Interviews - Brian May

Guild Guitar Special (Guitarist-August 1985)

Guild Guitar Special

Here's the battered relic!

Burns pickups I see.

Yeah, Tri-Sonics - they've been messed about a bit.

What did you do to them?

I rewound some and filled them up with Araldite, all except the treble one which I should probably do one day.

I'm still fiddling. I recently took the treble one out and changed the magnets around to make my favourite combination (treble and middle) humbuck, in phase. It works very well except that I made it whistle more. They settle in and they don't whistle, but it's become microphonic.

Such light strings! What gauges are they?

Yeah, very light, they're 9, 10, 11, 16, 22, 34 I think.
You've got an extremely low action. Playing it, I can see how you get your vibrato.

It's slippery isn't it?


Did you lacquer the fingerboard yourself?

Yeah, we did everything from scratch.

Have you done any mods to it over the years?

Yes, It had a fuzz box in, to start with. I haven't done much recently apart from put a bit more screening in it to get rid of the pick up buzz. Mostly, though it's as it was. Actually the very first pick ups I made myself, completely. They were just Eclipse magnets with a coil around, but they went North, South, North, South across the pole pieces, so when you bent the string across, it made this weird noise. That's why I put the Burns Pick ups on. It worked out well.

Where did you get the binding from in those days, or is it not proper binding?

No. That stuff was shelf edging. It was about an inch or so by an inch and I made a gig to cut it down - with a blade in. You couldn't get the real stuff at all , though.
You couldn't even get proper fret wire!!

No, that's right. I had to make a gig for that as well, to file it down to size, and then make another little gig to curve the wire before I put it in. Yeah, everything was bits and pieces.

So, if you hadn't made it as a musician, you could have made a respectable guitar builder or repairer!

I don't know, maybe, yeah.
The tremolo arm is one of those things that are used to hold your saddlebag up on your bag. The knob on the end is made out of a knitting needle! The tremolo springs are from a motorbike - I forget which kind, but a friend of mine had loads of valve springs and we used those.

Do you use the arm much?

Yes, quite a lot really - sometimes unconsciously. Mostly for sort of aeroplane noises and stuff, or little tail-offs of notes and occasionally for open chord work where it's all sustaining. You just touch it, carry it along with the finger and it just gives everything that little ripple. It blends in with everything, and makes it sound more in tune.

The neck is quite big, isn't it?

Yeah, I like a big neck. This Guild model is made with a big fat neck as well, but the production ones are a bit thinner because most people don't seem to like it. I like thick - thick and flat and wide.

How old is the guitar now?

About 20 years, I suppose. I was about 17, I think, when I built it.

I like the way the neck is sculpted into the headstock
I did that with a pen knife and sandpaper blocks. We didn't have any power tools or anything. I very recently put some new machine heads on. The original set I got from Clifford Essex, which were thirty bob and were great. They lasted ages but eventually the worm just went right through, so we had to take them off. They had a good feel to them though.

Actually I prefer them to the new ones; they're alright but the old ones used to kind of lock. You'd turn them up and they would be almost immoveable. I find these a bit too free really.

Schallers are the best available though, aren't they?

That's what everyone says, yes.

What was the fingerboard made of?

A piece of oak.

Was that the mantelpiece?

No, the fireplace bit was this, the neck, which was a very nice piece of wood. It had some dead worm though, which I filled with bits of matchstick, and stained.

What lacquer did you use on it?

Rustin's Plastic Coating. There's tons of it on there, loads on the neck. It's starting to go now, but it hasn't been touched in all that time and it's had so much use.

It must be pretty good stuff!

It must worry you that you might drop it, or have it stolen, because it's absolutely irreplaceable.

Yes it does, very much so. In a way having the Guilds helps because now, at least, I've got something to play. I've never really got on with Fenders or Gibsons; I can play them at home, but if I get them with my set up on stage, they just don't do what I want them to.

You seem to prefer single coil pick ups, is that so?

Well yeah, but I've been divorced from anything technical for years. I started off being technical but then gradually grew away from it. I've got this guy called Jobbie who looks after my guitars and amps and things, so I drifted away from it. Sometimes the further away you get from the technicalities, the better you feel about playing. Recently, when we got going with this guitar, I got back into all that and started looking at what was around. I've been dealing with DiMarzio and they make some weird stuff now; humbuckers that sound like single coils, and all sorts of good stuff. I'm not as narrow minded as I was about it all.

I've just been writing a piece for Oxford University Press; it's a guide to guitar teachers and I've been doing the rock part, so I've been going into all that. Because a lot of it's in your mind, you never really formalise it so it me ages and ages. I knew what I wanted to say, and I was talking about humbuckers and stuff like that. I think they cut most of it out - I wrote too much really. I think it was kind of concession for them to have the rock guitar thing in there, anyway, but it's a start and that's the important thing.

What exactly is it?

Well, Oxford University Press are having a book put together with all the different styles and the guy collating it wrote to ask if I would be interested - I think it was because something I'd written, or an interview or something. He's got a folk guitar part which, I think, is written by Bert Jansch and then there's Flamenco written by Paco Pena, which is great. I was very pleased to be involved, but I just didn't realise how time consuming it would be. Endless time.
How did the Guild thing happen - did they approach you or did you approach them?

They approached me. I was dealing with Fender at the time because they were thinking about doing a Brian May model and their chief designer started making a prototype. He was keen on the idea and was making it exactly like the original, even down to the kind of wood and everything. But then he came back and said that Fender didn't really didn't want to get into a 'signature' guitar. Apparently they'd tried it early on and it didn't work. Also they were having problems at the time and I the end it didn't happen.

So I mentioned this in an interview in Guitar Player and Guild wrote to me and said they' like to take up the project. So I agreed. Their craftsmanship is really second to none; I hadn't realised how good they are. I've been to the factory a few times now, and it's all done by hand. It's all done by Americans, not just sent off to Japan or Korea or wherever with the plans. They are very old fashioned which, in some ways, holds them back commercially. I've had endless discussions with them about how the thing should be marketed, because really their idea was to make it and just let it sit there, but I said no. I think, these days, you have to get out and let people know it's there, but they're reluctant to do all that stuff. In a sense it's nice, because all their effort goes into manufacture and they don't cut any corners. I know the man who's in charge of the joinery and woodwork and he goes out every year to places where people have saved particular pieces of wood for him. It's about one in a thousand he'll take; it's got to be the right density, the right colour and everything. He goes out and personally chooses his bits. They take such pride in their work, it's very good.

How does the Guild actually compare to your own guitar?
Well it may be a touch heavier, I don't know. On the body of my model, the strain is taken by an Oak insert the rest is rubbish! It's actually veneered block-board, but they built this out of solid Mahogany. It seems to work and it's obviously a nicer construction job. Actually I was dubious about them making it in Mahogany although, if I'd had a nice piece I would have used it. I was worried though that it might change the sound, but it seems to work quite well. As I say, the neck on that one is similar to mine, but the rest are going to be a little thinner - just a bit.

The neck on the Guild is glued, rather than glued and bolted like yours. Is that right?

No, actually, mine is bolted but I never got around to gluing it. It comes apart easily. I wa going to glue it, but it never needed it - it's built like a battle ship, that thing.

What do the six switches do?

There's an on/off switch and a phase reverse for each pick up, and they're in series rather than parallel, which makes a huge difference. I didn't discover that till very late on, I just assumed that everyone else had them in series, but apparently they don't. They are all in parallel and that's part of my sound as well, because with the pickups being quite fat anyway, if you use two of them in series there's a lot of power in that range.
I see it's been fitted with a Kahler.

Yeah, the Kahler people have been very helpful. I've been to their place as well and they've gone to some trouble to make something which felt a bit more like mine, that is, a bit tighter than normal. It's quite close; They've given me a different cam and some stronger springs to make it feel like mine. We were going to make a copy of my tremolo as it works very well, but it's very expensive to tool up. The cost of the thing is going to be the big problem!

Have you any ideas to the eventual price?

Well, it's about $1,000 in the USA which would have been five hundred quid here a few years ago, but it's now about £1,000

If you build an uncompromising guitar it's got to be an uncompromising price, hasn't it?

It has really, and there's no sort of scaled down version; they've all got the DiMarzio pickups and the Kahler. We couldn't really cut any corners at all. It comes with a string lock as well but I've taken mine off, because it changes the feel down the bottom and I'm convinced it changes the sound, because I took it off and put it on a couple of times and I don't know hat the difference is but it is different. I knew we had it close with the pickups and I knew the body was close, but that one didn't sing like I wanted it to, so I took this off and it seemed to do the trick. It's really a good spare now, which is something I've never had before. I'm please with it.

What are these pickups like compared to the modified Burns?

Once again very close; we fiddled with those. There are a number of different versions, but I think the one we've arrived at is pretty close. They have a little bit more output than mine, which is good, although the pickups aren't the final ones. Once we got close to the final sound, I got Steve Butcher, the man who actually does the nitty gritty to make a number of different ones with a different number of windings, to see what variation there was. He's gone to endless trouble.

It's amazing - I didn't realise there were so many things you could do with a pickup to change the sound. It's all new for me; I'm excited about it really.

So many people have asked over the years, where they can get one, and they can't and there have been a lot of people making them, as well. I've got pictures at home of people who've made copies - almost exactly - and brought them along. I did the Capitol, Workshop thing, and there was a young guy brought one along which is identical, and sounded very good, too.

How had he got all the details?

Well he'd just taken it from pictures. A couple of them wrote to me and asked how things were done and I wrote back to them. I think there's about a dozen around the world that people have made. Some of them are very close.
You must have been one of the first truly melodic rock players. How did you develop that feel?

I don't know where I came from, really. Hank Marvin was a hero of mine at the time of The Shadows and then I went totally over to Eric Clapton and Hendrix, and I think by the time I was playing on record, all that was in there, sort of fused together. But I was always concerned with melodies, yeah.

Are you still using the same AC30 set up?

Yes. I went to see Vox the other day because they've been bought out by their directors. They're on the market again and their amps are great. They are back to the old design actually, except a little updating, but nothing that would change the old tube sound. They're great I tried out a few and they sounded really good. I would have said so if it wasn't! I'm very sensitive to how they are, because they went through all sorts of changes - transistorised and all that stuff. They are expensive now though which is the only trouble. Yes, I love the AC30 sound. Nobody really knows why they sound like that, not even the guy who designed it.

Are you still using the nine?

We've got twelve. I don't use them all, all the time - just judiciously. I go into little low impedance splitter, which is behind the amps, ands then straight into one which is miked up. We're always very careful about that, we always choose the best one, whichever speaker happens to sound best on that night. That's really the basis of the sound.

Before the splitter thing there's a Boss phaser, or chorus, pedal. One side is straight though and the other side goes through the pedal into another separate amp so that, even when you've got the thing cranked right up, they don't interfere and you still get the phasing sound. We mike that amp up as well, and have the two in stereo on the PA and it gives a nice breath to the sound. I have that on most of the time actually, just very slightly phasing - just enough to give that stereo effect.

I've got a couple of delays, which used to be Echoplexes but now are MXR's, and the outputs go into separate amps, so again they can all be flat out without interfering with one another. So that's the basis. Oh, and I've got one amp that seems to work well with a Telecaster, but that's just for one song, Crazy Little Thing. So, the others are slaved up to each other individually, so if one goes down, I can immediately switch to it's partner. On the rare occasions when I can't hear enough in the monitors, I'll switch them all on, but I can't remember the last time I needed that, because the monitors are so flexible. The man who works them is very good, So I work off the monitors really.

Do you find the guitar sound is 'true' through the monitors?

Yeah it works fine; it's a very clean system and doesn't modify the sound at all. It's handy for me because if it sounds right in the monitors it's sounding the same out front. If you knocked out the microphone, the guy out front would realise immediately.

I have one old bin, that used to be part of the PA in the old days, which is hooked into my system and it just has a certain sound sound about it that the guitar likes. It makes it feed back really well and always having that behind me helps the sustain. If it doesn't work you can always fiddle. I've got a little treble booster as well, which is similar to a lot of things they sell nowadays. It just pushes the amplifier a little further into saturation and takes a little bit of the bass off. I think that has a lot to do with it; I can't function without it, I can't drive the amp hard enough. Guild have made one and, in fact, are giving it away with the guitar. They have put knobs on theirs - Mine doesn't have knobs on it, because I made it myself. It could actually go inside the guitar and I think we might do that.

You must also have been one of the first people to really get into multiple overlay, Echoplex idea?

Yeah. I always wanted to do it and I never had the money to get it together. On the first Mott The Hoople tour we were supporting them, I only had one, because that was all I could afford. It was a way of realising the harmony sound on stage without getting another player in. Many times we thought about getting another guitar player to do the harmony stuff that was on record, but somehow it didn't work out - it wasn't the right thing to do. So I
did it with Echoplexes.

When you do the harmony passages, do you have it already worked out, or do you play something then harmonise it afterwards?

Nowadays, because I've been doing it for so long, there are certain things which I know will work and which I can just slip into. But if I'm doing a solo piece on my own, which I very often still do, I try different things out every night. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't You gradually build up more things which work and try to improvise. I'm not always pleased with how it goes, but I think that's normal. There's about one night in three when I think I actually did something interesting, that I liked. And if you do something great one night, and try to duplicate it the next, it never sounds the same - even if the notes were all there it doesn't have the same spark.

What length of day have you got available to you?

I think it's about 0.8 of a second, and double that, 1.6, which I use most of the time. I've varied it for some things, but that's what I usually use.

How does that compare with the Echoplexes?

I used to have to modify them. I put them in a new box and extended the rail so I could get a little more out of it. They were a nice machine, but if you had to take them out on the road every night and get them working, they were a nightmare. They have their own particular sound, but they used to give a lot of trouble, I suppose, because they get through around a lot. Jobbie would be there every night, cleaning the heads and trying to make all the little wheels work and the tapes but there'd still be moments when it would go yyeeaagghh in the middle of a solo, which is embarrassing because it sounds like you are using a backing tape, which we're always taking great pains to tell everyone we never did! And that's still true; the only time there's anything there that we're not actually doing is the time we're off stage.
How do you get round things like Bohemian Rhapsody, which is such a huge piece?

We go off stage for that bit and play the tapes, sometimes a video, sometimes something special with the lights, and then come on and play the last bit. It's very definite that it's not us doing that bit - it gives us breather and it's become traditional that we do it that way. I don't know how else we can do it. Every time a tour comes up we say "We can't do that again" but then!!
I'd hate to try to do Galileo and all that stuff live - it would be laughable! There are a million voices on there or , at least a hundred and fifty, so if the three of us start doing it, it's never going to sound right.

Who works out the vocal harmonies?

Sometimes together, sometimes the author of the song. With Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie had them worked out and wrote them down. We went in and did it, but it was all in Fred's head from the start. He knew it pretty well.

You were probably also the fist group to put a video together which captured and promoted the song in the way it did for Bohemian Rhapsody, which was probably not the most likely single.

That's right. There was a lot of opposition to putting it out at all, without an edit, in fact EMI produced an edit but we said 'No. we'll go for it as it is or not at all' and we were lucky really - it could have come a cropper. They said no one would play it! The video, though, undoubtedly helped and I think Kenny Everett helped because he went berserk over it. He even stole the tape from the playback. We had the playback but the album wasn't finished yet. I went back into the studio the night after, to work on the vocal piece in the middle of The Prophet's Song. I worked till about five in the morning then collapsed and went back to my little basement flat - and I was woken in the morning by hearing the very same thing I'd been working on, coming out of my upstairs neighbour's radio. It was like a nightmare.
Everett had taken the tape away, and I hadn't known! That was a weird experience. He seized on Bohemian Rhapsody and played it to death and I think that's what started it in this country.

What are you doing at present?

Well, we've been working a lot, touring. We've done Europe and we did Sun City in South Africa, we did Rio and then a tour of Australia, New Zealand & Japan. We are doing the Wembley concert for Africa then, after that, there's nothing really in the book. It gives Freddie a bit of time to get his solo album off the ground.

Are you doing anything on that score?

I'm not doing much - a lot of talking to people, but I'm not doing much playing. There are some people I'd very much like to work with - I won't tell you who because it might spoil things - but I'd very much like to get in and do something, maybe a bit like the Starfleet thing but perhaps a little bit more formal.

There are a couple of other things which I'm very passionate about; I collect stereo photographs from the 1860's. It's a very specialised thing but I' really fanatical about it! I know a few people who deal in them, at auction houses and junk shops and stuff. So, I come home and ring everyone up. I'm trying to put some research together on some of those early photographers. They were analogous to pop stars in a way, I see it that way. They were doing something which was, in the beginning, for it's own sake - a sort of underground thing, which later became a big passion. Queen Victoria liked it, and it became a craze overnight. They sold millions of these things, literally millions. They were the equivalent of number one records, and it was obviously the thing to do, to get out and get the latest one. A lot of the stuff I collect was put together to tell a story as a comment on the times - a sort of story from history.


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