Electric Etudes: Brian May
• Explore guitar orchestration and layered harmony parts.
• Understand how to move between chord inversions.
• Emulate the feel and phrasing of one of rock’s greatest guitarists.
In this installment of Electric Études, we take a look at the unique guitar style of Dr. Brian May, from the legendary rock band Queen. May has been crafting distinctive guitar parts for more than 40 years, and Queen’s popularity continues to grow with legions of loyal fans young and old. The band has inspired countless artists from Foo Fighters to Lady Gaga, and Queen’s catalog includes some of the most popular classic rock tracks of all time.
Following the tragic and untimely death of the irreplaceable and enigmatic Freddie Mercury, the Queen legacy continues with May and drummer Roger Taylor flying the Queen flag at sold-out performances all over the world with singer Adam Lambert. They even have a live musical stage show We Will Rock You, which has enjoyed a nonstop run in London’s West End for 12 years.
May has a unique style and favors some unorthodox techniques, such as attacking the strings with an old sixpence coin instead of a standard flatpick. He also uses his right-hand fingers a lot, either gently brushing across the strings or pulling his index finger off the strings as they rub against it. At first glance, you might think he’s tapping.
For this feature, I’ve tried to incorporate as many different rhythm and lead techniques as possible, and when composing this short piece I turned to a number of classic Queen songs for inspiration.
The first 10 measures are inspired by “Now I’m Here,” from Sheer Heart Attack. This section features a slightly cleaner sound with the guitar volume backed off and some chorus to produce a wide-sounding effect. I work through a series of major triads while palm-muting the open 4th string. You can hear how the drums accent the chord stabs. I turn the volume up slightly for the conclusion of this section and work around an A5, D/A, and A7sus4 figure.
In the next section, I kept our verse riff and added some chordal ideas similar to what May played in “One Vision” off A Kind of Magic. These chords employ a very common characteristic of Brian’s rhythm style, where the root note of a power chord simply drops down by a half-step to change the chord. I’m also putting in a bit of the D blues scale (D-F-G-Ab-A-C) as well. Pay attention to the chord stabs, and be sure to keep them tight and clean.
The driving figure that comes up next should sound familiar to anyone who has heard “Keep Yourself Alive” from Queen’s debut album. I kicked on a phaser for this section and conclude with some bluesy licks in G minor pentatonic (G-Bb-C-D-F). The next bit borrows elements from “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Bicycle” with a quarter-note triplet before heading into a harmonized trill. The harmony idea continues with a descending line based around D Mixolydian (D-E-F#-G-A-B-C), leading us to the solo section.
The solo section moves to a half-time feel and the chord progression emulates Queen’s majestic approach to ballads. May has an uncanny feel for melody and well-placed chord tones. The solo is based around F major and its diatonic modes, and the F major pentatonic (F-G-A-C-D) scale. Over the C/E chord, we touch on F#, which isn’t diatonic to the key, but adds to the majestic sound. This section also features a fair amount of positions shifts, so take care with accuracy.
I then move into some of May’s signature scalar runs, starting off with triplets and then moving to sixteenth-notes. To give the backing track the correct feel, I’ve included some guitar harmony ideas, trying to emulate the sound of May’s orchestrated lines. On the track there is some overlapping of lines. In the second measure of this section, you will notice that the guitar parts overlap a bit. I’ll leave it up to you to choose which note to play.
The phrase over the Bb-Gm change includes a short melodic figure that works great performed with the first finger to give a smooth feel. The next bit is a common bluesy phrase that’s based in the C major pentatonic (C-D-E-G-A) with some passing tones. This lick works great over the C major to Bb/C chords, resulting in a dominant tonality. The final section includes an idea that May is famous for, and can be heard in the classic “Brighton Rock.” Check out the ascending C Mixolydian (C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb) lines that use two different delay settings to produce a harmony. I set one delay to a half-note and another to a quarter-note, and both are synced to the track’s tempo. As you climb up the scale, a harmony is produced as each delay enters.
May’s main influences in his formative years included Hank Marvin and Rory Gallagher. Both these guitarists had a profound effect on May’s approach to tone. He has always favored Vox AC30 amps and started off with a Marvin-inspired clean tone. But he loved how Gallagher pushed his amp into a smooth overdrive using a treble booster to generate searing sustain. May has used this approach for many years, favoring the sound of the treble booster as it pushes the tubes harder. This produces saturation and sustain, but also cleans up the bottom end. May leaves his treble booster on all the time, and to produce clean tones he backs off his guitar’s volume and plays lighter.
Live, May uses three modified Vox AC30s, with the middle amp completely dry and the left and right amps dedicated to effects. The treble booster is in a small housing attached to his guitar strap and is routed before his wireless unit.
All these elements, plus the unique switching and tonal capabilities of May’s “Red Special” go towards producing his signature tone. He also uses 6- and 12-string versions produced by Guyton guitars in the U.K., which are stunning instruments. I had the pleasure of using Brian’s own Green Guyton when I toured with him. Burns made some affordable replicas, but later Brian took over production with his own brand, Brian May Guitars.
For the recording I used my own green Brian May production guitar, which has had a few modifications to it. This ran into a Brian May signature Fryer Treble Booster and then into a Wampler Thirty Something to emulate the front ends of the Vox. The amp I used was a Cornford Carrera, an 8-watt combo. The phaser was an MXR EVH90, while the chorus, flanger, and delay were added in mixdown, courtesy of Line 6 Mod Pro and Echo Pro units. I used the guitar’s volume to produce different amounts of gain or to make the tone clean, and the treble booster was on all the time. This track will obviously work with any guitar, but having the unique switching available on the Brian May guitar really helps, as in some places I would knock one pickup out of phase to produce that squawky tone and also help sonically separate the layered harmony lines.