Interviews: Brian May: Guitar Player Magazine '83
Interview by Jas Obrecht
Brian May's quiet, gentlemanly nature offstage gives little hint of the flash he delivers onstage when Queen emerges through billowing smoke and kaleidoscope lighting to the cheers of thousands. May cuts the figure of the quintessential British rocker - tall, lean, and in control. Using dazzling arrays of effects, tones, and techniques, he adds a prominent voice to Queen's skintight sound. Midway through the show, he launches a long solo showcase, battling spaceship-shaped lighting pods and using two echo machines to build three-part harmonies and counterpoints.
On records Brian proves to be a player of imagination and stylistic versatility as well. With a homemade guitar and multi-track recording techniques, he has created one of the instantly identifiable voices in rock; the sweet, sustaining tones prominent in "Bohemian Rhapsody", "Killer Queen", the Flash Gordon soundtrack, and numerous other cuts. During his 12 years with Queen, Brian has composed several international hits, notably "We Will Rock You" "Keep Yourself Alive" "Fat Bottomed Girls" and "Flash". And although you'd never know it by his unostentatious manner, he is probably one of the most successful men in rock: According to London's Sunday Express magazine, "Britain's highest paid executives in the year ending September 1979 were the four directors of Queen Productions Ltd. "Those four directors are singer Freddie Mercury, bassist John Deacon, drummer Roger Taylor, and guitarist Brian May.
Born to middle class parents 35 years ago. Brian was raised in Feltham, a small suburb west of London. In the interview below, he recalls his earliest musical experiences and influences, and recounts how he and his father built the guitar he uses today. The Mays stressed the importance of education, and it wasn't until Brian had graduated with physics degree from London University's Imperial College that he began playing semi-professionally. In 1971, May and Roger Taylor formed a band called Smile. When their singer quit, Freddie Mercury, formerly with another London-area band named Wreckage, replaced him. The trio enlisted bassist John Deacon to form Queen.
Escaping the endless pub circuit, the band chose to practice the musical and theatrical aspects of their show in private, performing occasionaly for close friends and invited guests. "If we were going to drop the careers we'd trained hard for", May remembers. "We wanted to make a really good job of music. We all had quite a bit to lose, really, and it didn't come easy. To be honest, I don't think any of us realized it would take a full three years to get anywhere. It was certainly no fairy tale!"
Queen's strategy paid off when Elektra signed them and released Queen in September '73. The debut album contained a pair of singles - "Liar" and "Keep Yourself Alive". Queen was voted Band Of The Year in the Melody Maker reader's poll early the next year, and their follow-up Queen II LP yielded a hit. "The Seven Seas Of Rhye". This was the first project where May began to extensively explore multi-tracked guitar parts. In the summer of 1974 Queen toured the U.S. for the first time as the opening act for Mott The Hoople.
Sheer Heart Attack, realeased November '74, included "Killer Queen", which topped the British charts. The album made the Top 10 in America, and Queen headlined in Great Britain and the U.S. for the first time. Aided by Freddie Mercury's exotic dances and costumes, the band garnered a reputation for being theatrical as well as musically sopisticated. Their 1975 visit to Japan was greeted by riotous scenes of adulation that some reporters compared to the American arrival of the Beatles in 1964.
Queen holed up in various English studios for five months in 1975 to produce their critically acclaimed, meticulosly produced A Night At The Opera. "Bohemian Rhapsody" contained layered guitar solos and an innovate operatic section with numerous multi-tracked voices. The single stayed in the #1 position on the British charts for nine weeks, and a year later the British Phonographic Industry voted it Best Record Of The Preceding 25 years. The album became the band's first million-seller. Queen ended 1976 with the release of A Day At The Races, scoring high in the charts with "Sombody To Love".
The group toured America and Europe in early 1977, and in the summer taped News Of The World. The LP topped the charts in the U.S., Holland, Belgium, France, Israel, Canada, Brazil, Ireland and Mexico. "We Are The Champions" backed by May's "We Will Rock You" became the biggest-selling single in Warner Brothers/Elektra Asylum history. Following a serie of business fiascos soon afterwards, Queen's members decided to manage themself. "We didn't particulary want the job", May recalls, "but we decided it was the best way to get precisley what we wanted and control our own destiny".
Jazz, recorded in Switzerland and France in mind '78 contained the hits "Fat Bottomed Girls" and "Bicycle Race". Seven tractor-trailers were required for setting up the band's visually elaborated American concerts that fall. Portions of their subsequent European shows were recorded for Live Killers, a double-disk package that contains a stellar example of May's extended onstage solo.
After a well-earned rest, Queen and their new engineer (known simply by the name of Mack) laid down a few tracks in '79. The first of these - the rockabilly influenced "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" - gave Queen another #1 single. The Game was completed by the summer '80, and when "Another One Bites The Dust" reached the top of the American charts, Queen became the first group of the '80s to score a pair of #1 singles. They celebratred with four-month U.S. tour.
Queen accepted movie producer Dino De Laurentiis' offer to score Flash Gordon, a musical project co-produced by May and Mack and completed in December '80. Afterwards Queen played in Argentina and Brazil, appering on coast-to-coast TV in both countries. Their March 20th Sao Paulo concert drew 131000 fans - reportedly the largest paying audience for a single group anywhere in the world. They trekked south again in the fall for dates in Venezuela and Mexico. The band was back in the studio a month later, collaborating with David Bowie on "Under Pressure", this cut appers on Queen's 1981 Greatest Hits package, as well as their lastest relase, Hot Space.
Recorded in Munich, Hot Space signaled the ban's move to a more rhythmic, economical approach. As always, May's guitar parts are characterized by freshness and impeccable accuracy. The group toured Europe in the spring of '82 before coming to the U.S. and Japan. The following interview was conducted a day before Queen's appearance on Saturday Night Live. In a companion piece begining on page 73, May discusses his studio techniques and specific recodings.
Over The years you've embraced many styles - Middle Eastern, big band, folk, country, jazz, rock, and urban blues. Which came first and most naturally?
That's a hard question, because I find it all comes naturally. I think everything has to be worked on. When we were growing up in England, we had all that music around us. The stuff that really propelled and excited us was the blues-based material. That was really what us want to play. When I was very young, the only thing thta was on the radio which I actually liked was American pop music. There would be things like Buddy Holly & The Crickets, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard. Those were the sort of records we bought when we got old enough to buy records. The English pop music that was around was pretty much a carbon copy of that. I don't want to do him an injustice, but Cliff Richards in the early days was very much an Elvis Presley sort of figure. But his group, the Shadows, went on to make a lot of very interesting instrumental. When I started playing guitar, I played chords and skiffle for a while.
How old were you when you started?
I think about eight. My father played a thing called a ukelele banjo, which is like a little miniature banjo. It was made famous by people like George Formby and Billy "Uke" Scott, who played when my father was a kid. My father taught me about six or seven chords on that. When I asked for a guitar for my eight or ninth birthday, I converted the chords from four strings to six strings. I sort of made up chords, and I to strum and sing during the skiffle boom. Lonnie Donegan, who was a big shiffle figgure in England, was influenced by American blues. He would do Leadbelly songs and some stuff he wrote himself. I liked him a lot.
Some of your song - especially "39" on A Night At The Opera - are folksy. Did you ever play in coffehouses?
No, not really, but that was the skiffle sort of thing. That's quite close to what a lot of the skiffle stuff was like: strum away at great speed and sing and throw a little lick in there someplace. The lyrics of that tune, though, are a long way away from what skiffle was all about.
How did you advance your knowledge of guitar?
I had those chords to start off with, and then I began to notice on records by Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley thar there were some people there playing some amazing stuff. [Ed. Note: Most of the elctric guitar on early Presley records was played by Scotty Moore, Joe Maphis accompanied Ricky Nelson on his LP and was afterwards replaced by James Burton.] It's funny, but I couldn't even hear it well anough to be able to attempt to play it. People like the Shadows, who were playing quite simple instrumental music, I could lock onto and learn mote-for-note.
So I learned to play what I call "single-note style" - as opposed to just strumming - from the Shadows and the Ventures. Another band was the Sputniks: they were from Sweden. They did a lot of stuff which I was struggling to play, and then I discovered that they were speeding up the tapes to be able to play that fast [laughs]. Speed used to come into it a lot in those days. When I was at the school in fifth and sixth form - I would be about 16 or 17 - there was a kind of competition to see who could play the new stuff quickest. So when the new instrumental records came out, we would all feverishly study them at home until we were able to play them. The Sputniks used to do this incredibly fast stuff like "Orange Blossom Special", and we used to really kill ourselves - make our fingers bleed - trying to play it. That's where I learned technique, really.
Was this on acoustic guitar?
At that time I had an acoustic guitar whick I made a pickup for and electrifed. I used to play that through an old radio which we had at home. To make the pickup, I got some magnets and wound a coil around them and stuck it under the strings. It worked pretty well. At that time, we thought it would be interesting to make a guitar, seeing as I coudn't afford a Stratocaster. So my father and I started making a guitar when I was 15, and we finished it when I was 17.
Is that your main guitar now?
Yeah, same one. It's not exactly like any other guitar. We did a lot experiments, and I played some of my friend's guitars, like Stratocasters and Hofners. The body shape came out of my head. It's pretty smal, but the sort of shape which the semi-acoustic guitars had those days, like the Gibson ES-335. But it's not symetrical. I wanted it cutaway more on the underside so I could genuinely get up to those top frets. It has a 24" scale with 24 frets. We made everything totally from scratch with hands tools. The neck was a piece of an extremely old fireplace. We had lots of plans and drawings, and chiseled away. My dad is an electronics draftsman, which means he desings electronic gear. So he was able to give me a lot of help. He also has a good mechanical insight. We made the original pickups, which sounded pretty good except they had one bad fault: When you would squeeze the strings - bend them across the fingerboard - they would make this kind of rushing sound because the polepieces went north-south, north-south, north-south instead of north, north, north, north, north, north. So I eventually bought some Burns pickups. Burns were making guitars in England at the time, and they made some of the stuff for the Shadows.
Did you design the guitar's vibrato tailpiece?
Yes, and it's better than anybody else's vibrato! The srings lock onto a milled steel plate which pivots on a case-hardened knife edge. The tension of the strings is balanced by two motorcycle springs. There is very little friction in the system. I also designed a special bridge which has rollers that move instread of the usual arrangement where the strings come over a fixed bridge. You can take the bottom string down about an octave and bring it up, and it's pretty close to in tune. It really performs quite well. I'm being very big-headed about it [laughs]. The only big problem comes in breaking a string. If you break a string, the whole thing goes out, a total war. It's hopeless; you just have to put it down. I had a copy of my guitar which was made by a guy in England called John Birch. It was pretty close, but I could never forget that it was a copy when I was playing it. Somehow it didn't quite feel or sound the same. The guitar I made has a warmth, but it also has an edge. It's somewhere between a typical Fender sound and a typical Gibson sound.
After you made your electrical guitar, what were you first professional playing experiences?
We had a little group when I was at school called 1984. The first gig we ever played was St. Mary's Hall in Twickenham, which is just opposite a little island in the Thames called Eel Pie Island. I remember it well. I was 17, and we played a mixture of adapted soul stuff like Sam & Dave and Otis Redding. It was just pre-psychedelia. We used to try and do a couple of songs of our own. Luckily, as time went on Pink Floyd, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix came along, and we strated doing that.
Were you impressed by Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck in those days?
Absolutly. Clapton from the very beginning, because I used to go and see the Yardbirds. We did a couple of their songs. Clapton was unbelivable, just so sparking and fluid. He was what turned me away from the Shadows style and sent me back to listening to B.B. King , Bo Diddley, and all those people who I'd heard, but I thought it was all the same: 12-bar blues, and that was it. I didn't realize the depth or emotion there was in it until I saw Eric Clapton doing it. That somehow made it accesible for me. After I went back and listened to his influences, I listened to Clapton very closely and people like Mike Boomfield on the first album with the Paul Butrfield on the first album with all those classics. Jeff Beck was an influence, too - extremely. He succeeded Clapton in the Yardbirds. I coudn't belive what he could do. I remember seeing him put the guitar down, make it feedback, and play a whole tune without even touching the fingerboard. That was the first time I saw a Les Paul guitar. I saw a gig at the Marquee soon after Beck had joined, and Eric Clapton came on and jammed at the end. That was pretty amazing; I'll never forget that.
Did you see Hendrix?
Yes! I thought after seeing those two, I'd seen it all. I had been playing all that time, and I could play that style. I was beginning to make the guitar sort of talk. I always wanted the guitar to play for people, to talk the same way a vocal did and have feeling in it. I didn't want it to be an accompaying instrument. Then when I saw Hendrix, I thought, "Oh, my God. This guy is doing everything that I was trying to do". He just made me feel like I couldn't play. It's funny thing: It makes you feel very uncomfortable when you thought you knew everything that was going on, and then suddenly somebody comes along who seems to be doing all sorts of things which you hadn't even thought of, never mind find yourself able to play. I heard him play on a single of "Hey Joe", and on the flip side there's an amazing solo on "Stone Free", where he's talking to the guitar and it's talking back to him. I thought, "Well, he can't really be that good. He must have done that with studio technique". Then when I saw him for the first time supporting the Who at the Savoy Theatre in London, he just completely blew me away. I thought, "He's it ". The Who couldn't follow him in those days, and they were really hot, big news in England. Anybody in the world would find it hard to follow Hendrix.
Did you quit performing while attending college?
It was all going on at the same time. I was pretty serious about the education bit. That was from my upbringing: I was taught that you had to put your education first. I felt very bad about it, because most of my friends had gone off and been in semi-professional groups. I was very jealous of all those people who were doing it at school, because all the pressure on me were to keep on the studies and not go off and play. I was at the university before I was able to indulge in fairly serious, semi-professional playing. I finally got an honors degree in physics from Imperial College, London. I actually wanted to carry on because I thought music would be fun, but I'd never be able to do it professionaly. I actually stayed on at Imperial College to do research in infrared astronomy and some part-time tutoring. I taught for a year at a comprehensive school, teaching kids from age 11 to 17. The group Queen was going on at that time, so I don't think I ever slept for that year.
Since the formation of Queen, have you had a free hand in constructing solos and fills?
Yes. We generally will talk about it, and very often the author of the song will have an idea of what he wants. But mostly I go in there and we try things out.
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 freedon; 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.
Have you ever come up with a solo before you've had a song to use it in?
Actually, that happen with the "Brighton Rock" thing, yeah. We used to do the song "Son and Daughter" onstage, and the solo section in the middle of that became what was in "Brighton Rock". After "Brighton Rock" was recorded [on Sheer Heart Attack], that solo evolved a lot more. One facet of it was the way it is on the live album, but it's dropped it because I felt I got stale. I don't like to do excatly the same thing two nights running. That should be a time when you can do something different. Now we don't do "Brighton Rock" anymore, so it's gone full circle. In the beginning, the solo was there and the song was around it. And now the song's gone and the solos' there.
When did you start doing your extended onstage solo?
The first time we went out with Mott The Hoople. We tourned Britain first, and then America. It wasn't very long in those days. It would be about half minute. Now it's about ten, but sometimes it's not. If I'm not in the mood and I don't feel it's quite right, it'll get short again.
Do you change most of it around night-to-night?
Yeah, it's never the same. I get very disapointed if I don't get into new territory sometime during the tour. There are usually a couple of notes in there - [laughs] most nights - which will be different and I don't know quite what's going to happen. And one night in five I'll discover a new effect. I try not to get stuck in too many ruts. Sometimes it's terrible. If I know that I'm not getting it together, I do the best I can and drag out a few things which have worked in the past. On a good night, I feel that I can do something interesting. I don't think there's anything left of the actual "Brighton" solo in there now, but I'm using the same techniques, such as using repeats and playing along with them.
Is that now you get several parts going at once?
Yeah. 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.
To keep the solo special, do you tend to cut down using the repeat effect at other times in the set?
I've used different delays for different songs in the past, but we've sort of simplified what we do for a lot of the songs. I used to use echo in lots of songs, like "Keep Yourself Alive" and "The Propher's Song", but nowadays most of the set is just straight guitar, and it's only the solos where I use the repeats. Sometimes I get fed up with them even then, because I feel like maybe they're a crutch, and they shouldn't be. So I switch them off and do a little bit totally straight.
Do you ever have trouble staying in tune during the long solo?
Usually towards the end of the solo, when I'm bending things a long way, it can get out of tune. I don't really notice it until the next number. If it's something like "Under Pressure", where it's got to be right on, I die a million deaths. Breaking strings is the worst. Sometimes it's happened at the very beginning of the solo, and it just destroy the concentration. I'll have the guitar feedback and grab another one.
Do you foresee the day when a long onstage guitar solo will become obsolete?
I've thought it was obsolete many times. We've thrown it out. We haven't done it every night on this tour. But somehow it seems to creep back in there. It's weird. I did it for years, and nobody would talk about it. And then when I threw it out, people said, "Hey! How could you do that?". On this tour we did some special things with the lights. We had those pods which can fly about, and I used to do a little battle with those. That gave it a new lease on life. People would tend to notice that. As opposed to not saying anything, they would say, "I like the lights in the solo [laughs]". I've found that people seem to appreciate long solos more on this tour than they did before. I think a lot of people thought our material was veering too far away from the heavy side, and they thought the solo stuff redressed the balance to a certain extent.
Does your mood exert an influence on what you play?
Oh, yeah, especially in the solo because that's my freedom time. Mood help a lot, and the audience helps a lot.
Do you have to be a certain state of consciousness to play your best?
No. It grows out of the concert: I don't think it matter how you go on. If the sound seems good to me, and I know that it sounds good out front and there's a lot of feedback from the audience, it grows out of that. Enjoying the sound is the main thing.
How do you discover tones? Do you imagine them first or does the equipment suggest them?
It's a licky combination of guitar and amplifier. The guitar has very wide range of sound naturally. I know what to do make it scream or to make it mellow. The amplifier just responds in that way. I've never know any other way. There's really nothing else; there aren't any fancy effects or anything. I have a pedalboard with on/off switches for the repeats, an old Foxx phase pedal which I don't use much anymore - it just gives a gentle phase. And these days I've been using a Boss phaser for a lot of things. It gives me a stereo output, which I like; it gives it a little bit more phase.
What is your philosophy of using effects?
The only effects I like are the ones you can play, that add some sort of voice. I don't really like icing-on-the-cake effects. The only other thing I have is a gadget made by Peter Cornish to work the Harmonizer; it's a device that controls the pitch change of the Harmonizer. It's worked by a pedal. I use that for making silly noises, basically [laughs], in "Get Down, Make Love". But even that became something I could play because I got a feel for the pedal, I can get different musical intervals that are all exact and not just random. I could get a minor third below, a semitone below, unison, a tone above, a minor and a major third above, and an octave above. So you can do all kinds of things. You can gently feel out what's happening in there at a particular time. There's a delay built into that as well.
Do you view the vibrato bar as an effect?
Mainly for making motorbike noises, although at times it's useful for a very mellow vibrato. For most people, the vibrato most often comes ffrom the fingers of the left hand, but occasionaly, if you want something to really smooth it right over or just to make a chord blend in better with what's going on around, the tremolo bar can be very nice for a gentle effect.
There have been some innovative things done with vibrato bars lately.
Oh, Eddie Van Halen is superb! He does all kinds of stuff which I can't begin to figure out [laughs]. I like him a lot. I find it exciting listening to him. He's so completely fluid, he makes everyone else look like they're standing still. I would not fancy following him. Allan Holdsworth is very good, too.
Are you a guitar collector?
No, I've got about half a dozen - that's it. Roger [Taylor] collects guitars. I have one Strat and one Telecaster, and a green sunburst 12-strings Burns. I also have a Flying V, which is a recent acquisition. I got it because I smashed up my Birch guitar. I got very frustrated with it one night and uncharacteristically threw it offstage. It happened to be a very high stage, and it smashed into lots of pieces. Now I don't have a spare. Luckily, the chief designer at Fender came to one of the shows and said he would build me a copy. I am really delighted, because he's going to build me an exact copy of what I have, even down to getting the same woods and building it the same way.
Has anyone ever manufactured a comercial copy of your homemade guitar?
A Japanese firm called Greco made a Brian May guitar, an exact copy. They called it a BHM 900 or something. They sent me an example. I said, "Thanks very much for sending it to me. It looks nice, but it doesn't actually sound that nice. Why don't we get together and make it sound good, too? Then you can put my name on it properly". They never replied. It would be nice if a real class company would do one for me.(Note: if you don't know there's a copy of the Red Special, see the article of the Brian May Guild Signature Guitar)
Do you own any unusual acoustic?
Yeah, I have a very old, cheap Hairfred which makes that buzzy sound that's on "Jealousy" [Jazz] and "White Queen" [Queen II]. I've never seen another one like it. I made it sound like a sitar by taking off the original bridge and putting a hardwood bridge on. I chiseled away at it until it was flat and stuck little piece of fretwire material underneath. The strings just very gently lay on the fretwire, and it makes that sitar-like sound.
How do you string your electric guitar?
I use Rotosound round-wound strings, gauged .008, .009, .011, .016, 0.22, and .034, high to low.
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. (Note: actually Brian uses his own coin, because the sixpence it's out of circulation. More information in the article about the Brian May Guild Signature Guitar)
Do you follow any picking patterns, such as circle picking or extensive downstrokes?
Oh, I never even think about it. I just fairly gently go from one to the other. All the movement is felt: that's why I like the rigid pick. None of the feeling of the string is lost; it all gets to your fingers. So I hold it pretty loosely, and everything gets very controlled.
How do you provide left-hand vibrato?
I just rock the strings gently backwards and forwards, always in contact with the fingerboard.
How many fingers do you use to blend strings?
I ussualy put two or three behind the finger holding the note, but not always. It depends where you are bending and what you are bending to.
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 create harmonics?
Just by playing and touching the string with the back of the hand, the heel. You should ask Eddie [Van Halen] about that! He's the expert.
Is there a differnce between the music you create by yourself and what you play with Queen?
That's a delicate question. Yes, there is. I haven't found it that easy to accustom myself to the new stuff. A lot of the music which Freedie and John want to do is more R&B oriented, and it's hard for me to do that because my playing is a reaction to that style, in a sence. I used to listen to people plucking away on Motown records, and I really didn't like it. I always thought to my self, "That's the kind of thing I don't want to play. I want the guitar to be up there speaking". So in a way the retur to that was difficult to me. It was a discipline which I gradually worked into, but I find myself wanting to brust out of it all the time and make a lot of noise.
Do you play in any style that aren't represented on any of the albums?
Most of it's there in some way.
Do you spend much time with the instrument outside of performing with Queen?
Not a lot these days. In the last couple of years I've spent very little time with it except at sound checks and playing. Which is a shame, but it's just the way it's worked out. Life's been very hectic.
Do you ever have periods where you can't seem to further your playing?
Yeah. It mainly occurs when I don't like the sound. For me the sound is virtually important. There is really no beauty in guitar playing unless the sound is beautiful to begin with. If the thing is sounding scratchy or distired or just not right, I instantly feel that I can't play. My guitar is very personal. People have said, "Why don't you sit in with us and play something? You can use my guitar". Sometimes I've said yes, and then I haven't been able to play anything because I couldn't make it sing. If the guitar doesn't sustain, I can't play. On the other hand, if I'm in a situation where the acoustics are just right and the sound is great, i feel like I can play anything on those nights.
Can you play most of the music you imagine?
Yes, I think so. That is central to being an interesting player and felling good about your playing. You have to be able to get it straight from your head to the guitar. So within reason, I think I can. You never quite know if you're fooling yourself. You never know if your head is guiding your fingers, or your fingers are slightly guiding your head.
Will you sacrifice technique to achive emotion?
Yes, I think the times when I'm playing best are when I'm slowing down and not trying to show off. The nights when I feel I'm playing something worthwhile are never fingers all over the place. It's just a few things which are exactly right, which squeeze up to the note in exactly the right way.
Do you prefer live playing over studio work?
I enjoy the live stuff a lot more. There are moments in the studio I enjoy, but most of the studio is sheer misery. The writing and the arranging of material is such a painstaking process these days for us. I can get in and play a solo anytime, but that's not the majority of the work that's done. The majority of it is real soul-searching and wondering whether a song is right. It's painful.
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.
Are you happy with the way your career is going?
To be honest, no. I didn't feel that this tour was making me very happy. I've often felt that in the studio, but that's the first time I felt it on tour. I didn't feel happy until the last concert. The last night in L.A. I felt quite cheered up. I was prepared to think, "Well, I don't really want to do this anymore". Somehow when it got to the last one, Freddie was really on form and giving a million precent, and I felt that I was going well. So the end of the tour finished on a good note for me. I felt like I did want to be out there doing it again sometime. But we are going to have a long rest.
Do you get tired of rock and roll?
No, definitely not.
Do you have any advice you'd give young rock guitarist?
Yeah, I would say just believe in yourself. Belief is the main thing, because nobody believes in you in the beginning. If you know that you have something to say, just keep on believing it and push and push and push until everyone else belives, too.
Is there anything you'd like to accomplish in the future?
I'd just like to make better music. Sometime I would like Queen to go back to really hard rock album. I don't know if it's going to happen, but that's one of the things I would like to do.
How would you like to be remembered?
If I'm honest, I think I would like to be remembred for a few of the songs, none of which were really hits, but some of which had a lot of emotion in them: "White Queen" and "Let Us Cling Together" and "Long Away" off the A Day At The Races album [laughs]. And "We Will Rock You"
Onstage and on record, Brian May creates an amazing array of tones - from the thunderous counterpoint lines in "Brighton Rock" to the slick, rockabilly-influenced fills in "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" to the sweetly singing multi-tracked tones of "Keep Yourself Alive" and "Killer Queen". Here he discusses his recording techniques and specific cuts.
What tracks contain the essential Brian May?
Oh, dear! In a way, I'd rather people saw us live because there are always a few moments there of the kind which you don't really capture on record. As far as albums, I suppose I like the heavy stuff - "Brighton Rock" [Sheer Heart Attack and Live Killers]. As far as the melodic side goes, the solo in "Killer Queen" [Sheer Herat Attack] was interesting, the beginnig of an era in a way. Also on Queen II there is a lot of stuff which I like because that was the beginning of doing guitar orchestations, which I always wanted to do. The first track - "Father To Son" - starts off with an introduction. After it gets into the song and a few words are sung, it immediatly it goes into a six-parts orchestral kind of thing. It was really a big thrill for me to be able to do that, because I had never been allowed to spend that amount of time in the studio to construct those things before then. That was the fulfillment of an ambition for me, to get started on that road of using the guitar as kind of an orchestral instrument.
Had you imagined that sound before you recorded it?
Yes, for a long time. See, when I was a kid, I thought it would be nice to be a guitar player. I thought, "It'll probably never happen, but I"ll just keep playing anyway". And then when the group actually started to look as though it might do something, my whole ambiotion in life was to make an album that people would listen to and actually put something down which was there for all time. So to get in the studio at all and know that it was going to be immortalized, as it were, was a big thing. The fact that we were shoved in there for a couple of hour periods at a half an hour's notice was slightly irritating, but we hardly thought of it as a real hardship. We just thought we were lucky to be in there at all. So that first album was a case of shove everything down quicky and get out before the next people come in because we weren't paying customers; we were sort of in-house boys: "Oh, there half-an-hour free here, stick the boys in". For the second album, we actually demanded and got some real studio time, so we could spend some time doing those things.
Has your approach to recording guitar changed over the years?
Not very much, really. I generally have a sound in my head which I'm trying to get. I've found I can get it most places; it doesn't really matter what studio it is or what milkes I'm using. If you put the microphone in exactly the right place relative to the amplifier, you're 90% of the way there. And then I just get in there and play. I always use a Vox AC-30 amp, except for those instances where there's a particular orchestra sound and I've used a small amplifier. For acoustic guitar, generally I use one mike a few inches away from the soundhole and very often one a little further away, either in the front or behind. In the studio, you especially need a good fallback sound; it's hard to get that tecnique of playing with headphones. It's not a live situation, so the balance in the sound help a lot. If I can get a good stereo balance in cans, I can forget where I am and ussually get into it. If you get it so you can feel it like it is onstage, there's no problem. It just feels like you've got the band behind you.
Perhaps your most identificable sound is the sweet, sustaining tone used in "Killer Queen", "Procession" from Queen II, Flash Gordon's "Wedding March", and several other tracks. How is that created?
For those orchestral things, I've usually used a Vox AC-30 as well as a small amplifier which was made by John Deacon. This has a little hi-fi speaker cabinet which is about a foot by six inches, and John put a little transistor amplifier inside it. I use it with a treble booster which overloads it. It just makes a good noise; I don't know why. I've gotten that tone out of all kinds of little practice amps as well - just crank them up, drive them nuts. Vox made a little baby AC-30, and I've used those on occasion. They're quite good. For almost everything else, I use old Vox AC-30s that have tubes instead of transistor. These have a very flexible, identificable sound without much coloration. You can get a wide range of sound from them, and they always have that nice little high fidelity edge to them. They use tubes biased in a Class A range. Most guitar amplifiers are Class B, which means they have more inherent distortion in them at lower levels. The Vox AC-30s are very clear at low level and then gradually and smoothly go into a nice distortion.
How did you process the rhythm strums on the version of "Keep Yourself Alive" on the Queen album?
That was real tape phasing. This was in the days when you took the tape off the synch head, put it though a couple of other tape delays, and then brought it back with the play head. There is no processing whatsover on the solo in that tune, as far as I remember. I used John Deacons's small amplifier and the Vox AC-30 to do those little three-part chorus thing behind, as well as the fingerboard pickup on the guitar. There is a bit more tape phasing on the end of that track.
What instrument did you use for "Bring Back That Leroy Brown" on Sheer Heart Attack?
Yeah. I played a toy koto on that. It was a present from a Japanese fan. The normal koto is about eight feet long and huge, but this thing was only about a foot-and-a-half long. [Andy's note - Brian played Toy Koto on "The Prophet's Song" and George Formby Ukelele on "Leroy Brown". It is not clear whether the transcription has an error or whether the interview made an error]
Did you run the tape backwards for the psychedelic solo in that cut?
That was just getting a lot of sustain. I don't think there's any backwards stuff on there. There's backwards stuff on some other tracks, like "Flick Of The Wrist" on Sheer Heart Attack.
Did you learn to play harp for "Love Of My Life"?
Well, kind of [laughs]. Learning would be too strong a word. I did it chord by chord. Actually, it took longer to tune the thing than to play it. It was a nightmare because every time someone opened the door, the temperature would change and the whole thing would go out. I would hate to have to play a harp onstage. I just figured out how it worked - the pedals and everything - and did it bit by bit.
Were the horn lines in "Good Company" done on guitar?
Yeah, that's four different kind of guitars. I was very keen in those days on recreateing that sort of atmosphere. I mainly got the sound with small amplifiers. I used John Deacon's little amplifier and a volume pedal. For the trombone and trumpet sounds. I would record every note individually: Do it and then drop in. Incredibly painstaking! It took ages and ages. I listened to a lot of traditional jazz music when I was ypung, so I tried to get the phrasing as it would be if it were played by that instrument.
Who came up with the idea for the vocal harmonies used in "Bohemian Rhapsody"?
We always were keen on that kind of thing. That was something which we wanted to do from the beginning. We wanted to be a group that could do the heaviness of hard rock, but also have harmonies swooping around all over the place. We thought there was some real power and emotion in that combination.
Was the first solo in that song very difficult for you?
No, that was pretty much off the cuff, except I think I had plenty of time to think about that one. I remember playing along with it in the studio for a while when other things were being done. I knew what kind of melody I wanted to play.
Did you play slide on "Tie Your Mother Down" on A Day At The Races?
Yeah, a glass one. That was on standard tuning. The only tuning I've used apart from normal is to take the bottom string down to D, which I've used on "The Prophet's Song", "White Man" [A Day At The Races], and "Fat Bottomed Girls" [Jazz].
During A Day At The Races's into and at the very end of the second side, there's a climb with several parts going at once. Is that all guitar?
You've been really listening! Yeah, that's all guitar. I'll tell you exactly what that is: It was supposed to be the musical equivalent of that ridiculous staircase going around four side of a square, and it seems to always be going upwards. It's an Escher painting. It's supposed to be the equivalent of that because every part is going up, and each part fades into an ocatve below. It's also backwards, because I played it all descending. You're probably the only person in the world who's ever noticed it.
How did you dial in the violin-like tone in "You Take My Breath Away"?
There's a particular pickup combination which I use for the violin things: the fingerboard pickup and the middle one. Those two working in phase make a very mellow sound. And there's a point on the amplifier where it's just about to get distortioned, but not quite. Instead of using my pick, I tap the fingerboard with the right hand, and that just sets the thing moving. It sustain itself. you hardly need to even tap it any. If you even stand in exactly the right place, it feeds back in any position so I can just warble around and it's very smooth. I also used that tone for the beginning of "Leaving Home Ain't Easy" on Jazz. For thta, I actually used the studio faders to fade them in, but that was the same sort of sound.
"The Millionaire Waltz" [A Day At The Races] must have taken a long time to do.
Oh, yes. You've heard everything right: I think that holds the record.Ther's one bit in there which is sort or fairground effect in the background. I think there are three octaves for each part, and six parts. I'm not sure but there must be about 18 or 20 guitar tracks. It's a funny sound. It makes a peculiarly sort of rigis sound. I was really surprised. It sounded like a fairground organ.
How did you have you guitar settings for "We Will Rock You" on News Of The World?
That is my number one normal sound: I use that on a lot of things. It's the bridge pickup and the middle pickup in phase with each other. They are wired in series.
Is the instrumental break in "All Dead, All Dead" layed guitars?
Yes. That's one of my favorites. That was one of the ones which I thought came off best, and I was really pleased with the sound. It allways gives me a surprise when I listen to it because it was ment to really bring tears to your eyes. It almos does it to me.
Do you tap on the fingerboard with your right hand in "It's Late"?
Yes, that was actually hammering on the fingerboard with both hands. I stole it from a guy who said that he stole it from Billy Gibbons in ZZ Top. He was playing in some club in Texas, doing hammering stuff. I was so intrigued by it, I went home and played around with it for ages and put it on "It's Late". It was a sort of a double hammer. I was fretting with my left hand, hammering with another finger of the left hand, and then hammering with the right hand as well. It was a problem to do onstage; I found it was a bit too stiff. It's okay if you're sitting down with the guitar. If I persevered with it, it would probably become second nature, but it wasn't an alleyway which led very far, to my way of thinking. It's a bit gimmicky.
On Jazz was it hard to build up the solo speed in "Dead On Time"?
I don't think so. That was something I was quite pleased with, but really nobody else was. It's something which nobody ever mentions very much. "Fat Bottomed Girls" I thought was okay, but fairly banal. I thought people would be much more interested in "Dead On Time", but it didn't really get that much airplay. The explosions at the end are a real thunderstorm which ocurred when we were in the south of France. We put a tape recorder outside.
Is Live Killers a fair representation of what a late '70s Queen concert was like?
Yeah, pretty close. I think we play better now. In retrospects, I don't think it's a very good sounding album. There are some things I like, but on the whole I don't think it truly represents the depth that was there.
There is less guitar on The Game, but your playing seems freer and more experimental.
Yeah, that was when we started trying to get outside what was normal for us. Plus we had a new engineer in Mack and a new environment in Munich. Everything was different. We turned our whole studio technique around in a sense, because Mack had come from a different background from us. We thought there was only one way of doing things, like doing a backing tracks: We would just do it until we got it right. If there were some bits where it speeded up or slowed down, then we would do it again until it was right. We had done some of our old backing tracks so many times, they were too stiff. Mack's first contribution was to say, "Well you don't have to do that. I can drop the whole thing in. If it breaks down after half a minute, then we can edit in and carry on if you just play along with the tempo". We laughed and said "Don't be sily. You can't do that". But in facts, you can. What you gain is the freshness, because often a lot of the backing tracks is first time though. It really helped a lot. There was less guitar on that album, but that's really not going to be the same forever; that was just an experiment.
Did adding keyboard synthesizers cause guitar's role to diminish?
No. It complemented it, really. There are things a synthesizer can do these days which are pretty helpful.
Did you use a Fender on "Crazy Little Thing Called Love"?
Yes. I used on of Roger's really old, beat ip, natural wood Telecaster. I got bludgeoned into playing it. That was Mack's idea. I said "I don't want to play a Telecaster. It basically doesn't suit my style". But "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" was such a period piece, it seemed to need that period sound. So I said, "Okay, Mack, if you want to set it up, I'll play it". He put it through a Mesa/Boggie, which is an amplifier I don't get on what at all; it just doesn't suite me. I tried it, and it sounded okay.
Was the Flash Gordon project time-consuming?
Yes, and unfortunatley we didn't have enough time. We were doing The Game and an American tour at the same time Flash was going on, so it was ridiculous. We put as much time as we could in. We would do a week here and a week there. I spent some time with the arranger and orchestra to try and get some coherence to it all. It was good experince, but next time I hope we have time to really pull the whole thing together as a unit.
Did you use guitar for any of the album's strange effects?
Yeah, some guitar and some synthesizer. I played some of the prominent keyboard aynthesizer parts, but I think Freddie played most of them.
Did the project present any unusual challenges?
The main challenge was working for a boss who wasn't yourself. We had the director in there the whole time. The only criterion for whether something was good was whether in helped the movie.
Did you use a slide for "Dancer" on Hot Space?
No, that's guitar in parallel harmonies. Those aren't my favorite harmonies, really. I much prefer guitar harmonies which aren't parallel. There are very few people who have done them. The real interest in guitar harmonies comes from when they're crossing over, diverging, and converging. Somehow on "Dancer" it seemed right to do those parallels.
The rhythm guitar in "Back Chat" sounds unlike most of your work.
That's because John played that. John has played a lot of rhythm stuff.
Was the solo in "Put Out The Fire" difficult for you?
Actually, it was. I don't really know why. That wasn't a first take. I had done a lot of solos for that - hated every one of them. And then we came back from a club where we used to go to have some drinks. I think I was well on the way - you know, we were all plucked out and slightly inebriated - and we had ridiculous echo effect with Mack was putting back through the cans. I said, "That sounds unbelivable! I want to put it on every track [laughs]". He said "Okay, try "Put Out The Fire". So we put it on the machine, and I just played though it. That was what we used. It was inspiring, like these huge stereo echo sounds coming from all over the place. I could hardly hear what I was doing, but it was sounding so good and I was so drunk. To be honest, I don't think it's that good a solo. It's got a sort of plodding thing going behind it; I never felt totally happy with it.
How did you get the thicks rhythm sound in "Calling All Girls"?
That's a combination of acoustic and electric guitar. I think Roger did the feed-back tracks near the end of the break. You never know where things come from. Roger played a lot of guitar. He's always bursting to play guitar.
One last question about your albums. Have you been on projects outside Queen?
Not very much, no. I get asked if I'm the Brian May who did the music for Breaker Morant and Road Warrior. I spend my life telling people it's not me. I wonder if he has the same problem. He's an Australian conductor. I have played on a couple of albums outside Queen - Lonnie Donegan's come-back album, which featured Ringo Starr and Elton John. I was also on a Larry Lyrics single (Note: I think here Brian make reference of Larry Lurex's "I Can Hear Music" of 1973); Freddie sang the vocal under the assummed name of Larry Lyrics and I played a guitar solo on that. I'd like to make a good solo album sometimes, but at the moment there isn't time. Maybe there will be next year.