What about playing in front of Brian and Roger?
Gresh: It was surreal playing in front of Brian and Roger, they're living legends. The band had a really fantastic moment when we played "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon" in front of them and Spike Edney. We had never played the song before and the keyboardist hit the opening chords and the whole band followed; we had not even been scheduled to rehearse it yet. Tristan and I whispered to each other during the first half of the song and we divvied the guitar solo- he would take the top harmony and I decided on the middle. So when the song got the the guitar solo outro, we played that and we were shocked how good it sounded off the bat. Then we saw Brian May's eyes and mouth open in enjoyment and excitement. That rehearsal was one of the greatest moments in my life [laughs].
Avakian:I’ve played in front of the guys before, so this time it wasn’t so terrifying. When I tried out for We Will Rock You I was nervous, so to center myself I took some Lego men and set them in front of me. Then I gave each of them a name— Roger, Brian, John, and Freddie … I think I even gave Freddie a little crown and cape. I did it as a joke—as a placeholder for the real thing so I could see the humor in the situation and not tense up when it came time for the auditions. It helped me laugh at my fear and harness it. What was your time like with Brian May?
Gresh:It was like an out-of-body experience meeting Mr. May. [Laughs.] He’s so humble, soft-spoken, and such a sweet man to be around. It was a trip to have Brian May check out my pedalboard. And then he was really checking out our Vox AC30s and he made sure the Fryer/Brian May Treble Boosters were up to snuff, too. We also talked about his unusual phrasing and harmonies on the guitar and how the clarinet heavily influenced him when composing some of his guitar parts for Queen like in “Good Company.”
Avakian: The invaluable lesson I’ve gotten from my time with Brian at We Will Rock You and again here with Queen Extravaganza is when you’re standing next to him and see him play it’s like a live feed coming out of his heart and soul. It’s astonishing. Any time Brian is there in person, it’s a shot in the arm. His aura and personality just lights up the room and makes everyone push that much harder. What has been the toughest song to learn?
Gresh: I'd say the songs with the three part guitar harmonies such as Killer Queen and Keep Yourself Alive. It is difficult figuring out the unique Brian May harmonies without hearing the tracks divided out. We had to learn them with all three parts mixed together since they were all bounced to one track during the production of the albums.
Avakian: “Stone Cold Crazy” is damn tricky because it’s quite quick. The main riff is a mover—I’ve yet to nail down the picking 100 percent so I’m correctly alternate picking and doing pull-offs in the right spots. There’s a string jump in between the end of the riff and when it starts over again so you really have to nail down the exact up-and-down picking motions to be in the best position to catch the riff again. When the riff is done right it’s tight and explosive. What is your favorite Queen song and Brian May solo?
Gresh: “Death on Two Legs” is probably one of my all-time favorite songs, and as a guitarist, “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” and “Killer Queen” are definitely stand-out Brian May solos for me. I really like "Killer Queen" because of its melody, harmony, and feel- it starts on the D minor melody which then repeats in C minor. Then it climbs to the octave up C minor for a new dramatic melody which is then supported by all the beautiful counter-part harmonies.
Avakian: That’s easy—“The Prophet’s Song.” It’s visionary. Beyond the musical genius Brian put together and Freddie’s magnificent performance, Brian’s lyrics are still so contemporary and thought provoking. His phrasing, vibrato, and crisp note articulation is unparalleled in that song. Let’s talk gear. What type of gear were you using during the video submissions and then during the live final auditions?
Avakian: I used my Tom Anderson Classic S-style guitar for the submission videos. This will horrify the purists—I was using Guitar Rig 3 for those videos in the preset called Brian’s Vision. I was using all the wrong things—a Strat with heavy strings and high action and plugging into a computer. [Laughs.] For the live audition I used a Vox AC30 and one of the Fryer/Brian May Treble Booster pedals. I used some tricks that can get you in Brian’s tonal neighborhood—like playing mainly in the bridge-middle position. In a traditional Strat setup, the pickups aren’t wired in series, but you just gain-it-up somewhere and you’ll get that jangly bite like Brian.
Gresh: I was using my homemade parts guitar that is my interpretation of a 1986 Ibanez Roadstar II. The only thing original on the guitar is the Ibanez body—I got the neck from Warmoth, DiMarzio pickups from eBay, and everything else is stuff I’ve handpicked and pieced together. I customized the wiring so the guitar only has a volume knob and kill switch. From there the signal went into my pedalboard, which has a Boss OS-2 for the heavier, overdriven tones, and then for songs like “Keep Yourself Alive” I used a MXR EVH Phase and a DigiTech Harmony Man for the harmonized and layered May riffs. I used my kit-built 100-watt CeriaTone 1969 Marshall Plexi, but everything it came with has been replaced except some of the resistors. The amp has my own custom handmade attenuator—it really helps me heat the amp up and get that early VH tone much in the same way Eddie did with the light dimmer Variac variable attenuator. Have you made any May approved gear acquisitions since making the band?
Gresh: I’ll be sticking with my personal guitars, but the show is providing us some really greatsounding Vox AC30 handwired amps. I’m really happy with using my own pedalboard with a MXR EVH Phase 90, Boss RV-5 Reverb, DOD FX40B EQ, DigiTech Harmony Man, Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus, Dunlop 535Q Cry Baby wah, and Boss TU-2 Tuner.
Avakian: I actually have two Brian May Guitars Antique Cherry Red Specials—one of which will have the Fryer/Brian May Treble Booster on the strap in the same way Brian does it. I tried using the booster in the traditional signal path, but it just sounds and reacts the best when it’s the first thing in the chain. Plus, if it’s good enough for Brian, it’s sure as hell good enough for me. [Laughs.] I’m using a sixpence —the serrated edge of the coin—because it grabs the string and gives it a bit of rasp. I like using it on cleans, because the only way to get a clean sound with this rig is to turn the guitar’s volume knob almost all the way down and the coin puts back the attack and sparkle the pot rolls off. For leads or fast alternate picking I’ll go to a Dunlop .88 mm green Tortex pick. What’s the thing that you’re most looking forward to during the entire Queen Extravaganza tour?
Gresh: I’ve never been on a tour bus so it’ll be a thrill to see parts of the US and Canada I’ve never visited before. The thing I’ve seen and like to apply to myself is that Brian and even Tristan are so confident in their abilities—they never play anything wrong or out of place, and even if they do it still works and sounds natural. [Laughs.] Bottom line: I just want to walk out of this a more, well-rounded guitarist with realworld experiences.
Avakian: I want to emerge a better musician and artist. It’ll be a cleansing of sorts because this music is very nourishing to hear and play. I’m really itching to sing my backup parts because this material has so many great, harmonious parts. My voice is a muscle and I’ll be working it out every day on the tour so when I finish I’ll be able to really dig into my own recording projects and have a better overall voice thanks to this opportunity.