BMG Product Support
Since the launch of the original, super-affordable Brian May Guitars Special, the unique configuration of Brian's original instrument has become available to musicians all over the World. Consequently, House Music has fielded a wealth of questions regarding the Brian May Guitars range - everything from set-up, maintenance and switch orientation to the various amplifiers and effects units that Brian employs to achieve his distinctive sound.
Here is a guide to the principal features of the BMG Special that we trust will help you well on the way to gettting the very best from your instrument in any performance environment.
The general information here on pickup configuration, switch settings and set-up also applies to the more accurate, custom built BMG SUPER model.
Another great source of information is the RED SPECIAL FORUM, a lively, sometimes controversial, community group whose members share news, advice and opinion on a dizzying array of topics from sounds, set-ups, pickups and amps to repairs, replacement parts, and conversions.
The BMG Special features three BM brand Tri-Sonic style single-coil pickups. These are modern replicas of the Burns Tri-Sonics that Brian and his father installed on the Red Special and, whilst there are some technical differences (their impedance is noticeably higher) they produce a faithfully accurate reproduction of the original tone.
First developed for use on Ormston Burns guitars in 1960, The term "Tri-Sonic" derives from the fact that the unit picks up sound from three points - the top and both sides - meaning that the vibration of the strings is sampled from a longer than usual length. In combination with the orientation of their isotropic ceramic magnets and the unique manner in which the coils are wound, such pickups produce a distinctive “big, round sound” with a richer harmonic content than any conventionally wound pickup.
The three pickups are wired in series for increased output and a fuller signal. When more than one pickup is active the resultant tone is more akin to that of a humbucker, with considerably more warmth and gain than a traditional parallel wired single-coil arrangement.
In addition, the middle pickup is reverse wound and reverse polarity (RWRP), emulating the configuration employed by Brian and his father. The pickup's magnetic pole is reversed and its coils physically wound in the opposite direction compared to the other pickups. Hence, when the middle pickup is selected in combination with either or both of the other pickups in phase, a hum-cancelling effect is created, reducing noise and hum in the output of the guitar.
In combination with the phase switching system employed on The BMG Special, the sound of the selected pickups can be tailored to produce an incredible variety of tones.
Use of the volume and tone controls also allows for subtle colouring of the response.
The BMG Special and Super models both feature two banks of three switches which control the pickups, with the orientation of the switches matching the pickup location - bridge to middle, left to right.
The top bank of switches provides simple ON/OFF control for the three Tri-Sonic style pickups - Each pickup has its own dedicated switch... DOWN is ON, UP is OFF.
Just one of the tricks that maximizes the incredible versatility of the BMG Special, this system allows for the pickup combinations of ALL 3 PICKUPS ON and NECK + BRIDGE, configurations not usually available on other, more conventional three pickup instruments. It also provides a true stand-by option, handy for both stage and studio performance. Simply flick all three switches to the UP/OFF position to silence the instrument's output signal.
The bottom bank of switches controls the phase of the signal from each pickup - Engaging the switch reverses the phase of each pickup individually, allowing the pickups to be either IN PHASE or OUT OF PHASE relative to each other in any pickup combination.
Without taking a deep dive into the science of sound waves, it's probably easiest to adopt the convention that with its switch in the UP position, the output of the pickup has a POSITIVE phase, and in the DOWN position it has a NEGATIVE phase. Hence, when two pickups are selected and both phase switches are in the same position (either both UP or both DOWN), they will be In phase - if one switch is UP and the other is DOWN, the pickups will be out of phase
When two pickups are selected and in phase, their signals work together and sonically reinforce each other with the resultant output louder than either pickup on their own. When they’re out of phase, they work against one another, cancelling many frequencies. The resulting tone is the “leftovers” from these cancellations, typically rich in mid to high frequencies with the low frequencies reduced, giving the sound a characteristic thin, sharp quality.
Note that it is the reversal of the phase of two pickups RELATIVE to each other that yields the In phase or out of phase effect. Reversing the phase of a soloed, single pickup will have no significantly audible result - e.g. the bridge pickup by itself will sound the same regardless of the position of its phase switch.
For example, with the bridge and middle pickups active: sliding BOTH phase switches to either the UP or DOWN position will put the pickups in phase and produce the same, full sound favoured by Brian for much of his rhythm guitar work. Sliding the bridge pickup phase switch DOWN and the middle pickup phase switch UP will produce a thinner, out of phase tone. If the positions of the phase switches are reversed, the out of phase output will be broadly * the same.
Although the switching matrix ostensibly provide twenty-one different pickup/phase combinations, there is a degree of apparent redundancy due to the fact that some settings produce similar results as explained above. Of course, that still leaves an abundance of 13 possible unique combinations (14 if you include the "kill-switch" function), making the Special an extremely versatile and powerful creative instrument.
* As has been discussed extensively amongst the RS community, the choice of which pickups to put out of phase in any pickup combination will make a subtle difference to the resulting tone, due to the phase relationship of each pickup coil relative to the adjacent coil and to the loudspeaker of the amplifier used. However, please be aware that your mileage may vary considerably, depending on the signal path and set-up, with regard to the significance of the perceived tonal variation between ostensibly duplicate combinations.
The unique nature of its pickups and wiring scheme provide the BMG Special with an awesome arsenal of tonal possibilities and the real fun of this instrument is exploring the different configurations for yourself but, just to give you a brief, introductory “tone tour”.
Plugged in, with a clean amp tone, the bridge pickup alone is pleasantly thin and quite Strat-like. The middle pickup is louder and fatter with a good crisp attack, with the neck pickup comparable in volume to the middle, but with a fuller low end and a softer attack.
As you combine pickups, in phase, the overall volume increases. Adding the middle to the bridge adds power and knocks off some top end, while neck plus bridge equals a warmer, more powerful Strat-type mix. Middle and neck create a thick, semi-solid jazz style voice.
Activating the phase reverse switches typically lends a thinner, sharper tone to a dual pickup mix but, with three pickups on, you can experiment with different phase combinations to sometimes subtle and often rather dramatic effect.
For example, all three pickups on produces that thick creamy tone that has been used for the cello sections of Brian May's guitar orchestrations. However, reverse the phase of the middle pickup and the bottom drops out, leaving you with an agressive, snarling Telecaster or Gretsch-like twang.
Cranked up, the guitar is very resonant and the out of phase tones really begin to make sense in such an environment, adding a cutting harmonic edge, with Brian's most used tone - bridge and middle pickup in phase - certainly replicating a modern, middle-heavy humbucker. Take a listen to the guitar solo on "Bohemian Rhapsody"... that crying guitar tone is created by having the neck and the middle pickups in series and out-of-phase... and then driving the hell out of the amplifier!
The current BMG Special features Trevor Wilkinson's WVP "Wave" 2-point, Knife Edge Tremolo, its strikingly modern, friction-free design offering one of the smoothest actions of any fulcrum vibrato currently available.
With a sleek, low-profile surround restricting the sideways movement of the solid brass saddles, the WVP offers superior comfort, stability and performance.
Features include a stamped steel, heat hardened top plate, 6-screw pivot mounting and a solid steel sustain block with "stagger-drilled" string holes to make corrections to the intonation a relatively simple job, without putting too much stress on the saddles. As with all steel blocks, it helps magnify the overall sustain, brightness and top end, resulting in a more expansive, sharper tone.
The custom, BM-style push-in tremolo arm is secured by a clamping bush inside the block, which can be tightened to taste by a small bolt on the rear of the block. The thread-less design means that the arm can be positioned at any orientation without interference.
Fitting The Tremolo Arm
The Wilkinson 2-point tremolo system is designed to "float" due to the balance between the tension of the strings and the tremolo springs - after installing heavier strings, as well as checking the instrument's action / intonation, you may need to adjust the tremolo claw or add an extra spring to compensate from the additional string tension and ensure that the bridge sits level. You'll be glad to know that we do provide a spare spring with the BMG Special for precisely this purpose.
The BMG Special is equipped with Grover 406 Mini-Locking Rotomatic® Tuners, making re-stringing a breeze and ensuring rock-solid tuning stability, even with lots of vibrato and string bends.
These superb, machine heads feature compact metal knobs with adjustable tension, an 18:1 gear ratio for fine tuning, lifetime sealed lubrication and Grover's ingenious Internal "Locking Cam" string post that automatically locks the strings as you tune.
You'll need fewer string wraps, change strings faster, and your tremolo will have more accurate return-to-pitch.
Fitting New Strings
Greg Fryer has provided this information as a general guide to the best way to set up your BMG Special or Super to give the best interpretation of Brian's.
Here's the long "too much information" answer - bear with me because this info might help you to understand the other sorts of things that often need to be done when setting up string and pickup heights - but if you're experienced in guitar setting up, go straight to the measurements at the bottom!
The pickup heights are generally the last item to be adjusted when a guitar is being set up by a professional repairer - many of the other things that I mention below may need to be adjusted in order to get your guitar playing well so that you can then set up your string and pickup heights - otherwise you might end up saying; "Brian sets his strings at 2.0mm/1.5mm but when I do the same, it sounds buzzy and terrible like I'm playing a sitar"
There are many things that you can adjust and repair yourself on your guitar and your ability will be dramatically helped if you bone up on the subject and buy tutorial books/DVDs etc from people like Stewart MacDonald in USA (they also have a lot of good free info on their website www.stew-mac.com and there is other good stuff out there on the net). If you can develop a good feel for it, you can end up doing a very good quality job.
It's always a good idea at some point to take your guitar to an experienced guitar repairer for an overall checkup on whether your guitar might need more serious work like fret dressing/levelling and changes in zero fret height, recutting of nut slots or the making of a new nut (the Graph Tech nut material is excellent for low friction which is important on any tremolo system), or even re-fretting and re-shaping the surface of the fingerboard (serious stuff and costly but more commonly needed than you'd think), and some of these things might need to be done so that you can THEN best set up the height of the strings to get the guitar playing well so that you can then lastly set up the pickup heights.
OK, hopefully your guitar won't need any of those things, but I'm saying all that first because in nearly 30 years of guitar making/repairing, I've rarely if ever seen just a so-called "simple job" - if you want a great result it ALWAYS seems to be more complex than you first expect - so keep your fingers crossed, persevere, and know where your starting point was so you can always come back to it (i.e. write down how things are adjusted/set before you plunge in and begin!).
The rule of thumb is therefore... fine tune the techniques outlined below to suit what you think sounds and responds to your playing style best.
As a DIY guide, this is what I would suggest:
1. Tune the strings to A440 concert pitch (Or whatever pitch / tuning you're using).
2. Make sure that the truss rod is adjusted properly.
If you don't know how, consult the internet for a start - or better still get an experienced guitar repairer to do it. Although this is a simple job, there's nothing like experience.
3. Adjust the height of the strings by measuring at the 12th fret - this measurement is from the top of the fret "crown" to the underneath of the string.
Set the thick bottom E 0.042" string to have a 2.0mm gap here (but adjust to best suit your guitar - or your playing style. The harder you bash the strings, the higher you're going to need the string action.)
Set the thin top E 0.009" string so that this gap is 1.5mm.
Set the rest of the strings so that they "flow" evenly in height from 2.0mm to 1.5mm as they go across from the bottom E to the top E.
Suit yourself here to what looks and feels right for you - loads of guitars that I've repaired over the years didn't have very good fretwork (uneven to begin with or worn with playing etc) or consistently well made necks, and this limits what a repairer can achieve when setting up a guitar's action... if in doubt, blame the manufacturer of course!
4. Adjust the harmonic lengths of the bridge saddles
An optional stage - again, see web info if you don't already know what to aim for.
5. Adjust the pickup heights
Measuring at the centre of each Tri-Sonic pickup up to the underneath of the string, set pickup height relative to each E string as follows, measuring with strings at concert pitch, and not fretted :
It can be handy as a reference to fret both the Top E and Bottom E strings at the 24th fret and to measure the gap down to the pickup - this works fine with the Neck and Middle pickups but is less meaningful at the Bridge pickup.
Please bear in mind that these measurements are optimised to suit the original pickups on Brian May's Red Special, Adrian Turner's Adeson replica spec pickups (as featured on the BMG Super) and the BMG branded pickups on the BMG Special. They might not suit the pickups on your guitar or those Tri-Sonics that have more powerful an-isotropic, ferrite magnets like those on the Korean made Burns BM Signature guitar or Kent Armstrong models.
As usual, depending on the instrument and your playing style, the rule of thumb is to fine tune to suit what you think sounds best!
Greg Fryer • 2006
Current BMG Special models bear a unique BHM prefixed 5 or 6 digit serial number located on the reverse of the headstock.
The FIRST 2 digits refer to the year of production :
i.e. 15xxxx = 2015 / 08xxxx = 2008
The remaining digits indicate the manufacturing sequence :
0001 - upwards *
* Dependent on production year, some BMG models may have either a 3 or 4 digit sequence number
Some Specials produced before 2010, including the first generation BMG Special (the so-called "Transition" Model c.2004-2005) and the Mk. 2 revision (c. 2006-2008) have a 4 or 5 digit serial number sequence where the FIRST digit refers to the year of production.
i.e. 5xxx = 2005
If you are lucky enough to have purchased a BMG instrument autographed by Dr. May, here are our recommendations for protecting that precious signature.
The maestro uses a Sharpie® brand metallic paint marker to sign — its vibrant oil-based ink adheres particularly well to polyurethane varnish and is reliably durable, water and fade-resistant.
Other than ensuring that it is not exposed to direct sunlight for prolonged periods, there should be no need to protect the signature if the guitar has been purchased for display purposes.
However, being signed on the body's upper bout, the signature will almost certainly wear off during playing.
Assuming you simply won't be able to resist rocking the heck out of this fantastic instrument, there are two options we suggest to prevent this: