Guitarists Who Forged Their Own Axes

Here is about The Frankenstrat, Red Special and Delorean.

Ultimate Guitar
Guitarists Who Forged Their Own Axes

In the world of successful bands and professional guitarists, getting an endorsement from a big name company is a dream come true –and getting a signature model from your endorser would definitely be the best part. These days though, it seems like everyone’s got a signature guitar on the shelves. One can’t help but think that it’s become less about the artist’s talent and style, and more about capitalizing off of their popularity by slapping on a paint job and an inflated price to create a “custom signature” instrument.

But some guitarists take their signature models very seriously, working with a company’s luthiers, researching and testing parts, and in some cases building their instruments from the ground up.

Today we’re going to look at a few popular musicians who went the extra mile to create their own guitars, and subsequently adding a truly unique signature model to the Guitar Center racks.

Eddie Van Halen – The Frankenstrat

Ask any guitarist what the Brown Sound is, and you’re very likely to get an enthusiastic diatribe about Eddie Van Halen beautiful tone. In the late 70s, Eddie’s catchy riffs and hallmark finger-tapping leads were propelling Van Halen toward stardom, and by the early 80s, pretty much all of the rock world was fawning over the band.

Peavey’s 5150 amps released in 1992 are a major part of the Brown Sound, Eddie’s Frankenstrat guitar is a crucial ingredient too. It was first built in 1978 as a result of Eddie’s desire to combine elements of a Gibson and a Fender. He wanted the fat sound of a Gibson’s humbucker setup with the scale length and playability of a Strat.

With the help of Wayne Charvel (of Charvel Guitars fame), he acquired a maple neck with jumbo frets and a swamp ash Stratocaster-style body.

From there, Eddie installed a PAF pickup from a Gibson ES-335 (UG Score 8.4) that he wax-potted to reduce feedback. The PAF was installed at a slanted angle to account for the smaller string spacing on the Fender bridge so the pole pieces aligned properly.

After experimenting for some time with the electronics, he eventually settled on a simple circuit with one 500k volume pot and the tone knob removed. Finally, the guitar was finished with plain white paint and masked off lines of black underneath.

This original incarnation of the now famous Frankenstrat was immediately copied by guitar companies (particularly the paint job), and underwent a few modifications to the pickup set over the years. It was also refinished with a layer of red, which is the version of the guitar that’s most often copied. There’s quite a few websites dedicated to recreating the Brown Sound, and a number of tutorials and journals detailing the process of constructing your own. Try as you might, you’re never going to be able to do what EVH did with that thing though.

Brian May – Red Special

Queen’s guitar solos are some of the most memorable and beautiful sounds in the entire world. Brian May has the honor of being the only musician on this list to have built his instrument from the ground up. Even more impressive is that he did it while he was a teen (with some help, of course).

They say that necessity is the mother of all invention, and since Brian came from a fairly poor family, the idea of buying a new Stratocaster was out of the question. Luckily, his father possessed the ingenuity to help create a truly unique instrument.

Later known as the Red Special, Brian had designed the guitar with some very specific results in mind. His intention was to create an instrument that created a feedback loop (the opposite of what people are usually trying to achieve), and this successful endeavor became an important factor in Queen’s sound.

The guitar’s neck is carved from a 100 year-old fireplace mantle, and the body is a piece of an old table and some block-board (sort of like plywood). He even designed his own tremolo system at a time when they weren’t even available in the shop to buy first-hand – the whammy bar is made from a piece of a motorcycle and one of his mother’s knitting needles! The Red Special is seriously an ingenious work – take a look at this video for a quick run-down on it from the man himself:

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Matt Bellamy - Delorean

Matt has to be one of the more innovative modern rock guitarists out there, endlessly searching for new sounds to incorporate into Muse’s already eclectic catalogue of guitar solos. He got the itch at an early age – while he was a teen, he and his parents used to visit Manson’s Guitar Shop in Exeter, which became his base of operation in his tone-searching journey. He and famed-luthier Hugh Manson formed a friendship, and when Matt was ready to have his first custom guitar built, they developed it together.

The result was unique to say the least. While he’s more famed for his chaos pad / sustainer combo Manson signature, the Delorean (Back to the Future reference) was impressive in its own right. The aluminum body plating is purely aesthetic (and even caused issues with the sustainer pickup’s function), but its electronic circuit was definitely not. It held Seymour Duncan Hot P90 at the neck, a Kent Armstrong Motherbucker at the bridge, and also had a Roland GK-2a MIDI pickup installed just before the saddle.

The circuitry after the pickups is the most impressive part though – there were a couple pedal effects built right into the back (Z.Vex Fuzz Factory & MXR Phase 90). It also featured a preamp system for the Graphtech Ghost acoustic saddles (so really there're four pickups, if you’re counting). And to top it all off, a killswitch.

I’d say it’s an impressive addition to the world of custom guitars, but it wouldn’t be worth all the effort if it weren’t being properly put to use – thankfully, Matt has that covered.

-Joel Bennett

53 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Dunno how bellamy fits on there. He got someone else to make his guitars for him.
    It's more about the collaborative design aspect of Matt's guitars, in essence he's more of a 'designer' than a builder but you can interchange the words to some extent. Would Hugh Manson have built the guitars that way without Matt requesting them? Probably not. Matt has also contributed to several builds himself with sourcing material, colouring it, and in some cases, even smashing it for effect.
    But then couldn't you argue almost any guitarist who has a signature guitar should be on this list?
    i understand that idea as well, but i think a lot of them are simply approached by companies for promotion, rather than matt going to manson himself and being like "hey i want this" *insert british accent*
    I can assure you that the involvement of the actual guitarist in their namesake's model is often extremely minimal. Zakk Wylde's famous bullseye guitar is a shining example of how these models are pumped out: he had a Les Paul Custom that was cream colored and wanted to look different from Randy Rhoads - so he asked a luthier to paint a spiral and got back a bullseye instead...fuck it, slap a pair of EMGs on it and it's my CUSTOM SIGNATURE MODEL!
    Not always though. What about Petrucci? His sigs are whole new body shapes entirely, the Majesty especially.
    Unless he had some hand in the design process, the companies will usually show the specs to the guitarist and get their approval to call it their signature - the problem is that guitar models of almost every variation exist already, and most guitarists don't actually *need* a signature series, so marketing just takes over there. Someone like Steve Vai had a long back and forth process working with Ibanez to come up with the S series, which was based on Vai's own frankenstein guitar and equipped with his specs. As far as John Petrucci goes, I don't really know his involvement but I'm sure he had some specific requirements for the design at the very least.
    I'd say pretty much every 7 string exists because of Steve Vai. His desire initially was for a higher string, but they were practically impossible not to break every time. Hence they settled on the low B string. The Jem series was born straight out of Vai's mind. Without his involvement would anyone be playing 7,8,9,10, etc strings today? I doubt it...
    No, the article title says "Guitarists who forged THEIR OWN axes". Bellamy, with all due respect, didn't forge shit.
    but he's been known to cut stuff up himself too and paint he does have some hands on part of it.
    ron jarzombek anyone ?
    Why is Les Paul not on this list?
    It's more of a list of popular musicians, not anyone who built a guitar and also played it - I'd have put myself on the list otherwise.
    Les Paul is a popular musician he had 17 hit singles, 3 of them were number ones, and 2 of those are in the Grammy Hall Of Fame.
    Les Paul is only a few years older than Queen and Van Halen. Les Paul has more US No 1 Singles than Queen even though they have released around 4 times the amount of songs.
    Tom Morello is my favorite guitar and very underrated. He has to be one of the most original and thinking outside the norm like EVH when it comes to playing guitar. His arm the homless strat is another built from scratch with a kramer neck and strat body and a highly modified guitar that Tom had built and tweaked himself after got it from the guy who built it for him because it was still not to his specs. And his set up is honestly super simple. Cry baby, digi wah, and delay pedal with an eq boost is all he uses.
    So realistically Brian May should be the only one out of the 3 on here if we're going to be technical as he actually carved the wood, not had someone else build it or used bits from other guitars? Love his sound anyway.
    True. İf we are going to be a bit more liberal with the terminology here, I'd like to see more people on this list. Tosin Abasi has certainly vamped up the game as far as modern guitars and playing them goes. Also Steven Drozd from the Flaming Lips crafted a Guitar Hero guitar onto one of the necks of his Gibson SG double neck for midi purposes. I'd say that fits the bill for "forging."
    jack whites board-o-caster at the beginning of it might get loud
    I love the look of Brians Red Special, and it has some awesome history behind it.
    Didn't Tony Iommi make one?
    I believe he hand a heavy hand (forgive the pun, poor fingertip-less bastard) in it - I remember something about it being built on a kitchen table.
    Wow I have never notice how best to shit Eddie's guitar looks. Many miles put in that unit.
    How could a Peavy amp introduced in 1992 have a part in a guitar tone that was already 15 years old?
    Because it's a cumulative result - the 5150s came later and the term became synonymous without Eddie's setup which includes....his guitar!
    EVH has already admitted the "brown sound" he spoke of was the sound of his brothers snare. Sounded like hitting a log to eddie. Hence the brown sound.
    Matt bellamy is one of the more innovative rock guitarist out there?.. I would replace him with Les paul.
    Actually, the quote is "Matt has to be one of the more innovative modern rock guitarists out there". Whether you agree or not, Les Paul is quite dead.
    I'm not saying he isn't dead. I just think he should be on this list before Matt in general.
    Alright, let's go back and look at the sentence once again: the keyword is 'Modern'. And if I wanted to argue a hierarchy of who should be listed first in the innovative guitar people list, I'd stick George Beauchamp and Adolf Rickenbacker before Les Paul.
    My respect for Brian May and his guitar, or is it his dad's guitar, or is it his mom's guitar or is it the guy's who owned the motorcycle guitar, just multiplied exponentially. I had no idea he did all that.
    A general notice: this is not the definitive list of every musician who ever built a guitar and played music with it. I apologize to anyone who was under the impression that misread the title