On The Record (1982 Interview)
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?
Oh, dear! In a way, I'd rather people saw us live because there are always a few moments there of the kind which you don't really capture on record. As far as albums, I suppose I like the heavy stuff - "Brighton Rock" [Sheer Heart Attack and Live Killers]. As far as the melodic side goes, the solo in "Killer Queen" [Sheer Herat Attack] was interesting, the beginning of an era in a way. Also on Queen II there is a lot of stuff which I like because that was the beginning of doing guitar orchestrations, which I always wanted to do. The first track - "Father To Son" - starts off with an introduction. After it gets into the song and a few words are sung, it immediately it goes into a six-parts orchestral kind of thing. It was really a big thrill for me to be able to do that, because I had never been allowed to spend that amount of time in the studio to construct those things before then. That was the fulfilment of an ambition for me, to get started on that road of using the guitar as kind of an orchestral instrument.
HAD YOU IMAGINED THAT SOUND BEFORE YOU RECORDED IT?
Yes, for a long time. See, when I was a kid, I thought it would be nice to be a guitar player. I thought, "It'll probably never happen, but I'll just keep playing anyway". And then when the group actually started to look as though it might do something, my whole ambition in life was to make an album that people would listen to and actually put something down which was there for all time. So to get in the studio at all and know that it was going to be immortalized, as it were, was a big thing. The fact that we were shoved in there for a couple of hour periods at a half an hour's notice was slightly irritating, but we hardly thought of it as a real hardship. We just thought we were lucky to be in there at all. So that first album was a case of shove everything down quickly and get out before the next people come in because we weren't paying customers; we were sort of in-house boys: "Oh, there half-an-hour free here, stick the boys in". For the second album, we actually demanded and got some real studio time, so we could spend some time doing those things.
HAS YOUR APPROACH TO RECORDING GUITAR CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?
Not very much, really. I generally have a sound in my head which I'm trying to get. I've found I can get it most places; it doesn't really matter what studio it is or what mikes I'm using. If you put the microphone in exactly the right place relative to the amplifier, you're 90% of the way there. And then I just get in there and play. I always use a Vox AC-30 amp, except for those instances where there's a particular orchestra sound and I've used a small amplifier. For acoustic guitar, generally I use one mike a few inches away from the sound hole and very often one a little further away, either in the front or behind. In the studio, you especially need a good fallback sound; it's hard to get that technique of playing with headphones. It's not a live situation, so the balance in the sound help a lot. If I can get a good stereo balance in cans, I can forget where I am and usually get into it. If you get it so you can feel it like it is onstage, there's no problem. It just feels like you've got the band behind you.
PERHAPS YOUR MOST IDENTIFIABLE 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?
For those orchestral things, I've usually used a Vox AC-30 as well as a small amplifier which was made by John Deacon. This has a little hi-fi speaker cabinet which is about a foot by six inches, and John put a little transistor amplifier inside it. I use it with a treble booster which overloads it. It just makes a good noise; I don't know why. I've gotten that tone out of all kinds of little practice amps as well - just crank them up, drive them nuts. Vox made a little baby AC-30, and I've used those on occasion. They're quite good. For almost everything else, I use old Vox AC-30s that have tubes instead of transistor. These have a very flexible, identifiable sound without much coloration. You can get a wide range of sound from them, and they always have that nice little high fidelity edge to them. They use tubes biased in a Class A range. Most guitar amplifiers are Class B, which means they have more inherent distortion in them at lower levels. The Vox AC-30s are very clear at low level and then gradually and smoothly go into a nice distortion.
HOW DID YOU PROCESS THE RHYTHM STRUMS ON THE VERSION OF "KEEP YOURSELF ALIVE" ON THE QUEEN ALBUM?
That was real tape phasing. This was in the days when you took the tape off the synch head, put it though a couple of other tape delays, and then brought it back with the play head. There is no processing whatsoever on the solo in that tune, as far as I remember. I used John Deacon's small amplifier and the Vox AC-30 to do those little three-part chorus thing behind, as well as the fingerboard pickup on the guitar. There is a bit more tape phasing on the end of that track.
WHAT INSTRUMENT DID YOU USE FOR "BRING BACK THAT LEROY BROWN" ON SHEER HEART ATTACK?
Yeah. I played a toy koto on that. It was a present from a Japanese fan. The normal koto is about eight feet long and huge, but this thing was only about a foot-and-a-half long. [note - Brian played Toy Koto on "The Prophet's Song" and George Formby Ukulele on "Leroy Brown". Did you run the tape backwards for the psychedelic solo in that cut?
That was just getting a lot of sustain. I don't think there's any backwards stuff on there. There's backwards stuff on some other tracks, like "Flick Of The Wrist" on Sheer Heart Attack.
DID YOU LEARN TO PLAY HARP FOR "LOVE OF MY LIFE"?
Well, kind of [laughs]. Learning would be too strong a word. I did it chord by chord. Actually, it took longer to tune the thing than to play it. It was a nightmare because every time someone opened the door, the temperature would change and the whole thing would go out. I would hate to have to play a harp onstage. I just figured out how it worked - the pedals and everything - and did it bit by bit.
WERE THE HORN LINES IN "GOOD COMPANY" DONE ON GUITAR?
Yeah, that's four different kind of guitars. I was very keen in those days on recreating that sort of atmosphere. I mainly got the sound with small amplifiers. I used John Deacon's little amplifier and a volume pedal. For the trombone and trumpet sounds. I would record every note individually: Do it and then drop in. Incredibly painstaking! It took ages and ages. I listened to a lot of traditional jazz music when I was young, so I tried to get the phrasing as it would be if it were played by that instrument.
WHO CAME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR THE VOCAL HARMONIES USED IN "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY"?
We always were keen on that kind of thing. That was something which we wanted to do from the beginning. We wanted to be a group that could do the heaviness of hard rock, but also have harmonies swooping around all over the place. We thought there was some real power and emotion in that combination.
WAS THE FIRST SOLO IN THAT SONG VERY DIFFICULT FOR YOU?
No, that was pretty much off the cuff, except I think I had plenty of time to think about that one. I remember playing along with it in the studio for a while when other things were being done. I knew what kind of melody I wanted to play.
DID YOU PLAY SLIDE ON "TIE YOUR MOTHER DOWN" ON A DAY AT THE RACES?
Yeah, a glass one. That was on standard tuning. The only tuning I've used apart from normal is to take the bottom string down to D, which I've used on "The Prophet's Song", "White Man" [A Day At The Races], and "Fat Bottomed Girls" [Jazz].
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?
You've been really listening! Yeah, that's all guitar. I'll tell you exactly what that is: It was supposed to be the musical equivalent of that ridiculous staircase going around four side of a square, and it seems to always be going upwards. It's an Escher painting. It's supposed to be the equivalent of that because every part is going up, and each part fades into an octave below. It's also backwards, because I played it all descending. You're probably the only person in the world who's ever noticed it.
HOW DID YOU DIAL IN THE VIOLIN-LIKE TONE IN "YOU TAKE MY BREATH AWAY"?
There's a particular pickup combination which I use for the violin things: the fingerboard pickup and the middle one. Those two working in phase make a very mellow sound. And there's a point on the amplifier where it's just about to get distortioned, but not quite. Instead of using my pick, I tap the fingerboard with the right hand, and that just sets the thing moving. It sustain itself. you hardly need to even tap it any. If you even stand in exactly the right place, it feeds back in any position so I can just warble around and it's very smooth. I also used that tone for the beginning of "Leaving Home Ain't Easy" on Jazz. For that, I actually used the studio faders to fade them in, but that was the same sort of sound.
"THE MILLIONAIRE WALTZ" [A DAY AT THE RACES] MUST HAVE TAKEN A LONG TIME TO DO.
Oh, yes. You've heard everything right: I think that holds the record. There's one bit in there which is sort or fairground effect in the background. I think there are three octaves for each part, and six parts. I'm not sure but there must be about 18 or 20 guitar tracks. It's a funny sound. It makes a peculiarly sort of rigis sound. I was really surprised. It sounded like a fairground organ.
HOW DID YOU HAVE YOU GUITAR SETTINGS FOR "WE WILL ROCK YOU" ON NEWS OF THE WORLD?
That is my number one normal sound: I use that on a lot of things. It's the bridge pickup and the middle pickup in phase with each other. They are wired in series.
IS THE INSTRUMENTAL BREAK IN "ALL DEAD, ALL DEAD" LAYERED GUITARS?
Yes. That's one of my favourites. That was one of the ones which I thought came off best, and I was really pleased with the sound. It always gives me a surprise when I listen to it because it was meant to really bring tears to your eyes. It almost does it to me.
DO YOU TAP ON THE FINGERBOARD WITH YOUR RIGHT HAND IN "IT'S LATE"?
Yes, that was actually hammering on the fingerboard with both hands. I stole it from a guy who said that he stole it from Billy Gibbons in ZZ Top. He was playing in some club in Texas, doing hammering stuff. I was so intrigued by it, I went home and played around with it for ages and put it on "It's Late". It was a sort of a double hammer. I was fretting with my left hand, hammering with another finger of the left hand, and then hammering with the right hand as well. It was a problem to do onstage; I found it was a bit too stiff. It's okay if you're sitting down with the guitar. If I persevered with it, it would probably become second nature, but it wasn't an alleyway which led very far, to my way of thinking. It's a bit gimmicky.
ON JAZZ WAS IT HARD TO BUILD UP THE SOLO SPEED IN "DEAD ON TIME"?
I don't think so. That was something I was quite pleased with, but really nobody else was. It's something which nobody ever mentions very much. "Fat Bottomed Girls" I thought was okay, but fairly banal. I thought people would be much more interested in "Dead On Time", but it didn't really get that much airplay. The explosions at the end are a real thunderstorm which occurred when we were in the south of France. We put a tape recorder outside.
IS LIVE KILLERS A FAIR REPRESENTATION OF WHAT A LATE '70S QUEEN CONCERT WAS LIKE?
Yeah, pretty close. I think we play better now. In retrospect, I don't think it's a very good sounding album. There are some things I like, but on the whole I don't think it truly represents the depth that was there.
THERE IS LESS GUITAR ON THE GAME, BUT YOUR PLAYING SEEMS FREER AND MORE EXPERIMENTAL.
Yeah, that was when we started trying to get outside what was normal for us. Plus we had a new engineer in Mack and a new environment in Munich. Everything was different. We turned our whole studio technique around in a sense, because Mack had come from a different background from us. We thought there was only one way of doing things, like doing a backing tracks: We would just do it until we got it right. If there were some bits where it speeded up or slowed down, then we would do it again until it was right. We had done some of our old backing tracks so many times, they were too stiff. Mack's first contribution was to say, "Well you don't have to do that. I can drop the whole thing in. If it breaks down after half a minute, then we can edit in and carry on if you just play along with the tempo". We laughed and said "Don't be sily. You can't do that". But in facts, you can. What you gain is the freshness, because often a lot of the backing tracks is first time though. It really helped a lot. There was less guitar on that album, but that's really not going to be the same forever; that was just an experiment.
DID ADDING KEYBOARD SYNTHESIZERS CAUSE GUITAR'S ROLE TO DIMINISH?
No. It complemented it, really. There are things a synthesizer can do these days which are pretty helpful.
DID YOU USE A FENDER ON "CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED LOVE"?
Yes. I used on of Roger's really old, beat up, natural wood Telecaster. I got bludgeoned into playing it. That was Mack's idea. I said "I don't want to play a Telecaster. It basically doesn't suit my style". But "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" was such a period piece, it seemed to need that period sound. So I said, "Okay, Mack, if you want to set it up, I'll play it". He put it through a Mesa/Boggie, which is an amplifier I don't get on what at all; it just doesn't suite me. I tried it, and it sounded okay.
WAS THE FLASH GORDON PROJECT TIME-CONSUMING?
Yes, and unfortunately we didn't have enough time. We were doing The Game and an American tour at the same time Flash was going on, so it was ridiculous. We put as much time as we could in. We would do a week here and a week there. I spent some time with the arranger and orchestra to try and get some coherence to it all. It was good experience, but next time I hope we have time to really pull the whole thing together as a unit.
DID YOU USE GUITAR FOR ANY OF THE ALBUM'S STRANGE EFFECTS?
Yeah, some guitar and some synthesizer. I played some of the prominent keyboard synthesizer parts, but I think Freddie played most of them.
DID THE PROJECT PRESENT ANY UNUSUAL CHALLENGES?
The main challenge was working for a boss who wasn't yourself. We had the director in there the whole time. The only criterion for whether something was good was whether in helped the movie.
DID YOU USE A SLIDE FOR "DANCER" ON HOT SPACE?
No, that's guitar in parallel harmonies. Those aren't my favourite harmonies, really. I much prefer guitar harmonies which aren't parallel. There are very few people who have done them. The real interest in guitar harmonies comes from when they're crossing over, diverging, and converging. Somehow on "Dancer" it seemed right to do those parallels.
THE RHYTHM GUITAR IN "BACK CHAT" SOUNDS UNLIKE MOST OF YOUR WORK.
That's because John played that. John has played a lot of rhythm stuff.
WAS THE SOLO IN "PUT OUT THE FIRE" DIFFICULT FOR YOU?
Actually, it was. I don't really know why. That wasn't a first take. I had done a lot of solos for that - hated every one of them. And then we came back from a club where we used to go to have some drinks. I think I was well on the way - you know, we were all plucked out and slightly inebriated - and we had ridiculous echo effect with Mack was putting back through the cans. I said, "That sounds unbelievable! I want to put it on every track [laughs]". He said "Okay, try "Put Out The Fire". So we put it on the machine, and I just played though it. That was what we used. It was inspiring, like these huge stereo echo sounds coming from all over the place. I could hardly hear what I was doing, but it was sounding so good and I was so drunk. To be honest, I don't think it's that good a solo. It's got a sort of plodding thing going behind it; I never felt totally happy with it.
HOW DID YOU GET THE THICK RHYTHM SOUND IN "CALLING ALL GIRLS"?
that's a combination of acoustic and electric guitar. I think Roger did the feed-back tracks near the end of the break. You never know where things come from. Roger played a lot of guitar. He's always bursting to play guitar.
ONE LAST QUESTION ABOUT YOUR ALBUMS. HAVE YOU BEEN ON PROJECTS OUTSIDE QUEEN?
Not very much, no. I get asked if I'm the Brian May who did the music for Breaker Morant and Road Warrior. I spend my life telling people it's not me. I wonder if he has the same problem. He's an Australian conductor. I have played on a couple of albums outside Queen - Lonnie Donegan's come-back album, which featured Ringo Starr and Elton John. I was also on a Larry Lyrics single (Note: I think here Brian make reference of Larry Lurex's "I Can Hear Music" of 1973); Freddie sang the vocal under the assumed name of Larry Lurex and I played a guitar solo on that. I'd like to make a good solo album sometimes, but at the moment there isn't time. Maybe there will be next year.