GP Flashback Brian May January 1983

Brian May’s quiet, gentlemanly nature offstage gives little hint of the flash he delivers onstage.
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Brian May’s quiet, gentlemanly nature offstage gives little hint of the flash he delivers onstage. When Queen emerges through billowing smoke and kaleidoscope lighting to the cheers of thousands. May cuts the figure of the quintessential British rocker—tall, lean, and in control.

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Using dazzling arrays of effects, tones and techniques, he adds a prominent voice to Queen's skintight sound. Midway through the show, he launches a long solo showcase, battling spaceship-shaped lighting pods and using two echo machines to build three-part harmonies and counterpoints.

On record Brian proves to be a player of imagination and stylistic versatility as well. With a homemade guitar and multi-track recording techniques, he has created one of the instantly identifiable voices in rock: the sweet. Sustaining tones prominent in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Killer Queen,” the Flash Gordon soundtrack, and numerous other cuts.

During his 12 years with Queen, Brian has composed several international hits, notably “We Will Rock You,” “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and “Flash.” And although you'd never know it by his unostentatious manner, he is probably one of the most successful men in rock: According to London’s Sunday Express magazine. “Britain’s highest paid executives in the year ending September 1979 were the four directors of Queen Productions Ltd,” Those four directors are singer Freddie Mercury, bassist John Deacon, drummer Roger Taylor, and guitarist Brian May.

Born to middle class parents 35 years ago, Brian was raised in Feltham, a small suburb west of London. In the interview below, he recalls his earliest musical experiences and influences. and recounts how he and his father built the guitar he uses today. The Mays stressed the importance of education, and it wasn’t until Brian had graduated with a physics degree from London University’s Imperial College that he began playing semi-professionally. In 1971. May and Roger Taylor formed a hand called Smile. When their singer quit, Freddie Mercury, formerly with another London-area band named Wreckage, replaced him. The trio enlisted bassist John Deacon to form Queen.

Escaping the endless pub circuit, the band chose to practice the musical and theatrical aspects of their show in private, performing occasionally for close friends and invited guests. “If we were going to drop the careers we’d trained hard for,” May remembers, “we wanted to make a really good job of music. We all had quite a bit to lose, really, and it didn't come easy. To be honest, I don't think any of us realized it would take a full three years to get anywhere. It was certainly no fairy tale!”

Queen’s strategy paid off when Elektra signed them and released Queen in September ‘73. The debut album contained a pair of singles—“Liar” and “Keep Yourself Alive.” Queen was voted Band Of The Year in the Melody Maker readers' poll early the next year. and their follow-up Queen /I LP yielded a hit. “The Seven Seas Of Rhye.” This was the first project where May began to extensively explore multi-tracked guitar parts. In the summer of 1974 Queen toured the U.S. for the first time as the opening act for Mott The Hoople.

Sheer Heart Attack, released November ’74 included “Killer Queen,” which topped the British charts. The album made the Top 10 in America, and Queen headlined in Great Britain and the U.S. for the first time. Aided by Freddie Mercury’s exotic dances and costumes, the band garnered a reputation for being theatrical as well as musically sophisticated. Their 1975 visit to Japan was greeted by riotous scenes of adulation that some reporters compared to the American arrival of the Beatles in 1964.

Queen holed up in various English studios for five months in 1975 to produce their critically acclaimed. meticulously produced A Night At The Opera. “Bohemian Rhapsody” contained layered guitar solos and an innovative operatic section with numerous multi-tracked voices. The single stayed in the # 1 position on the British charts for nine weeks. and a year later the British Phonographic Industry voted it Best Record Of The Preceding 25 Years. The album became the band's first million-seller. Queen ended 1976 with the release of A Day At The Races, scoring high in the charts with “Somebody To Love.”

The group toured America and Europe in early 1977. and in the summer taped News Of the World. The LP topped the charts in the U.S.. Holland. Belgium. France. IsraeL Canada. Brazil. Ireland. and Mexico. “We Are The Champions” backed by May's "We Will Rock You" became the biggest-selling single in Warner Brothers/Elecktra Asylum history.

Following a series of business fiascos soon afterwards. Queen's members decided to manage themselves. “We didn't particularly want the job.” May recalls. “but we decided it was the best way to get precisely what we wanted and control our own destiny.” Jazz, recorded in Switzerland and France in mid ‘78, contained the hits “Fat Bottomed Girls” and “Bicycle Race.” Seven tractor trailers were required for setting up the hand's visually elaborate American concerts that fall. Portions of their subsequent European shows were recorded for Live Killers, a double disk package that contains a stellar example of May’s extended onstage solo.

After a well-earned rest, Queen and their new engineer (known simply by the name of Mack) laid down a few tracks in ‘79. The first of these-the rockabilly influenced “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”—gave Queen another #1 single. The Game was completed by the summer of ‘80. and when “Another One Bites The Dust” reached the top of the American charts. Queen became the first group of the ‘80s to score a pair of #1 singles. They celebrated with a four-month U.S tour. Queen accepted movie producer Dino De Laurentiis’ offer to score Flash Gordon, a musical project co-produced by May and Mack and completed in December ‘80. Afterwards Queen played in Argentina and Brazil, appearing on coast-to-coast TV in both countries.

Their March 20th Sao Paulo concert drew 131,000 fans—reportedly the largest paying audience for a single group anywhere in the world. They trekked south again in the fall for dates in Venezuela and Mexico. The band was back in the studio a month later, collaborating with David Bowie on “Under Pressure”; this cut appears on Queen’s 1981 Greatest Hits package, as well as their latest release, Hot Space. Recorded in Munich, Hot Space signaled the band’s move to a more rhythmic, economical approach. As always, May’s guitar parts are characterized by freshness and impeccable accuracy. The group toured Europe in the spring of ‘82 before coming to the U.S. and Japan. The following interview was conducted a day before Queen’s appearance on Saturday Night Live. In a companion piece beginning on page 73. May discusses his studio techniques and specific recordings.

Over the years, you've embraced many styles—Middle Eastern, big band, folk, country, jazz, rock, and urban blues. Which came first and most naturally?


That’s a hard question, because I find it all comes naturally, in a way—as naturally as anything comes naturally. I think everything has to be worked on. When we were growing up in England, we had all that music around us. The stuff that really propelled and excited us was the blues-based material. That was really what made us want to play. When I was very young, the only thing that was on the radio which I actually liked was American pop music. There would be things like Buddy Holly & The Crickets, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard. Those were the sort of records we bought when we got old enough to buy records. The English pop music that was around was pretty much a carbon copy of that. I don't want to do him an injustice. but Cliff Richard in the early days was very much an Elvis Presley sort of figure. But his group, the Shadows, went on to make a lot of very interesting instrumentals. When I started playing guitar, I played chords and skiffle for a while.

How old were you when you started?

I think about eight. My father played a thing called a ukulele banjo, which is like a little miniature banjo. It was made famous by people like George Formby and Billy “Uke” Scott, who played when my father was a kid. My father taught me about six or seven chords on that. When I asked for a guitar for my eighth or ninth birthday, I converted the chords from four strings to six strings. I sort of made up the chords, and I used to strum and sing during the skiffle boom. Lonnie Donegan, who was a big skiffle figure in England, was influenced by American blues. He would do Leadbelly songs and some stuff he wrote himself. I liked him a lot.

How did you advance your knowledge of guitar?

I had those chords to start off with. And then I began to notice on records by Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley that there were some people there playing some amazing stuff. [Ed. Note: Most of the electric guitar on early Presley records was played by Scotty Moore. Joe Maphis accompanied Ricky Nelson on his first LP and was afterwards replaced by James Burton.] It’s funny. but I couldn't even hear it well enough to be able to attempt to play it. People like the Shadows, who were playing quite simple instrumental music, I could lock onto and learn note-for-note, So learned to play what I call “single-note style”—as opposed to just strumming—from the Shadows and the Ventures. Another band was the Sputniks; they were from Sweden. They did a lot of stuff which I was struggling to play, and then I discovered that they were speeding up the tapes to be able to play that fast [laughs]. Speed used to come into it a lot in those days. When I was at school in fifth and sixth form—I would be about 16 or 17—there was a kind of competition to see who could play the new stuff quickest. So when the new instrumental records came out, we would all feverishly study them at home until we were able to play them. The Sputniks used to do this incredibly fast stuff like “Orange Blossom Special,” and we used to really kill ourselves— make our fingers bleed—trying to play it. That’s where I learned technique, really.

Was this on acoustic guitar?

At that time I had an acoustic guitar which I made a pickup for and electrified. I used to play that through an old radio which we had at home. To make the pickup, I got some magnets and wound a coil around them and stuck it under the strings. It worked pretty well. At that time, we thought it would be interesting to make a guitar, seeing as I couldn’t afford a Stratocaster. So my father and I started making a guitar when I 15, and we finished it when I was 17.

Is that your main guitar now?

Yeah, same one. It’s not exactly like any other guitar. We did a lot of experiments, and I played some of my friend’s guitars, like Stratocasters and Hofners. The body shape came out of my head. It’s pretty small, but the sort of shape which the semi-acoustic guitars had in those days, like the Gibson ES-335. But it’s not symmetrical. I wanted it cutaway more on the underside so I could genuinely get up to those top frets. It has a 24" scale with 24 frets. We made everything totally from scratch with hand tools. The neck was a piece of an extremely old fireplace. We had lots of plans and drawings, and chiseled away. My dad is an electronics draftsman, which means he designs electronic gear, so he was able to give me a lot of help. He also has a good mechanical insight. We made the original pickups, which sounded pretty good except they had one bad fault: When you would squeeze the strings —bend them across the fingerboard— they would make this kind of rushing sound because the polepieces went north-south, north-south, north-south, instead of north, north, north, north, north, north. So I eventually bought some Burns pickups. Burns were making guitars in England at the time, and they made some of the stuff for the Shadows.

Did you design the guitar's vibrato tailpiece?

Yes, and it's better than anybody else’s vibrato! The strings lock onto a milled steel plate which pivots on a case-hardened knife edge. The tension of the strings is balanced by two motorcycle springs. There is very little friction in the system. I also designed a special bridge which has rollers that move instead of the usual arrangement where the strings come over a fixed bridge. You can take the bottom string down about an octave and bring it up, and it’s pretty close to in tune. It really performs quite well. I'm being very bigheaded about it [laughs]. The only big problem comes in breaking a string. If you break a string, the whole thing goes out, a total war. It's hopeless; you just have to put it down. I had a copy of my guitar which was made by a guy in England called John Birch. It was pretty close, but I could never forget that it was a copy when I was playing it. Somehow it didn't quite feel or sound the same. The guitar I made has a warmth, but it also has an edge. It’s somewhere between a typical Fender sound and a typical Gibson sound.

After you made your electric guitar, what were your first professional playing experiences?

Jeff Beck in those days? We had a little group when I was at school called 1984. The first gig we ever played was St. Mary’s Hall in Twickenham, which is just opposite a little island in the Thames called Eel Pie Island. I remember it well. I was 17, and we played a mixture of adapted soul stuff like Sam & Dave and Otis Redding. It was just pre-psychedelia. We used to try and do a couple of songs of our own. Luckily, as time went on Pink Floyd, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix came along, and we started doing that.

Were you impressed by Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck in those days?

Absolutely. Clapton from the very beginning, because I used to go and see the Yardbirds We did a couple of their songs. Clapton was unbelievable, just so sparkling and fluid. He was what turned me away from the Shadows style and sent me back to listening to B.B. King, Bo Diddley, and all those people who I’d heard, but I thought it was all the same: 12-bar blues, and that was it. I didn’t realize the depth or emotion there was in it until I saw Eric Clapton doing it. That somehow made it accessible for me. After I went back and listened to his influences, I listened to Clapton very closely and people like Mike Bloomfield on the first album with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which had all those classics. Jeff Beck was an influence, too— extremely. He succeeded Clapton in the Yardbirds. I couldn’t believe what he could do. I remember seeing him put the guitar down, make it feedback, and play a whole tune without even touching the fingerboard. That was the first time I saw a Les Paul guitar. I saw a gig at the Marquee soon after Beck had joined, and Eric Clapton came on and jammed at the end. That was pretty amazing; I'll never forget that.

Did you see Hendrix?

Yes! I thought after seeing those two, I’d seen it all. I had been playing all that time, and I could play that style. I was beginning to make the guitar sort of talk. I always wanted the guitar to play for people, to talk the same way a vocal did and have feeling in it. I didn’t want it to be an accompanying instrument. Then when I saw Hendrix, I thought, “Oh, my God. This guy is doing everything that I was trying to do.” He just made me feel like I couldn’t play. It’s a funny thing: It makes you feel very uncomfortable when you thought you knew everything that was going on, and then suddenly somebody comes along who seems to be doing all sorts of things which you hadn’t even thought of, never mind find yourself able to play. I heard him play on a single of “Hey Joe,” and on the flip side there’s an amazing solo on “Stone Free.” where he’s talking to the guitar and it’s talking back to him. I thought, “Well, he can’t really be that good. He must have done that with studio technique.” Then when I saw him for the first time supporting the Who at the Savoy Theatre in London, he just completely blew me away. I thought, “He’s it.” The Who couldn’t follow him in those days, and they were really hot, big news in England. Anybody in the world would find it hard to follow Hendrix.

Did you quit performing while attending college?

It was all going on at the same time. I was pretty serious about the education bit. That was from my upbringing: I was taught that you had to put your education first. I felt very bad about it, because most of my friends had gone off and been in semi-professional groups. I was very jealous of all those people who were doing it at school, because all the pressures on me were to keep on the studies and not go off and play. I was at the university before I was able to indulge in fairly serious, semi-professional playing. I finally got an honors degree in physics from Imperial College, London. I actually wanted to carry on because I thought music would be fun, but I’d never be able to do it professionally. I actually stayed on at Imperial College to do research in infrared astronomy and some part-time tutoring. I taught for a year at a comprehensive school teaching kids from age 11 to 17. The group Queen was going on at that time, so I don’t think I ever slept for that year.

Since the formation of Queen, have you had a free hand in constructing solos and fills?

Yes. We generally will talk about it. And very often the author of the song will have an idea of what he wants. But mostly I go in there and we try things out.

Do you have a philosophy of soloing?

It’s different in every case, of course. Mostly the guideline that I’ve worked under is that the best solos are something which you can sing as well as the melody line. The kind of solos I enjoy are where there’s a line which reflects the melody line but subtlely changes it in some way which adds to the song. It opens up another little window in the song. It should also have some freedom: there should be some spontaneity there. It shouldn’t be totally planned out.

How do you approach a solo?

Generally in the studio, when we’ve played the backing track a lot of times there's a guide vocal in there—I usually get something in my head. When it comes to solo time, I go in there and we do two or three takes straight off. Very often the first take has a lot of what goes on the record. There may be just a couple of notes we don’t like. and we’ll change them. That’s one of the advantages of the multi-track system: You can do a couple more solos alongside and button little things in and out. So very often I like the feel of the first thing I do, which is spontaneous, but there will be a couple of notes in there which I think didn’t work, and so I’ll change them.

Have you ever come up with a solo before you had a song to use it in?

Actually, that happened with the “Brighton Rock” thing, yeah. We used to do the song “Son And Daughter” onstage, and the solo section in the middle of that became what was in “Brighton Rock.” After “Brighton Rock” was recorded [on Sheer Heart Attack], that solo evolved a lot more. One facet of it was the way it is on the live album, but it’s changed a lot since then. Sometimes we’ve dropped it because I felt I got stale. I don’t like to do exactly the same thing two nights running. That should be a time when you can do something different. Now we don’t do “Brighton Rock” anymore, so it’s gone full circle. In the beginning, the solo was there and the song was around it. And now the song’s gone and the solo’s there.

When did you start doing your extended onstage solo?

The first time we went out with Mott The Hoople. We toured Britain first, and then America. It wasn’t very long in those days. It would be about half a minute. Now it’s about ten, but sometimes it’s not. If I’m not in the mood and I don’t feel it’s quite right. it’ll get short again.

Do you change most of it around night-tonight?

Yeah, it’s never the same. I get very disappointed if I don’t get into new territory sometime during the tour. There are usually a couple of notes in there—[laughs] most nights—which will be different and I don’t know quite what’s going to happen. And one night in five I’ll discover a new effect. I try not to get stuck in too many rules. Sometimes it’s terrible. If I know that I’m not getting it together, I do the best I can and drag out a few things which have worked in the past. On a good night, I feel that I can do something interesting. I don’t think there’s anything left of the actual “Brighton” solo in there now, but I’m using the same techniques, such as using repeats and playing along with them.

Is that how you get several parts going at once?

Yeah. It’s just a delay machine set on one delay rather than a multiple, so it’s not a sort of echo effect. It’s one line coming back at you. I have two delay machines, so I can do three-part harmonies with that: I can play a line—maybe two or three notes—and then it comes back and I can play along with it. And then it comes back again and there are three parts. The delays are mostly about one and a half seconds. A lot of things can happen; You can play in synch with what comes back and make the harmonies, or you can play chords and then single notes on top to get a playingin- rhythm effect. You can also do various kinds of counterpoints. Sometimes they work. It all depends on whether I can hear myself well. If it’s a good night and I can really hear well. I can do things that demand very close timing. On this tour I’ve been experimenting with steps which are not exactly on the beat: so when it comes back at you, they are in a different place each time. I found I could do all sorts of strange things with that, just making them mesh in a different way.

To keep the solo special, do you tend to cut down using the repeat effect at other times in the set?

I’ve used different delays for different songs in the past, but we’ve sort of simplified what we do for a lot of the songs. I used to use echo in lots of songs, like “Keep Yourself Alive” and “The Prophet’s Song,” but nowadays most of the set is just straight guitar, and it’s only the solos where I use the repeats. Sometimes I get fed up with them even then, because I feel like maybe they’re a crutch, and they shouldn’t be. So I switch them off and do a little bit totally straight.

Do you ever have trouble staying in tune during the long solo?

Usually towards the end of the solo, when I’m bending things a long way, it can get out of tune. I don’t really notice it until the next number. If it’s something like “Under Pressure.” where it’s got to be right on, I die a million deaths. Breaking strings is the worst. Sometimes it’s happened at the very beginning of the solo, and it just destroys the concentration. I’ll have the guitar feedback and grab another one.

Do you foresee the day when a long onstage guitar solo will become obsolete?

I’ve thought it was obsolete many times. We’ve thrown it out. We haven’t done it every night on this tour. But somehow it seems to creep back in there. It’s weird. I did it for years, and nobody would talk about it. And then when I threw it out, people said, “Hey! How could you do that?” On this tour we did some special things with the lights. We had those pods which can fly about, and I used to do a little battle with those. That gave it a new lease on life. People would tend to notice that. As opposed to not saying anything, they would say, “I like the lights in the solo [laughs],” I’ve found that people seem to appreciate long solos more on this tour than they did before. I think a lot of people thought our material was veering too far away from the heavy side, and they thought the solo stuff redressed the balance to a certain extent.

Does your mood exert an influence on what you play?

Oh, yeah, especially in the solo because that’s my freedom time. Mood helps a lot, and the audience helps a lot.

Do you have to be a certain state of consciousness to play your best?

No. It grows out of the concert; I don’t think it matters how you go on. If the sound seems good to me, and I know that it sounds good out front and there’s a lot of feedback from the audience, it grows out of that. Enjoying the sound is the main thing.

How do you discover tones? Do you imagine them first or does the equipment suggest them?

It's a lucky combination of guitar and amplifier. The guitar has a very wide range of sound naturally. I know what to do to make it scream or to make it mellow. The amplifier just responds in that way. I’ve never known any other way. There’s really nothing else: there aren’t any fancy effects or anything. I have a pedalboard with on/off switches for the repeats, an old Foxx phase pedal which I don’t use much anymore—it just gives a gentle phase. And these days I’ve been using a Boss phaser for a lot of things. It gives me a stereo output, which I like; it gives it a little bit more phase...

This interview originally appeared in the January 1983 issue of Guitar Player.