Brian May: how the Bohemian Rhapsody film nailed every detail of the Red Special

Queen's Brian May recounts the making of the Bohemian Rhapsody film in Brian May's Red Special book
(Image credit: Brian May's Red Special)

Brian May has released an updated version of his 2014 hardcover tome, Brian May’s Red Special: The Story of the Homemade Guitar that Rocked Queen and the World.

(Image credit: Brian May's Red Special)

Co-authored with former Guitarist Multimedia Editor Simon Bradley, Brian May’s Red Special takes a deep dive into the iconic electric guitar that May built with his father in 1963 and has played on every Queen album and in all of the band’s live shows.

The 2020 version of Brian May’s Red Special also includes two new chapters, one exploring technical repairs and maintenance and the other focusing on the Red Special’s role in the Academy Award-winning Bohemian Rhapsody film – told in May’s own words, along with those of Gwilym Lee who played Brian in the film – as well as an updated gallery.

In celebration of the updated book’s release, Guitar World presents an exclusive excerpt from the brand-new Bohemian Rhapsody chapter, which you can read below.

And to pick up a copy, head to The Red Special.

From Feltham to Hollywood: how Bohemian Rhapsody came to be

Brian May: "It was a tough journey for all of us, not least because we realized that people were going to believe it. We all discovered what making a feature film actually means, that you’re not making a documentary but are trying to put across some kind of inner truth.

"Basically it’s about Freddie’s journey in himself, his journey through life, so the question of whether it’s true or not doesn’t really apply. You’re trying to tell a spiritual story, if you like, and you’re trying to put the events of 20 years as perceived by Freddie into a form in which people are going to understand them, so obviously you’re going to compress things, move things around in time, and you’re going to make every effort to make sure that each scene makes the point you need it to make.

"Of course the jewel in the crown is Rami, [Malek, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury – SB] who was this incredible vehicle who just became Freddie. He wasn’t acting, he just put on Freddie’s mantle and acted like him both on camera and off; we started to treat him like he was Freddie. We weren’t there for all of the filming, but we were for the first shoot, the Live Aid shoot, and it was amazing to see how all of the boys became us.

"Gwilym [Lee, who plays Brian – SB], of course, is outstanding and we spent quite a bit of time together in the early days, ostensibly to learn guitar riffs; he plays guitar but didn’t know how I played. So we played riffs and investigated how it would look and feel, but what I didn’t realize was that he, as an actor, was also absorbing me as a person. It never really occurred to me but when I saw him do his thing, how he behaves on stage and off, he had my body language, my tone of voice, just everything, and I think he did an extraordinary job.

"We would sit there with two guitars and just play together, trying things out. He was taking it all in, the way I particularly play things. You need to know which part of the neck to work on as there are many different ways to play things, and he got all that right as you can see in the film. It’s uncanny, he got it so right.

"We were so lucky with our actors. Joe Mazzello, who plays John Deacon, has that incredible physicality and he absolutely nails it. I can watch him out of the corner of my eye and think it is Deacy, and you don’t even realise that Deacy was that distinctive until you see it reproduced. He was essential. We’ve still not had any contact with John; he doesn’t do that... I don’t even know if he’s seen the film, I have no idea.

"We have seen Mary [Austin] and I know she hasn’t seen it. She congratulated us and Rami but told us that she wasn’t quite ready to see it yet, which I can understand and respect. She was portrayed so lovingly by Lucy [Boynton] that I’m confident that she’s going to like it.

"The introductory fanfare, that was a fight as well... they didn’t want to use that. They said that if they were to let us do that, then they would have to let other people do things that they want to do. But that didn’t bother me! We recorded it in my studio, mostly with the Deacy [a tiny amp made by John Deacon – SB], and I was really happy with it.

"Andrew Guyton was asked to make guitar props for the film and he made two different guitars that represented my Red Special from the past. One was for Live Aid and the other for how it was in the seventies, and he made them absolutely faithfully to the appearance and condition of the guitar at those moments: it’s uncanny to see. Times when it had bits of tape holding it together, times when the fretboard was all worn down and had lost some of its color, and had had lots of damage to the body, and he’s reproduced everything in the finest detail.

"Most people don’t realize how much the guitar changed in its appearance over the years, but Andrew did from doing his research and although they weren’t made to work because he didn’t have time, they could be made to work and I’m hoping to get both of them back.

"We were worried as to whether Freddie would come out as a fool or be falsely deified, but I think it stands up despite all these traps you can fall into. If we were to have put documentary footage in there it wouldn’t have worked because it wouldn’t say the things you’d want an answer to. And it makes me cry too, it does!" 

The Red Special (2020 Update) by Brian May and Simon Bradley is available from

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.