Nobody Will Ever Know
I guess when people ask how much the Red Special is worth, they are interested in knowing what it would fetch at a specialist auction. If so, most people would be expecting a telephone number figure such as “a million dollars” or “ten million dollars” because the guitar is unique and has historical significance in the context of Western popular music. I imagine that the guitar will never appear at an auction and Brian will most likely bequeath it to his eldest child, Jimmy so that it remains in the family. I think (and personally hope) that the next most likely long term fate of the instrument is that it is exhibited on rotational display in various international locations such as Montreux, or even as part of a permanent Queen themed museum in London.
What Did it Originally Cost?
However, it is curious to try to answer the question objectively because it is possible to place an intrinsic value on the materials and parts that Brian actually bought, both in 1963 when Brian and Harold made it, then adjust this for nearly 60 years of U.K. inflation, and also if he were to make it now. Brian has stated that he bought the Tri-Sonic pickups for nine guineas at the Burns shop in St Giles Circus, London and he would also have to buy other items such as fretwire and possibly tuning machines, even though many of the materials and component parts were reclaimed. In her 2007 biography “Queen and I: The Brian May Story”, Laura Jackson reveals that the guitar cost Brian £17.45. If this value is adjusted for inflation to 2020, the answer is £373.69 which amounts to approximately half the recommended retail price of a BMG Special.
What if Brian Made it Now?
To answer the question another way, I have compiled two rough estimates for the cost of a current (2021) Red Special build, neither of which assume that materials are reclaimed or repurposed at no cost because this is not as much of a necessity as it was in early 1960s Britain and most prospective DIY builders seeking to build a quality replica instrument would not choose this option in any case. I also assume that certain items must either be bought from specialist suppliers (marquetry veneer) or custom made (e.g. blockboard because it is not possible to obtain off-the-shelf retail material with the correct dimensions: 3/4”, 19 mm thick). Although I have stated that most estimates includes shipping, this is implicit because it is not possible to buy these items in local stores and therefore they must be obtained via mail order. Where used items in good condition can readily be obtained, e.g. from eBay, this is taken into account. Estimates for multipack items reflect a reasonably small pack size or minimum order.
|Component||Budget Red Special Build||Authentic Red Special Build|
|Mahogany neck blank||£50 (reclaimed dry mahogany timber)||£100 (quarter sawn Honduras mahogany Swietenia specie tonewood blank)|
|Two sections 18” x 16” custom made blockboard comprising 3 mm plywood and PAR softwood strips||£20 (8’ x 4’ x 3 mm non-structural hardwood plywood sheet from builders merchant or DIY store)|
£22.50 (12 mm x 38 mm x 2400 mm, 4 off PAR softwood from builders merchant or DIY store)
|£20 (8’ x 4’ x 3 mm non-structural hardwood plywood sheet from builders merchant or DIY store)|
£22.50 (12 mm x 38 mm x 2400 mm, 4 off PAR softwood from builders merchant or DIY store)
|4 1/4” wide x 3/4” thick oak timber for body reinforcing inserts and fretboard||£12 per linear metre plus shipping, £22 total||£12 per linear metre plus shipping, £22 total|
|Quarter sawn knife cut 0.6 mm thick Honduras mahogany marquetry veneer||£32.35 per square metre £70 inc. shipping||£32.35 per square metre £70 inc. shipping|
|Bourns 250 kOhm log/audio taper potentiometers (2 off)||£10 inc. shipping||£10 inc. shipping|
|Treble cut tone capacitor||£10 (MKT1813 Vishay polyester film)||£20 (vintage TCC Metalmite CP33N 0.02 microF)|
|1/4” mono jack socket||£7.50 inc. shipping (Switchcraft extra long barrel)||£25 (vintage Bulgin/Radio Spares)|
|Pickups||£60 (set of three unbranded BHK Tri-Sonics)||£160 (set of three Adeson “Guyton/original BM” specification Tri-Sonics)|
|Fretwire||£25 (Hosco medium standard “for Gibson guitars” 3/32” (2.4 mm) wide x 3/64” (1.4 mm) crown height) to cover zero fret and allow 0.2 mm for dressing the main frets||£25 (Hosco medium standard “for Gibson guitars” 3/32” (2.4 mm) wide x 3/64” (1.4 mm) crown height) to cover zero fret and allow 0.2 mm for dressing the main frets|
|Tuning machines||£50 (budget brand new locking 3L3R or used Schaller M6 3L3R or Gotoh Magnum Lock)||£90 (new, Schaller M6 3L3R or Gotoh Magnum Lock)|
|Roller bridge||£10 inc. shipping (aluminium bar, manually milled, drilled and abraded to shape)||£275 inc. shipping (full set of custom made Red Special hardware from Ron Smith’s Cyber Shop)|
|Tremolo (vibrato) system fulcrum plate||£10 inc. shipping (1/8” thick mild steel imperial gauge plate/ground flat stock, manually milled, drilled and abraded to shape)||£0.00 included in hardware set|
|Tremolo (vibrato) system tailpiece||£15 inc. shipping (1/4” thick mild steel imperial gauge plate/ground flat stock, manually milled, drilled and abraded to shape)||£0.00 included in hardware set|
|Tremolo (vibrato) system springs||£10 inc. shipping||£0.00 included in hardware set|
|Various fasteners as detailed in Red Special Fixings and Fasteners schedule||£0 (fully reclaimed wood screws, set screws and machine screws)||£50 inc. shipping (marine grade stainless steel fasteners in small pack sizes (5-20 items) including wood screws|
|1.5 mm thick aluminium plate in a suitable grade and temper for milling (e.g. 5251 H22) for switch frame and pot/cap mounting plate||£10 inc. shipping (1.2 mm x 300 x 300 mm)||£10 inc. shipping (1.2 mm x 300 x 300 mm)|
|Brass plate for truss rod bolt butt plate||£10 inc. shipping (1.5 mm x 150 x 50 mm)||£10 inc. shipping (1.5 mm x 150 x 50 mm)|
|BMG control knobs||£23.95 inc. shipping||£23.95 inc. shipping|
|Chromed brass vintage Burns style strap buttons||£25 inc. shipping||£25 inc. shipping|
|Gloss black acrylic (Perspex) sheet, 3.0-3.2 mm||£25 inc. shipping||£25 inc. shipping|
|Nut/string guide||£20 (vintage Bakelite item, e.g. radio, hairdryer, box, etc.)||£20 (vintage Bakelite item, e.g. radio, hairdryer, box, etc.)|
|Black grain filler (e.g. W S Jenkins Jecofill)||£25 inc. shipping||£25 inc. shipping|
|Clear lacquer||£25 (Rustins Plastic Coating, 2 part brush on formulation)||£60 (nitrocellulose lacquer aerosol rattle cans)|
|Red mahogany wood stain, or lacquer tint||£12.50 (Rustins)||£12.50 (Rustins)|
|Black stain (Liberon) and/or aerosol paint (Plasti-Kote)||£15||£15|
|Adhesives (wood glue, wood filler, cyanoacrylate superglue)||£30||£30|
|Various sundries including MOP dots, CAB plastic binding strip, etc.||£25 inc. shipping||£25 inc. shipping|
|Total cost||£640 approx.||£1,180 approx.|
What Are Authorised High End Replicas Worth?
Before concluding this discussion, it is interesting to consider values of the few authorised replicas which have changed hands publicly. I am aware of three transactions: The original retail price for the 40 red and 10 green Guyton Red Special replicas was around £7,800 during their production run. Guyton RSR-18, serial #050973 (which had additional provenance by virtue of being featured in the Haynes book How to Build an Electric Guitar by Paul Balmer and the case and leather bound build manual were both signed by Brian) was offered for resale via Guyton Guitars in 2016 for £10,000. The single left-handed Guyton Red Special (RSR-31, serial #1114122) was offered for resale via Guyton Guitars in May 2021 for £11,600. Greg Fryer sold his replica which he retained for testing (“Paul”) to a private buyer, believed to be Japanese collector Motoki Hiratani. The agreed price was not publicly disclosed by either party, however, it is reasonable to speculate given its provenance that it would have realised in the region of US$15,000 to US$20,000.
The most meaningful answer is of course that the Red Special, like any unique object with significant sentimental value, history and provenance is priceless, meaning that it cannot be replaced like-for-like at any cost. Brian can and does use back-up replicas which do the same job and require less maintenance and upkeep, but consider what the Red Special means to Brian over and above its history in the context of global rock music recording and live performance. He spent some of his formative years designing it and building it with his father Harold, borne out of necessity, which as the adage goes, is the mother of invention. It then became the principal tool of his trade for over half a century, earning him tens of millions of dollars as a recording and performing musician, not to mention a considerable amount of fame, recognition and respect. Brian was an only child, but he and his band of talented brothers in Queen conquered the rock world and broke countless musical records. The special qualities of Brian May’s Red Special guitar transcend any monetary value that could ever be placed on it because it represents the strong bonds of special relationships.
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