Hands-On Review:Burns Brian May Signature Model.

by Emile Menasché

Few signature models are as closely connected to their namesake as the Burns new Brian May Signature guitar. According to the British guitar builder, the Queen guitarist exercised a firm hand in the model’s development: he vetoed 22 prototypes before settling on the design the company offers today. The Brian May Signature is based on May’s Red Special, a guitar he and his father built by hand and which became ubiquitous on Queen’s recordings. Throughout the group’s reign, May’s tone stood out as one of the most identifiable in the business—soaring overdrive punctuated by a distinct, percussive attack, as though a Strat and Les Paul were fused to produce one archetypal sound.


From its origins as a homemade one-off, May’s guitar has become available in various production models over the years. The Burns model is the latest, and comes from a company known for its own iconoclastic approach to guitar design. The instrument is the first to be issued by Burns USA, which plans to revive many of the classic Burns guitars that have been popular from the Sixties forward.



Burns Brian May Signature ModelWood and Construction
The Burns model features the same essential materials as May’s original guitar: a mahogany neck glued to a mahogany body, with a two-octave ebony fingerboard. The body has a resonant acoustic chamber that adds dimension to the tone (and keeps the weight down).



The medium frets are smoothly dressed, and the overall playing surface is slick but sure. The neck feels round—reminiscent of some Gibsons but with less taper. It’s a great playing surface if you really like to dig into the strings for bends. One unusual feature: the May has a zero fret. But though zero- fret guitars can be a little buzzy, the setup on the test guitar was fine.


The neck joint meets the body near the 19th fret, and the cutaways don’t start until the 21st, a design that provides exceptional access to the upper registers. The deep cutaway in the bass side of the neck allows you to play high-wire runs across the strings and then bend those high notes to the brink. With a shorter scale (24 inches) than the typical rock guitar, the two-octave neck feels less cumbersome than some, though the fret-to-fret spacing can be a little cramped in the highest frets.



Hardware and Appointments
The Burns version of the May has a floating bridge system (the design is similar to that of a vintage Fender) and locking Grover tuners. The bridge worked well; it had smooth action and didn’t bounce. As for the Grovers, they have an interesting design in that the sleeve locks automatically as you tighten the string. They certainly maintained stable tuning.



All the hardware is chrome, including the pickup covers, which look great against the black pick guard and Vintage Cherry finish. With simple dot inlays, the May has an understated, pro look. Like an old sports car, it has an austere modernity that makes you think action.



Brian May created his unique sound with some very unconventional electronics, and his signature model is equipped with three handmade Burns Tri-Sonic single-coils, which are governed by master volume and master tone controls. They do a great job of capturing his sound.



Each pickup has a three-way switch that lets it be turned on, turned off or phase reversed, allowing for about 14 different sounds (there are actually more combinations, but there’s some duplication in the phase relationships). The pickups are wired in series, not parallel as they are on most guitars, and when you combine two or more, you get an increase in sonic fat content. While a Strat sounds glassy and funky with the neck and mid pickups engaged, the Brian May screams.



The pickups offer so much attack that the sound stays clear when you combine the pickups, even when plenty of distortion is added. With a tube amp driving hard, the Burns produced May’s singsong lead sound that’s great for melodic playing. With a cleaner amp setup, the May was capable of everything from sharp rockabilly licks to blues to country. Reversing the phase of one pickup produced a shimmering funky tone. And a nice surprise: the May is also capable of producing some very smoky jazzy tones.



The Bottom Line
While the Brian May model can produce all the familiar Queen sounds, it would be a shame to relegate it to tribute duties only. This is an instrument that you can exploit to create your own voice, one that’s as distinct from May’s original as it is from Strats, Teles and Les Pauls.