With Bohemian Rhapsody in cinemas, it seemed fitting to pay tribute to an iconic British creation: Brian May’s guitar. The original was made by May and his father, but it has been painstakingly recreated for the film by expert guitar maker Andrew Guyton.
Guitars and motorcycles have a close relationship, perhaps closer than most people realise. When the electric guitar became popular across the world it was the 1950s, a decade regarded as one of the best for motorcycle design. In the US, where both Fender and Gibson – the biggest guitar manufacturers – are based, cars and motorcycles were pastel colours and adorned with plenty of chrome. Just think of the original tangerine and blue 59 Bonneville.
Needless to say, this style craze spilled over into guitar design. You’ll find plenty of automotive colours and design cues on guitars of the era – the Fender Mustang has more than one car reference in its name alone. Manufacturers really haven’t changed their designs much since that time; Sea Foam Green, Candy Apple Red and Daphne Blue are colours that remain popular today and are rooted in automotive paint of the 50s.
When it comes to manufacturing guitars in the UK, there were people doing it – Abbott Victor, for example – but most musicians picked up the American models. Fast-forward to today and the UK has a burgeoning guitar market, but its focus is, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the boutique and exclusive side of things.
Entrusted with an icon
We tracked down a brand regarded as one of the best UK guitar makers – and one endorsed by Brian May. Beautifully crafted, limited edition guitars are what Andy Guyton of Guyton Guitars does best, and he’s built up quite a reputation. Brian May of Queen has trusted Andy to build replicas and to recondition his original home-built ‘Red Special’.
Andy’s workshop is a fantastic place to be. There are beautiful guitars everywhere of all shapes and sizes, vintage amps on the floor for testing, and rock and roll trinkets dotted about. It’s a lived-in and much-loved place with heaps of character.
Andy fills us in on how he got into the business: “I was captivated by Steve Jones’ (Sex Pistols) and Geordie Walker’s (Killing Joke) guitar sounds in my early teens. The passion for anything to do with electric guitars was well and truly ignited when I wandered past a junk shop in 1981 and saw what was to be my first electric guitar. After raising the princely sum of £10 to buy the guitar, I proudly took it home and was annoying everyone.
“I soon realised that cheap ‘junk shop’ guitars weren’t quite up to the mark, so I set about some early attempts at refinishing, re-frets and general upgrades. Some were more successful than others, but overall I loved what I was doing.”
Andy developed his skills and was starting to get noticed, which led to some high-profile endorsements: “My first endorsee was the acclaimed guitarist from the band ‘A’, a fabulous player by the name of Mark Chapman. This was soon followed by a phone call from my good friend and top luthier Martyn Booth asking me if I’d be interested in restoring Brian May’s first guitar.”
Replicating the Red
After restoring Brian’s personal guitar, Andy was asked to produce faithful replicas of his famed Red Special. Andy was invited to Brian’s home for an intensive two days of measuring, examining and photographing the guitar.
“At first this was incredibly nerve-racking,” Andy laughs. “Not only had this guitar featured on some of the world’s best-loved and revered music but it was the only one of its kind, making it the rarest, and possibly one of the most valuable, guitars in the world.”
Andy spent the two days jotting down every detail. Once he felt enough information had been gathered, he set about drawing every part.
“There was still one thing missing,” Andy explains. “One thing that no matter how many measurements and photos I took, I could not get. And that was the size and shape of the internal cavities, bearing in mind that Brian and his father, Harold, had designed these cavities so that they would give just the right amount of musical sustain and feedback.”
No stone unturned
Such was Andy’s dedication to getting his replicas nanometre perfect, and finding out the shape of those elusive cavities, the guitar was X-rayed at St Bartholomew’s hospital in London.
“My aim was to make possibly the closest replica yet. Not only did the X-rays show the size and shape of the cavities, they also showed the method of securing the knife-edge and body/neck construction that simply hadn’t been available by general examination of the guitar.”
Using the skills he’d acquired making custom guitars and restoring them, Andy set about carving, routing and sanding his take on the iconic Red Special. After the first example was produced, he took it to Brian to get some feedback.
“Brian’s first reaction was positive and generally he loved it,” Andy says. “However, there were a couple of small niggles to attend to, like pickup heights and tremolo spring rates.”
Back to the workshop and Andy made the adjustments and went back to Brian for a long, intensive testing of the new guitars. They were to be A-B’d with the real thing through Brian’s famous Vox AC30 and treble booster.
“Brian set to work and left no stone unturned. After about three hours, the only change I was asked to make was to lower the middle pickup half a millimetre, on the treble side! It did make a difference; suddenly the sound just fell into place. It was a great day and one that I shall not forget in a hurry. After all, it’s not every day that you get to sit next to one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most influential guitarists and watch his smile broaden while he plays a guitar you’ve actually built!”
The film – Bohemian Rhapsody
Thanks to Andy’s previous work, when production started for the Bohemian Rhapsody film about Queen, he got a call from the producers.
“They wanted three guitars in three weeks!” Andy laughs. “In the end we provided them with two guitars – one from the very early days and one for the 1985 Live Aid gig. We recreated every single detail, the period-accurate tuning pegs, every bump and scrape. It was quite a challenge to wear the guitar correctly. We used photos from the Queen archive and footage to make sure it was as close as humanly possible.
“I actually got to attend the premiere at Wembley Stadium, where the famous Queen Live Aid gig happened. It was a really great moment and there were plenty of close-ups of the guitars.”
Guitars and motorcycles are two sides of the same coin. The definition of rock music and riding are pretty much the same: freedom, expression and just having a good time.
“Motorcycles and guitars share many similarities. The vibrations, the feel, the personalisation. Most guitars are hugely inspired by the 50s and 60s, and that goes for bikes too. There’s something about those early days. Both the guitar and the motorcycle were peaking in terms of style and function. It’s great to see Triumph’s Modern Classic range still reviving those looks.”
Find out more about Guyton Guitars.