3rd July 2019: Mark Reynolds and I recently wrote the piece below for Daizo Tokuda and Shinko Music Japan. I have edited it and modified it a little since first written, and I hope you enjoy it and find it informative.
It is worthwhile for me to mention that over the years when Brian May has been recording guitar tracks in the studio, on most occasions he has used the relatively simple setup of Red Special guitar > Treble Booster > Vox AC30 amplifier. Effects have then been usually added via the mixing desk. It is on stage playing live that the more complicated pedalboard setups discussed below have been used by Brian.
This information is based on my conversations with Brian May, and on Mark Reynolds’ conversations with Pete Cornish and Brian Zellis (who was Brian May’s guitar tech for many years during the ‘Queen’ years from the 1970s until the early 1990s), and is also based on information from guitar magazine and internet articles.
Edited: 18th April 2021: photo below has been kindly provided by Bob Wegner. It shows of Brian May’s live pedalboard during the Live Killers tour of 1979. This photo was taken by Werner Baum at Hamburg and is dated 17th January 1979.
Edited 3rd May 2021:
Bob Wegner has again kindly provided me with this fantastic photo of Brian May from 13th May 1978 at Wembley on the final night of the ‘News Of The World’ tour. From Bob:
“One more for you, Greg – this is from a 1978 Japanese ‘Music Life’ magazine, taken at Wembley Arena on the last night of the News of the World tour.
Here he’s got an EBow in one hand and tremolo arm in the other, doing his impression of a 747 with the Echoplex delay off the top of his solo spot. First good shot I’ve seen of this.”
Treble Booster: Brian May used the OC44 germanium transistor based Dallas ‘Rangemaster’ treble booster pedal from the late 1960s up to the Queen tours in mid/late 1973. Brian bought his first Rangemaster second hand, and he used it to record the first ‘Queen’ album from June to November 1972. Brian used the Rangemaster live with ‘Queen’ until around the time of the release of that first album in July 1973.
The following album ‘Queen II’ was recorded in August 1973 and Brian’s guitar tone seemed similar to the first album, although a little different in some ways and sounded more plush, richer and heavier as opposed to the rather gruffish and cleaner ‘biting’ sound of his guitar sound from the first ‘Queen’ album. This sound difference might have been due to many reasons such as Brian using a slightly different treble booster, using different AC30s, different speakers, different mic positions, different mics or even using different manufactured brands of EL84 valves in Brian’s Vox AC30.
(From Greg Fryer: when playing live in the many gigs I did around Sydney in the late 1970s/early 1980s I experienced some large changes in tonality, distortion and brightness in the sound of my Vox AC30s after changing the EL84 power valves from worn out valves to new valves. I distinctly remember being surprised by the difference in sound, and the first time this happened I very quickly changed back to my worn out East German made RFT EL84 valves which to me sounded much sweeter, richer and had a very pleasant distortion at lower volumes compared to the new Philips Holland EL84 valves I installed which were brighter sounding and were much cleaner and less distorted sounding than the RFTs. I had become very used to the sound of the worn out RFTs which suited me, and the change in sound of the new valves between these particular two types was huge! My feeling is that the difference in sound between the first two Queen albums is most likely the result of varying mic positions or using different mics for the AC30, though Brian might have also encountered similar sonic differences when changing EL84 valves such as I did in the late 1970s. The RFTs are still my favorite.)
Brian’s Rangemaster pedal was lost around this time in mid/late 1973 (please see more info about this below), and it is possible that Brian used his original Rangemaster treble booster to record both the Queen and Queen II albums.
Brian May’s Red Special guitar and Vox AC30 sound from the ‘Queen II” album still seems to have the distinctive tonality of an OC44 germanium transistor Rangemaster style treble booster. Unfortunately we do not have any photographs taken of Brian’s original Rangemaster being used live or in recordings with Queen.
According to what Brian May told Greg Fryer in 1998, the Rangemaster booster was left behind at a gig by a roadie and lost. When Brian asked the roadie where the treble booster was and learned that it had been left behind at the previous gig, the roadie then apparently said “oh I didn’t think it did very much”. This seems likely to have occurred around mid/late 1973.
As most guitarists would appreciate, the treble booster was a critically important part of Brian’s sound and he would have needed a replacement available as soon as possible. At this time around mid/late 1973 the Dallas Rangemaster treble boosters had been out of production for many years and it might have been difficult for Brian to obtain a replacement quickly.
According to Brian, his father Harold then came to the rescue and made him another treble booster similar to the Rangemaster. Brian and Harold had the circuit for the Rangemaster drawn out prior to this time and both Brian and Greg still have copies of this original hand drawn diagram which was kept with the original Red Special plans.
It is possible that Harold May or even John Deacon made Brian the replacement for the lost Rangemaster. This booster may have used the same germanium transistor as the Rangemaster, or could have used the cheaper and more commonly available NPN silicon transistors of the time such as BC547 or BC238 etc. Both Harold and John possessed the electronic experience and knowledge to be able to make such treble boosters for Brian, or to adapt different versions of the treble booster for Brian if required.
Pete Cornish made many treble boosters for Brian May from 1975 until the early 1990s. Pete told Mark Reynolds that the first treble booster of Brian May’s that he examined in 1975 had been made by John Deacon and that it used a silicon transistor. In the article below published in 1993 in UK Guitar magazine regarding the Guild Brian May Treble Booster, Pete Cornish stated that it was John Deacon who made the treble booster originally for Brian.
Regardless of whether it was Harold or John who made Brian’s treble booster at that time, it is very likely that the silicon transistor booster that Pete Cornish examined in 1975 was the same one used by Brian for recording the third ‘Queen’ album ‘Sheer Heart Attack’. Such a silicon transistor treble booster would have brought a new and interesting change to Brian’s live and recorded sound with Queen compared to the former Rangemaster.
On 22nd July 1998 whilst working at Brian’s London Allerton Hill studio, Greg Fryer interviewed John Deacon about the origins of the legendary ‘Deacy Amp’ and also asked John if he had made the treble boosters for Brian at that time. (John was studying for an Electronics degree when he first joined ‘Queen’ in 1972 and would have been very capable of building an electronic device as simple as a single transistor treble booster if he had been asked to). John told Greg that he did not make the treble booster for Brian, and said that Brian had other people doing that for him.
It might have been that John Deacon did in fact make a treble booster for Brian but in the many decades since then may have forgotten about doing so.
Brian May has recently commented that he wasn’t sure if it was Harold who made him the replacement treble booster that he used after the Rangemaster was lost, but then also said that his father Harold made a number of treble boosters. The issue remains a mystery and is one that unfortunately we will never know.
(From Greg Fryer: it is my opinion that the treble booster mentioned above which Brian May used for recording the Sheer Heart Attack album from July-September 1974 heralded the ‘Golden Era’ of his sound with Queen which began in mid-late 1974 and continued through the rest of the 1970s. I believe that Brian’s rich lush sounds as heard on masterpieces such as ‘Killer Queen’ and other songs from the album are unlikely to have been produced using a germanium transistor Rangemaster style treble booster. It is highly likely that the treble booster which Brian used on ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ had an NPN silicon transistor such as BC548, BC238 or similar).
‘Sheer Heart Attack’ was recorded from July to September 1974 and was released on 8 November 1974.
Brian May’s very simple early guitar pedals set up then moved on a little. The treble booster and wah wah were mounted on a long plywood base. The wah wah was mounted high off the plywood base (possibly on a block of wood) with two Echoplex foot switches on the board also.
In recent years Mark Reynolds has been fortunate to contact a person who was on the ‘Queen’ tour at the time between the Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack albums, when ‘Queen’ were performing some Sheer Heart Attack songs live prior to the album’s release. Richard Paul-Jones captured Brian May’s pedalboard in a photograph taken of Freddie on stage at London’s Rainbow Theatre on 20 November 1974, and he has cropped the larger photo to show Brian’s pedalboard.
The ‘Harold May/John Deacon’ treble booster can be clearly seen placed next to Brian’s Jen wah wah pedal in photos taken up to and including the November 1974 tour. It is seen along with one Echoplex foot switch for the single delay. The treble booster pictured is a different shape and colour to a Dallas Rangemaster.
The two photos below have been kindly sent to me by Bob Wegner. The first photo was taken in 1976 during Queen’s tour of Japan, and Bob has estimated that it was taken between 22nd March and 4th April 1976.
The second photo (below) sent by Bob Wegner was taken during the 1977 tour, and Bob considers that the photo was most likely taken during tour rehearsals and shows Brian sitting on a stool.
The information below is from Mark Reynolds and is based on what Pete Cornish told Mark during a number of telephone discussions which occurred over several years:
“Pete Cornish first started doing electronic work for Brian May in 1975. Pete was called in to help Brian with his gear because he was getting bad noise issues during rehearsals. Outside the place they were rehearsing was a giant radio mast and this was the cause of the radio frequency noise problem.
I asked Pete what treble booster Brian was using at that time he first met him and what germanium transistor was in the booster. Pete told me very specifically that Brian was not using a germanium transistor treble booster at that time, and Pete said that it was a silicon transistor booster made by John Deacon. He was very adamant about that fact. Pete said the booster was rather crudely made, and this may partly explain why the unit was prone to picking up radio frequency noise.
Pete Cornish went away and made a new treble booster for Brian which was designed to filter out the RF noise which had been a big problem for Brian. He said that when he returned, Brian said the treble booster was not powerful enough.
Pete then came back with the BC149 treble booster which Brian used from then on.
He also provided Brian’s roadie with a box full of “Cornish Hum Buster” units because Brian’s guitar/pedal/amp rig was very noisy, and he also supplied some ground lift switches in these units which removed the hum issues between amps.
Pete said that the roadies weren’t too pleased with him because they had to insert the ‘Hum Buster’ units between a number of Brian’s leads along with all the other things they had to do. I have never really found out what Brian was using prior to Pete Cornish getting involved with regard to preventing earth loop hum which happens when you use several guitar amps together. I have supplied a picture of one of the “Hum Busters” which belongs to me which was made in the 1970s and Pete confirmed that it was the same unit that he supplied Brian’s team back then.
Pete Cornish’ first pedalboard made for Brian May using the BC149 treble booster was as follows: Guitar > BC149 booster > Foxx Phaser > Treble Booster Extra/+15dB preamp (clean boost) unit.
I asked Pete Cornish about the Treble Booster Extra/+15dB preamp unit, which I have pictures of. He told me that this unit had a second booster (treble booster extra…same as one of the boosters in the later Duplex) with a volume control, and also a +15dB pre-amp which was on all the time driving the guitar audio signal. The +15dB preamp is a clean boost and didn’t add any distortion to the audio signal. I asked why this preamp was in there and he told me that because of the massive cable runs from the guitar to the board and from the board to the amps which causes a loss of strength of the guitar/audio signal, the signal wasn’t strong enough to drive the amps to the desired level by using the Treble Booster signal alone. So the +15dB preamp was added to help compensate for the losses due to the long cable runs. I have made a copy of this original pedalboard including the same +15dB clean boost pedal and it really works well along with the Treble Booster and Foxx phaser.
Shortly after, Brian adopted the BC149 booster and two separate TB-Extra boxes taped together (looking like a Duplex but with a cross of tape on the top holding the two boxes together). So the pedal board was then: Guitar, Treble Booster BC149, TB-Extra, Foxx Phaser, Vox AC30s amps. The pre-amp/clean boost then disappeared from the board. Pete Cornish might have built something else off stage to help raise the guitar signal by that time…..but nothing I have been able to find out about to date.
Shortly afterwards a proper Duplex pedal appeared (two treble booster extras in one box). This circuitry was housed in a natural aluminium finish box. It makes a brief appearance in the “We Are The Champions” recording session video shot by Bob Harris in December 1977.
The old Duplex’s were two separate boosters. They were not internally linked. They each had their own input and output jacks (four jack sockets on the front of the unit). Pete C’s modern Duplex has one input and one output as a dual switch booster unit….they are not the same as the vintage ones.
This early pedalboard developed into the now famous black plywood pedalboard which many BM afficianados consider to be the best sounding of Brian May’s live pedalboards.
This was as follows: Guitar, BC149 TB, TB Extra Duplex, Foxx phaser, then to the Vox AC30s. This board was used up to June 1982 as far as I have been able to determine. It last appeared used live with ‘Queen’ in England at Milton Keynes on 5th June 1982, at a time where Brian had also begun to use the Boss CE-1 Chorus pedal (often nicknamed by guitarists the ‘frying pan’ due to its size). The Boss CE-1 can be seen at the side of the black plywood pedalboard in the Milton Keynes concert video footage.
Shortly after the June 1982 Milton Keynes concert, Brian Zellis gave the plywood pedalboard to Pete Cornish. He asked Pete to use the component parts and make Brian’s pedalboard more roadworthy. Brian Z told me that when they got it back, it had been turned into an enormous pedalboard which was dated by Pete Cornish ‘July 1982 serial number 076’.
Brian Z said that he and Brian preferred the sound of the earlier plywood pedalboard and that Pete Cornish had added new things into the circuits (level matching, buffers etc etc). Brian May disliked using the the new version because it was more difficult for him to use compared to the older pedalboard which he was very familiar with.
Brian Z explained that the larger pedal board did sound good but the main problem that Brian May encountered was regarding the ergonomics of using it. The new pedalboard was a larger rectangular size and had footswitches that Brian couldn’t easily find with his foot on a dark stage often with smoke effects obscuring his vision. It was obviously very important for a rock guitarist like Brian who was playing at such a professional level to be able to use his pedalboard very easily and automatically, and do so with split-second timing on a darkened stage.
Brian Z said that by then it was too late to do anything about it and so Brian May was stuck with the new pedalboard and just made the best of it.
The recent opening and examination of the large 1982 pedalboard by Nigel Knight and Pete Malandrone revealed that Brian Zellis was right with what he said, and that Pete Cornish had literally taken all the earlier plywood pedalboard parts and fitted them into the large pedalboard system that he made, along with the extra things included such as level matchers and buffers etc.
The two booster circuits in the large pedalboard were the BC149 circuits. See my pics below of the large pedalboard stripped down, from the Red Special forum.
From what Pete Cornish told me, the stand alone Treble Booster pedals he supplied Brian in the mid 1980’s were hotter than the original ones and these included some twin transistor boosters such as the ones pictured.
Interestingly, he made the lower powered single transistor BC182L circuits (such as the 8-8-83 treble booster) for a bunch of treble boosters made around 1983 (one of which was given to Julian Hemingway). Pete Cornish told me that these BC182L boosters were “Friday afternoon” boosters that Brian needed urgently and that he did not have the original transistor available (BC149) so had to use the BC182L as a substitute.
[From Greg Fryer: when I first arrived at Brian May’s studio Allerton Hill in July 1996, the 8-8-83 treble boosters made by Pete Cornish were Brian’s favorite treble boosters and were the ones that he preferred using for recording and live playing then. Please see pics of one of the 8-8-83 boosters below.
In November 1997 when I arrived back at Allerton Hill with my completed 3 Red Special replica guitars ‘John’, ‘Paul’, and ‘George Burns’, I also brought one of the Guild Brian May treble boosters. Brian was surprised to see it because he told me that he had never seen one before then. We tried the Guild booster through his white studio AC30 and compared its sound to the Pete Cornish 8-8-83 treble booster. Both Brian and I were very surprised by how much better sounding the Pete Cornish 8-8-83 booster was.]
Many people suspect that Pete’s modern TB-83 has a 10nf capacitor at the input (the originals had a 4n7 input capacitor same as the Rangemaster) and appear to be using a hotter and thicker sounding transistor compared to the original single transistor treble boosters that he made for Brian in the 1970s and 80s.”
(Text passage above “in quotes” by Mark Reynolds.)
In the mid 1980s and into the 1990s Brian May used in his live stage rig treble boosters made by Pete Cornish which were twin transistor units similar to the Guild treble booster circuit. These twin transistor treble boosters were considerably more powerful than the single transistor BC149 or BC182L treble boosters, and were footswitchable with the circuitry housed in a large box. These boosters sometimes used the BC239C or Zetex equivalent transistors.