A Man of many trades
Brian Harold May is a man of many talents. We all know him as guitar player and composer in one of the world’s most successful rock bands ever. But beside that, he also has a PhD in astrophysics, he’s an activist for animal welfare and a stereoscopic photographer. As a teen, he and his dad built his guitar, the Red Special. You can read more about it in our blog: Queen’s Red Special: the key to their sound. Until this day, that guitar is Brian’s main instrument. You can hear it on every Queen album and it’s his principal instrument during live performances. In this blog, we’ll briefly talk about Brian’s guitar and other gear. But the main focus will be on his guitar style and above all else Brian May’s guitar harmonies.
Brian's guitar and amplifiers
The Red Special is a huge part of Brian’s sound.
Brian and Harold May had to make this guitar by themselves because they couldn’t afford a Fender or Gibson instrument. This resulted in a unique instrument in terms of look, concept and sound. It also has some very progressive features for an instrument built in the early sixties.
One of these features are its electronics. A lot of sound combinations are possible, giving the instrument a much richer palette than a standard electric guitar. According to Brian, all possible combinations can be heard in one of Queen’s greatest hits: Bohemian Rhapsody.
Brian has a pretty simple gear set-up compared to a lot of other guitar players. Basically his guitar signal goes through a treble booster and then right into an amplifier without the use of other effect units.
When you play a note on a guitar string, it dies out fairly quickly by itself. A treble booster boosts the signal before it hits the amplifier. This causes the sound to distort but notes get a much longer sustain before dying out.
Brian always uses a Vox AC30 as an amplifier in live situations. In the studio, he sometimes uses the ‘Deacy Amp’, often to record his guitar harmonies. This is a tiny transistor amplifier which was named after John Deacon. John, Queen’s bass player, studied electronic engineering. He made this amplifier from scrap radio parts in the early days of the band.
The unique Brian May
Mother Mercury always tries to be the most authentic Queen tribute band there is. This means that we’ve thoroughly studied a lot of aspects of the band, the songs, the gear, studio and live performances,… Brian May’s guitar playing was certainly a huge part of this research.
Brian is a truly unique guitar player with his very own signature sound. You can recognise him from the moment you hear his first notes. This is partly due to the gear he uses. But mostly it’s the person himself: his thoughts, musical concepts and choices, his influences en his own musical feeling. It’s all in the fingers!
Luckily, we can specify and describe a number of these characteristics.
Identifiable aspects of Brian's guitar style
Brian’s goal by building his own guitar was to create a second voice. He still approaches the instrument as such. In his playing, he tries to mimic how a vocalist would sing. Because of the treble booster, his guitar notes can sustain or sing longer than they would without it. And he let’s the guitar “speak” with a natural rhythm, emerging from the melodies he plays. This sometimes results in intricate rhythmical figures, like in the solo patterns at the end of ‘Innuendo‘. Or often in a rather free rhythmical playing style above the band’s accompaniment. This can be heard very well in the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ solo section.
Like a singer, he uses vibrato on longer notes. This means the pitch of these notes go slightly up and down, giving them a bit more life. He does this in two ways on his Red Special. Sometimes by slightly rocking the finger holding the string. Other times by using a whammy bar. This is a lever at the bottom of the guitar that is attached to strings. By using it, you influence the string tension which alters the pitch of the notes.
Brian uses the UK sixpence, which hasn’t been in use since 1980, as a pick.
Despite the fact that he is always very humble about it, he is a true guitar virtuoso. He explored many different techniques. His string bendings are very recognisable. By bending a string, you change the pitch of a note to a higher note. Further more, his guitar arsenal comprises sweep picking, tapping, slide guitar,… And of course this is the point where we gonna talk about Brian May’s guitar harmonies.
Inspiration for the guitar harmonies
In music, harmony exists when two or more notes sound together. As a teen, Brian was always fascinated by the vocal harmonies of The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, The Beatles,… These were highly influential on Queen’s vocal harmonies, as you can read in our blog Queen’s vocal harmony: the key to their sound.
He really loved his distorted guitar sound and the sustain he got by using the treble booster. But because of the distortion, two or more notes played simultaniously have a less defined sound. This convinced Brian that the instrument was screaming to be orchestrated like a stack of vocals, strings or wind instruments.
Of course he didn’t have the possibility to record this and try it out as a teenager in the sixties. But he distinctively heard the sound in his head and became obsessed by the idea. This was confirmed when he heard the song ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ by Jeff Beck. In it, there is a double tracked guitar solo. Double tracking is a commonly used studio technique. A musician plays or sings the same part on top of an already recorded part. There are always tiny variations in both performances, which result in a bigger, stronger sounding track.
During the ‘Hi Ho Silver Linging’ solo, you can hear that both guitar parts diverge for a couple of notes and begin to harmonize. Brian suddenly heard the sound that haunted his mind. So he started building on that idea. What if you could make arrangements and perform them with as many guitars as you would like? The possibilities would be endless. So the moment Brian got into a studio to record the first demos for the band Smile, he started experimenting.
Brian May's guitar harmonies put into practice
Brian started the band Smile with Tim Staffel in 1968. Roger Taylor responded to an ad an became the band’s drummer. They had some succes and scored a deal with Mercury Recordings to tape three songs. This was Brian’s opportunity to start experimenting. Two out of three songs featured two part guitar harmonies: ‘Earth’ and ‘Step On Me‘.
Tim Staffel quit the band in 1970. Freddie Mercury and John Deacon joined it and the band’s name changed to Queen. In 1971 they recorded their first demos in the De Lane Lea studios. Two part guitar harmonies were no rarity in the music scene at that point. But Brian succeeded to come up with the most clever parts and recorded multi-layered harmonies. He even strengtened his top-position year by year in the “creator of most clever guitar harmonies” competition.
Some noteworthy examples in the Queen catalogue
Indeed, the possibilities proved to be limitless. From the recording of their first demo until the final Queen album ‘Made in Heaven’ you can hear the eclectic diversity of Brian May’s guitar harmonies. The demo version of ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ already has a multi layered guitar solo. This song was later rerecorded and became Queen’s first single.
‘Procession‘ is the opening track of ‘Queen II’. It sounds like a baroque orchestra accompanying the entrance of the king (or queen). For years, this song sounded through the speakers for the ‘entrance’ of Queen on their stages. And though it appears you hear several different instruments playing, all sounds are made with Brian’s Red Special. Sometimes plugged into a Vox AC30 amplifier, sometimes into the Deacy Amp.
Probably the best-known obvious example can be heard in the song ‘Killer Queen’. The second part of the guitar solo consists of a three part guitar harmony that starts off by using the ‘bell effect’. This is a technique in musical composition in which several instruments play single notes of a chord in sequence, sustaining these individual notes to form the chord. The technique originated with jazz big bands and is also often used in barbershop songs. Because of this, it matches very well with a Queen song which was heavily influenced by cabaret songs of yesteryear. The solo continues with the three independent guitar melodies moving around each other.
Other well known examples of the bell effect in pop music are, amongst others, the intro’s of ‘Mr Sandman’ (The Chordettes) and ‘Let’s Dance’ (David Bowie).
Queen’s Magnus Opus ‘A Night At The Opera’ also features a lot of very diverse examples of Brian May’s guitar harmonies. ‘Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon‘, ‘You’re My Best Friend‘, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or the instrumental track ‘God Save The Queen‘ are all wonderful specimens of this technique.
However, the most impressive example might be the lesser known song ‘Good Company’. During the final 40 seconds of this track, Brian immitates a complete dixieland band using nothing but his trusty Red Special. You can hear a clarinet, trombone, trumpet, saxophone,… Sometimes a whole section of notes were recorded separately to get a sound as close to the original instrument as possible.
Later use of guitar harmonies
From the second half of the seventies, Brian May’s guitar harmonies are less prominent in Queen’s music. Brian himself admits he sometimes wanted to put too much ideas in one single song. His guitar harmonies do remain an intrinsical part of the band’s sound until the end of their records. However, Queen also evolved to meet the musical preferences of the audience. Progressive rock made way for more hit sensitive pop-rock and synthesizers.
Guitars got a less prominent role in songs like ‘Another One Bites The Dust‘, ‘I want To Break Free’, ‘Radio Ga Ga‘,… But still during the later years, there are examples of guitar harmonies. These are often very short snippets, like in the intro and bridge of ‘Another One Bites The Dust’, the last few notes of the guitar solo in ‘I Want It All‘, one single accent in the middle of ‘Hammer To Fall‘,… These are all short musical riffs that add something powerful and ‘Queenesque’ to the songs.
Composing Guitar Harmonies
However diverse Brian May’s guitar harmonies prove to be, they always originate in a similar way. To keep it interesting, he starts with an idea in the head, not on the instrument. According to Brian, fingers tend to land on familiar spots on the instrument and then you start repeating yourself and get stuck in the same rut. Further more, every musician in Queen was also an excellent song writer. More often than once, he got inspired by the work and song material of his band mates.
Brian always considered his guitar as an extra voice. During composing, he often starts singing along with this voice. And then there are moments where he hears spots where other voices might come in like backing vocals.
So for Brian, it means figuring out how to perform the music he hears or conceives in his head. And of course sometimes along the way, happy accidents tend to happen.
Live guitar harmonies
Queen was a phenomenon in the studio but also in live situations. Of course because of the flamboyant singer Freddie Mercury who could masterfully entertain a crowd. But beside that, it simply was a very good band with nothing but excellent musicians. Some songs had to be adapted though, otherwise they would be impossible to play live. Of course Brian May’s guitar harmonies had to be altered since he is the only guitar player in the band.
In a couple of songs, the harmonised guitar solos are replaced by alternative melodies. In other instances, Brian uses a delay unit. This is an electronic device which creates echoes of an audio signal. Brian feeds his unaltered guitar signal to one amp en two separate echo signals to a second and third amp. This way, he can build three part harmonies in live situations using only one instrument. A well known example of this is the ‘Brighton Rock’ solo, which is a regular part of Queen’s live shows since 1974.
Be it on stage or in the studio, this homo universalis’ originality and his influence on generations of guitar players can not be overestimated. His musicality, virtuosity and technical approach are world class and made Queen one of the biggest bands the world has seen until this day.