George Martin has said that you
don’t have to teach children to
love the Beatles. You merely have
to expose them to the Beatles and
they’ll take it from there, exploring
the catalog, identifying with
the songs, and developing a deep,
lifelong love affair with the band.
It has happened with every generation since the group’s inception
and shows no signs of ever stopping.
The same is true with Queen.
The band obviously gained a loyal following almost instantly,
with fans drawn in by the amazing combination of melody, harmony,
subtlety, and bombast. Each hit single garnered new adherents,
but that can be said of almost any successful band, and it
generally only lasts as long as the band lasts. But when Queen’s
supernaturally talented singer, Freddie Mercury, passed away in
late 1991, the band’s popularity did not die with him. In fact, that’s
when the first of many waves of new fans hit, beginning with the
inclusion of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the movie Wayne’s World.
It happened again with the debut of the theater hit We Will Rock
You. It happens every time newer artists such as Pink, Jake Shimabukuro,
Katy Perry, or Lady Gaga cover Queen tunes in concert.
And it will likely occur again when the Queen Extravaganza—an
officially sanctioned tribute band—hits the road.
And even as new generations get hip to Queen’s music, oldschool
guitar freaks continue to rediscover the wealth of 6-string
magic that was created by Dr. Brian May. It’s constantly inspiring
to be reminded of how lyrical his melodies are, how inventive
his harmonies can be, and how freaking great his tones are. You
can hear “Killer Queen” any old time. Want to really rekindle your
love for Queen? Listen to his solo in “Bijou,” check out the celestial
guitar choir of “All Dead, All Dead,” and revel in the absolute
sweeping grandeur of May’s work in “It’s a Hard Life.” There is
simply no one like this guy.
With Freddie Mercury no longer with us and bassist John
Deacon firmly ensconced in retirement, it is primarily May, with
help from drummer Roger Taylor, who oversees Queen’s enduring
legacy. The good doctor has been busy of late, creating the album
Anthems with British theater star Kerry Ellis, an intriguing fusion
of musical theater, orchestra, and rock guitar. Shortly thereafter,
May and Taylor acted as executive producers for the re-mastering
of the Queen catalog to celebrate the band’s 40th anniversary. The
old songs sound better than ever, and the bonus tracks, including
the band’s first demos, are mind-blowers. One listen to those
embryonic early recordings will prove to new and old fans alike
that May and his cohorts had their whole
trip together from the get-go, and that will
ring just as true 40 years from now.
What did you learn as you went through this remastering
process, both from a full band standpoint
and a guitar standpoint?
I kind of marveled at it because of all that
we did. It was so complex. Particularly when
we got to A Night at the Opera and A Day at the
Races, we really were flying in terms of ideas
and ways to execute those ideas. I don’t know
what I learned. I don’t think as a guitar player
my technique changed that much from the
beginning to the end. What changed was just
the experience in getting the ideas to their
fruition. I look back and I see a very, very
young guy on that first album making his
first stabs in the studio. I’ve got to smile. I
think it’s amazing that I got away with that.
The early demos are fascinating. You guys
might be a little raw, but you definitely sound
I actually love the sound of those first
demos. We all prefer those to the way the
first album turned out. When we made the
record, we got kind of forced into this particular
way of working that has made Trident
Studios very famous: a clinical, very
separated kind of recording with the idea
that you could put the warmth back in the
mix. But it was never going to work. We
went along with it because we had to. The
first album at Trident was on such a shoestring
budget and we would use bits of
time that other people abandoned. We literally
would get called at 3:00 in the morning
and someone would say, “We’ve got a
couple of hours, boys. Come in and do a
bit.” It was a very disconnected kind of procedure.
As time went on, we actually had
proper studio time. Queen II was the first
time. There was a lot of exploration going
on on Queen II—things we always dreamed
of doing: building up guitar orchestras and
the beginnings of vocal choir effects as you
can hear on “The March of the Black Queen.”
So, although some people got surprised at
the time, when I look at our output I don’t
think there’s anything too surprising. All the
seeds of those ideas like “Bohemian Rhapsody”
and a lot of the hits were there, in
essence, in the first couple of albums. They
just needed full realizing. We went out on a
few limbs. After we had gone really, really
far into the complex side on A Night at the
Opera and A Day at the Races, we did strip it
all back for News of the World, so we got “We
Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions”
and stuff. That was a major departure.
Why change things up when they were obviously
working so well?
We had this idea that we never should
repeat ourselves, so we deliberately put ourselves
in different situations of writing and
recording just so we would keep moving
and keep breaking down any barriers that
might seem to be there. I felt another barrier
was broken with “Another One Bites
the Dust,” as well. To various degrees, sometimes
we weren’t totally comfortable with
it, and certainly Roger wasn’t very comfortable
with that song. He didn’t want his
drums to sound like that really, but the idea
was supported by John and also by Freddie,
who got brilliant passionate about how
we would have this very sparse, tight little
sound for the drums and everything would
be very spare. Hot Space was a continuation
of that in a sense. Let’s try to, not do less,
but leave more spaces and make the sounds
count more when they come. So there were
a lot of departures, but our basic equipment
was what it was from the beginning. I don’t
think we really developed new talent. We
just honed what was already there.
The demo for “Keep Yourself Alive” starts
with an acoustic. That was surprising. Is there any
acoustic at all on the released version?
No. I think that’s a good observation. I
don’t quite know why we switched. I like
the old version. It’s so relaxed. It’s got such
a great feel to it. From that day on, I always
had this theory that it’s really not a good
idea to make demos. I’m not saying you can’t
use your tape recorder as a notebook. I find
that very valuable. But to actually make a
demo of a record you’re going to make in
the future, it’s generally disastrous because
almost certainly you get something fabulous
at the first attempt, something which you
will never be able to revisit, no matter how
hard you try. The more you chase it, the further
it gets away. I was never happy with any
the recordings we made after that first one.
These re-mastered discs contain other bonus
material, such as the guitar and vocal mix of “I’m
In Love with My Car.” You really can focus on what
you’re doing, and it sounds like you were playing
your Burns 12-string in addition to the Red Special.
You’re right—that definitely sounds like
the old Burns. I had to think about it but I
would say yes. It must be in there.
Some other songs where you didn’t play your
Red Special include the “Crazy Little Thing Called
Love” solo, which was a Tele, “Long Away,” which
also had the Burns electric 12, and “Who Needs
You,” which featured that funky, buzzy nylonstring.
What’s up with that guitar?
I have no idea where that guitar came from.
The song just seemed to need a proper Spanish
guitar, rather than a regular steel-string
acoustic. So we found one and I played it but
I can’t tell you what it was. I’m very un-snobbish
about guitars. It doesn’t matter what
they’re called or where they come from. If
they sound good at that point in time, that’s
it. A lot of the acoustic stuff that we’ve done
was played on very cheap old things I had
lying around, but I just liked the particular
sound. I’ve never played anything expensive,
in terms of an acoustic guitar. I know
that for sure. A lot of the people around me
had these wonderful old Martins and things,
but they wouldn’t make the sort of noise
that I needed.
You’ve talked a lot in the past about the band’s
vocal blend and how that came together naturally
with Freddie having the pure bell-like tone, Roger
having that rasp in the upper range, and you fitting
somewhere in the middle. What about your
guitar choirs? Do you think they came together in
a similar way, like almost by chance—the way your
AC30 tone blends with the Deacy? How much of
that was planned out and how much of it did you
just stumble upon?
A lot of stumbling [laughs]. I would generally
just try things out and see how they
sounded. They’re done all different ways,
those guitar harmonies. Sometimes it’s all
AC30 on a particular setting, sometimes
I mixed it up. In some cases, like “Killer
Queen,” you’ve got one part that’s the Deacy
and then one part that’s the AC30 working
against each other. They just work. I found
things that sounded good to me, so I went
with them. But I was looking for a voice. In
my search I was always looking for something
that would speak to you like a human
voice would. That’s the ideal for me.
You’ve talked about how you don’t generally
blend different pickup combinations when you’re
layering a bunch of guitars, that they just seem to
take care of themselves. But do you have a favorite
pickup setting with the Deacy?
I tend to settle on the bridge pickup and the
middle pickup in phase—that thick sound—
and I use it for a lot of things. The variation
of sounds from the Deacy normally comes
from moving the microphone. It’s very sensitive
to where you put the microphone. So
that’s the principle that molds that sound.
We don’t use much EQ. It’s generally just
all the sound of the amp and the guitar and
where the mic is positioned.
I’ve seen pictures of an SM57 on the Deacy.
Do you experiment with other microphones, too?
All kinds of different mics. It just depends
on what we’re looking for.
The “guitar jazz band” in the song “Good Company”
is an astounding bit of guitar orchestration.
You not only nail the sounds of trumpets and trombones,
but you really capture the nuances of how
those instruments are played. Talk about how you
did that. For instance, did you use a slide for the
trombone sounding parts?
I didn’t use a slide, no. I just used bending
and the tremolo. It came about because I
was mad, mad keen on this group called the
Temperance Seven. They were part of the traditional
jazz revival that happened in England
in the ’60s. Actually George Martin produced
their 1961 album. The arrangements were
deceptively loose sounding, and yet meticulously
crafted so the right harmonic changes
were always there. I just fell in love with
this style of arranging and I had this dream
of making that kind of sound on the guitar.
When you started layering those parts on
“Good Company,” what was it like when you heard
it playing back?
It was really exciting. I actually did a bit
of work on it. Normally I work very instinctively,
but I did go away and pencil a few
things down. I tried to imagine what I would
be playing if I were that trombone player, or
that trumpet player or clarinet player. So I
tried to make them play in a way that they
would find natural. I pieced it all together
with little bits of guitar through the Deacy
amp using a wah-wah pedal as a tone control,
just trying to get it right.
Listening closely to it on the re-master, it’s an
amazing accomplishment. I’ve never heard anything
I appreciate that. Yeah, I’m proud. I’m
relieved that that happened. That’s on A
Night at the Opera, and we were really charging
the hill at that point. We had three or
four studios on the go at one time making
that album because there was so much to
do. We had such an ambitious plan for it. I
was off doing that at some place in North
London while Freddie was doing vocal overdubs
someplace else. Then we all came back
together and played each other what we’d
been working on and had a good laugh. We
felt like we were breaking into new territory
and really enjoying ourselves.
So there’s no slide on “Good Company,” but
you do play slide on “Tie Your Mother Down” and
“Drowse.” What are some other songs that feature
You named the two that I would have
thought of. I don’t know if there’s that much
else that I played on slide. I don’t regard
myself as a very accomplished slide player.
Who are some of your influences for slide
Probably Eric Clapton, to be truthful,
although he didn’t do much, did he? I have
a couple things where Clapton plays slide.
Jeff Beck. Jeff Beck is always an influence. I
should say Ry Cooder but that’s not really
It would seem to me that the action on your
guitar would be a little low for slide, but you don’t
have any problem playing the “Tie Your Mother
Down” parts on it.
You’re right. It’s damn difficult to play
slide on my guitar because the strings are
a fraction of an inch off the fingerboard. I
just have to be really gentle and not hit the
frets. It’s not ideal.
In “Save Me,” you do three distinct lead breaks.
There’s the acoustic part, then the harmonies that
sound like they’re through the Deacy that are fairly
subdued, with minimal vibrato, and then there’s
the solo where you really play with abandon, particularly
with your use of vibrato. Do you remember
how those sections came together?
I was just exploring textures, I suppose,
and trying to make it tell a story, have a development.
The song has a very gentle sense to
it, but it also gets to a passionate place at the
end and I guess I was trying to mirror that
with the guitars. It’s funny. When that album
got reviewed, people said, “What happened to
the guitars?” I remember feeling kind of hurt
when I read that because I thought, “Actually
there’s quite a bit of guitar on there.” I
recently redid the song on an album called
Anthems with a young lady that I’ve been producing,
Your work on Anthems is an interesting blend
of rock, orchestra, and musical theater. That doesn’t
seem like it should work, but your guitar fits into
it seamlessly and naturally.
To me, it’s the next step, where the guitar
sits in a different place, where rock meets
orchestra. Ten years of development went into
that so I do feel very proud of it. It’s not a
great seller—so far anyway—but I’m as proud
of the work on that album as anything I’ve
done. I read that Jimi Hendrix talked about
that idea of combining guitar with orchestra
before he died. I find it absolutely riveting
when you get it right, and everything seems
to organically fit together—all out guitar and
all out orchestra.
Roger says that his favorite solo of yours is in
“Was It All Worth It.” Are you surprised by that?
I had no idea Roger thought that. I love
the track but to be honest I just had to go
and play it to remind myself what the solo
was. It’s not bad!
That solo is pretty technically demanding. Is
it all alternate picking or do you use sweep picking
for the arpeggios?
Thanks, but I don’t think it’s very technical,
really. It’s just will power! I pick up and
down on those arpeggios. I can do it for short
periods but after that my brain short-circuits
and my hand gets confused. I actually like
those rising lines. I like lines that suggest harmonic
content. I tend to play across chords
rather than along lines.
Your first story in Guitar Player showed you
with a Les Paul Deluxe, and you also played a Strat
many years ago. What were your impressions of
those guitars and were there specific songs you
would play them on?
I don’t have much to say about them, really.
I only used them as spares because I didn’t
have a decent copy of my guitar at that time.
Neither of them really worked for me, though
they work just fine for other people. The Les
Paul was too dull, the pickups whistled, and
it had no trem. The Strat sounded painfully
thin and didn’t sustain the way I wanted.
I kept thinking, “It worked beautifully for
Rory Gallagher with a similar amp setup.”
But for me it was just frustrating. In time
we got the BM guitar copies going, and my
problems were solved.
What were your impressions when Greg Fryer
presented you with the replicas that he made of
the Red Special?
I was very happy. He’s an amazing guy.
He made three of them, and they are stupendous.
We call them John, Paul, and George.
He kept Paul and I kept John and George.
John is the one that I use most and George
is the one I have at home to play. George is
the prettiest of the three, with a lovely marbled
veneer. They’re wonderfully made. His
attention to detail was absolutely top class.
Was it nerve wracking to have him work on
the real deal?
You mean when he took my guitar to bits
and had it in pieces all over the workshop?
I did have a moment of catching my breath
because that had never happened since I
made it. But I quickly learned to trust this
guy. He’s an amazing craftsman and he took
infinite care. He had to take it all to bits to
take all the measurements he needed. When
he finished, he put the new guitar into my
hands, and if I closed my eyes I couldn’t tell
it wasn’t mine. It’s amazing.
Your Red Special has great intonation, even
when you’re playing full chords at the 14th position
in tunes like “Hammer to Fall” and “We Will
Rock You.” How did you and your dad achieve such
precise fret placement, especially considering the
fact that the 24” scale length is different from
Fender’s and Gibson’s?
I did the calculations for the frets on the
computer I was working with at the time in
my work place. This is about 1964, and a
mainframe computer filled a large building,
with an overall capacity of about a thousandth
of your laptop. I made up my own formula,
and based my program on an iterative solution
to the equation. The calculations were
correct to 24 decimal places. Really! I have
the printout somewhere.
How did you come to include a zero fret? Why
don’t more manufacturers use them?
The zero fret is part of the plan for good
intonation and return from whammying. I got
the idea from my small acoustic, but it made
the business of minimizing friction at the nut
much easier. It works. I’m really surprised
that so few people have followed that up.
Freddie tended to write in non-guitar keys. Did
that pose any challenges for you?
Absolutely. It made me play in different
and unusual ways on the guitar. It was definitely
a big influence on the way that my
style developed. You get used to playing in
Eb and F and all the keys which your fingers
don’t want to work with. It’s very formative.
It really made me find all sorts of shapes that
I never would have found otherwise.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is certainly in line with
that. You’ve talked about how the ending bits in
that song are tricky for you to play. Are there
other pieces or sections in your catalog that you
find challenging to perform?
Probably “Millionaire Waltz.” I don’t
think we’ve ever managed to play that all
the way through. I had a lot of fun with We
Will Rock You, our musical, because I have
a couple of great guitarists and a keyboard
player that can sound like a guitarist if we
ask him to. I’ve had a lot of fun rearranging
some of our stuff to be played live, in a way
that I wouldn’t be able to do on my own.
But obviously some of the stuff we did on
record is so complex it would take ten guitars
at once to actually reproduce it.
Much has been written about your lead work and
as a result your rhythm playing doesn’t get talked
about as much. What can you say about the attention
you put into being a great rhythm guitarist?
Ooh…you used the word “great” [laughs].
I take rhythm playing very seriously because
for me, the guitar is a lead instrument and
can be a voice, but it has to be always playing
underneath the vocal. This is what I tell
my guitarists all around the world who play
in We Will Rock You—be free and be creative,
but always remember that if you’re doing
something that messes up the vocal, you’re
in the wrong playing field. So with rhythm
guitar, you have to do things that are complementary
to the vocal and to the song. If
they get in the way, you’ve lost the game.
I love playing rhythm and that’s the way I
started. When I was a kid I just played acoustic
guitar and strummed and sang. I sang
Everly Brothers songs, Tommy Steele songs,
Elvis songs—so rhythm guitar is where I
come from. That doesn’t tend to happen to
people these days. People go straight into the
widdly widdly things and they don’t really
have time to get settled as rhythm players.
I’m very lucky because with the AC30 and
my guitar and the treble booster I can have
an infinite adjustment between clean and
totally distorted. That smooth transition is
so useful for playing rhythm because you
can make it sound big without it becoming
a horrible mess. It’s just enough in just the
right way to make it envelop and yet at the
same time be sweet.
You mentioned your acoustic strumming. That
was on display in the tune “39,” which you sang on
A Night at the Opera. Yet on Live Killers and also
on the live bonus tracks, you’re not singing it. Freddie’s
singing it. Was that so you could focus more
on the driving quality of the acoustic rhythm?
Live, it seemed a crime not to have Freddie
singing. I could have sung it, but you’ve got
one of the best singers in the world there so
why not use him? I’ve come to the conclusion,
at the end of a long road, that I’m not really a
singer and I can play much better guitar if I’m
not singing. There are people who can sing and
play at the same time, but maybe they’re just
not me. If I have a singer standing beside me,
I can concentrate on making the guitar speak.
What do you think about the fascination that
guitarists have with your signal chain and your tone?
It’s very flattering. It surprises me sometimes.
I’m constantly amazed when people
like Joe Satriani or Steve Vai—people who
can play me out of this universe—say they
get excited about what I do. That means a
lot to me. I think it’s down to the fact that
people feel something when I play. It’s a
voice. If there is something special there,
it’s because it’s very direct and most of the
time it’s very uncomplicated. I try to speak
through the guitar other than just playing
notes. But it’s very hard to answer what
people might like about things. It can only
be because there’s some speaking going on
there through the guitar.
I recently heard a couple of tunes from your
pre-Queen band, Smile, and I was surprised at
how heavy they were. You were really interested
in powerful, heavy guitar work from an early age.
What led you to that approach?
I think we all have our heroes and we all
have those moments where we get excited
and think, “That’s what I want to do.” So
it’s a mixture of all that. For me, it probably
starts with James Burton playing on
Rick Nelson records and little bits and
pieces I heard on Everly Brothers records,
and it develops. It goes through the Shadows
and Hank Marvin’s amazingly lyrical
and beautiful sound, and then the beginnings
of that explosion—Eric Clapton,
Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck. I
was inspired by that, but I was also always
inspired by harmonic and melodic content.
I talk about the Everly Brothers a lot, and
Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Those harmonies
electrified me. They are quite simple,
but they just hit the button. Forever I was
looking to records and unconsciously figuring
out what everybody was singing, so
I could sing all the parts on those records
when I was a kid. My dream was to combine
melody and harmony with a real uncompromising
heavy undertone. Then I met Roger
and he had a similar feeling about music,
and Freddie as well. John came to us with
a slightly different emphasis but he very
much got into developing the dream. We
were very lucky to find each other. It was
a very organic combination of people. We
just worked together really well.
Did Smile open for Hendrix?
We played in the same building but
not in the same room. Actually, it wasn’t
Smile. It was a group called 1984, which
was before Smile. We played in the bottom
refectory part and Jimi played in the great
hall upstairs, which held about 1,000
people. People tell me that Jimi came in
and saw us playing, and at that time we
were playing “Purple Haze.” I don’t know
what he thought. He probably shook his
head and went off and had a laugh. But
later we went up and saw him play and
it was indescribably huge. I’ll never get
over it. It was just beyond amazing. You
couldn’t imagine how that kind of sound
could come out of three people—the Jimi
Hendrix Experience. It was colossal.
How does it make you feel to see younger artists
like Pink, Jake Shimabukuro, and Lady Gaga pay
tribute to your music and expose their fans to it?
It makes me unquestionably happy. Pink’s
version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” impressed
the hell out of me. I think it’s amazing. It’s
the greatest accolade you could have that
people in different generations—who are
essentially peers, but in different years of
time—come in and appreciate you. It’s the
best thing that could happen, and it makes
me feel very good.
Roger Taylor on the Queen Extravaganza
Queen drummer Roger Taylor knows a thing or
two about extravaganzas. He’s the guy, after all, who brought not just
gongs but tympani on tour back in the ’70s. He sang those high-pitched
Galileos. He’s in love with his car. He’s Roger F*cking Taylor and you’re not.
So who better to choose the players and singers for the Queen-approved
tribute band that will tour as the Queen Extravaganza? From a bunch
of great candidates, Taylor went with Tristan Avakian and Brian Gresh
to fill the guitar roles. He talked to GP about this, about his guitar collection,
and about what he thinks about the guitarist he’s worked with
for more than four decades.
|Tristan Avakian (left) and Brian Gresh.
Explain your overall concept here. What were you going for with this
I really got tired of seeing our music presented in the form of tribute
bands, often represented as cheesy, small scale, and not very well
done. I thought, “Why don’t we get our own tribute together and produce
the show ourselves and throw our own energies into it?” We know our
music better than anybody and I want to see it represented to people
in an excellent and spectacular way.
What were you looking for in a guitarist? I’m guessing it wasn’t
enough just to be able to play Brian May licks.
I didn’t want impersonators. I wanted people with their own personalities.
Obviously you need a certain amount of proficiency because Brian’s
stuff is very technical. I also wanted people to have a little bit of
showmanship. I think that is very important.
How much deviation from Brian’s parts would be too much? It would
seem like there are certain things that absolutely need to be there.
Take a song like “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” I would expect the
main guitar solo to be note for note, but then at the end, we let them go
off and show what they can do.
When I watched the YouTube videos for the guitar finalists, many
of them seemed to be better lead players than rhythm players. Since
you’re a very rhythmically oriented guy, what was your take on the
rhythm guitar playing of the finalists?
That’s a good question. You tend to look at their lead playing abilities
first because Brian is best known for that, I suppose. There was quite
a variation in rhythm playing. Some were definitely better than others,
but I think we got the right guys.
When I asked Brian about when you two met, he remarked at the
tone of your drums and how you meticulously adjusted them so they
were all in tune with one another. Were you struck by his style and his
sound as well?
Absolutely. I had worked with quite a few guitar players, and he was
so much better than any of them. He’s got this touch—you’ve either got
it or you haven’t. It’s this bending touch and melodic touch, which I think
makes him a unique player, and that contributes to his sound. Plus of
course there’s that little fireplace he plays on. It’s a great-sounding,
unique guitar. But it’s really in the touch. It’s like Jeff Beck. It could only
be Jeff Beck. And when you hear Brian, it could only be Brian.
Do you have a favorite Brian May solo?
Yeah I do, actually. It’s a very obscure song called “Was It All Worth
It.” It’s got a killer solo on it. “Bohemian Rhapsody”—that’s quite a solo
on there. I guess “Killer Queen” has one of my favorite solos, as well.
You’re a guitarist yourself and a guitar collector. What are some
interesting pieces in your collection?
I have a very early Strat, which I believe is the most valuable in the
collection. I have a Broadcaster, serial number 017. That’s obviously very
early, before the Telecaster. I just got a Gretsch Duo Jet, and I love that
guitar. I have an interesting guitar collection. I think I’ve got more than
Brian, actually. But I don’t play them like he does.