If you’ve seen the Queen musical We Will Rock You or the mother of all tribute bands Queen Extravaganza, chances are you’ve heard the guitar work of Tristan Avakian. He has the enviable/unenviable job of doing the impossible: sounding like the inimitable Brian May. Here’s some insight into how he goes about that task.
“Ironically, before I got this gig I’d never played a Queen cover in my life,” he admits. “Whenever I heard one of their songs, I’d be spellbound by its utter genius, but I’d think immediately, ‘Can’t do that. Must find something else!’ Then one day at an audition, I found myself playing his music right in front of him. Then, shortly afterwards, with him, standing right next to him.
“Since then, Queen have hired me to play guitar in four separate productions—the Canadian, Italian, and current North American production of We Will Rock You, as well as the first North American tour of Queen Extravaganza. On the way, I’ve learned quite a bit about this music, and why it sounds the way it does.
“Brian is unique, in style, tone, and approach. Originally influenced by guitarists such as Clapton and Hendrix, he has assimilated and transmuted these influences to the point where little trace of them remains. When he plays, I hear Brian. Period.
“As far as gear goes, he has hit on something that is very simple: one guitar, a clean boost, and an amp. Though seemingly straightforward, it is an unbelievably versatile rig. In his hands, it can create virtually any tone he wants. The equipment itself has been well documented and needs no elaboration here. The Internet has a wealth of information, provided by many obsessives dedicated to replicating his gear down to the brass screw on his trussrod cover.
“The gear is great, but it doesn’t make you sound like him. No one sounds like him except him. What you can do, however, is make certain stylistic choices that, in the context of this music, make people think they are hearing him. By focusing on these choices—what I have discovered to be the principal elements of his style—I can produce a fairly close approximation of Brian May on demand.
“First, there is fretboard position. Curiously, where most guitarists would start a solo in a lower position, on the B and E strings, he often starts at a higher one, playing the same notes on the G and B strings. Why? Having held his famous guitar in my hands, I believe I know the reason. One of the first things you notice (aside from the size of that neck!) is that the high-E string is too close to the edge of the fingerboard to play comfortably. I believe that this unconsciously forces him to launch from a higher position, giving him more fingerboard real estate and subsequently liberating his bends and vibrato. It also contributes to the round, full tone the fatter strings naturally provide.
“On the topic of bends and vibrato, Brian’s use of pre-bends is well known, but what I’ve come to realize is how much personality this technique lends to his signature vibrato. As you probably know, vibrato is a series of tiny bends executed swiftly in a smooth seamless oscillation. But where most players stick a note and apply vibrato, bending it sharp, Brian often bends up to the note from a step or two below it, then strikes it, then applies vibrato. That means he is vibrato-ing up to the note rather than over the top of it—a much warmer, more vocal, and expressive sound.
“The use of chromaticism is another key characteristic of his style. I think it stems from the U.K. Dixieland revival of the ’60s. Brian heard a lot of clarinet in the house growing up: a mercurial instrument, slippery and mutable. This influence is obvious in structured songs like ‘Good Company,’ but it’s also very present when he’s peeling out on wicked rock solos.
“A lot has been made of the sixpence he uses as a plectrum, but it is only about 10 percent of the sound. The 10 percent the sixpence provides is mostly on the clean sound. Turning down the volume control on a saturated guitar, even Brian’s, with its single-coil pickups run thru 35dB of treble boost, will bring on some mud. The sixpence brings the edge and sparkle back. Experiment with the angle.
“What’s astonishing when you are playing with him side by side is how much he uses his right-hand index finger to pluck, and how much expressiveness this gives him in terms of envelope, tone, and dynamics. Place the finger on the fretboard as if you are going to tap, and pluck upwards instead.
“I’m often asked how I replicated the glorious stacked harmony guitars that are to me the ultimate signature of Queen’s music. The answer is, in the context of the show, I don’t. WWRY and Queen Extravaganza both have two guitars, and WWRY even has a few guitar samples. We fudge it. Why? I’ve had this conversation with Brian, and the fact is, he don’t care much! I am more fussed about it than he is. He told me, ‘When I play live, I just play the top note, and the audience hears it in their heads anyway.’ I have experimented with this on my own, however, and the best thing to do is get a multi-effect or a plug-in going. Filter out all the lows, and stick an intelligent harmonizer on that’s tuned to a third-inversion triad. Then yoke an expression pedal to this, to change the 3rd from major to minor.
“When I did Queen Extravaganza, Roger Taylor took away my digital trickery. He wanted us hot, loud, live, and running around the stage, not rooted to the spot staring at a pedalboard. But when we were working up ‘Bicycle Race,’ I was determined to replicate the incredible four-note cascade that happens at 2:13. I did it using a combination of whammy-bent harmonics and ridiculous stretches. You may need a couple of extra fingers!
“Then there is phrasing. Brian is famous for his sustain—and rightly so—but listen to the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ solo and note how he alternates sustained notes with clipped ones. This gives it the rhythm of speech. He actually plays with a British accent! And he is so articulate, I can almost hear the words. Eloquent, precisely enunciated, and yet full of feeling—in this case, seething with righteous fury. I always think of this solo in the context of the song and the story it tells. Freddie is the defendant in a murder trail, and Brian is his legal counsel stepping in to make a stirring closing argument.
“So those are some things that can help you sound like Brian May. But what if you want to be like Brian May? The thing that really strikes me about Brian—or any mature, accomplished soloist— is that he has transcended technique and is in the realm of pure meaning. He has a voice, and his playing transmits who he is and his experience on this earth. The electric guitar allows him to do this, as loud as God. So my real advice is this: First, know what you want to say. Then, turn it up!”