Brian May's Guitar Gear: A Night At The Opera

by Jim Button
Brian May's Red Special Guitar with self-wound pickups

Brian May's unique guitar tone can be heard all over Queen's fourth studio album, A Night At The Opera.

A Night At The Opera saw Queen take their place as rightful superstars with Bohemian Rhapsody and led the way to the stadium rock of Queen's subsequent albums.

Following its release in November 1975, A Night At The Opera spent 44 weeks in the UK album charts, including four weeks at number 1. In the USA Billboard album chart it reached a peak position of number 4.

What Guitar Did Brian May Use On A Night At The Opera?

Perhaps Brian May's most famous part of his guitar rig is the 'Red Special' guitar he built with his father Harold in 1963, and which he has used throughout his career.

The neck was crafted from part of a 100-year-old mahogany fireplace, with a painted oak fingerboard inlaid with filed-down pearl shirt buttons!

The semi-hollow body has solid oak centre inserts and a mahogany veneer, stained with wood dye and polished to a gloss between coats of Rustin’s Plastic Coating. 

Customised switching allows for plenty of tonal options from the three direct-body-mounted Burns Tri-Sonic pickups, including phase-switching and individual on/off controls for each pickup. These single-coil Burns pickups replaced the original pickups which Brian wound himself.

The vibrato utilises roller saddles in the bridge and valve springs from a motorbike engine.

What Amps Did Brian May Use On A Night At The Opera?

Brian May is primarily associated with using a Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster in front of the Normal channel of a cranked Vox AC30, often keeping the Cut control on the amp turned all the way down for maximum treble attack.

This setup was his weapon of choice for A Night At The Opera, but he also made use of a homemade amp - the "Deacy" amp.

The Deacy amp was built from the circuit board of an old Supersonic PR80 germanium transistor radio found in a skip by Queen bassist, John Deacon. Deacon fitted it into a bookshelf speaker cabinet and powered it with a large PP9 9V battery.

Notable for its lack of controls, originally the Deacy amp had a volume pot but this was removed soon afterwards. When Brian May tested Deacon's handmade amp, he found that using his Treble Booster in front of it gave it definition and sustain.

The Deacy amp became an important studio tool for May, allowing him to produce sounds that the Vox AC30 couldn't manage. He favoured using it to layer guitar sounds and even created faux orchestra effects with it. On a Night At The Opera he used the Deacy amp most notably on "God Save The Queen" and "Good Company".

Brian May's Guitar Pedals

The combination of Brian May's Vox AC30 (and Deacy!) with his Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster gives beautifully saturated, cutting tones with complex harmonics.

You can hear this germanium-based pedal on Queen's first four albums - including A Night At The Opera - but it was lost in 1976 and replaced with a Treble Booster built by Pete Cornish based on silicon transistors and offering a fuller-range character (the Pete Cornish TB83). This was eventually superseded by the Greg Fryer Treble Booster in Brian May's rig.

Brian also used a wah pedal in fixed positions as a tone control played through the Deacy amp for the jazz band-inspired "Good Company".

Brian May's Gear: A Night At The Opera (1975)

  • 1963 "Red Special"
  • Vox AC30
  • "Deacy" amp
  • Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster
  • Wah pedal

Get the Brian May Sound

Brian May's sound is easy to ballpark but difficult to emulate precisely - mostly because of his use of the one-off "Red Special" guitar. You could use any single-coil or humbucker equipped guitar really but if you're really serious, you can buy official replicas these days from Brian May Guitars.

You will need a Vox AC30 or AC30-style amp on the Normal channel. It's the unique circuitry of the AC30 (Class A, 4 cathode-biased EL84 valves, no negative feedback) which gives it that lively, complex vocal quality.

You'll then need a boost pedal - ideally a boost pedal based on the Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster, which will give the amp clean gain and push it into glorious overdrive.

The Tate FX Hot Coals is based on the germanium Dallas Rangemaster and includes a toggle to switch between original treble boost and a fuller boost which is closer to the Pete Cornish version Brian May used subsequently.

Tate FX Hot Coals Germanium Rangemaster Transparent Front | Boost Guitar Pedals
Tate FX Hot Coals Germanium Rangemaster Transparent Front | Boost Guitar Pedals
Tate FX Hot Coals Germanium Rangemaster right - Boost Guitar Pedals
Tate FX Hot Coals Germanium Rangemaster left - Boost Guitar Pedals
Tate FX Hot Coals Germanium Rangemaster front context | Boost Guitar Pedals

TATE FX Hot Coals Germanium Rangemaster

£149.00

NOS Germanium Rangemaster with Full Range Mode...

The Tate FX Hot Coals is a Rangemaster-style germanium boost, made with NOS UK military-spec germanium transistors and NOS USSR germanium diodes for temperature stabilisation.

Based on the classic Dallas Rangemaster, the Hot Coals takes the best parts and expands on it - notably including a toggle to switch between the classic treble-boost and a fuller-range setting for those occasions when you don't need all that treble!

Full of muscular sounds, this is a brilliant Rangemaster-style pedal with incredibly organic germanium tones.

Features:

  • Classic Rangemaster-style germanium boost
  • Switch between original treble-boost circuit and modern-style full range character
  • Handmade in the UK
  • Power: 9v power adaptor, centre-negative (not included)
View Details

So to sound like Brian May you don't need much in the way of gear, but you do need the right gear to get within spitting distance. One of his secret tonal weapons was an old sixpence, so try using a coin to eek out extra harmonics and string attack. But don't forget that you'll need to brush up on your Brian May-esque chops too!

Originally published 7th April 2020. Updated 23rd June 2021

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