I remember listening to Queen for the first time, I was a little kid, my father was (and still is) obsessed with Classic Rock, so he probably made me listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody” or some other songs from their 70s albums, like “A Night at the Opera” or “A Day at the Races”.
Later on, my brother and I purchased Queen’s “Greatest Hits” (Volume 1, 2 & 3) as a gift for our father’s birthday, and I discovered many more songs from this fantastic band, including “Fat Bottomed Girls”. It blew me away.
The Drop D riff-goodness that starts right after the harmonized vocal intro made me notice the exciting sound of electric guitar for the first time in my entire life. Sure I was too young to understand how to reproduce it, but I remember asking my dad what that sound was, and he said that it was Sir Brian May playing the electric guitar.
I remember going to school the next day and telling everyone how fantastic Queen was, and I haven’t stopped doing that ever since!
A few years went by, and when I was in my teens and already playing guitar to a decent level, I was called to join a local Queen tribute band. You know, one of those where the singer wears the yellow jacket (like the one Freddie Mercury had in the famous 1986 Wembley Stadium concert), and only uses half of his microphone stand.
So I start gigging with this band, and I have to learn pretty much all of Brian May’s solos and guitar parts. I was blown away, just like it happened when I was a kid, but this time on a completely different level.
The grace, the class, the sound, the compositional skills…wow! My jaw was on the floor. And on top of being a fantastic rockstar guitar player, he’s also an astrophysicist collaborating with NASA? If Queen was my favorite band before, Brian May became my idol.
Born in Twickenham (UK) in 1947, Brian Harold May is one of the most influential guitar players in modern music history. Besides being one of the founding members of Queen, he is also the composer of many of the band’s hit songs, including Tie Your Mother Down, We Will Rock You, Hammer to Fall, I Want it All, Who Wants to Live Forever, and The Show Must Go On.
In 2002, at the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, he performed the United Kingdom’s National Anthem “God Save The Queen” on the top of Buckingham Palace (the British royal family residence), while being accompanied by the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra with the collaboration of historic Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor on percussion, reprising an arrangement that was initially included in the “A Night At The Opera” album (1975).
May was also appointed with a CBE (Third Class Commander) by Queen Elizabeth II in 2005 to recognize his extraordinary services to the music industry.
5 Things You Need to Know about Brian May
- Brian May sang backing vocals in Queen, and he was mainly the lower-range vocalist, but, on a few songs, he also sang lead, like in “I Want it All”, “39”, “Good Company” etc…
- On Easter Monday, 20 April 1992, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon (all members of Queen) organized the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, live at Wembley Stadium in front of a crowd of 72.000 people. The money raised with the concert was used to launch the Mercury Phoenix Trust, an AIDS charity organization named after Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury, who died from that same disease in 1991.
- Brian May and Roger Taylor are still touring as Queen+. Over the years, they have played live shows with Paul Rodgers (former singer of Free and Bad Company) from 2004 to 2009. Later, in 2011, May and Taylor recruited Adam Lambert as their lead singer, after playing with him on American Idol (where he was a contestant) and at the 2011 MTV Europe Music Awards. Although their last gigs were in 2018, Lambert is still part of the band, and there are plans to record a new album.
- May was included in several “Best Guitar Player” lists. In 2005 he was rated seventh-greatest guitarist of all time in a poll by Planet Rock. He was ranked at number 26 on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarist of All Time” list. In 2012 he was voted second-greatest guitarist in a Guitar World magazine readers poll. These lists mean absolutely nothing, but they serve to give you an idea of May’s impact on the guitar community.
- Brian May and Roger Taylor were actively involved with the writing and development of the musical “We Will Rock You”, inspired by Queen’s music. From 2002 to 2014, at the Dominion Theatre in London’s West End, you could catch a “We Will Rock You” performance almost every day, reaching 4600 single shows, sometimes even including May and Taylor to perform “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the last song of the show. After “WWRY” ended its London residency, there were a lot of international productions of the musical, which has now been seen in six of the world’s continents.
Brian May’s Red Special
When I think of Brian May, I always picture a few things: long, curly black hair, a wall of Vox AC30s, and, most importantly, his Red Special guitar.
The story behind Brian May’s iconic guitar is unique and quite fascinating, especially considering that this is pretty much the only instrument May used throughout his entire career. He continues to use it almost exclusively, both live and in the studio. May built the Red Special guitar with his father when he was 17.
He reportedly said that he chose to develop his own personal instrument not because he didn’t like the guitars available on the British market at that time, primarily Fenders and Gibsons (or the copies made by Hofner), but because his family couldn’t afford any of them.
Every part of the guitar was constructed using “recycled” items that May found around the house or elsewhere.
The neck was made using the wood from a fireplace, roughly 100 years old at the time. The build was challenging because of the quality of the wood; as a matter of fact, May said there were woodworm holes that he filled using matchsticks. Every part of the guitar was constructed using “recycled” items that May found around the house or elsewhere.
The fretboard inlays were made using one of his mother’s mother-of-pearl buttons. The body is made out of oak wood taken from an old table.
The tremolo system is made from an old knife, shaped into a V, and two motorcycle valve springs, also Brian May said that he solved the friction problem (which is known to cause tuning stability issues) by adding rollers to the bridge to allow the strings to roll back and forth when using the whammy bar.
Later on, this solution was used by many guitar builders and luthiers to solve the same tuning problem.
The only components in the Red Special guitar that Brian May and his father didn’t build are the pickups, a set of Burns Tri-Sonic single coils, which are wired peculiarly.
There are two rows of “on-off” type switches where you would usually find a three-way or five-way pickup selector. The first row, circled in blue, switches on the three pickups individually, while the second row, circled in green, controls the polarities of the pickups from regular to inverted.
This very peculiar pickup wiring system allows May to get a wide variety of sounds using only his guitar, without the need to use pedals. You see, with a regular selector, you can only get one or two pickups producing sound simultaneously, and you’re limited to the closeness of the pickups you want to use.
For example, on a Fender Strat, you can use the neck and middle pickups together, or the middle and bridge, and that’s it. Brian May’s Red Special allows him to get every possible combination because he can turn on or off every pickup individually so that he can have neck and bridge, or even all three pickups together at the same time.
On top of that, the Red Special’s pickup wiring allows him to control the phase of each pickup individually, giving him the option to create “out of phase” lead sounds that we’ve all learned to love, like in the “Bohemian Rhapsody” solo (neck and middle).
The legendary Queen’s guitar player is famous for using a six-pence coin instead of a regular guitar pick, which is quite peculiar, considering that he uses very light strings, either 9s or 8s.
His guitar tech said that May has a very soft touch in his right hand, but you can still hear a personal attack in the notes that he plays, which is probably a consequence of the combination of light strings and the metal of the coin he uses.
As I mentioned earlier, the Red Special guitar is particularly “special” to Brian May, and he pretty much used only this guitar throughout his entire career.
Only on a few rare occasions do we get to see him playing different instruments: famously, the 1979 hit song “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was recorded using a Fender Telecaster to provide a more traditional “Rock’ n Roll” sound. During Queen’s 1972-73 tour, he used a Fender Stratocaster as a backup.
Still, he didn’t like the combo of Strat and Vox AC30, so he then quickly switched to a Gibson Les Paul, but only to realize that this wasn’t a good option as well, so he asked luthier John Birch to build him a replica of his beloved Red Special to use as a spare guitar.
Many years later, during a Premier Guitar Rig-Rundown, we can see that Brian May plays live shows using only his main Red Special or a few replicas.
He carries one tuned in standard tuning that gets used only if he breaks a string on his main guitar, two models tuned in Drop D (one acts as a spare) only to play “Fat Bottomed Girls”, and one Red Special guitar with a piezo pickup that he uses for acoustic songs.
Brian May’s Amps
The Vox AC30 is the quintessential Brian May guitar amp, and it is a massive component of the overall sound of Queen.
The British guitarist doesn’t use any distortion or overdrive pedals between his Red Special and his AC30 (except for a Treble Booster, which I’ll talk about later on), and, because of that, he controls all of his gain stages only by using the volume knob on his guitar.
May praises the dynamic qualities of this amplifier, which allow him to get every possible gain nuance that he’s looking for within the amp itself.
He uses the Normal Channel exclusively, and his tech explained how May likes to set his amps up like this: “They (the Vox AC30s) are flat-out, all the tone controls are off, the cut is fully up, and the master volume is fully up”.
The three main amps that May uses live were initially built for the “We Will Rock You” theater show by Greg Fryer in 2011. All of the extra circuitry that the guitarist didn’t use within the amps was taken out, but only for additional reliability. They are all fed a constant and reliable power of 234 Volts, using an external supply.
This also helps to prevent a wide variety of problems that may occur during a live show somewhere in the world where the standard provided voltage might be different. Every one of Brian May’s AC30s is loaded with two different speakers: a Celestion Alnico Blue and a G12H Anniversary.
The deafening volume that his Vox AC30s are asked to provide causes many speakers to blow up and, because of that, they carry three extra “dummy” amps to offer additional speaker spares if they ever need them.
The brand of the tubes (or valves) that are used inside his amps is unknown, but May’s guitar tech revealed that every tube gets “stress-tested” for about one full day, being subject to a much louder volume than the one that would then be used on stage, if the tubes “survive” the test they get used in the amps.
Brian May is also famously known for using a completely different amp: the Deacey. This amplifier was built by Queen’s bass player John Deacon, who was also an electronics engineer by training.
The circuit for this amp was made out of a Supersonic PR80 portable radio, and it was later fitted in a cabinet speaker and powered by a 9-volt battery. The original version of this very peculiar amp had no tone or volume controls.
It could produce only 1 Watt of power, and because of that, the Deacey was only used in the studio and never on live shows. Brian May is famous for recreating the sounds of wind instruments, brass, and strings, all with his Red Special, and you’ll be interested to know that the amp used to make those famous sounds in pretty much every Queen record was, in fact, the Deacey amp.
Since 1998, several amp builders have tried to create an official replica of this iconic little amp. Still, only in 2010, about twelve years after the original Deacey was first taken apart and analyzed, the Brian May Deacey Amp replica was officially approved by May and Deacon.
Brian May is not the kind of player obsessed with effect pedals. As I mentioned earlier, he is pretty much a “guitar straight into the amp” kind of guy, but there are a few staples in his setup that are worth talking about.
The Greg Fryer Treble Booster Touring is without a doubt an essential effect in Brian May’s signal chain since 1998. The guitarist has been using various versions of a treble booster since the early days of his recording and live-performing career, and it is a defining part of his sound.
The name “Treble Booster” is pretty self-explanatory when we’re talking about what this effect is for. It is an Overdrive that focuses primarily on boosting the top-end of the guitar sound, both in terms of gain and overall volume, overdriving the amp’s input, very similar to what a Tube Screamer type of overdrive circuit might do.
Brian May reportedly said that this effect pedal allows him to boost the higher harmonic frequencies in his guitar sound, facilitating the job of making his guitar “sing”.
Brian May puts his Treble Booster super early in his effect chain. It is mounted on his guitar strap, positioned before the transmitter of his wireless setup.
The TC Electronic G Major 2 is a rack effect that Brian May uses to get his Delays and modulation effects. This multi-effect unit is a famous rack-mounted piece of gear that can provide top-quality delays, reverbs, choruses, etc…
May uses two separate G Major units simultaneously to get two different delays running in parallel. Still, he also uses Chorus and occasionally some other modulation effects, all coming from the G Major.
Brian May also uses a Dunlop GCB95 Cry Baby Wah Wah, but not in the most common way. He has a voltage controller on the floor, which resembles a traditional wah-wah pedal.
Still, it is only used to control the Cry Baby DCR-2SR rack module, which gives him additional EQ controls not available in the pedal-only version.
In a 2014 Premier Guitar Rig Rundown, we can see the setup that Brian May uses live. It consists of three Vox AC30s (modified by Greg Fryer) that the guitarist plays in parallel, in a Left-Center-Right configuration, where the center amp is completely dry, while the side-amps are thoroughly wet.
For example, when he plays the “Brighton Rock” solo, May uses two simultaneous delays (coming from the two TC Electronic G Major 2) at two different speeds: 800ms in the left amp and 1600ms in the right amp, while the center amp is reproducing the dry guitar sound. All three amps have the EQ, master, and volume controls in the same position.
Pete Malandrone, Brian May’s guitar tech, has a MIDI switcher that controls all of the sounds that the guitarist needs to use throughout his live set.
Overall, it is a minimal setup, highlighting how much of a fan of simplicity May is. Here you can see a picture of that pedalboard.
Notice how some of the sounds are meant to be used for one song only, or even for just one note, as Malandrone reportedly said, because most of the show is played using just one sound: Red Special, Treble Booster, and AC30, with nothing else in between.
Famous Recordings You Should Check Out
Queen has some of the best albums of the last century, and you should listen to all of them, in my opinion. Anyway, here are some of the songs where Brian May’s guitar playing shines the most:
- “Killer Queen” is a fantastic composition overall. Taken from the 1974 album “Sheer Heart Attack”, it features a beautiful solo by May, with layered and harmonized guitar parts, one of his trademarks.
- “Stone Cold Crazy” is the song that inspired the entire Thrash Metal genre, according to James Hetfield (lead singer of Metallica). Brian May plays a wonderful solo with extensive use of delay, which is another one of his signature moves.
- ” Good Company” is an exceptional song because Brian May is also the lead singer, which happened only a few times during Queen’s career. Throughout the entire piece, May uses the Deacey Amp to re-create the sounds of a traditional Ensemble from the very early days of Jazz. One of the best examples of May’s genius.
- ” It’s A Hard Life” is one of my favorite songs ever, and May’s solo in this song is unbelievably good. You can hear all of his influences, from Classical Music to Blues; this excellent piece of guitar music is jam-packed with class and greatness.
How to Get Brian May’s Sound on a Budget
Sounding like Brian May is a challenging task. We are talking about a player who built his own instrument with very “weird” woods and plays with a coin instead of a pick, and, on top of that, his guitar playing style is pretty unique overall.
You’ll be delighted to know that you can buy an officially approved replica of Brian May’s famous Red Special guitar that retails for less than $1000. You can check the various colors and models available here https://shop.brianmayguitars.co.uk/brian-may-guitars.html.
This instrument will provide you with a chambered body and Tri-Sonic pickups, both features included in the original guitar. The BMG Special (that’s the name of this guitar) has a Wilkinson knife-edge bridge, which is slightly different from what Queen’s guitarist has on the real deal.
Still, you will get Brian May’s original pickup switching system, which is essential to get similar sounding results.
Vox Amplification is the way to go if you want to sound like Brian May, without a doubt. Now, as I mentioned earlier, May uses three modded Vox AC30s with Alnico Blue and G12H speakers at the same time, but you might want to consider scaling that down a bit, you know…if you don’t want to end up deaf and poor.
The best alternative is to buy one AC15, which you can get with an Alnico Blue speaker off the shelf, for about $1200. You can also buy a cheaper version with a Celestion Greenback speaker that’s going to cost you roughly $800 and get you very close-sounding to the man himself, maybe not as much as the Alnico version, but still pretty close.
If you want to get the iconic Brian May’s high harmonically squealing sound, you have to get yourself some form of Treble Booster. You can find his signature version, the Brian May Guitars Treble Booster Classic, on the Brian May Guitars official website here: https://shop.brianmayguitars.co.uk/bmg-electronics/bmg-tb-classic.html.
This is going to cost you roughly $300, which is a little expensive in my opinion, so I suggest you might want to experiment with any boost pedal you already have that is equipped with some form of EQ that allows you to control which frequencies you’re going to boost.
Bear in mind that everything a Treble Booster does is boosting only the higher frequencies, so you might not get the same circuit that May has in his pedal, but you can still manage to get a close enough sound.
Let me answer some of the questions you might have on your mind after reading this article.
Question: Is Brian May a Good Guitar Player?
Answer: Absolutely. He might not be the fastest shredder on planet earth, but who cares? He crafted some of the most iconic “singable” solos ever.
Suppose you have ever heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” more than once. In that case, you can probably sing along to Brian May’s solo just as much as you can do the same with the Mamaaaa uuuuuuh part(you just sang that in your head, admit it), and that applies pretty much to every solo that he ever played.
Question: What Can I Learn from Brian May?
Answer: You can try to “steal” how he structures his solos and his overall guitar parts. He is always trying to tell a story. Just like every well-structured story has a beginning, a development, and an end, May usually starts low, goes up until he reaches the “climax”, and then eases out gracefully.
Question: Do I Have to Buy All His Signature Gear to Get His Sound?
Answer: It depends on how close you want to get. The Red Special guitar pickup switching system is unique, and it might be hard to replicate May’s unusual pickup combinations without it, but it’s not impossible.
When I played guitar in my Queen Tribute Band, which was officially recognized by Brian May himself, I used an Ibanez Prestige and a Brunetti Amp, and nobody complained.
You can always try to implement different effect pedals to get close, and if you have some sort of Amp Modeling piece of gear (like a Line 6 Helix or a Kemper), you have everything you need at your disposal. Experiment and have fun!
Brian May is one of my favorite guitarists ever, and I think he often doesn’t get enough credit within the guitar community. His playing inspired some of the most fantastic players of our time, including Slash, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Nuno Bettencourt, and many more.
I hope that you will spend some time listening closely to his guitar work on every Queen record because I assure you that you will be enriched after that.
He played on and wrote so many unbelievably good songs that stood the test of time. “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” are what you hear played respectively before and after every sports event ever unless we’re talking about boxing; in that case, you’ll listen to “Another One Bites The Dust”.
The relevance of the music of Queen is unbelievable, and I hope you now have a better understanding of the enormous role that Sir Brian May played in achieving said importance.
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