I make use of two rather non traditional guitars across my various projects; below is a bit about them and why I find them so interesting.

Brian May Guitars

As most guitar aficionados know, Brian May, guitarist for Queen, custom built his iconic guitar as a teenager. Called the “Red Special” this instrument provided the unique and mesmerizing guitar timbres on virtually all Queen songs. Powering the sounds are three Tri-Sonic pickups built by Burns. Unusually for guitar pickups, they are wired in series. Each pickup has an on/off switch and a switch to bring it in and out of phase. Brian’s most common setting, used for ~95% of his work, is the middle/bridge pickups, in phase. He uses a Fryer treble booster to drive a Vox AC30, running flat out. For clean sounds, he merely dials down the volume knob on his guitar. 

Through the years, multiple guitar companies have made replicas of the Red Special. Guild made a limited run in the 80s. Various one offs and customs projects have been made. Then in the early 2000s, Burns made a production line that was widely lauded and distributed. They continued these for some time, until Brian launched his own company: Brian May Guitars. 

I have been intrigued by this instrument and these sounds for as long as I can remember, and through the years I have owned several iterations. 

There was always something so fresh and unique about Brian's tones on the Queen records. But it really is worthy of re-mentioning how different these tones were from what has been codified as standard electric guitar tones in most people's ears.The Les Paul, the 335, the Gretsches, the Strats and Teles, and a few others on a shortlist more or less make up what people think of when they think electric guitar. In the same way as we all have a few go-to tones in our heads for other instruments: violins, saxes, clarinets, etc. And in some of those cases, that's really the extent of the instruments' tonal options. But what if a violinist or a composer suddenly had a fresh suite of tonal options? That's the way I think about the opportunities of this guitar.

There are several layers to be unpacked here. First, the classic Queen high-gain leads and rhythm timbres are so unique and interesting. I love taking them out of the Queen context and putting them in other rock/soul/chamber contexts, as I did on Sublunar Minds' album “Into A Future Bright And Beautiful” (bandcamp link but it's available on Spotify and everywhere else you'd think to look). Loads of people copied Beatles/Clapton/Hendrix/Zepplin/Van Halen/etc tones and in so doing more or less established the tonal spectrum for lead and rhythm guitars in a rock context. Adding the Queen-style tones into that spectrum, especially in a non-Queen context, feels amazingly refreshing.

But I'm mostly interested in where it goes beyond that. The combination of wiring in series and in/out phase switches explodes the options. And the majority of the options are timbres we don't typically hear in electric guitar. That provides such a fun blank canvas. The out of phase sounds are funkier than funky. Other settings have a hollow cluck that makes for super interesting twang. And there's a host of thick "wooly" sounds that are unlike anything else in the guitar landscape.

One final bit of trivia -- I had always read that Brian played with a sixpence. So the first time I was in the UK as a teenager I bought a cheap touristy set of antique coins, which contained old sixpences. They are rigid and give the metallic sound but are also super thin. I don't use them for every part, but they do add something magical.

Novax Guitars

Charlie Hunter 8 String

Charlie Hunter is one of the most unique and innovative guitarists on the planet (and one of my personal favorites). Inspired by jazz organists, he developed a style incorporating simultaneous and independent bass, rhythm, and melodic parts. To do this at the level he wanted, Novax Guitars built him a new type of instrument: an 8 string guitar combining both guitar and bass. The 8 strings cover 3 bass strings (usually E A D) and 5 guitar strings (usually A D G B E). There are dedicated bass and guitar pickups, with independent outputs, so the player can route the bass strings to a bass amp and the guitar strings to a guitar amp. This enables truly distinct guitar and bass lines simultaneously. For consistent intonation, Novax also added “fanned” frets so that the bass side has a bass scale and the guitar side a guitar scale.

I have been a Charlie Hunter fan since he first emerged on the scene and always fascinated by his instrument. However, the driving force for me to invest in one was not to imitate his jazz-funk style, but to enable solo singer-songwriter and pop rock accompaniment with both bass and guitar parts covered by one player. I used the instrument extensively with my marimba-based pop group The New Benjamin Britton (Spotify, Apple Music). For that sound, I ran the guitar section through an Electro Harmonix Micro Pog, for a bit of “octave-up” shine, then into timed delays, and then into joint amps -- a Fender Twin and a Roland Jazz Chorus.

This is such a unique and enjoyable instrument to play. The bass sound is round, almost like an organ, and the guitar pickups are clear and detailed. The fanned frets look strange but are actually quite easy to navigate, and the whole instrument plays amazingly smoothly from top to bottom.