Brian May knows a thing or two about voices. He worked for much of his
career with Freddie Mercury, one of the
greatest rock singers of all time. He also
famously blended his own voice with Mercury’s
and Queen drummer Roger Taylor’s
to create some of the best harmonies
anyone has ever heard. Then, there is his
guitar voice, which is beautiful, rich, multifaceted,
and instantly recognizable.
So when the good doctor finds a new
voice he feels compelled to work with, that
is newsworthy indeed. London theater star
Kerry Ellis is just such a singer. May was so
taken with her vocals that he encouraged
Ellis to audition for the Queen-themed theatrical
show We Will Rock You, and vowed
to produce a record for her, which he did—
2010’s Anthems [Decca].
Now the two have a DVD/CD from a
recent gig in Switzerland, The Candlelight Concerts
– Live at Montreux 2013 [Eagle Rock].
It’s an intimate, mostly acoustic set comprised
of standards, Queen tunes, and some
carefully chosen covers.
“I’m very fortunate to be touring with
Brian,” says Ellis. “We’re very good at leaving
space—I think we very much complement
One day before the announcement of
Queen + Adam Lambert tour dates, May
took time to talk about The Candlelight Concerts
You’ve backed up great singers your
entire career. What are the most important
things a guitarist can do to support
The most important thing is to stay out
of the way. It’s very important what you
don’t play in this situation, and I’ve thought
this for a very long time. I learned an awful lot from watching how the guitarists in We
Will Rock You all around the world play our
songs. We like to give them freedom, and
the best of them understand that everything
depends on the vocals. If I’m giving them
notes, I always say, “Make sure you can hear
the vocal. That will tell you if you’re doing
the job right or not.” By seeing other people
mess it up, I realize more and more what I
have to do and what I have to not do. A song
is about the singer and that’s it.
And remember, I started that way. I didn’t
learn lead guitar first, I learned rhythm guitar
and then lead guitar. So, for me, it’s a kind
of return to my roots, and it’s something
I really enjoy. I spend a lot of time studying
and trying to work things out, because,
as an accompanist, you don’t want to miss
anything. You want to have the whole chord
structure for the song in there or else the
song doesn’t achieve its potential. But in
order to do that with six strings on an acoustic
guitar, you have to use everything at your
disposal—mute unwanted open strings, add
little riffs and things, and always remember
that you have to fit around the vocal.
To me, it’s a fascinating study and I’m very
proud of what we’re doing.
Your acoustic on the intro to “Born
Free” has such a huge ring to it that I initially
thought it was a 12-string. How are
you getting that tone?
It’s just a standard guitar with nice, new
strings on it. I use my fingers a lot, the fingertips
and the fingernail as well. Then, it’s
about choosing your notes. If you have a lot
of open strings it makes a huge difference.
I love to engineer things so I can use lots
of open strings in unusual ways. My “Born
Free” riff is not what was on the original,
but I think John Barry would approve. It
has a certain sort of clang to it. The open
strings give it that brightness.
Most of your playing is fingerstyle on
this performance, even when you’re soloing
on your Red Special on “Last Horizon.”
The sixpence seemed like it only made an
appearance for the power chords. Why not
solo with a sixpence?
I’ve discovered you can be so expressive
with just the fingers that lately I’ve leaned
more in that direction. I’ve always done that,
though. In the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video
you can see that I’m playing with just my
fingers in the middle. Those little expressive
parts have become more and more important
to me. I’m not competing with a drummer
and a bass player and a whole band, so
I don’t need to hit it hard. So fingers work
best in many situations now. I didn’t really
realize it myself until recently, but I probably
didn’t use the sixpence at all. I probably
held it, but I don’t know if I used it.
What was the Brian May guitar with the
metallic finish that you played on “Nothing
Really Has Changed”?
It’s more than a metallic finish, it’s
made out of steel plates. I was just
amazed when I first saw it. To be honest
I thought, “That’s a nice looking instrument.
I’ll put it on the wall.” I didn’t
realize it would be a very serious instrument
to play until I took it to Africa and
played it through a tiny little amplifier
in the jungle. I found it had this extraordinary,
mournful sound, so now I use it
a lot. It’s a beautiful guitar.
For the performance on the DVD, did
you use your normal rig—the AC30 with
the Treble Booster?
No. I don’t have any AC30s or any of
that stuff. It’s all either straight into the
P.A. or into a tiny little Deacy amp. That’s
all I use. I’ll tell you what, I do miss the
AC30s. The hardest thing is to get that
intermediate between full on and off—the
delicacy. I notice it really painfully at the
end of “No One But You.” It’s really difficult
to get that delicacy in there. So I might
have to use something else. I don’t know.
That’s actually quite astounding that
you’re getting that tone—your tone—without
your full rig.
I remember playing with Hank Marvin,
my hero from the Shadows days. He picked
up my guitar, and what did he sound like?
He sounded like Hank Marvin! So that tells
me it’s all in the fingers.