Brian May

From Academic Kids

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Brian May with The Red Special

Brian Harold May CBE (born 19 July 1947 in Hampton, London) became famous in the 1970s and 1980s as the guitarist of the rock group Queen and composed many of Queen's hits, including "We Will Rock You", "Hammer to Fall", "Tie Your Mother Down", "Who Wants to Live Forever", "I Want it All", and "The Show Must Go On".

He was also known for creating harmonious guitar riffs and solos, and in studios would often double or triple-track his guitar work, adding to the harmonies.

He remained an active musician in the 1990s, after Freddie Mercury's death, publishing two solo albums and taking part in special events like Pavarotti and Friends, Montreux Jazz Festival, 46664 at Cape Town, and Party at the Palace for the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002.

May has played a range of guitars, most often the Red Special, which he designed with his father, Harold May, and built with wood from a most unlikely source — an old fireplace. His comments on this instrument, from Queen In Their Own Words (ed. Mick St. Michael, Omnibus Press, 1992, p62) are:

"I like a big neck - thick, flat and wide. I lacquered the fingerboard with Rustin's Plastic Coating. The tremolo is interesting in that the arm's made from an old bicycle saddle bag carrier, the knob at the end's off a knitting needle and the springs are valve springs from an old motorbike."

In addition to using his homemade guitar, he prefers to use coins (especially sixpence pieces) instead of a more traditional plastic plectrum, on the basis that their rigidity gives him more control in playing.

May's early heroes were Cliff Richard and The Shadows, whom he says were the most metallic thing out at the time. Many years later he gained his opportunity to play on separate occasions with both Cliff Richard and Shadows lead guitarist Hank Marvin. May was proud upon hearing that Cliff Richard had mentioned in an interview that he would have Brian May in his personal fantasy band. As well as recording with Hank Marvin, May also contributed to the 1996 album "Twang!: A Tribute to Hank Marvin & the Shadows," playing FBI. The album featured other greats such as Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, and Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt of Status Quo.

May, unlike fellow bandmates Mercury and Roger Taylor, never recreationally used drugs, was not sexually promiscuous, and rarely drank. He was known for being rather quiet and reserved at parties. In Queen's three-part vocal harmonies, his was generally the mid-range backing vocal, sounding not unlike Mercury's, albeit not quite as strong. On some of his songs he sings the lead vocal, such as "Some Day One Day", "All Dead, All Dead" and "Leaving Home Ain't Easy".

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Brian May, BSc PhD

May attended Hampton School and had been part way through a Ph.D. course in London when Queen became successful, and never completed his astronomy doctorate. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science in November 2002 by Hertfordshire University.

Throughout the last several years, he has overseen the remastering of Queen albums and various DVD and Greatest Hits releases. In 2004, he announced he and drummer Roger Taylor were going on tour for the first time in 18 years as "Queen," along with Free/Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers. The tour is being billed as "Queen + Paul Rodgers Spring 2005." In the Queen's birthday honours list of the same year, he was made a Commander of the British Empire "for services to the music industry".

He has been quoted throughout the years as saying: "I live in my head too much."



Brian May begun composing in 1968/1969. He covered a wide variety of styles, but basically he wrote ballads and hard rock. From the first group perhaps the most respected piece is Who Wants To Live Forever, which has been covered by artists like Seal and Sarah Brightman. His most popular rock number is We Will Rock You, a very simple ABABAB composition with pentatonic melody and ostinato percussion. His most ambiscious works were probably Procession (Queen II, 1974), a pseudo-baroque short piece for guitar octet, and The Dark (1980-1991).

Through the years he wrote some songs with other people, the most memorable being Too Much Love Will Kill You, composed with Frank Musker and Elizabeth Lamers, which won Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically & Lyrically in 1996. As a meticulous arranger he focused on three-part harmonies, mostly non-parallel, but not entirely polyphonic either. His best examples are found in Queen's albums A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races, where he arranged a jazz band for guitar mini-orchestra (Good Company), a vocal canon (Prophet's Song) and some rather interesting guitar and vocal counterpoints (Teo Toriatte).

As a performer, he was primarily respected as a guitarist. May explored a wide variety of styles in guitar as well. Playing lead some of his best works include sweep picking (Was It All Worth It), tapping (Bijou, Resurrection, Cyborg), Hendrix-like licks (Liar, Brighton Rock) and melodic parts (Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen, These Are The Days Of Our Lives). Many of his solos were composed by Freddie Mercury, who then asked Brian to bring them life. Same with some guitar choirs (Bicycle Race, Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon). Last but not least, May did some interesting acoustic work, including the fingerpicked solo of White Queen (Queen II, 1974) and the skiffle exercise '39.

Nevertheless, Brian didn't bound his abilities to one instrument. During Queen days he performed ukelele (Good Company) and sometimes piano, detaching on a soft and gentle style (All Dead All Dead, Save Me, Dear Friends). He recorded some other instruments here and there (maracas, banjo, etc) but mostly they were done via studio tricks, like when he recorded separately each chord of harp in Love Of My Life and then the producer blended them together on tape.

May was an excellent singer too. His wide vocal range went from notes around low A (110 Hz) to very high tenor Ds and Es (mostly in his solo career). Ocasionally he contributed falsetto parts as well (Ogre Battle, Why Don't We Try Again). In some Queen songs he did all the vocals like in Good Company or She Makes Me.


Most of Brian's guitar work was played with the Red Special. Still, he used some other electric guitars, including a Burns Double Six (Long Away), a Fender Telecaster (Crazy Little Thing Called Love) and an Ibanez (Nothing But Blue).

In early Queen tours he had a Stratocaster as spare guitar, replacing it by a Les Paul Deluxe in 1974, then by a John Birch replica of his Red Special the next year. In a concert in the States he got frustrated with that instrument and smashed it, from then on he used a Gibson Flying V until he got more suitable replicas of his beloved Old Lady.

As for acoustic guitars, mostly he used Ovation 12-Strings, Martins and a Gibson Chet Atkins for nylon-string parts. His ukelele was Aloha, and for pianos he used to record on Bosendorfers although in concerts he relied on Mercury's Steinway. May used Yamaha DX-7 synths for some of his most memorable inputs: the opening sequence of One Vision and the background of Who Wants To Live Forever, Scandal and Show Must Go On.

Brian was keen on using some toys as instruments as well. May 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 Toriatte, a mini-banjo in Bring Back That Leroy Brown and a toy mini koto in Prophet's Song.

Brian May's Input In Songs Credited To Queen

After the famous Live Aid concert in summer 1985, Mercury rang his band mates and proposed to write a song together between them. The result was One Vision, which was basically Brian on music (the Magic Years documentary shows how he came up with the opening section and the basic guitar riff) and Roger on lyrics, with Freddie being more a producer and arranger than a proper co-writer and John Deacon mostly absent.

For their 1989 release album, The Miracle, the band had decided that all of the tracks would be credited to all the band, no matter who had been the main writer. Still, interviews and deep musical analyses have been able to identify the input of each member on each track.

May composed I Want It All for that album (in fact, recent releases credit the song just so him), as well as Scandal (based on his personal problems with the British press). For the rest of the album he didn't contribute so much creatively although he helped building the basis of Party and Was It All Worth It (both being mostly Freddie's pieces) and he came up with the guitar riff of Chinese Torture, an unreleased track of those sessions.

Their next album was Innuendo, where they sticked to the rule. For that one May contributed much more, although it was more in arrangements than actual writing in most cases: for the title track he did some of the arrangement for the heavy solo, then he added vocal harmonies to I'm Going Slightly Mad and composed the solo of These Are The Days Of Our Lives, a song for which the four of them decided the keyboard parts together. He also changed the tempo and key of Freddie's metal song The Hitman and took it under his wing, even singing guide vocal in the demo, and co-wrote some of the guitar lines in Bijou.

Two songs that May had composed for his first solo album, Headlong and I Can't Live With You, eventually ended up in the Queen project. His other composition was The Show Must Go On, a group effort in which he was the co-ordinator, but in which they all had input, Deacon and Taylor with the famous chord sequence, Mercury with the first verse.


  • Star Fleet Project (Mini Album, 1983), featuring Eddie Van Halen
  • Back To The Light (1992)
  • Live At The Brixton Academy (1994)
  • Another World (1998)
  • Furia (Soundtrack) (2000)

External links

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