Hairfred guitar: a tale of torn labels

Hallfred guitar / Hairfred guitar label study

Hairfred guitar?

I first started researching the Hairfred guitar, Brian May’s enigmatic instrument, towards the end of 2011 (see Getting in on the app business), whilst working on a project for This Day in Music. Brian May’s interview for the January 1983 edition of Guitar Player magazine, in which he was misquoted as saying “Yeah, I have a very old, cheap Hairfred which makes that buzzy sound that’s on ‘Jealousy’ and ‘White Queen'”. Like many before me, I started searching for any details of other Hairfred guitars. I soon came to the same conclusion as others, that it was unlikely any such brand had ever existed.

Hallfred guitar?

The first breakthrough came with the publication of the Brian May’s Red Special book at the end of 2014. Page 20 of that book includes a photograph of the Hairfred guitar; on close examination the manufacturer’s label can be seen through the sound-hole. It seems probable, given the name on that label, that Brian had said “Hallfred”, rather than “Hairfred”, when interviewed for Guitar Player.

I started looking for Hallfred guitars, but still drew a blank. I turned to vintage guitar forums and specialist auction houses, seeking out similar looking instruments. It appears to be in a Viennese style, similar to guitars built by Johann Georg Stauffer (Christian Frederick Martin’s mentor) and his son Johann Anton Stauffer; the angled cut at the body end of the fingerboard is a common Stauffer feature. However, the Hallfred guitar appeared to be far more modern than the eighteenth and nineteenth century Stauffers.

Having failed to find any references to Hallfred guitars I returned to the photograph in the Red Special book, concentrating on the label in particular. It was clear its right-hand side was torn and missing a section. I scanned the photograph and used some graphics software to try and recreate the missing section. The positioning of the word ‘Hallfred’ suggested there was probably a letter missing. By a process of elimination, based on pronounceable names (including Germanic spellings), I concluded that letter was probably either ‘E’ or ‘H’.

Hallfrede guitar?

Over the next two years or so I continued to search for evidence of Hallfrede guitars or Hallfredh guitars. One of the vintage guitar specialists I’d been in touch with suggested the manufacturer might be named after the small town of Hallfrede, Gotland, Sweden, indicating a possible Swedish origin. However, eventually I tracked down someone who owns a Hallfredh guitar. To my delight, he had a photograph, which clearly displayed an in-tact Hallfredh guitar label. However, the quest wasn’t over, as the guitar had no provenance and the owner wasn’t familiar with the brand; he thought it might be German, dating from the 1920s or 1930s. The word ‘schutzmarke’, straddling the eagle emblem on the label, is German for ‘trademark’, further supporting this theory.

Hallfredh guitar / Hairfred guitar label
Hallfredh guitar label

Hallfredh guitar

The Dead Straight Guide To Queen was in draft by the time I was able to confirm the Hallfredh guitar name in the story of the Hairfred guitar. Regrettably it slipped through the editing and proofreading process; it’s really difficult to proofread your own work and ‘Hallfrede guitar’ wouldn’t have looked to anyone else as though it needed correcting. The error has been corrected in the second edition, published in July 2019 by This Day In Music Books, as This Day In Music’s Guide To Queen.

I’m continuing to research the background and history of Hallfredh guitars; in the meantime this at least solves the puzzle of the mysterious Hairfred guitar name.

Customisation by Brian May

In the 1983 Guitar Player interview, Brian May explained how he had modified his Hallfredh: “I made it sound like a sitar by taking off the original bridge and putting a hardwood bridge on. I chiseled away at it until it was flat and stuck a little piece of fret wire material underneath. The strings just very gently lay on the fret wire and it makes that sitar-like sound.”

Hallfredh guitar appearances

Brian May mentioned three occasions when he’d recorded with his modified Hallfredh, but did he use it on any other tracks?

‘The Night Comes Down’ (Queen, 1973)

  • Confirmed by Brian May on, in 2003 and again in 2020. [my thanks to Sebastian for pointing these out to me]

‘White Queen (As It Began)’ (Queen II, 1974)

  • Confirmed by Brian May

‘Jealousy’ (Jazz, 1978)

  • Confirmed by Brian May

‘Sail Away Sweet Sister’ (The Game, 1980)

  • Features some minor high-register fret buzz
  • Speculated by some expert Queen fans

Image acknowledgements

Hairfred guitar / Hallfred guitar label detail (digitally edited by Phil Chapman): Richard Gray (from Brian May’s Red Special, Carlton Books, 2014)

Hallfredh Guitar label: Roger Häggström

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