Interviews - Brian May

Guitar Greats (Radio show by Alexis Korner 1983).

Guitar Greats

Brian May is unique in the fact that he is, as far as we know, the only guitarist who originally intended and indeed studied at The Imperial College to be a Radio Astronomer. But don't let that information obscure the fact that May was also a musician from his very early days. His father originally taught him to play ukulele banjo a la George Formby and from that point he taught himself to play Guitar. His first guitar was acquired at the age of seven and he turned to it increasingly as a relief from interminable Piano lessons.

His first band '1984' was formed at Hampton Grammar School and later at The Imperial College he founded another group with Roger Taylor & Tim Staffell called 'Smile'. It was 'Smile' that eventually led to the meeting with Freddie Mercury and the subsequent development of Queen.

By the time of the release of the first Queen album in 1973 the band had been together for well over two years and there were times when it seemed that the first album, two years in the making, would never be released. That it was, and that it was so successful, is a remarkable tribute to Them to producer Roy Thomas Baker and to the art of survival. The story of one track on that first album 'Keep Yourself Alive' indicates how hard the going could be.

Brian May: The first recording of it ever was in De Lane Lea when we did it ourselves and I've still got that recording and I think it's very good and has something which the single never had. But THEY pressurised us very strongly to redo all the tracks and we redid 'Keep Yourself Alive' with Roy and it was pretty awful, actually. I thought it was terrible and I was very unhappy about it and I thought the De Lane Lea one was better and I eventually managed to persuade Roy that it was better as well. So, we went back in and did it again in a way that was a bit more true to the original. But there is no way that you can ever really repeat something. I have this great belief that the magic of the moment can never be recaptured and, although we ended up with something that was technically in the playing and perhaps even in the recording a bit better than the De Lane Lea thing. I still think that the De Lane Lea one had that certain sort of magic, so I was never really happy. As it turned out no one else was ever really happy either and we kept remixing it. We thought that it's the mix that's wrong, we kept remixing and there must have been, at least, seven or eight different mixes by different groups of people. Eventually we went in and did a mix with Mike Stone, our engineer, and that's the one that we were in the end happiest with. That's the one we put out.

But, to my mind 'Keep Yourself Alive' was never really satisfactory. Never had that magic that it should have had.

'KEEP YOURSELF ALIVE' PLAYED

A.K: 'Keep Yourself Alive'! and what exciting and original guitar sounds came with that first album. There were two very important contributing factors:-

Brian May's guitar was no ordinary Telecaster, Stratocaster or any other Caster, it was a May family DIY model built by Brian and his father when Brian was sixteen. They'd built it out of necessity, just couldn't afford to buy what was wanted. In the event, they wound up with all and MORE than you could buy in a shop and Brian still plays it as his first guitar to this day. But, more of that later.

The other factor was Brian May's concept of capturing guitar sounds on record, again, a little more advanced than most people's.

B.M.: I had this big thing about guitar harmonies, which I'd even done with 'Smile'. I wanted to be the first to put proper three part harmonies onto a record, which actually got heard by people. That was an achievement in some way, I felt I'd got somewhere with that you know and to actually have a record out was an amazing feeling that actually did get heard and played on the radio

A.K.: (Chuckles.) The other factor to be celebrated was, of course, that they'd managed to get the album out at all!

B.M.: We actually put on the record that this is a result of two years. We felt that the record was so old-fashioned by the time it came out. We were really upset about that because, in that time, lots of stuff had happened, David Bowie and Roxy Music particularly who were our sort of generation had already made it. We felt like it would look like we were jumping in on their bandwagon, where as we'd had all that stuff in the can from a long time before. It was so frustrating to sit there and see all that stuff happening and not being able to get in there with our material.

A.K.: Queen very quickly brought to Pop and Rock music a concept that was often grandiose, sometimes absurd, but never boring.

They were a constructively creative outfit even if, at times, they did seem to be bringing together elements of The Who and Led Zeppelin as on 'Father To Son'.

B.M.: They're probably in there somewhere, I think we liked, They were our favourite groups among a few others. But what we were trying to do differently from either of those groups really was this sort of layered sound. See, The Who had a sort of “Clang�? guitar sound you know the open chord guitar sound. There is a bit of that in 'Father To Son' but, our sound is sort of more based around the overdriven guitar sound which is what is used on the main bulk of the song. Also, what I wanted to do was this business of building up textures behind the main melody lines. So you have in the first entry of the vocal behind it there is a sort of orchestral thing, which is a nine-part guitar thing that was my expedition into sort of proper orchestrating of the guitar. So that was one thing.

It's amazing how few people knew what we were doing. We wanted to make a kind of Rock music that still had the power of, like, The Who or Led Zeppelin but which had more melody more harmony and more texture than had been done before. That was one of the first songs we did it on and there's lot's of harmonies, lot's of guitar harmonies and lot's of bits of melody you know.

'FATHER TO SON' PLAYED

A.K.: 'Father To Son' from 'Queen II' released in 1973 and illustrating the band's preoccupation with careful arrangement and production. In Roy Thomas Baker Queen had a producer who didn't need any convincing that nothing was ever enough!

In the spring of 1974, while on tour in the U.S., May collapsed with a complaint that's not so very uncommon in the music business, Hepatitis. It also led to the discovery of a problem He'd also, apparently, suffered from since his teens, a stomach ulcer. May returned to the band later that year, rejuvenated. Being away from the band seemed to have given him a new perspective.

B.M.: It was very weird. I was able also to see the group from the outside, almost and I was very excited by what I saw. We'd done a few things before I'd got ill but, when I came out They'd done a load more things including a couple of backing tracks of songs that I hadn't heard from Freddie and I was really excited, 'Flick of the Wrist' was one. It gave me a lot of inspiration to get back in there and do what I wanted to do. I did sort of get them to change a few things which I didn't feel were right and I also asked for a couple of things to be changed which they said “No You're Wrong�? and they were probably right. It was good I wasn't negative at all I just went back in there with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and did my bits and the whole thing got finished off quite quickly then. I also managed to do some writing, I think 'Now I'm Here' was done after that period which came out quite easily. I'd been wrestling with it before and never got anywhere but, after the illness, it just seemed to come out and it went down very easily in the studio.

A.K.: Another one of May's songs from 'Sheer Heart Attack', which shone out like a beacon, was 'Brighton Rock'. A track which some observers detected Hendrix influences.

B.M.: They might be although, I'd got away from listening to Hendrix quite a bit by that time and I'd like to think that that was more sort of developing my style really. Particularly the solo bit in the middle, which I'd been doing on the 'Mott The Hoople' tour and sort of gradually expanded and has got more and more ever since. Although, I keep trying to throw it out it keeps creeping back in. That involves the repeat device actually using it in time, which I don't think, had been done before up to that time. It's a very nice device to work with because you can build up harmonies or cross rhythms and it's not a multiple repeat like Hendrix used or even The Shadows used, which is fairly indiscriminate, sort of makes a nice noise. But this is a single repeat, which comes back, and sometimes I'll add a second one too. So you can actually plan or else experiment and do a sort of “Phew�? type effect. So that was at it's very beginnings on 'Brighton Rock', and became more developed after that.

'BRIGHTON ROCK' SOLO PLAYED

A.K: Just part of the fine instrumental section from 'Brighton Rock'. Album four was of course 'A Night At The Opera' the classic Queen album, recorded in a number of studios and showing off the band's many facets. Each member of the band contributed songs and one of Brian May's contributions was 'Good Company' which had a distinctive twenties band feel although, played entirely on guitar.

B.M.: Yes its all guitar all those instruments. That was a little fetish of mine. I used to listen to Traditional Jazz quite a lot, in particular, the twenties revival stuff which wasn't actually Traditional Jazz but more arranged stuff like The Temperance Seven who were recreating something which was popular in the twenties, sort of dance tunes really. I was very impressed by the way those arrangements were done, you know, the nice smooth sound and those lovely changes between chords. Because they were much more rich in chords than most modern songs are. So many chord changes in a short time, lots of intermingling parts. So I wanted to do one of those things and the song just happened to come out while I was plunking away a the ukulele and the song itself was no trouble to write at all. But actually doing the arrangements for the wind section, as it was supposed to be. There's a guitar trumpet and a guitar clarinet and a guitar trombone and a sort of extra thing, I don't really know what it was supposed to be (chuckles) on the top. I spent a lot of time doing those and to get the effect of the instruments I was doing one note at a time, with a pedal and building them up. So you can imagine how long it took. We experimented with the mikes and various little tiny amplifiers to get just the right sound. So I actually made a study of the kind of thing that those instruments could play so it would sound like those and get the authentic flavour. It was a bit of fun but, it was a serious serious bit of work in that a lot of time went into it.

'GOOD COMPANY' PLAYED

A.K.: 'Good Company' and when you consider just how the track was created, quite brilliant! It's always been difficult to establish whether the name Queen helped or hindered the progress of this talented band. You may not be very surprised to discover where the name came from.

B.M.: I think that came from Freddie, mainly, I don't think I was very keen on it at the beginning but, you know, you just toss around hundreds of names and we had loads of names. I don't think that Roger was that keen to begin with either but of all the names we tossed around that was the one that stuck. The one which got the most argument, in a way, so we thought well it seems to be something which sticks in the mind and it has a sort of mystic and grandeur about it. So it might catch people's imagination.

A.K.: Another one of May's songs on 'A Night At The Opera' which required some imagination was the track '39'. The feel was very folky, which was surprising for Queen but what about the lyric?

B.M.: It's a science fiction story. It's the story about someone who goes away and leaves his family and because of the time dilation effect, when you go away, the people on earth have aged a lot more than he has when he comes home. He's aged a year and they've aged 100 years so, instead of coming back to his wife, he comes back to his daughter and he can see his wife in his daughter, a strange story. I think, also, I had in mind a story of Herman Hesse which I think is called 'The River'. A man leaves his hometown and has lots of travels and then comes back and observes his hometown from the other side of the river. He sees it in a different light having been away and experienced all those different things. He sees it in a very illuminating way, cause I felt a little bit like that about My home at the time as well having been away and seen this vastly different world of Rock music. Totally different from the way I was brought up and I had those feelings about Home.

So usually the song, I think people generally usually won't admit it, but I think when most people write songs there are more than one level to them. They'll be about one thing on the surface but underneath they're probably, even unconsciously, trying to say something about their own life, their own experience. I know in my own stuff there is something like that.

'39' PLAYED

A.K.: To define the constituents of a successful band is rather like analysing a hit record, you're are usually reduced to mumblings about essential chemistry and grabbing at over simplifications. It would be difficult, however, to imagine Queen without Freddie Mercury and Freddie, it seems, came into Brian's life during his 'Smile' days.

B.M: He was a friend of Tim's and he used to come around to a lot of our gigs and offer a lot of suggestions in a way that couldn't be refused (laughs) like.........

“Why are you wasting you're time doing this and that and that, you should be.....�?

He used to say for a start we should do more original material and he used to say we should be more demonstrative in the way we put the music across. We used to more or less stand there and play.

He used to say, “It takes more than that. You should get out there and actually put it across with more force.�?

He said, “If I was you're singer that's what I'd be doing.�?

But, at that time, He hadn't really done any singing we didn't know he could. We thought he was just a theoretical (laughs) Rock musician.

A.K.: You'll recall, that we mentioned earlier, there was something rather special about May's guitar it had been built in 1963 with bits and pieces from a variety of non-musical sources. There were Mother of Pearl buttons, Motorcycle parts and the wood from an old Fireplace.

B.M.: Actually the neck was part of a Fireplace which was just lying around in a friends house. He had a lovely piece of mahogany, which was just kicking around, which had dead straight grain and had been, probably, lying around his place for 50 years. He said He'd got it from his father and its got a few little knotholes, which you can still, see which I filled up with little pieces of wood. It's a very nice piece of wood. The stress of the strings is held by a piece of Oak, which again, is very old and I don't know where it came from. It's a very heavy old piece of gnarled Oak and that is incredibly difficult to cut, it's like trying to cut steel. But that takes the stress of the strings and I've never had any problems with that.

The rest of the body of the guitar is, believe it or not, Block board that wobbles around, it doesn't take any stress at all. It was also there to provide resonance, as I thought, and to hold the controls and to feel right and that's about all it was. It's glued and screwed to the Oak to get as much acoustical transference as possible, but again, I don't know how well that works. I don't know if it's significant or not.

A.K.: And that guitar which featured unique tremolo and pickup switching is the one still being used by May today. In 1977 the album 'News Of The World' showed the rougher, tougher side of Queen. It introduced, also, more bluesy guitar work than we'd previously heard particularly on 'Sleeping on the Sidewalk'.

B.M.: That was the quickest song I EVER wrote in my life, I just wrote it down. It's funny because it's one of the ones I'm quite pleased with as well. It's not trying too hard, it's not highly subtle but I think it leaves me with quite a good feeling.

It was sort of a one-take thing as well. Although, I messed around with the take a lot and chopped it about and rearranged it, it was basically the first take, which we used. So, it has that kind of sloppy feel that I think works with the song. Which we never would have DREAMED with the previous albums. We always used to work on the backing tracks until they were a million percent perfect and if they weren't we would splice together two which were. We'd go to great lengths, but for this album we wanted to get that spontaneity back in.

'SLEEPING ON THE SIDEWALK' PLAYED

A.K.: 'Sleeping on the Sidewalk' from the album 'News of the World'. On most of Queen's record covers you find a line proclaiming the fact that “No Synthesisers were used�?, like us, you may ask, What's that all about?

B.M.: Well at that time everyone was Synths crazy, it was just about the time they were exploding after Carlos, whatever his name was, did the Bach stuff and everyone was putting it into Pop music and Rock music of every kind. There was a rumour going around that you could do everything with Synthesisers. But, at that time, We thought they were a bit impersonal most of the stuff that was coming out was a bit sterile, very emotionless. We thought we could do better with just the voices and guitars because they were more emotionally controllable things. So we didn't use any Synthersisers and we wanted everyone to know that we didn't.

Also, the guitars were making some sounds that some people were Synths. I was using pedals and the long sustain stuff and harmony guitars in the background which I think a lot of people DID ,in fact, think were Synthesisers. That's right, I remember we put out some stuff on the BBC. We did some John Peel sessions and a lot of people thought that was Synthesisers so, we wanted to make sure people knew it was ALL guitars and ALL voices or both and that stuck with us for a long time I think. the first nine albums there was never a Synthesiser, never any Orchestra. There was never any other player except us on the albums.

A.K.: OK now here's another track from 'News of the World' and this time one more in the Queen mould 'It's Late'.

B.M.: Yes there was a kind of 'Queen' Sound in there somewhere. I don't know if it's there so much but I suppose in something like 'Play the Game' it's still there really. The thing is, it's so easy for us to do, it's something, which we slip into almost without thinking, on stage or on record. Once Freddie starts playing in E þ and A þ, which he very often does, it has that particular sound and of course it's very difficult for a guitarist to play in Eþ and Aþ. They're just the keys you don't want to be playing in, naturally, so the fact that those songs are played in those keys brings something different out of me. There are certain kinds of shapes, which I can use, that don't use any open strings and are sometimes a bit painful to get together. But as soon as that's happening that sort of formula is there and we can do it all night and all day. It's that sort of Queen 'Sound' yeah!

'IT'S LATE' PLAYED

A.K.: Mention has been made by other guitarists in the series, Pete Townshend was one who considered it a fairly recent discovery, that often a more fluid guitar sound could be obtained by using a metal pick or coin. Brian May's preferred tool is an old sixpenny piece.

B.M.: It's not flexible. I don't like plectrums, which are the least bit flexible, because I think you can get more control if all the flexing is due to the movements in your fingers. I think you get a better actual contact with the strings that way because, depending on how tightly you hold it, you have total control on how hard it's being played. It's got a round playing surface, obviously, and it's also serrated so, by turning it different ways you can get different sounds. You can get quite a soft sound or a sort of slightly grating sound a sort of 'crich' on the beginning of the note, which is nice, it sort of lends a bit of distinction to the note. Especially when you're using the guitar at high volume as I generally do and you're looking for extra little bit of distinction or attack on the notes otherwise, it tends to be very level. The sound tends to get too smoothed out, compressed.

A.K.: So now you know! For their 1978 album 'Jazz' Queen decided to work again with producer Roy Thomas Baker, his last work with them had been three years previously on 'A Night at the Opera'. So, what had brought them back together again?

B.M.: An easy life!! (Laughs). I don't know No not just that, I'm kidding really, life's never easy with Roy. We thought it would be nice to try again and have a producer and put some responsibility on him. The situation being that, We'd gone off and found a few of our own methods and He'd gone off and found a few of his own methods. All of which were shoved on top of what We'd collectively learnt as Queen and Roy together. We thought that if we came back together there would be a bit going. It was pretty good actually because He'd been producing some other people and We'd been doing our own thing, Man! and it worked out pretty well.

'IF YOU CAN'T BEAT THEM' PLAYED

A.K.: That was a track called 'If You Can' Beat Them' rich with phasing effects and the Mega multi-tracking in which Roy Thomas Baker had made such a name. The 'Jazz' album was recorded in Montreux, in a studio, which Queen subsequently bought.

Associated with the studios was ex-BBC studio manager John Etchells who found himself with the responsibility of getting the next Queen album 'Live Killers' down on tape.

B.M.: I think, in a way, We might have been too honest because we didn't do any overdubbing. The only patching up we did was to use different parts of different nights when We'd had problems. So it comes from about sixteen nights but the sound, in retrospect, is a bit too live and a bit too rough. It's not so much the mistakes I mind it's just the overall fuzziness of it and most of the live albums I enjoy listening to, I found out subsequently, were actually overdubbed quite a lot. (Chuckles) So I think it might have been a good idea to go in and work on it so that it sounded better. It's a hard decision to make, you know, because when you put it out You want to be able to say that it is live and this one was pretty much how you heard it on the night.

A.K.: It's really rather sup rising to find just how good a band like Queen can be in a live situation. Let's take one track as an example, a rather psychedelic example, full of peculiar effects 'Get Down, Make Love'.

B.M.: (Talks over intro of 'Get Down, Make Love')
That's the harmoniser thing, which I use. I've used it as a noise rather than a musical thing. It's controlled because I had a special little pedal made. Which means I can change the interval at which the harmoniser comes back at and the harmoniser's fed back on itself, so it makes all these swooping noises and it's just an exercise in using that together with Freddie's noises it's sort of an erotic interlude (chuckles)

'GET DOWN, MAKE LOVE' PLAYED

A.K.: Brian May and Queen recorded live. As far as technical development in guitar playing is concerned May confirms the pattern that we've established. Development after the first few years is generally nil, more consolidation.

B.M.: I don't know if I've progressed technically that much in pure playing. Almost all the stuff I can play now I could play when I was about 16, and that's the truth, which I sometimes think is a bad thing. But I see it in a lot of other people as well, which I like I think, even Jeff Beck is the same.... Clapton. You know you fairly quickly reach a stage when you're very intensely practising and getting into guitar playing. You quickly reach a stage where you can express most of what you want to play and after that you become better at being an all round musician and your taste gets better. You reach a plateau, you see as I've said before, I'm not very good at playing fast and I don't think I ever will be. It wouldn't matter if I practise loads and loads I still wouldn't be able to do that. I don't particularly want to. I just want to be able to play as fast as my brain goes and my brain doesn't go all that fast (chuckles).

A.K.: Having recorded the 'Jazz' album in Montreux, Switzerland, Queen next moved their recording base to the Musicland Studios in Munich and produced their ninth album 'The Game'. This one, incidentally, featured synthesisers for the very first time. It also featured the Freddie Mercury song 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love'.

B.M.: It's very untypical playing for me and Mack actually persuaded me to use a Telecaster which I'd never done on record before AND a BOOGIE amplifier IF YOU PLEASE! Which I never would have considered using.

Do you know somebody's done a cover of that? It was sort of done with Elvis Presley in mind, obviously, and I thought that Freddie sounded a bit like Elvis but this guy sounds ABSOLUTELY like Elvis you wouldn't believe it! The whole record does sound like a Jordainares/Elvis recreation, it's very good very well done!

'CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED LOVE' PLAYED

A.K.: At the same time as 'The Game' album was being produced the band also worked on the soundtrack of the film 'Flash Gordon'. Brian May eventually did a large part of the work on the soundtrack and was very keen on the project for it's own sake, Did he then regard the resulting recording as a regular Queen album?

B.M.: In a sense, Yes. But, obviously it was written under different conditions. It's a Queen album with a difference but, we wouldn't have put it out with the name Queen on it if we didn't think it was musically up to scratch in that sense. So it was music written for a film but with the idea that it will stand up as an album even if you've never heard the film. Which is I particularly why wanted bits of the dialogue in it as well rather than just a dry music soundtrack album. I wanted to be able to put the album on and to be able to visualise the whole thing even if you hadn't seen it, virtually. So hopefully, it tells a story, you know, like those children's records you buy which I like very much. Where they tell the story and then they have the music and everything. You don't need anything else it's just your own little world. You just get carried along by the story.

A.K.: Queen's treatment of 'The Wedding March' was redolent of the Hendrix treatment of 'Star Spangled Banner'

B.M.: Those things go back a long way with us because, you know, we did 'God Save The Queen' and we did the beginning part for 'Tie Your Mother Down' and we did 'Procession' on the first (sic) album. Those little guitar pieces go back a long way. I had heard Hendrix's thing but his approach is very different really. The way He did those things was to put down a line and then sort of improvise another line around and the whole thing works on the basis of, erm, things going in and out of harmony, more or less, by accident. It's very much a freeform multi-tracking thing whereas, My stuff is totally arranged. I'll make sure that the whole thing is planned and treated like you would give a score to an orchestra to do. It's a complete orchestration. So, it's a different kind of approach really but I enjoy doing those things. It's sort of indulgence really but, at the same time, I thought it would be funny for that 'Wedding March' to come out that way. Because, all our people, who know our music, would recognise that immediately as one of our treatments and anyone else in the cinema would think of it as a strange 'Wedding March'. It's meant it to be a musical joke anyway, in the film, so it was just heightening that joke really.

'THE WEDDING MARCH' PLAYED

A.K.: 'The Wedding March' from 'Flash Gordon'. Queen are still very much together as a band and their last album 'Hot Space' released last year and toured extensively (sic). Brian May has often said that he will not try to make a solo album until such time as the group dissolves and there's presently no sign of that happening. The famous home-made guitar survives How, I wonder, as it coped with the advance of technology as it reaches it's twentieth birthday?

B.M.: I haven't changed the set-up one bit from the first album really. Most of it's been done with that guitar and the AC30's and this little treble booster, which is nothing, except a one transistor amplifier with a bit of bass cut and a bit of treble loss on the cable, sort of a middle booster. That's the whole thing. I know people generally think that we're very much into studio effects but, in fact, there's very few effects on the guitar in the studio 'cause I never like 'em. I always think you can pretty up the guitar too much and it throws it back. I think that the guitar should always be upfront and I don't go for either very ambient guitars, which a lot of people do now, or putting artificial echo on or multiple repeats and stuff like that. I like to hear all the grit and dirt and finger noises right upfront.

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