Right from the begining, on Queen’s earliest recordings, Brian May’s sound had his signature on it. His tone was immediately as distinctive and recognizable as his style of playing, but the key to his overall sound was always in its range of expressiveness. With only a guitar, a treble booster, and an amp, May could (and still can) go from the chiming, delicate ring of strummed chords and jangly arpeggios to lean, bluesy riffs and singing, melodic leads (sometimes accompanied by an orchestra of guitars singing along) to squealing bends and gliding, operatic vibrato, and from there on to something that sounds very much like a jet plane crashing to the ground— often in the space of a single song. While it’s never a perfectly “clean” sound, even in its most blistering and phased-out moments, it never loses its definition and string clarity. To be sure, you need good gear for this. But you also have keep in mind that good gear not sufficient; for this you also need singular technique.
The allure of that sound, however, has made May’s tone a sought-after commodity by guitarists of all skill levels. And there have been some successes. For many players, the simplicity of May’s signal chain is a big part of its allure, especially because it contains the x factor of a homemade and very special guitar (and often on recordings it also includes a one-off, handmade amp). And though May’s tone must certainly be counted among those that are worth chasing, the nature of the rig itself has to be somewhat responsible for the fairly brisk trade in May-oriented gear currently available—which if it isn’t aimed at making his tone available to you affordably (and by other means), it is designed to reproduce, with varying degrees of accuracy, May’s actual rig. Greg Fryer’s Brian May Treble Boosters fall into the latter category; they are in fact expressly accurate. One of them, the Touring booster, is part of May’s current rig. The others, aimed to faithfully reproduce the tones of Queen records past rather than present, do seem like they’re up to the task—when used with a Red Special guitar and an AC30, at least. Fryer is after all the one who restored the original, irreplaceable Red Special, and then made the backup replicas used by May; designing and building custom pedals and amps for May’s use has surely given him a unique insight into what makes that signature tone possible.
The boosters are available in three flavors: the Deluxe, the Plus, and the Touring. I’ve had more luck telling them apart by color and by sound than by name: they are purple, blue, and bright red, respectively. It may go without saying that all three battery-powered pedals (no AC jack) are simpler than most boosters—as simple as boosters come, in fact. Aside from the label, nothing but Switchcraft In and Out jack sockets, Bulgin 9V-battery drawers and rubber feet adorn their exterior. Inside each enclosure is only a small PCB with a few components, all painted black. Simplicity is an important part of the recipe, especially if you’re trying to achieve the same stunning sweep from the warmly jangling, almost-liquid sound of May’s “cleans” to the muscly, fat rhythm tones and searing, raw overdrive that evokes something like a Concerto in E-Minor for violins and rocket artillery.
Such boosters would also require exceptional clarity and sensitivity, since if you’re running a VOX or similar amp flat out, you’ve really got only the guitar to control every tonal variation of this rig. You can bet that all three of these treble boosters have plenty of both clarity and sensitivity to offer, but each provides its enhancements in a different way.
Treble Booster Deluxe
The regal, purple-colored one provides 35dB of gain and is aimed at May’s midseventies Queen tone. With single-coil guitars such as a Nash S-63 Strat-type and a stock Fender Road Worn Telecaster, pushed the almost-dimed AC30H2 into a sizzling overdrive, while retaining the punch and definition of the picked notes and barre chords. Think “Tie Your Mother Down,” but leaner. Rolling back the volume on those guitars cleaned up the tone beautifully to a pleasing, bright shimmer. The humbuckers on a Gibson LP Studio, a Fender Contemporary Tele and a Hamer Talladega Pro all bit much harder in the mids, retaining all the punch and clarity, but showing little sparkle at the top end. It was a pair of P-90-equipped guitars—a Deusenberg MC Signature and an Eastwood Airline Tuxedo (of all things)—that produced the most sensitive, fuzz-like leads and ringing, harmonic sustain of songs like “Brighton Rock” and “Stone Cold Crazy,” though both guitars, being hollow in some part, tended to feed back too easily.
Treble Booster Plus
Though the blue one has the most gain of the three at 36dB, the Plus has a very different sound from the other two, and because it hits the amp in a different way will probably sound like it has less gain than the other two pedals with many guitars. It is easily the most “vocal”-sounding of the three. Parkedwah tones and rich, sweet string sustain with violin-like qualities are not difficult to produce with humbucker- or P-90-equipped guitars. It’s this pedal that most clearly demonstrates how closely zeroed-in Fryer is to the precise elements of Brian May’s rig, since my humbucker-equipped guitars were all a little too much. Each produced fat growls, harmonic-laden overdrive and thick sustain when cranked, but not a lot of the gorgeous clarity and sparkle of the AC30; my Strat- and Tele-type single coils lacked the robustness for those fat, creamy mids.
The combination of the Deusenberg’s neck p-90 and bridge humbucker actually produced fairly good approximations of some of the less gain-heavy tones heard on News Of The World, like the smooth, chiming ring of “We Are The Champions, ” “Spread Your Wings,” and “It’s Late,” while rolling up the guitar’s volume and leaning into it produced the meat-eating, power chord crunch of… well, the same songs, actually. But that capacity likely also has something to do with the Deusy’s unique middle-position wiring.
Treble Booster Touring
The bright red one is the one May himself has been using since 1998. At 31dB of boost, it offers the least gain of the three, but its characteristics are quite similar to those of the Treble Booster Deluxe. With P-90s, this pedal also produced the closest thing to the rangy crunch and woolly thickness of May’s early-70s work on songs like “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Son & Daughter.”
If you’re not chasing May’s tones, these pedals are still a good bet The Nash’s Lollar pickups through an Orange Tiny Terror Combo with the gain set moderately low engendered a superb, raw British bluestone: plenty of hair on the top end and a smoking crunch that was fully saturated but still retained the string detail.
The Final Mojo
Keep in mind that these boosters are designed not to mask the subtleties of your technique, so they won’t mask your mistakes either. Having said that, neither a lack of subtlety nor a the lack of a Red Special replica kept us from a very instructive tonechasing experiment, and the chase led us to some very satisfying guitar/amp/Fryer Brian May Treble Booster combinations that didn’t invoke shades of “Keep Yourself Alive.” Even if you’re not about to dive into the back catalog in your current Queen cover band, any of these three pedals will likely give your tube amp a very musical kick in the teeth. If you want the advantages of a great treble boost in a very simple signal chain, these are worth a listen. Fryer promises top-quality performance and 500 or more hours of continuous use from each, so it’s really down to which flavor takes you closest to the tones you’re chasing. For me, the Plus (blue) is the clear favorite, or maybe it’s the Deluxe (purple), or possibly the Touring (red).
You want a very sensitive, great-sounding boost that will also help you achieve a very precisely
You're happy with the way your modeling amp handles your Queen covers.