Brian May

Groupology

  • Queen
  • Brian May

Jurassic

Watch Brian May in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Famous For: His unique, distinctive tone. His unique, distinctive Red Special guitar. Extremely memorable riffs and solos that have become part of a generation's collective consciousness. Being universally liked by all guitarists. Is that a fair statement? In a world where we all like some players and dislike others, I've never encountered a guitar player who didn't like Brian May. Have you?

Infamous For: A distinct lack of infamy. In a world where Jimi choked to death on vomit, Jeff is a recluse, Eric's life is a virtual Greek tragedy, Pagey indulged in excess and debauchery like a Roman Emperor — on both the Rise and the Fall of his empire — where Ritchie's moody, sullen, difficult to work with, Bolin dies with a needle in his arm, Eddie acts like a eight-year-old girl whenever he fires a singer, Michael sabotages his career at every turn, and Yngwie's ego has its own zip code, Brian May is a notorious good guy. Everyone genuinely likes him. There's not a lot to pick on. About the worst thing you can say about Brian is that he wore clogs and frilly blouses in the 70s!

Influences

Obvious: Eric Clapton is the most recognizable influence that I hear in Brian May. You can hear it in the extensive use of minor and major pentatonic in his leads, but not in the vibrato. Brian also lists Hendrix as an influence. Probably some Jeff Beck in there too. Though Brian is technically a second generation guitar hero who arrived after Hendrix, Clapton, Beck, Page, Blackmore and Iommi, stylistically, he fits-in more with them than he does with the players that came later.

Not-so-obvious: Brian has listed early British rocker Lonnie Donegan and the Everly Brothers as influences as well. It's quite possible the Everlys put those harmony ideas in Brian's head.

Strengths

TONE! Described in more detail below, Brian May's tone is a major strength. Probably more of a strength in Brian than in any other player except perhaps Billy Gibbons.

Individuality. Brian's one of those guys who sounds like no one else, and no one else sounds like him.

Creating thick layered guitar harmonies and short, memorable, guitar solos.

Weaknesses

OK, here's the rub. As I said, every guitarist I've ever met likes May's playing, but most of them also wish that Brian had done more work outside of Queen. Especially as Queen got increasingly further away from being a guitar-oriented, hard rock band. Indeed, his heaviest guitar work is on the earliest Queen albums. I know I'm not the only one wondering why Brian didn't get the itch to get his heavy guitar rocks off more often, as Queen ended up a far different band than it started out as. And even when Brian finally ventured into other projects and a solo album, the results have been less than satisfying. Unfortunately, Freddie's gone, and there are only so many benefits and awards shows one can play the old songs at. Brian probably doesn't need money, but can he shake the specter of Queen and do anything else musically with the rest of his life?

Tone

Brian May has THE most recognizable guitar tone on the planet. Among guitarists (of any style), you don't have to describe Brian May's tone in relation to anything else. May's tone is so distinctive, familiar, and admired, that it is an instantly understood adjective unto itself — as in the sentence: "I was almost getting that Brian May Tone." There's not a guitarist on the planet who doesn't understand that statement. No general adjective other than thick can accurately characterize Brian's tone. You've heard it on every Queen song you've ever heard — and don't tell me you've never heard a Queen song! If you don't know Queen's sound or May's tone when you hear it, what planet have you been living on?

So it's distinctive. How does he get it? Ask any player. Everyone knows. It comes from a one-of-a-kind, home-built guitar called the Red Special that Brian and his dad built from old, mahogany and oak fireplace wood when Brian was a kid. It's got a 24" fret scale, a homebuilt tremolo tailpiece, three Burns Trisonics (an overwound, single-coil pickup). The guitar is capable of 21 possible pickup switching combinations — including in or out of phase. Brian runs the guitar through four Vox AC-30s at a time. The combination creates a ton of natural compression. He uses a British sixpence coin for a pick which is undoubtedly factors in.

Dig a bit deeper. Brian often uses several different guitar tones within the same song. For example he'll often contrast a clean verse sound, with his more familiar heavy crunch tone or a fat solo sound. This happened much more in the late Queen era where Brian played increasingly less heavy guitar, but occasionally he'd sneak a solo with his old sound.

Brian also modified some tape echo machines so that they would repeat — we now know this effect as delay. He was a pioneer in this field. Brian's early sound features more phase shifter than you may remember or realize. He uses some wah. On occasion, Brian has been known to pick up other guitars — sometimes a Tele, certainly plenty of acoustic work is present. Who cares? Put the Red Special back on, Brian!

Guitar Style

Brian May's reputation is based on more than his lead work. Queen's sound was so densely-packed, that Brian's task was often to stay out of the way of the incredible number of vocal harmonies, piano, and whatever else was going on. In that respect, Brian was the ultimate "team player" who often sacrificed personal glory for the good of the song. When the heavy guitars do come in, they hit you like a ton of bricks. Ahhh, dynamics!

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of Brian's style are the layered harmony parts he recorded on so many Queen songs. On Queen's albums — particularly the early ones, Brian overdubbed many guitar harmonies. But these harmonies differ from the way two-guitar bands like Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden employed harmony. Brian usually recorded at least three-part harmonies, often more. Sometimes they're way back in the mix, but they're there. And this technique was largely responsible for Queen's characteristic and huge sound. If you've ever done any recording, you probably have a good idea how much work is involved in laying just basic rhythm guitar tracks. With that in mind, go back and really listen to what's going on (guitar-wise) on any Queen album. A ton of work went into that sound! It's impressive.

What's amazing is that Brian can pull off the guitar harmonies quite convincingly live — at least during his freestyle solo. This is where his live rig and his work with echo and delay was really special. Once he was able to set up his echo machine for one repeat, he was able to recreate two-part harmony live. Then, once he was added another unit set for two repeats, he was able to do three-part harmony. With twelve AC-30s on stage and using them in groups of four — each tied to different echo/delay settings, he was able to simulate the "guitar army" he'd painstakingly created in the studio. Look for a live version of Brighton Rock to hear Brian in all of his live glory.

Typically, Brian May's solos are quick, very melodic, and effective. If anything he usually underplays and leaves you wanting more — and I mean that in a good way! Brian's solos sound composed to me.

When it comes to lead, Brian is a 70s style guitarist with sort of a Clapton-esqe level of chops and that 70s, British blues-style mixture of alternate and legato picking style. He's actually more staccato than most players. He cuts off a lot of notes really clean rather than letting them sustain into each other — as in the opening phrases to the solo in Killer Queen. Though you don't typically hear any pick attack on the characteristic background guitar harmonies.

Scale wise, Brian leads are primarily minor and major pentatonic with some departures into Aeolian. It's familiar territory, but somehow he makes the licks his own. Brian showed some sweet rockabilly chops on Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Page, Beck, Brian May — all those 70s Brits could cut that rockablilly stuff. Brian plays some simple, but effective slide on things like Tie Your Mother Down.

Vibrato: Brian has a piercing vibrato that benefits a lot from his thick tone. It's a fast vibrato, not real wide, and doesn't sound very controlled. Sometimes it sounds slightly out-of-tune (as do his bends) — like Albert King's vibrato. But it works. And it adds tension. He uses he vibrato bar for effect but not often, and not as an integrated part of his style.

Brian May in Action

Recommended Listening

Queen

Profile by Dinosaur David B. Copyright ©2002 All rights reserved.