On this day
  • 1977: Queen live with A Day At The Races tour at Richfield Coliseum,...
  • 1979: Queen with Jazz tour at Messesportspalace, Hannover, Germany.

Read all 4 events for 23 January at diary.QueenSongs.info

Brian May

Brian May was the most-rocking songwriter of Queen. Beside of writing some more straight-forward rocksongs for Queen he also developed and unique playing style and approach of harmonizing guitar (and vocals too) which became an important part of the Queen-sound. The creative atmosphere of the band inspired him to experiment with distant styles as baroque, big-band dixiland, or folk. As guitarist he was influented first by the Shadows, Sputniks, later Jeff Back and Clapton, BB King, even later Jimmy Hendix who influented him the most. Except these as songwriter he must have been influented by the music of the late fifties (Buddy Holly and the Crickets,...) the beat music of sixties (especially the Beatles, who were his "heroes"), and early heavy metal (Led Zeppelin). These were the music he grew up with. 

Brian May (1947-) picked up ukulele when he was 5-6. He also was taken piano lesson for one or two years, but his interest for the guitar was bigger. On his seventh (or eight?) birthday (1955-56) he got an acoustic guitar. After a period of playing skiffle stuff (eg. Lonnie Donegan songs) he started to master the single-note style too playing Shadows hits. He grew up with the records of the Everly Brothers, Little Richard but the most lasting favourite of his was Buddy Holly And The Crickets. Later on he became a fan of the Who, saw the concert of the Rolling Stones, and he also admired much the Beatles. As guitarist he was influented by the Yarbirds's guitarist Eric Clapton, later Jeff Beck, but  also turned back to blues guitarists BB King, Mike Boomfield, Bo Diddley. Then came along Jimmy Hendrix who simply "blew his mind" and influented him probably the most seriously.

His first band to join was a five piece school band called 1984, and around this time he completted his trusty guitar the 24 fretted Red Special. When he was 16-17 he developed his playing speed in competition with his mates. One of the practices was Orange Blossom by the Sputniks (featuring varyspeeded up record of lead guitar). On the first concert of the band 1984 they played adapted soul stuff like Sam & Dave and Ottis Redding (recordings are available). Soon 1984 started to cover songs of Pink Floyd, Cream, and Hendrix. When Led Zeppelin came along he played already in the Smile. They were envy of Led Zeppelin, feeling that this band has stolen their idea.
 The idea of guitar harmonies came to Brian May from a Jeff Beck record called Hi Ho Silver Lining (1967). This particular song has a double track guitar part which for a moment turns into (an accidenntal?) harmony. The young Brian May was fascinated by that short harmony. In fact the technique of guitar harmonies is much older: Les Paul invented (among other studio tricks) the "sound on sound" technique (no multitrack!). His 1948 records How High Is The Moon and Brazil (reportedly) contain guitar harmonies.
Brian May experimented with two part harmonies first on two Smile songs: Earth and Step On Me. By the time Queen got into studio (1971-) the two-part harmonies were not rarities anymore, still Brian managed to creat the most clever guitar harmonies of his time. He strengtened his top-position year by year in the "creator of most clever guitar harmonies" competition. The use of guitar harmonies (with more than two parts) got into fashion in the pop-music for some ten years, when the synths caused it's declination that still lasts.
In the early days many of Brians multitrack guitar solos were not harmonies, or just partly. Later he would do harmonies that sounded very coherent. Brian applied various characterstic tone settings to achive a great spectrum similarly as organ players/composers apply registers.

A declination of usage of guitar harmonies can be seen dramaticly on the Hot Space album featuring only one song (Dancer) with guitar harmonies. Fortunately May turned back this trend and kept recording guitar harmonies frequently on later albums as well. The heavy use of this technique presented Brian May with a remarkable strong skill of arrangement and harmonizing, and an approach which was often put his outcome closer to classical music than to rock and roll.

On stage Brian could not play multitrack. To bring the magic of guitar harmonies to the stage he used delay, both single and double to creat two and three part harmonies respectively. In the late years he also experimented with harmonizers that can creat only parallel harmonies (eg. Chinese Torture).

Brian May was (and still is) famous for picking the string with a sixpence instead of a plastic plectrum. He's been doing so since the Red Special was completed. This choice results him a more direct contact with the instrument and also creates his characteristic sound. He was also famous for switching to "manual mode" by picking the string with index finger for the fine parts where he wanted to prevent the noise of the coin attacking the strings for example in the beginning of the "These Are The Days" solo.
 Brian May was also famous for his vibrato technique on guitar. Two major way to achive vibrato is using the vibrato bar and pushing the guitar strings with fingers by rocking one's wrist. Brian used both method frequently. While playing rhythm guitar he often used  continuously the vibrato bar holding it between his  p-r-m fingers. Check the video of  "Spead Your Wings". Another fine example is the intro of "It's Late". His finger vibratos were achived by pushing and releasing the strings.

He would use vibrto also for doing so called tremolo dives and other feedback extravaganzas..

During his years as musician he refreshed and developed his piano-playing knowledge. He told in an interview that he could write more interesting music on piano, while on the guitar he wrote more simple stuff like Tie Your Mother Down or Hammer To Fall.

Brian about his solos:

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 subtely 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 solo?
Generally in the studio, when we've played the acking 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 threee takes staight 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 acouple 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.

...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 lone - 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 playing-in-rhythm effect. You can also do various kind 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 I 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.

Do you use a pick?
I play with an English sixpence. It's a coin made of soft metal with a serration on the edge. I hold it loosely between the thumb and the first finger, with the first finger bent down.

Do you use all four fingers of your left hand?
Yes, but the little finger is weak, which is one of my big weaknesses in playing. It restricts me. The new stuff that I play uses the little finger because I've consciously tried to bring it in. But when I'm playing from the head to the fingers, generally the little finger gets left out.

How do you compose?
I generally get ideas on the road or away from the studio. Then when it comes to making the album, I get the idea out - which may be om cassette or paper - and work on them. When the band rehearses them, we just gather round, strum guitar, play piano, and sing. It's kind of adiscussion environment.