Brian May

Thinking Man's Guitarist
Thinking Man's Guitarist

Brian May is indubitably one of the most talented and influential musicians of his generation. His songs and guitar riffs carved an important place in rock and roll history. Long before his tenure with the legendary rock group Queen, May grew up the son of an electronics engineer/musician, so it’s no surprise he inherited his father’s talent for tinkering and music and holds a Master’s degree in physics.

With the help of his father, at age 15 May built the guitar that has remained his main instrument throughout his career. This legendary axe was dubbed the Red Special and it has been an integral part of May’s sound and the music of Queen.

There are many stories surrounding the Red Special and where its components came from. According to the man himself, the neck came from one of the support columns that held up a mirror over an old fireplace. The neck fits deep into the body, just past the middle pickup. The body uses an oak insert from a table and the remainder is made of two layers of hollowed block board. The body is covered with a mahogany veneer. The binding is made from shelf edging. The roller bridge and individual saddles were designed and hand-machined by May and his father. Additionally, May built the control knobs in his shop class. The tremolo arm is made from a saddlebag support from a bicycle, and the arm’s tip is a piece of his mom’s knitting needle ground down with a drill.

“It’s all pieces of junk, really,” laughs May.

It may be junk, but there are many players and fans who would give anything for the opportunity just to touch the legendary guitar, let alone own it.

May wound the guitar’s original single-coil pickups by hand, but later replaced them with pickups he bought from Burns, in England, where he had also purchased the original tuners (later replaced with Sperzels). May also designed the guitar’s wiring, which uses six switches – three for phasing and three on/off for each pickup.
Nearly two years ago May met Australian luthier Greg Fryer, who asked to build authentic copies of the Red Special, as close as possible to the original in every detail – more so than either version of the Guild signature models introduced in 1984. Wherever possible, Fryer wanted to use the same wood, glue, finish, and hardware. May accepted his request and Fryer paid his own way from Australia to England to painstakingly spec the original in explicit detail.

A year later, Fryer returned with three copies. May was floored with excitement because the instruments felt and played incredibly close to his beloved Red Special, which after 30 years was starting to show its age. After playing thousands of gigs all over the world, the old girl was in need of some repair work and a bit of rejuvenation. Once he saw Fryer’s craftsmanship, May knew he was best-qualified to handle the task. Fryer accepted the challenge and did the restoration work, keeping the instrument as original as possible, and using many of the same materials used by May and his father. The fabled guitar is now back in action and as good as new.

May recently sat with VG and talked about his tenure with Queen and his second solo album, Another World, released late last summer, which features a guest appearance by Jeff Beck, one of May’s favorite guitarists.

Vintage Guitar: What first drew your interest to guitar?

Brian May: I was born in 1947 and the early ’50s in England saw the very beginning of electric guitar music as we know it. I grabbed anything I could find. Why I was excited about it, I don’t know, I just was. I heard these little snippets; English pop music in those days was dominated by American pop and there were a lot of English copies of everything, but we would scatter around and try and find the originals. So I listened to Buddy Holly, who I suppose was sort of the big awakening, you know. I just listened and got so excited about it. I didn’t know what it was, but it was just something mystical and magical and sent shivers up my spine. I would listen for bits of guitar, but it wasn’t just the guitar, it was the whole thing. The way the Crickets did those harmonies behind him just always gets me. In fact, I just did a version of “Maybe Baby” because I had to sort of revisit that to find out why it excited me so much.

So it was Buddy Holly, and it was Rick Nelson records or Elvis records or whatever, you would find just a little piece of a guitar solo. I was already playing guitar because I was strumming away and singing. But hearing these people bend strings, it was sort of impenetrable to me. I didn’t know how that was done. The solo in “Hello, Mary Lou” – I must have listened to it a million times to figure out how that was done. At the time you couldn’t get a third string that wasn’t wound. We would try to find ways of bending but the sets you could buy didn’t allow you to. We would put the first string on the third position. But then what do you do for the first string? Then somebody figured you could get a banjo string and put it on the top string.

There was a place called Clifford-Essex, in the middle of London, which was the only place you could get these particular strings. So that was a real breakthrough, and suddenly we could all bend. We sort of went from there. A few friends had the same feeling and we were very lucky. We were in a place where it was all happening, in Richmond and Twickingham, which is where the Yardbirds came from. A couple of the Yardbirds went to my school and so there was always this kind of folklore about the guitars.

Lonnie Donegan was an influence on me probably before I even heard the Crickets. He was probably the first to bring any kind of blues to England, as far as I know, and make it successful on a large scale. He had lots of hit records. The music was called sciffle. Unfortunately, the one hit he’s remembered for in the States is a novelty record, “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight?” But he actually listened to Leadbelly, John Lee Hooker, and a lot of those “Southern Swamp” guys. He brought that whole thing to England. It was just an acoustic guitar strummed very loud, and usually a big tea chest double-bass and a washboard for percussion – that was your sciffle group. Sometimes there would be a guy who really could play the guitar, and Lonnie Donegan had one – Johnny Duncan. It was all like one wave which hit England very hard. It was a huge thing in England, like a craze for this hillbilly kind of blues, sort of pre-echo for what happened later when John Mayall and Eric Clapton and those people started the real blues in England.

This is a very English viewpoint, we’re sort of seeing things happen over here, which are obviously echoing what was happening in the States, so I didn’t know those early guys’ names. I didn’t know Steve Cropper’s name, although now I know he played on loads of those records which were really inspiring to me. Also, James Burton, who played on Rick Nelson’s records. So I suppose that’s where I come from.

There was also a thing just after that, an instrumental guitar thing, where the guitar became the glittering god of English youth, and instrumental music carried it. The Shadows were enormous in this country. Every guitarist from my generation, even if they don’t admit it, learned every Shadows song in those days.

Was guitar your first instrument?

No, I was taught piano up to grade four, for about five years.

So you already had a fairly strong musical background when you picked up guitar.

In a way, yes. My dad played very good piano and ukulele, and that’s where the guitar came from, for me anyway. I learned the chords on ukulele.

Do you think learning piano enabled you to do all the intricate musical arranging?

Yes, I think it helped a lot.

When you’re writing a song, do you hear all the parts of the song as a whole, or do you hear each part separately and then put all the pieces together?

I think I hear it all, at the best of times, but not all the time. But if something’s coming on strong then I’ll hear it all and you know where all the harmony parts and stuff should be. But I think if you also leave yourself room to experiment, you’re gonna do a few things by accident or by design which will improve on your original picture in your head. If it’s coming through loud and clear, then it’s sort of all there, you just have to work for a long time to get it to sound like it should.

Did that come naturally?

Well, I guess I see arranging as the craftsmanship side of it, and I was always quite good at that. I’m a painstaking kind of person.

Writing a song is kind of like painting a picture. Some people draw stick figures before creating the masterpiece, others just create the masterpiece without an outline. How were most Queen songs developed?

I think the stick figure thing is very important because you can have the greatest craftsmanship in the world, but if you don’t have that central figure – I call it the seed – you’re not going to have a great song. I think you need both. Freddie [Mercury] was a bit like that; Freddie was very impatient, but not always, that’s a bit of a generalization. Normally he would get his framework and get keen on it, and then he would get bored once it was almost halfway there. So generally I would be the guy who would sit there and make sure the pieces fit, but I don’t regard my part in that as being a very exalted role.

There are lots of analogies. For instance, I was talking about rugmaking the other day. You could make this fantastic rug and every piece of it would be perfectly aligned, all the colors would fit and everything. But if you stood back and there was no sort of overall theme or pattern or purpose, you would have a bad rug, wouldn’t you? At the same time, you could have this great idea for a rug, like this great dragon and he’s eating St. George or whatever, but then if you don’t have the craftsmanship you don’t have a great rug. I think you need it all. But then there are exceptions to everything. I think the nice thing about music is that there aren’t any rules. I don’t think Nirvana spent too much time on the craftsmanship side, but they made great albums. So there are exceptions to every rule. There are Dylan songs which he just slapped down with an out-of-tune guitar and they’re great. So I suppose if the seeds are great enough, then you can get away with having holes.

Sometimes it’s the space or holes that make the other parts seem more prominent.

That’s true and I think a lot of us can get very paranoid and put lots of decoration in because we’re not sure if the framework is good enough. But there’s a contrary philosophy I think is also wrong, like the illogical conclusion, which is that anything that has holes in it must be good. So if anyone sort of sings with an out-of-tune guitar and doesn’t sing very well it’s got to be better than something which is crafted.

I’ve always thought of Queen’s music as having elements from both sides, because it was very polished yet still raw.

We tried to do that and that’s still what I try to do. I try to capture the spontaneity of the moment and the rawness, the anger, and the pain, and just do what’s necessary to set it up. It’s a weird thing, isn’t it? I’m sure these painters went through the same sort of agonies.

Each member of Queen was a songwriter with an individual style. How did that all fit together?

It’s a wonder we did fit together and it was by great sort of argument and pushing and pulling the whole time. Well, John [Deacon, Queen’s bassist] was always into funk and always liked sparseness and tight drum sounds and just funky music. He liked R&B and black music, and he only kind of suffered rock and roll because he was in a rock and roll band [laughs]. He’s a great bass player, I think much better than people realize. He’s very inventive and very lyrical, but also very funky.

Roger [Taylor, Queen’s drummer]…it’s hard to define Roger. He’s kind of slippery because he’s into the rock and roll lifestyle [laughs], but he’s actually a deep thinker. A lot of people dismiss Roger too easily because he’s like a rock and roll creature, but if you listen to his lyrics he’s got a lot of passion and a lot of depth. As far as writing, he tended to be simplistic, and that’s the way he was. He was searching for the simple essence of rock and roll as he sort of grew up.

And Freddie, it’s hard to define him, too, because he grew up like me, in an atmosphere where you had all kinds of things thrust at you – lots of classical music, lots of the old sort of traditional English music. So it was in both of us and started to come out when we started writing. But Freddie was just always searching for the magical moments, I suppose, and always trying to find them in places no one had found them before. He always felt he wanted to be a rock star, but within that there were no boundaries and he could bring whatever he wanted into it. So he was very eclectic, but he was more than that. He was really into mixing strange colors and seeing what happened, and as I said, very impatient. If it didn’t work, he was off. If it did work, he’d be in there and love it for a while and then he’d still be off.

Moving ahead to 1998. Let’s talk about your second solo album, Another World. How did the collaboration with Jeff Beck on “The Guv’nor” come about?

I’ve gotten to know Jeff over the last few years. I was sort of always in awe of him. He’s the business. We get on pretty well, but there was always this kind of reserve on my part because I felt like he was someone very magical. So I was slightly nervous, but I just phoned him up and asked him if he would come down and play on this track. I already had the track called “The Guv’nor” and I had written it for a film about a bare-knuckle boxer that was never made because they ran out of money, but I read the script and got inspired by the idea that this guy was so scary.

The film was no longer there, but I already had the track and I liked it, and it can mean all different things, as songs always can. I thought it would be nice if I sort of used the analogy because Jeff Beck is the scary guy on the block. So it became about him. You just never know what’s going to come out of him. It’s incredible!

So Jeff came down and played. It was wonderful, and I did my usual thing of not really wanting to touch a guitar while he’s around [laughs]. But we played together a little bit, which was great. I was over the moon. I thought what he had already done was brilliant, but he said, “No, Brian, I’m not happy. I want to take it away and live with it for awhile.”

Well, he lived with it for about a year, then brought it back, and he had done some even more amazing stuff. So in the end I just tried to cram in everything he had done because it was all great. I did a very hurried mix because I had only gotten the tape back a couple days before I was due to deliver the record and I was determined the track was going to be on the album. It was kind of a rushed mix, but it’s got a sentimental fire to it.

Which are the other highlight tracks on the new record?

I like “The Business” a lot. It makes me think of Cozy [Powell, drummer, who recently passed away]. Cozy was such a huge part of what I was doing all this time. He always reminded me of where the center of pure rock music was and I miss him very badly. It is impossible to replace him. He was such an amazing guy, very down-to-earth. He cared about every hit and there was a passion in his every hit. There was a thoughtfulness and a glorious oneness about him. He wasn’t acting, he was that person and he moved in that way. He was the real thing and there isn’t going to be another one of him. I like “The Business” because he was a big part of making it happen and I built stuff around his sound and feel. It was a great combination for me: I love the sound of my guitar with his drums, they’re both very broad. I was very lucky to have that experience.

Does playing with different musicians affect your own performance and approach?

Yes, I think it does a lot, really. I had [drummer] Steve Ferrone on these showcase gigs and I started off with an acoustic guitar, but I couldn’t stand it not being plugged in. So I eventually plugged it into an amp in a box and wore earpieces instead of having [monitors] so I could crank it up. It sounded like a Stratocaster through a Marshall – it sounded big. Steve is also a magnificent drummer in a completely different way from Cozy and I found I was doing lots of different things on this last little tour. I had this little Collings acoustic plugged into an AC-30 through a treble booster – the whole deal – so it sounds massive but it’s in a box. It’s great. People are going, “What’s happening? He’s playing this little twangy acoustic thing but this big, overblown sound is coming out.”

I had a lot of fun with that. And with Ferrone we just got into some different rhythms and playing songs in a very different way, which I like. To be truthful, these days I’m much more into songs than anything else, more than guitars. I love great songs and I love trying to write the ultimate great songs. I love singing on them, too. The guitar is sort of third now, really. I still love the guitar, and it has to be there. But I think if you have a crap song with a great guitar solo, you’re wasting your time. It doesn’t mean anything. Then again, if you have a great song, a great guitar solo, but terrible singing, you’re throwing it away because it’s not going to move anyone. It all has to be right. So I spent probably 10 times as much time singing on this album as I did playing guitar.

How has being the frontperson affected your guitar playing onstage? Do you find yourself concentrating more on the vocals?

I think I do, but I leave myself space. Like B.B. King says, you can’t really do both at the same time. I can play rhythm and sing, but if I’m really thinking about a solo I don’t want be singing bits in between. Jimi Hendrix could do that, and so could Stevie Ray or Gary Moore. But for me, I like to be thoughtful and I don’t like it – even though it’s second nature – if all you’re going to be playing is things you’ve always played before. I like to play something I never played before every night if I can, and find some new places in the singing and the playing. So it’s one at a time for me.

What advice do you have for players trying to improve their tone, technique, and songwriting?

I’ve always thought that a sound was vital, and I hate playing if the sound isn’t great. It becomes meaningless and I feel like a two year old. I just cannot play if I’m not enjoying the sound. So I think sound is number one in regard to playing. In regard to songs, I don’t know…I think all you can do is seize what comes into your head. I believe in interacting and I think being with people who are inspiring is one of the great things of life. If you shut yourself away in a cupboard you’re going to maybe come up with a few things inside you, but you’ll come to a limit.
So that’s what I did making this album – interacted with others. My first solo album, Back To The Light, was very introspective and I thought with this one I was going to interact with the world and see what comes to me. And everything was good. Not just interacting with musicians, but interacting with directors of plays, like doing the Macbeth thing – I had a fantastic time.

Interacting with writers of a radio and TV series I did – it’s all great stuff and directly inspires you. You find yourself writing about something on the face in front of you, like a script. But you’re actually putting yourself into it so you’re finding things in yourself all the time.

So if there is a piece of advice, I think you have to kind of let yourself be inspired. You can’t be in a vacuum. I think you have to live life and that comes before everything. If you’re not living, you aren’t experiencing and you’re not breathing. To breathe you have to take in as well as give out. Don’t be ashamed of listening to people, finding out what they do, and using that to build your next structure. I don’t feel any compunctions about that.

If people say, “Oh, I ripped you off,” I go, “Great. Thanks!” Because that’s the way music lives. You hear someone, you get inspired, so you do your thing and then someone else gets inspired at the end. That’s the great thing. You see, it’s all good. Being with people and learning how to live is good, and I think if you write what you see and what you feel, then that’s all you can do. Honesty is really hard. I think honesty is the ultimate freedom.

Photo by Richard Gray, courtesy of Hollywood Records.

This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’98 issue.

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