Burns Brian May Red Special Upgrade Part 1: Inspection and Strip Down

On receipt of the guitar, I inspected it and found that the overall condition was very good with no noticeable wear and tear such as lacquer scratching, chips, dents or belt buckle rash. It had clearly had only been played occasionally and not gigged. Extensive tremolo use can wear grooves into the zero fret on a Brian May Red Special guitar which then causes the strings to ping as they move in and out of the notches during playing as illustrated in the embedded video below. Thankfully, the tremolo block movement had been restricted on this guitar (see below) which has undoubtedly helped prevent such zero fret wear.

The back plate and tremolo bolt cover still had some well aged original plastic film on them. The seller stated that he did not play it much because he found that his Fender Stratocaster met his requirements. He had used the Burns with a hand-wired Vox AC30 and a Digitech Brian May effects pedal which was also for sale. I already have one of these units so I didn’t buy it although I pointed out to him that the settings can be adjusted to suit guitars with single coil pickups, humbucking pickups and Brian May Red Special guitars.

The only particular area of concern was in the tremolo cavity. The springs had some surface oxidation but remained serviceable. A piece of multi-density fibreboard (MDF) and a strip of wood had been inserted in front of and behind the tremolo block, presumably to prevent tremolo movement and convert the guitar to a ‘hard tail’. Thankfully these were not glued in place and could easily be removed once the springs were de-tensioned and lifted out.

The seller advertised the guitar as having Adeson Tri-Sonic pickups fitted. The covers did not have any engraving to help identify them and when I measured the DC resistances and inductances at 1 kHz with my Peak Atlas LCR45 meter, I discovered that all three pickups had DC resistances around 6.5 kΩ and inductances around 2.1 H. This identifies them as an early “Fryer spec.” set. These values are all different on the original Red Special for various reasons I will cover in detail in a separate article in future but this set has correct inductances on the bridge and middle pickups; the DC resistances are around 7% lower. Despite not being able to stagger the pickup heights to achieve the correct distance to the strings, the guitar sounded authentic through the KAT Deacy and KAT/Fryer Ringmaster treble booster signal chain pictured above. I sold the pickups to another enthusiast which helped offset the cost of buying the guitar. All Adeson pickups are worth having whether or not they exactly match the values on Brian’s original Red Special.

I kept all other hardware from the guitar to preserve the option return it to its original specification. Please note that if you are considering modifying an early (up to 2004) Burns Brian May Red Special guitar, examples in good condition are steadily increasing in value. Earlier this year (2020), a pre-production model with no serial number that the original owner obtained from Barry Moorhouse at a trade show in Birmingham sold on eBay (after being relisted once) for £1,000. I have seen other original examples with their original Burns branded ABS cases sell for over £700. Collectors of anything worth owning usually prefer the items to be in their original condition. This factor, as well as my desire to keep this upgrade project straightforward limited the scope to a reversible upgrade with no significant changes to the physical form of the instrument.

Next article:
Part 2: Design Phase

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