RSL

My Red Special Conversion

Peter Mason

I have a Burns Brian May Red Special guitar, but I never could get my head around that tremolo and whammy bar. I have always felt a need to be closer to the “Old Girl”, like many others, I think... but how? Do I upgrade to an RS or a KZ, or even the Guyton? The nearest I will ever get to one of those beauties is that I live in East Anglia, home to the Guyton.

A plan:

I make my own, but, constructing a neck is far to daunting for me to even consider, I'm no expert, just a novice with a little DIY experience. So after reading articles on the web by Simon at SGL Guitars, and Filipe at FS Guitars, my decision was made, convert my Burns, and here's my journey.

The funds:

It's a "Cash in the Attic" moment for me, based on the UK TV program about now to raise some cash by selling the junk you've collected in your roof space over the years. (My childhood train set had to go...).

The tools:

I borrowed a router, and mini drill, from a couple of friends, I also obtained an off cut of wood as a practice bed.

To Business!

I ordered my parts from Filipe at FS Guitar Parts and on their arrival I worked out my measurements from these parts, I also had gained a wealth of knowledge from the RS forums, and armed with this I decided to first make a template for the router to cut out my tremolo cavity, this was time consuming, but a worth while job IMO.

I had decided to modify my Burns, but was a little more successful, and surprised, to get a bit more funds out of the attic sale, so a quick call to Andrew at A Strings and I purchased a NOS pre 2006 model for modification instead of my Burns.

Tremolo

The measurement for intonation was made while the guitar was still set at 610mm, the tremolo cavity was already marked out on the template I'd made earlier, and I had used the leading edge of the rear p/u switches as a reference point to get to that final position of the "D" shape. Next I found the centre of the guitar with a piece of string run down the fret board using the fret markers as a centre line guide.

I transferred all my measurements to the guitar body on masking tape.

In case you're wondering, I unsoldered the wires, (jack plug & tremolo earth) and removed the new 2006 model scratch plate from this guitar as a job lot, pots, knobs, switches & p/s, and then refitted it into my original Burns, which was showing signs of fair wear & tear, and now it's all shiny again.

Routing

Well this was the moment I was dreading, I took Filipe's advice "Take it very slowly", so I set the router to 5mm, and using the template I'd made, decided to make my first, but cautious cut, centrally, why? Well, if the routing became a disaster I could cover it over with a false half moon, but to my pleasant surprise the router made a perfect surgical incision, no flaking or chipping to that superb shiny surface, which I had expected, now I had confidence, be more aggressive, I continued, after a cup of coffee...

The template had worked better than I had hoped, so I finished cutting on the 5mm setting which removed the entire high gloss finish, leaving it with a perfect sharp and clean edge and exposing the underlying timber. I re set the router again, increasing by 5mm, and continuing with 5mm increments until I reached a 30mm depth. I then cleaned off any minor irregularities with a mini drill and finished off with a fine piece of glass paper, taking care not to damage that crisp routed edge.

Total time 4.5 hrs, excluding the coffee... but worth it IMO.

Knife Edge

This was a problem to me, I couldn't see, or decide how to, rebate the recess for the knife edge, this is because it's a different set up on the solid body to an original, but a quick E-mail to Filipe solved that problem.

Fixing the knife edge, for me, was a critical moment, it could make or beak this project IMO, so a little time and thought was needed, and another coffee... accuracy was my priority. I offered the knife edge into its final position and checked it's centre line, with the string running down the centre of the fret board, I checked, and double checked, now completely satisfied it was placed correctly I marked it's position using a cut down pencil to fit the cavity, also making an allowance for two larger holes to be drilled to permit movement of the bolts through the knife edge to allow for spring adjustment.

I can't explain that procedure very well, so time for a drawing...

See what I mean, I hope it all makes sense...

I used a mini drill with an extension to make the pilot holes for the screws, this ensured that they where driven into the timber at right angles, maintaining the knife edge's position and accuracy. I lubricated these screws with a small drop of Vaseline to assist in turning, and I used a screw driver bit turned by a small spanner to tighten them.

Unwanted cavities/holes

I cleaned out all the old p/u cavities and the now redundant tremolo cavity at the rear of the guitar with the mini drill and sanding wheel, this was in preparation for gluing in pieces of hard wood I'd prepared earlier.

When cleaning, I took the varnish and paint back to bare wood taking special care not to damage other surfaces. This now meant the glue had clean timber to bond with, I also filled any unwanted screw holes from the old pick guard with matchsticks driven into the holes with a sharp tap from a small hammer and cutting them off level with the body. I coloured these little white "plugs" afterwards with a reddish felt marker from my children's colouring set to blend in with the rest of the body.

The Bridge

I stuck the bridge's 6 individual blocks together with masking tape and onto a shim plate, pre drilled with six holes, this was supplied with the bridge, I placed this onto the pick guard, and with a p/u set in the neck position, laid the whole assembly down onto the guitar body and then adjusted the pick guard to cover the old tremolo cavity, I checked that the p/u was parallel to the frets, and the first notch of the high E block was set at 610mm, and that the bridge was parallel to the tremolo, finally, with my trusty piece of string running down the neck I checked the whole assembly was centralised.

I now secured the pick guard temporarily with a couple of screws onto the guitar body, checking nothing had moved I then drilled a pilot hole through the hole in the high E block and shim plate, into the pick guard, and wood below. I then removed all the bridge blocks leaving only the shim plate behind on the pick guard, securely fixing it with a single screw through the hole I had just drilled.

Checking again this shim plate was still parallel with the tremolo and central to the guitar I now used it as a template to drill five more holes for the remaining bridge blocks, so ensuring these holes would be drilled in line and spaced correctly. I did make a one slight drilling error and one block did sit proud of the others, so I plugged that hole with a matchstick and re drilled the hole.

I finally cut the new pick guard with a junior hack saw and fine blade, to fit snugly fit around the bridge, like the original.

Switch sub frame

I cut down my old Burns pick guard to become the sub frame for the new switches, I found this suitable as they all lined up perfectly beneath to the new pick guard, but I had to make a mod for the pots so that their clamping nuts could be below the surface of this sub frame.

I found an old telecom junction box and fabricated a couple of brackets using just the pre moulded screw mounts from that box, now a pot clamping nut could be captive and secure below the surface of the sub frame. After checking accuracy, I fixed with a screw, but I also added a small drop of Araldite glue between the new bracket and sub frame to ensure permanent fixture and alignment of the volume/tone shafts with my new pick guard.

I glued into the guitar cavity two wood batons, with cable runs set into them to mount the sub frame on, I then completely lined the cavity with self adhesive copper tape, including the reverse of the sub frame to connect and ground the switches and pots together. I also stuck a piece of copper on the reverse of the new pick guard as a "lid" to complete the screened box when fully assembled.

I wired and soldered the switches, tone and volume pots, mimicking the Burns wiring on my original guitar, with the exception of the grounding wires that they had used, because I used the copper screening for my grounding. Finally I added a set of Adeson - Classic Vintage Pickups BM modified, reverse wound at the bridge, of course, in my original Burns casings, perfection.

To finish off I attached copper tape to the base of the bridge and a single wider strip wrapped around both sides of the small piece of pick guard that the bridge would sit on to create a continuous ground link for the bridge to the guitar.

Truss rod adjustment, with a capo fitted at the 1st fret and the 6th string depressed at the last fret, I adjusted the truss rod to get a clearance of .012 (0.3mm) at the 8th fret, which I understand to be correct.

Pick up heights were adjusted to the same settings as set out below. Fine tuning was done with thin washers placed underneath each pick up where needed:

  • Bridge pickup: Top E: 2.5mm Bottom E: 2.75mm
  • Middle pickup: Top E: 3.0mm Bottom E: 3.25mm
  • Neck pickup: Top E: 3.25mm Bottom E: 3.5mm

(As recommended by Greg Fryer for this type of RS with fixed p/u)

Tuners: I cheated here as I personally like the Grover's, so to make them appear Red Special "ish" I purchased some of their own brand replacement mother of pearl buttons, but the original button screws were now too short, but the mini drill had the answer. I used the little ball engraving stone that came with the drill, this is because it fitted snugly into the countersink on the new button, so I ground out each button to the depth of the ball, using this method as a make shift depth gauge enabled me to ensure these drillings were all of equal depth, and I now could use the original screws, resolving my problem.

To finish off I removed the fixing screws on the reverse of the headstock, slackened off the clamping nuts, turned the tuners to one side and filled the unwanted holes with matchsticks, now re drilling and securing the tuner in the obligatory angled fashion.

Pick guard and pick up surrounds. Before fixing the p/u's permanently I had laid them where I thought they should go and secured them temporarily with Blue Tack, then by fixing the pick guard to the guitar with a couple of screws I could now move them to ensure perfect alignment, I now removed the pick guard to permanently fix the p/u's where they were set, this now ensured that the surrounds would fit perfectly also.

The surround next to the bridge I cut and shaped to fit neatly around the space between the bridge blocks and bridge p/u.

The rough shaping was done with a mini drill fitted with a sanding wheel and the fine shaping was done by drawing a Stanley knife blade across the edge of the plastic to remove only the smallest amounts of Perspex until a perfect fit was made, this then was polished using a high grade vehicle finishing polish.

This took time but I felt it was worth it to give that "professional" look.

The Personal Touch

I had used the springs supplied with the tremolo but struggled to feel comfortable with light string bending. I had compressed these springs slightly to make them fit into the cavity but now couldn't get a neutral adjustment, possibly due to them being "pre loaded", so an alternative was sought, yep, motor bike valve springs... I acquired an old Honda 50cc motor bike engine and stripped it down to retrieve the valve springs, which were a lot shorter in length, but the coil gauge and diameter where similar. I had to modify them to fit and asked a friend (at a local engineering works) to open up the valve collars to allow the fixing bolts through where the valve stems had previously passed, this had to be done on a lathe as it's a hardened material.

I intended to use the inner and outer spring's together to get a more compact powerful spring into my tremolo cavity so I Araldited washers, with an enlarged hole, to the base of the outer valve springs, this prevented the inner springs from dropping through it into the tremolo mechanism and jamming it, but this washer, with it's enlarged hole, still allowed for a clearances between the fixing bolt and the spring assembly when the tremolo was worked violently.

I assembled the tremolo with the valve springs and used a couple of washers under the bolt heads to limit the travel of the bolts into the guitar body and to assist adjustment of spring tension. To my pleasant surprise light bending of a string was now comparable to my original Burns, and on a dive bomb, the more you "dive" the more resistance is felt as the inner valve springs kicks in, which IMO gives a very positive and progressive feel to the whole thing, but most importantly, it returns everything back and keeps it all in tune.

Finally...

I had been using a set of sacrificial cheap strings to make adjustments and set heights, but now I could remove them completely and fit a set of Optima Gold BM's, and I have tried a little experiment here also because I lubricated the nut grooves and bridge roller axles with a liberal splash of automotive constant velocity joint grease (MoS2) as this has good lubricating qualities for sliding and rolling contacts, but it Is mucky stuff... I also applied a thin film of this grease onto the rubbing surfaces in the tremolo.

For what it's worth, here are my tips;

  • Take your time, it's not a race.
  • Protect your guitar from accidental damage at all times
  • Measure accurately, check and double check; errors cannot always be rectified.
  • Use natural daylight where possible.
  • If it goes wrong, leave it, things will look different after a rest break
  • Clean up regularly, don't work in a muddle.
  • Use power tools with care, disconnect when changing drills or cutters.
  • Most of all have fun; when it goes right it's so rewarding.

Conclusion

It took me a while to pluck up courage to start this project, but now I've done it, and I'm absolutely thrilled with the result, IMHO this guitar sounds, feels, and looks stunning, a vast improvement over my original Burns.

But was it worth it? A resounding YES, my very own personalised Red Special, including genuine motor bike valve springs in the tremolo.

My journey is now over, not an exact RS copy, I know, but this is the way I tackled my conversion. It probably won't suit all, and I will not be liable to anyone who goofs up a conversion as a result of this document, but for me, it's an extremely satisfactory and very rewarding end result.

My thanks to Filipe of FS Guitar Parts, Andrew of A Strings and Ade of Adeson's.

And special thanks to my friends, for the loan of their tools. Shaun: the router, Mick: the mini drill and countless sanding wheels, and work colleague Barry for his multi purpose soldering iron kit.

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