Interview with Brian May

"Guitar Player" magazine - January 1983

Interview by Jas Obrecht
Typed in by Gonzalo Plaza R. (gplaza@gloria.cnt.cl)
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?

How old were you when you started? Some of your song - especially "39" on A Night At The Opera - are folksy. Did you ever play in coffehouses? How did you advance your knowledge of guitar? Was this on acoustic guitar? Is that your main guitar now? Did you design the guitar's vibrato tailpiece? After you made your electrical guitar, what were you first professional playing experiences? Were you impressed by Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck in those days? Did you see Hendrix? Did you quit performing while attending college? Since the formation of Queen, have you had a free hand in constructing solos and fills? Do you have a philosophy of soloing? How do you approach solo? Have you ever come up with a solo before you've had a song to use it in? When did you start doing your extended onstage solo? Do you change most of it around night-to-night? Is that now you get several parts going at once? To keep the solo special, do you tend to cut down using the repeat effect at other times in the set? Do you ever have trouble staying in tune during the long solo? Do you foresee the day when a long onstage guitar solo will become obsolete? Does your mood exert an influence on what you play? Do you have to be a certain state of consciousness to play your best? How do you discover tones? Do you imagine them first or does the equipment suggest them? What is your philosophy of using effects? Do you view the vibrato bar as an effect? There have been some innovative things done with vibrato bars lately. Are you a guitar collector? Has anyone ever manufactured a comercial copy of your homemade guitar? Do you own any unusual acoustic? How do you string your electric guitar? Do you use a pick? Do you follow any picking patterns, such as circle picking or extensive downstrokes? How do you provide left-hand vibrato? How many fingers do you use to blend strings? Do you use all four fingers of your left hand? How do you create harmonics? Is there a differnce between the music you create by yourself and what you play with Queen? Do you play in any style that aren't represented on any of the albums? Do you spend much time with the instrument outside of performing with Queen? Do you ever have periods where you can't seem to further your playing? Can you play most of the music you imagine? Will you sacrifice technique to achive emotion? Do you prefer live playing over studio work? How do you compose? Are you happy with the way your career is going? Do you get tired of rock and roll? Do you have any advice you'd give young rock guitarist? Is there anything you'd like to accomplish in the future? How would you like to be remembered?

BRIAN MAY - ON THE RECORD

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?

Had you imagined that sound before you recorded it? Has your approach to recording guitar changed over the years? 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? How did you process the rhythm strums on the version of "Keep Yourself Alive" on the Queen album? What instrument did you use for "Bring Back That Leroy Brown" on Sheer Heart Attack? Did you run the tape backwards for the psychedelic solo in that cut? Did you learn to play harp for "Love Of My Life"? Were the horn lines in "Good Company" done on guitar? Who came up with the idea for the vocal harmonies used in "Bohemian Rhapsody"? Was the first solo in that song very difficult for you? Did you play slide on "Tie Your Mother Down" on A Day At The Races? 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? How did you dial in the violin-like tone in "You Take My Breath Away"? "The Millionaire Waltz" [A Day At The Races] must have taken a long time to do. How did you have you guitar settings for "We Will Rock You" on News Of The World? Is the instrumental break in "All Dead, All Dead" layed guitars? Do you tap on the fingerboard with your right hand in "It's Late"? On Jazz was it hard to build up the solo speed in "Dead On Time"? Is Live Killers a fair representation of what a late '70s Queen concert was like? There is less guitar on The Game, but your playing seems freer and more experimental. Did adding keyboard synthesizers cause guitar's role to diminish? Did you use a Fender on "Crazy Little Thing Called Love"? Was the Flash Gordon project time-consuming? Did you use guitar for any of the album's strange effects? Did the project present any unusual challenges? Did you use a slide for "Dancer" on Hot Space? The rhythm guitar in "Back Chat" sounds unlike most of your work. Was the solo in "Put Out The Fire" difficult for you? How did you get the thicks rhythm sound in "Calling All Girls"? One last question about your albums. Have you been on projects outside Queen?