“He’d put his right hand onto a fret and make this beautiful singing sound... I said, ‘I’m going to nick that!’”: The guitarist who inspired Brian May’s tapping techniques reflects on pivotal chance meeting

Rocky Athas (left) and Brian May performing onstage
(Image credit: Mauricio Santana/Getty Images / Jordi Vidal/Redferns)

Contrary to the belief that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, during a 2021 interview with Guitar Player, Brian May spoke about being inspired to learn two-handed tapping techniques after seeing a performance by a then-unnamed Texas electric guitar virtuoso. 

The Queen guitarist was enjoying a day off on tour in Texas in 1977 when he came across the guitarist in question performing in a bar. 

“He would be bending strings, like we all do, but then he’d put his right hand onto a fret and make this kind of singing sound,” he recalls. “And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a beautiful thing to do; he creates a completely new dimension.’”  

“I went up to him after the show and I said, ‘I’m telling you now, I’m going to nick that from you.’ He said, ‘Great, go for it. I got it from Billy Gibbons.’” 

May added that he wished he knew the identity of the guitarist, who he referenced again in an interview with Classic Rock two years later, proving that his influence on May's playing was far from fleeting. 

Brian May performing onstage in 2022

(Image credit: Paul CHARBIT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Now, the sleuths at Guitar World have put a name to the talent, revealing the guitarist to be Rocky Athas. 

The Texan native honed his skills jamming with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson, with Gibbons and late Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell said to be admirers. 

Speaking to Guitar World, Athas said his “phone blew up” when the interview was published, saying “My friends all knew it was me.” 

Queen were traveling across the US with Thin Lizzy at the time of the chance meeting, with Athas and his band, Lightning, already well on their way to establishing a reputation as one of Texas's best live rock bands. 

Over the course of their career, the band opened for The Kinks and Alice Cooper, along with a long list of other big-name acts. But it wasn’t just Athas’s fretboard acrobatics that got tongues wagging – apparently, the band's drummer would punctuate their set by doing a back flip. 

Showmanship, it seemed, was second nature to the band. 

May caught them at the height of their powers, and promptly incorporated Athas’ tapping techniques into his repertoire. In particular, it was used on It’s Late, from 1977’s News of the World, kickstarting a domino effect of inspiration, as Eddie Van Halen would later cite that song as a key influence in him forming his playing style. 

May and Athas haven’t spoken in the 47 years since, but says he “would love to have a chat with him now [and] hear how he remembers that night.” Of course, neither guitarist knew the chain reaction that show would cause in the coming years.

Guitar World is due to publish its full interview with Athas in the coming weeks.   

Phil Weller

A freelance writer with a penchant for music that gets weird, Phil is a regular contributor to ProgGuitar World, and Total Guitar magazines and is especially keen on shining a light on unknown artists. Outside of the journalism realm, you can find him writing angular riffs in progressive metal band, Prognosis, in which he slings an 8-string Strandberg Boden Original, churning that low string through a variety of tunings. He's also a published author and is currently penning his debut novel which chucks fantasy, mythology and humanity into a great big melting pot.