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Brian May

Brian Harold May CBE (born July 19, 1947) is an English guitarist best known as the lead guitarist and backing, sometimes lead, vocalist for the English rock band Queen. As a guitarist, he is known for his memorable riffs and solos, distinctive tone, as well as for the fact that he built (with his father) his own guitar, called the "Red Special". He is also cited as a pioneer of the delay effect. He wrote many of Queen's most famous songs and biggest hits, including "We Will Rock You", "Fat Bottomed Girls", "Tie Your Mother Down", "Who Wants to Live Forever" and "I Want It All". Because of his musical skills, he is often described as a virtuoso.


Most of May's guitar work was done on the Red Special. However, he has used a number of other electric guitars, including a Burns Double Six (Long Away), a Gibson Les Paul (as a backup during the early tours.), a Gibson Flying V (spare during Hot Space tour), a Fender Telecaster (Crazy Little Thing Called Love), an Ibanez JS (Nothing But Blue),a Greco BM90 (featured in the promo video of "Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy", but was not actually used in the studio), and a Parker Fly (Mother Love).

In early Queen tours he had a Stratocaster as spare guitar, replacing it with a Les Paul Deluxe in 1974, then a John Birch replica of his Red Special the next year. In a concert in the States on the 1982 Hot Space North American tour, he got frustrated with that instrument and smashed it, thereafter using a Gibson Flying V until he got more suitable replicas of his beloved Red Special. In 1984 Guild released the first official red Special replica for mass production, and made some prototypes specifically for May. However the solid body construction (the original RS has hollow cavities in the body) and the pickups (DiMarzio) that were not an exact replica of the Burns TriSonic didn't make May happy, so the production stopped after just 300 guitars. In 1993 Guild made a second replica of the RS, made in just 1000 copies, of which May has some and used as a backup. At the moment, he uses the 2 guitars made by Greg Fryer as backup, the luthier who restored the Old Lady in 1998. They are really identical to the original, except for the Fryer logo on the headstock (May's original one has a sixpence).

For acoustic guitars, he mostly used Ovation 12-Strings, Martins, and a Gibson Chet Atkins for nylon-string parts. He created the unique "buzzing" tone heard on "White Queen (As It Began)" and "Jealousy" by placing pieces of piano wire under the frets. His ukulele was Aloha. Pianos he recorded include Bosendorfers, although in concerts he relied on Freddie Mercury's Steinway. May used Yamaha DX7 synths for some of his most memorable inputs: the opening sequence of "One Vision" and the backgrounds of "Who Wants to Live Forever", "Scandal" and "The Show Must Go On".

May was keen on using some toys as instruments as well. Some of his early acoustic works were done on a cheap Hairfred he had conserved from his childhood. He also used a Yamaha plastic piano in Teo Torriatte, a "genuine George Formby Ukulele-Banjo" in Bring Back That Leroy Brown and a toy mini koto in The Prophet's Song.

May has used Vox AC-30 amplifiers almost exclusively since a meeting with his long time hero Rory Gallagher at a gig in London during the late 60s/early 70s. His choice is the model AC30TBX, the top-boost version with Blue Alnico speakers, and he runs the amp at full volume on the Normal channel. He also customizes his amps by removing the circuitry for the Brilliant and Vib-trem channels (leaving only the circuitry for the Normal), and this alters the tone slightly, with a gain addition of 6-7dB. He always used a 'treble booster pedal' of some kind which, along with the AC-30, went a long way in helping to create many of his signature guitar tones. He used the Dallas Rangemaster for the first Queen albums, up to A Day at the Races. Then, effects guru Pete Cornish built for him the TB-83 (32dB of gain) that used for all the remaining Queen albums. He switched in 2000 to the Fryer's booster, which actually gives less boost than the TB-83.

Live, he uses banks of AC-30 amplifiers keeping some amps with only guitar and others with all effects such as delay, flanger and chorus. He has a rack of 14 AC30s, which are grouped as Normal, Chorus, Delay 1, Delay 2. On his pedal board, May has a custom switch unit made by Cornish and subsequently modified by Fryer that allows him to choose which amps are active. He uses a BOSS pedal from the 70s, the Chorus Ensemble CE-1, which you can hear in In The Lap of The Gods (Live at Wembley '86) or Hammer to Fall (slow version played live with P. Rodgers). Next in the chain, he uses a Foxx Foot Phaser (We Will Rock You, We Are the Champions, Keep Yourself Alive, etc), a wah-wah pedal (I Want to Break Free solo) that May doesn't use in the conventional way but to give different tones, and two delay machines to play his trademark Brighton Rock solo.

Another particular choice of May is the plectrum: he uses an English Sixpence coin from the '60s. This gives a mysterious, clean and crystalline tone. Bandmate and electrical engineer John Deacon also built May a small DC-powered amplifier which he often used when recording. Known as the 'Deacy amp', it was reproduced as the "Brian May Special" by Vox in 2003. Vox have also released a Brian May custom AC-30 model with a single volume control and a rear mounted guitar input jack so multiple amps can be stacked on top of each other. The Digitech corporation recently released a pedal called the "Brian May Red Special" from its artist series of pedals made to emulate the tones of famous guitarist. This particular pedal is made to simulate the tones from seven Queen hits, as well as the tone of the Red Special, the Deacy amp, the Treble Booster and the Vox AC-30s. Also V-stack made a "simulator" of Brian May's sound.

Last, but not least, a quite influent factor on his sound in studio is the particular positioning of the mics. This allowd to cut down the noise produced by the extremely loud AC30 at full volume and also nailed particular, unique mid-loaded tones. For example, to record the solos of Bohemian Rhaposdy and We Will Rock you, most of It's Late and almost every guitar part in We are the champions, mics were placed in the corners of the room, at the center of which there was the amplifier. This makes his tone even more difficult to copy, because the amplifier sounds significantly different if microphoned up in one way or another.

See his guitar tips, guitar technique on the concert box above

Photo from www.dinosaurrockguitar.com

Brian May at Dinosour Rock Guitar

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Brian May website

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