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The Red Special: creating your own unique sound

What does it take to get started on the road to being a major rock star? Some skill in singing or playing an instrument and a unique sound of course, but an interest in electronics might help too. That's what got Brian May of Queen up and running. His guitar, "the red special" was unique. It defined his style and he has used it when recording and touring throughout his career. He didn't buy it though. He made it himself with help from his dad. You could make your own electronic instrument too if you wanted...

Brian May decided to make an electric guitar partly because he couldn't afford to buy one and partly for the fun of it. He wanted one with a unique sound that was better than anything that existed at the time.

What do you need to make a serious musical instrument? Well, for May's the parts were scavenged from junk and things around the house. The wooden parts were from a mantelpiece being thrown out, so his guitar comes complete with wormholes. He also used bits of shelf edging, a knife for the tremolo, some old motorbike springs, a knitting needle and some bits from a bike! For the electronics he adapted bought circuitry, such as using a commercial pickup that he modified to improve it.

A pickup is just a gadget that converts the vibration of the strings into an electrical signal that can then be amplified. It's essentially just an electromagnet made of a coil of wire round a permanent magnet. When the string (a metal wire) vibrates nearby it affects the magnetic field of the magnet and that changing field creates a current in the coil. For the red special, May rewound the coil and covered it in glue as a way of the reducing unwanted noise generated by the pickup leaving just the good sounds.

As it's partially hollow, the red special is a semi-acoustic guitar that gave him a new sound. It was more tunable with more sounds than anything else out there at the time and also allowed him to control the feedback effects guitarists like Jimmy Hendrix were having to force from their guitars.

You can now buy a replica red special if you have the money, but then that sound is no longer unique of course. You'd need a more novel instrument to do that. May had help from his father to make his. If you want to have a go at making your own novel electronic instrument and need help getting started why not have a go at making our Arduinitar first: an electric guitar with a difference. After that you could perhaps experiment and build something of your own design that has a completely new sound. Rock stardom may then be in sight. You will just then need to put in the hours and hours of practice to become a virtuoso musician.