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 each other.”
One day before the announcement of Queen + Adam Lambert tour dates, May took time to talk about The Candlelight Concerts from London.
You’ve backed up great singers your entire career. What are the most important things a guitarist can do to support a singer?
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.