Brian May’s Live Rig, Past and Present

Brian May’s live rig has evolved considerably over the years from a fully analogue set-up comprising a very long curly Whirlwind guitar lead, a plywood pedalboard with analogue effects and a wall of Vox AC30 amplifiers in the early days to a wireless, rack-mounted system with digital effects processors in the Queen + Adam Lambert era. At all times, the ultimate output has been via multiple Vox AC30 amplifiers at full volume but the basic tone-shaping elements of his signal chain remain essentially the same.

In the interests of brevity, I have included several embedded videos which best illustrate the original and modern configurations and photographs, some of which also appear in a definitive article written by Greg Fryer and Mark Reynolds on the history of Brian May’s treble boosters and pedalboard:

Brian May’s Modern Wireless, Digital Live Rigs

Brian now has two rack-mounted live rigs, a main set-up for large venue performances, e.g. with Queen + Adam Lambert and a smaller rack-mounted set-up intended as a back-up and for guest appearances in smaller venues which can be more easily transported by his equipment technician, Pete Malandrone. Both rigs were built primarily by Nigel Knight of Knight Audio Technologies although some Mike Hill Services equipment is used. They are illustrated in the image gallery below with photo credits by Nigel Knight, reproduced here with his permission.

The main components are a strap-mounted KAT treble booster, TC Electronic G-Major 2 digital effects processors, Dunlop DCR-2SR CryBaby Wah Wah, Shure digital wireless radio system (further details below) and a MIDI switching unit operated by Pete. Reliability and redundancy are the key attributes of any professional audio system used for live performance and this is why there are multiple G-Major 2 units and a regulated power supply unit (PSU). Interestingly, Nigel has converted a DigiTech Red Special pedal to a rack mount configuration for the smaller rig.

Nigel updated the wireless transmitter/receiver equipment in Brian May’s main stage rig from a Sennheiser analogue system to a Shure digital system in March 2022. The new equipment now comprises the following:

He also carried out some additional tasks including:

  • Adjusting the gain of the treble boosters to optimise the interface with the ADX1 packs
  • Altering the rig inputs to receive the outputs from the AD4D digital wireless receivers
  • Changing the antennae to one omnidirectional and one directional (for the B-stage) and routing them through an active splitter rather than passive

Shure’s ShowLink system allows Pete Malandrone or Emma Lee, audio technician responsible for all Q+AL touring wireless equipment including the in-ear monitors (IEMs) and Adam’s vocal microphone to update and access all the packs via the receiver, so if background noise is detected on the scanners during a performance, Pete can change the frequency band at the receiver and all the transmitter packs update immediately, including the one Brian is playing through with no interruption detectable by the audience.

The definitive run down of Brian’s modern touring rig and guitars was made by Premier Guitar during the Queen + Adam Lambert U.S. tour in July 2014. The video is 33m 45s long and covers the Red Special itself, Fryer ‘John’ back-up guitar, the Badger semi-acoustic guitar and the main elements of the rack unit itself.

In late 2020, I was offered the opportunity to acquire a Brian May style live rig originally built for Andy Barnett by Nigel Knight of Knight Audio Technologies (KAT). The rig was designed to work with a custom made KAT 24 way floor switching unit with amplifier muting and MIDI/effect pedals switching features. I ordered a custom made shock-mounted 19″ rack flight case with removable front and rear covers and top lid with a wheeled trolley similar to Brian’s smaller rig from NSP Cases (The Flight Case Company) in the U.K. The YouTube video below covers the unboxing, assembly, connection and demonstration of the rig.

Luke Timmins, guitarist with U.K. based tribute band Supreme Queen has a custom made KAT rig similar to Brian’s live units and three Vox AC30 TBX amplifiers modified by Nigel Knight. He has demonstrated it by playing various Queen tracks in a series of videos on his YouTube channel, two of which are embedded below. You can read more about his rig and the KAT suite of amplifier modifications in the comments section of his videos and on Nigel’s website:

Video demonstration part 1 by Luke Timmins of his custom made Brian May style guitar rig made by Nigel Knight of Knight Audio Technologies. Under Pressure, Brighton Rock and the We Will Rock You solo.
Video demonstration by Luke Timmins of his custom made Brian May style guitar rig made by Nigel Knight of Knight Audio Technologies. Brighton Rock solo with twin delays at 800 ms and 1600 ms to the left and right amplifiers, centre amplifier ‘dry’.

Brian May’s Early Analogue Pedalboard-Based Live Rig

Brian May’s early pedalboard set up was very straightforward comprising a treble booster, Foxx foot phaser and two Echoplex foot switches mounted on a plywood base with a Jen wah wah pedal situated nearby. Connection to the guitar was via a Whirlwind curly guitar lead which became almost as distinctive a feature of Queen’s early performances as Brian’s curly hair. Later evolutions with Pete Cornish input deployed silicon BC149 transister based treble boosters and increased in electronic complexity.

Mark Reynolds and Martin Pitcher have both built replicas of Brian’s early Queen era pedalboard. They brought these to the 2019 U.K. meet-up and collaborated to demonstrate the features with a particular emphasis on the twin treble booster configuration. This demonstration is presented in the embedded video below. Although this was recorded using a compact zoom camera, the sound quality is sufficient to hear the tonal variations through a pure, authentic Brian May signal chain.

Mark’s setup comprises a genuine first issue Foxx phaser and replica BC149 boosters (single treble booster and treble booster Duplex), Martin’s a bespoke, simplified Foxx style phaser unit built by Nigel Knight (KAT) which was designed to replicate Brian’s own unit as closely as possible also with replica BC149 treble boosters (single treble booster and treble booster Duplex). A third modern re-issue Foxx phaser (which was based on the original late 1970’s 2nd issue Foxx phaser design) is also tested in the demonstrated. Mark and Martin A/B test their two phasers and illustrate Brian May’s use of two treble boosters (the second booster level set at approx. 9 o’clock) to shape the tonal dynamics of the signal chain to ensure the guitar output cuts through a live performance mix. Martin Pitcher plays his Guyton Red Special replica through a Vox AC30 TBX amplifier.

Red Special Meetup TVH2019: Foxx Phaser & Two Treble Booster Comparison by Martin Pitcher and Mark Reynolds, Part 1.

The final iteration of Brian’s analogue pedalboard was a fully integrated, custom wired unit built by Pete Cornish, in which all the effects were removed from their original housings and the printed circuit boards were incorporated into a large plywood base with added circuitry such as level matching and buffer amplifiers. This unit survived intact in Brian’s equipment storage facility and was dismantled and investigated a few years ago by Pete Malandrone and Nigel Knight. The colour photographs below, originally taken by Pete on his smartphone and uploaded to the Red Special Facebook group, clearly illustrate the complexity of the electronics wiring.

Further Reading

If you are interested in more detailed information about the pedalboard and treble boosters used by Brian during the original Queen era from 1970 to 1986, please read this thoroughly researched and richly illustrated article written by Greg Fryer and Mark Reyolds:

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