Brian Harold May was born in 1947 in London, England and is best known as the lead guitarist of the rock group Queen. He formed his first band while still at school but elected to study physics and mathematics at university rather than pursue a full-time musical career. May formed the band Smile in 1968, where he performed with Roger Taylor (the drummer in Queen). When the group finally dissolved in 1970, May formed the group Queen with Taylor, eventually adding singer Freddie Mercury and bassist John Deacon.
May was a significant composer and arranger within Queen, and after their debut album was released in 1973, the group grew a reputation for their unique sound that mixed progressive rock styles with intricate arrangements and dramatic vocal harmonies. Recordings such as Sheer Heart Attack and A Night at the Opera helped cement Queen’s reputation as one of the most distinctive groups to emerge from the UK in years, and by the mid-late 1970s they were a major concert attraction. Their ground-breaking single Bohemian Rhapsody (from the A Night at the Opera album) featured elaborate production and operatic vocal harmonies and was accompanied by the first ever full length promotional music video.
The guitar that May is most closely associated with is one that he built with his father, and was made from recycled wood and metal components from his childhood home. The construction apparently took two years to complete (between 1963 and 1965), and it is principally constructed of wood taken from an old mantelpiece and table. It features three single coil pickups, although wired with reverse polarity. This distinctive sound can be heard on most of his recordings. This guitar has been recreated by various luthiers and is now available via Brian May Guitars as an exact replica.
Brian May uses Vox amplifiers almost exclusively and favours the iconic AC30 model to produce his signature sound. He controls most tonal changes directly from his guitar via the multiple pickup configurations that are available but does use a treble booster to help add gain and sustain to his sound. May is considered something of an innovator with his unique use of delay effects, and tracks like Brighton Rock feature his creative use of these to create rich guitar harmonies.
Queen – A Night at the Opera
Queen – A Day at the Races
Queen – Innuendo
Brian May Band – Live at the Brixton Academy
You can use the following Brian May / Queen style Backing Track to help you learn and practice these guitar licks.
Brian May Guitar Licks
The first Brian May Guitar Licks example begins with some dramatic bends and classic, May-style vibrato before launching into a rapidly descending run in D Dorian. In bars one and two, look out for the slides out of each note for an authentic Brian May approach.
In bar three, aim to get the first note of each beat on the click and everything else should fall into place. Use your pinky to play the 14th fret on the G string in bar three and you’ll find it easier to descend down the neck.
Brian May Guitar Licks Example 5a:
The next lick starts with a similarly held bend, but follows it with some uniquely-timed high-register bends after a slide into the 10th fret from the open D string… another Brian May signature move. Ensure you get your fingers in position for the bend at the 14th fret after this.
The focus points in this line are slightly syncopated, so play along with the audio track until you can play it accurately.
Brian May Guitar Licks Example 5b:
Example 5c begins with a palm-muted ascending scale run using the D Mixolydian scale. Again, the rhythmic phrasing is slightly loose so try to lock in with the audio example. The second half of the lick is formed of six repeated bends on the 15th fret high E string.
The deliberate F# just before the final bar really stands out as a bright note choice. There you have it; an ascending scale played with great timing and some dramatic repeating bends… Rock guitar doesn’t have to be complex, sometimes just creative use of simple musical tools can be enough to make history.
Brian May Guitar Licks Example 5c:
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