finishes and these are considered by many to be the absolute closest thing to owning Brian’s own guitar. If you chose to place an order for one of these you wouldn’t have seen much change out of £10,000 but for that price you would have received a very exclusive guitar which also had the approval of Brian.
Pick A Pedal
We’ve already mentioned treble boosters. As useful as they are they really only serve a purpose for valve amps. Some distortion pedals can be introduced into a guitar chain that will get you close to the Brian May Sound, but which should you consider? Check out this Andertons How To Sound Like Brian May video as they demonstrate a few stomp boxes you can try if you are in hot pursuit of the BM sound on a budget.
Replica Brian May Treble Boosters
Knight Audio Technologies released several treble boosters made in collaboration with Brian May expert Greg Fryer. Greg Fryer, for those who don’t know, also restored Brian’s Guitar and has modified amps and electronics for his rigs.
Three pedals resulted from the partnership between Greg and KAT, which offer up three different flavours covering the different eras in Brian’s career from early Queen to his modern day live sound. I own the purple Deluxe as it boosts a hefty 35dB of gain into my AC30 and really does do a lot in terms of tone shaping. Watch the Guitar Interactive video presented by Jamie Humphries, a fellow Brian May guitar expert, to hear how these treble boosters contribute to the guitar sound.
KAT also provide a number of other products for the Brian May fan… which we’ll get to shortly.
Pick An Amp - Either Real Or Modelled
Recording Using A Real VOX AC30
The business end of Brian’s Rig is the legendary VOX AC30, known for its glassy tones and saturated grace. There have been many different models over the decades with the early 60’s and 90’s model being the ones to go for if you can find a decent example.
If you want to go the real amp route then you don’t necessarily need an AC30, though they are very special to play through. You can of course go a slightly cheaper route opting for an AC15 instead, which are more forgiving on your ears.
If you want to hear how a real AC30 sounds with a BMG guitar then watch our review of the current VOX AC30 hand wired series amp or our video tutorial below which shows you how to mic up one of these legendary amps.
Recording Using AC30 Plug-in Emulations - But Which Should You Choose?
In my experiences of being both a guitarist and music producer, the mark of a good guitar amp simulator plug-in is in the quality of its AC30 models. The AC30 maybe appear to be simple amp on the face of it but it’s tone and stages of saturation are both very complex. I find it quite easy to spot a poor AC30 emulation as the feel and vibe of these don’t often connect with me when I’m playing the guitar. There’s a magic in how the speaker breakup sounds when pushed that many plug-ins fail to capture in their AC30 models but that’s not to say that there isn’t some really good AC30 plug-ins out there.
We published a blind shootout earlier this year in which we provided several examples of VOX AC30 guitar emulations alongside a real AC30 example. We asked you to listen to the examples and try to spot the real AC30. Only 20% of those who took part spotted the real AC30. The winner of this poll was Native Instrument’s Guitar Rig followed closely by Avid’s Eleven Rack. These together fooled just over 50% into believing these were the real thing… that’s high praise in my books.
For me, Avid’s Eleven Rack has been the best place to find the most authentic sounding AC30 emulation. It has that magic I mentioned earlier and, if my monitors are set loud enough, feeds back in a very similar way to a real AC30. It really does make me feel like I’ve got an AC30 there in front of me.
we’ll take a look at this alternative to the Eleven Rack’s AC models later but there’s a new kid in town who think they have better sounding AC30…
Current Deacy Amp Replica
Earlier we mentioned the VBM-1 amp which set out to recreate the sound of Brian’s Deacy Amp. After this was discontinued there wasn’t to be any other product like it for sometime that could provide the sound of this unique little amp, until recently. We mentioned Knight Audio Technologies as a source for Brian May style treble boosters and they weren’t the only Brian May gear that KAT replicated. One of their more recent releases was a like-for-like replica of The Deacy amp that didn’t just sound just like it, but also looked and operated just like the original as well. Like the VBM-1 this has also been discontinued, sorry if we got your hopes up but there is one last option available to us if we want The Deacy Amp sound, which is a software solution by IK Multimedia that we’ve tested and think is pretty amazing.
All-In-One Brian May Signature Software
Testing IK Multimedia’s Brian May Collection For AmpliTube
You maybe wondering why I’ve gone to such lengths taking a trip through the history books showing you past Brian May Signature gear, most of which have been discontinued. It was party down to nostalgia but mainly to give you a sense of how many brands have attempted a Brian May-esque product. You’ll also see quite a lot of DNA from these products, we highlighted earlier in this article, in IK Multimedia’s new Brian May Collection for AmpliTube. We’ll point these out as we talk through the main features of this plug-in.
40 presets that provide instant access to Brian’s most iconic guitar sounds that you’ve heard in many Queen hits. These were programmed by Jamie Humphries who is a personal friend of Brian and has been fortunate enough to share a stage with him on several occasions. Jamie has also produced several videos for Guitar Interactive in which he goes into great detail about Brian May signature guitars and KAT audio products. He was clearly the best person to program the presets in IK’s new Brian May Collection and did a great job as well!
New Red Special digital stomp box that emulates not only the sound of Brian’s Red Special guitar but also the unique pickup selector controls. This enables people to use any type of electric guitar with this plug-in without needing a BMG guitar with Tri-Sonic pickups.
New KAT Treble Booster Classic. KAT’s three treble boosters, which we mentioned earlier, make an appearance here providing three different styles of sound covering Brian’s tone from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
New May Wah pedal. This is based on Brian’s rack mounted Wah that he occasionally uses live.
New Fox Flanger digital stomp box that provides a classic modulating effect that can be heard in many early Queen records.
New Star Gate digital stomp box that does a great job of reducing the volume of low level sound from the guitar between guitar parts. Turn this off, along with AmpliTube’s built-in gate and you’ll be in for a wild ride as the AC30 model in this is very lively indeed, just like an AC30 is in the flesh when set to maximum attack mode.
BM 30 amp which is the model of Brian’s AC30s. The top panel resembles the VOX AC30BM signature and copies the same format of Brian’s modified amps as it only has a single dial for volume. The higher volume, the more AC30 saturation you will get, back it off and you’ll get cleaner tones.
BM DK amp which is the model of Brian’s Deacy Amp. This is a real gem and sounds just like the original. The model even includes a battery power dial set to low on default as Brian prefers the sound of this amp when the battery is nearly flat.
In Use - Don’t Stop Me Now
When you first open the software you’ll most likely head straight to the preset menu and try your luck at a few Queen guitar licks. That’s exactly what I did but my first impressions were slightly dulled by the fact that my fingers are nowhere near as good as Brian’s. To test this I had to put the software to work in a real-world recording application. I pulled up a track I produced several years ago that took some inspiration from Queen’s hit Innuendo. I chose to re-record the guitar solo and include some Deacy Amp fanfare guitar parts.
Something was lacking from the experience when I was playing through the BM 30 AC30 model. While the sound was there the feel from my guitarist’s point of view was not. After half an hour of wondering what was a miss I realised I needed to crank the volume of my studio monitors. All of a sudden something quite remarkable happened, I got a beautiful sounding feedback that slowly developed and felt just like playing through a real AC30. This was all the encouragement I needed to get a solo down.
For the guitar harmonies, I pulled up a Deacy Amp setting and played around with some of the phase reverse switches on my Red Special until I found a combination that I felt contrasted the tone of the main solo. Below you can listen to this example both in the context of a mix and in isolation.
The sound and the feel of Brian’s rig is there but what else makes this collection special? AmpliTube is a very well thought out guitar amp system as it provides an excellent mic modelling section that you can use to reposition a variety of mics around the virtual speaker cone. It delivers very realistic results and is well worth playing around with for yourself. The post effects rack is also very good at giving your guitar tones that radio ready sound in no time at all.
Verdict - It’s A Kind Of Magic
As a tribute tool IK Multimedia’s Brian May Collection for AmpliTube is by far the best product I’ve ever used as it’s the first product bearing Brian’s name which, unlike products that came before, includes not only small parts of his sound but all of them in one environment. As an AC30 model this also proves to be very good as it has the sound and also the feel. However, if you are after a hardcore AC30 model then this may not deliver, as Brian’s VOX amps are stripped down to just the normal channel.
There’s nothing else for me to say about IK’s Brian May Collection other than Play The Game, download the demo to find out for yourself if what I’ve said in this article is Stone Cold Crazy or A Kind Of Magic.