The term “Legend” seems to be attached to just about anyone and everyone these days. However, when it comes to Brian May, it doesn’t seem to do the rock supremo justice. As one quarter of – arguably – one of the most influential bands ever, Queen, May’s articulate and inspiring guitar playing has been heard across the globe for several decades. From early rock anthems such as “Brighton Rock” and “Stone Cold Crazy” to later hits like “Too Much Love Will Kill You”, May’s signature tone has evolved in line with his ambitious playing style.
Even in the early days he exhibited tonal craftsmanship of the highest order on songs like the delightfully flamboyant “Bohemian Rhapsody”, whose film of the same name is introducing Queen’s music and May’s sound to a new generation of appreciative fans. Let us guide you through how to achieve that Brian May guitar tone.
Influences: where it all began
Though Brain May has influenced countless guitarists over the years, he himself was fascinated by players such as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher and Hank Marvin – not too shabby a list! From the clean single-note instrumentals of early rock ‘n’ roll records to the blistering technique of later rock demigods, May soaked up a vast amount of knowledge, logged countless hours of practise, and experimented feverishly with gear to hone his sound.
Admittedly, May utilises a raft of custom-built gear in his rig, but we’re going to touch upon more affordable options that will hopefully get you closer to achieving the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer’s tone.
Versatile guitar switching
As a youngster May couldn’t afford the coveted Stratocaster that he wanted, so he and his Dad built his very own custom guitar over a two-year period. The result was the “Red Special”, a guitar that is arguably as recognisable as its owner. For those who want to recreate the Queen hero’s tone fastidiously, then the Red Special is the only way forward.
Thankfully, there’s a plethora of options to choose from nowadays to suit everyone’s budget. The core characteristics are simple when it comes to the guitar for the job: sharpened single-coil output, the ability to home in on a mid to treble-oriented output, a versatile pickup switching system, lightning fast playing feel, and ready access to each and every fret. Fitting the bill on all counts is the affordable Squier Bullet Stratocaster. Built to the high standards that we’ve come to expect from the Squier Bullet series, this Strat is perfect for tearing through licks and riffs with. Not only that, but the 5-way pickup selector switch enables you to sail closer to the emphasized mid/treble character of May’s tone. If you fancy pushing the boat out, then check out the many other Strats that we have to offer.
All about the AC
Alongside his guitar, a constant throughout May’s career has been his preference for Vox AC amplifiers. The smooth sound of the British tube-driven AC has been the backbone of every anthemic track. From sparkling cleans to searing hot lead tones, there isn’t anything that the AC15C1 can’t turn its hand to. However, when it comes to getting an extra kick for his wailing lead work, we’ve turned to a little dynamo in that department.
Hot treble booster
As noted above, Rory Gallagher was an influence on May and none more so than in how he achieved the hot lead tone he desired from his amp. When pushing the AC30 into overdrive, May found it to be muddier than he would have preferred. However, after seeing Gallagher using a treble booster to emphasize the high-end, he knew what to do. To achieve the same result, we’d like to introduce the awesome Electro Harmonix Screaming Bird, a defiant little analogue treble booster that injects a whopping 20dB of high frequency gain into any amp. The rugged die-cast aluminium chassis makes it perfect for both stage and studio use, so you can take it anywhere that the music takes you.
That being said, a classic overdrive pedal such as the BOSS SD-1 or Ibanez Tube Screamer can do the job. Remember to be subtle with the gain or drive knobs, focus the tone knob on the treble settings and adjust your guitar volume pot to suit. The key here is to deftly balance your guitar’s output and the pedal effect level to enhance out the dynamics of your playing and reduce the low-end influence on guitar amp drive.
To get that sweet chorus chime that peppers both May’s rhythm chops and sultry solos, we’ve turned to the BOSS CE-5 Chorus Ensemble. With a plethora of controls that allow you to shape and tailor your chorus setting, there’s even a stereo output option for those who want to go the whole hog and incorporate a stereo amplifier setup. As with the treble booster, less is more and the effect is limited to use its subtlest form. To create the multi-layered tonal textures that we’ve all come to know and love from Brian May, the BOSS DD-7 enables everything from subtle slapback to protracted repeats.
If you’re an absolute purist then you’ll swear by using an old English sixpence coin as a pick, but we’ll forgive you if you’d prefer one from our selection – you might not tear through quite as many strings that way. Speaking of guitar strings, you can’t go wrong with a decent set of wound string, again we’ll let you opt for the gauge (player’s preference of course).
There you have it. As elaborate as the Queen guitarist’s live setup is, you can effectively recreate some of your favourite tracks with the gear outlined above. Sure, you could incorporate complex switching systems, multiple amps, vintage gear, the signature guitar and all that jazz. But this article is all about dipping your tones into the world of tonal exploration. Brian May didn’t shirk his duties when it came to his studies – he’s an astrophysicist after all. You don’t have to shell out thousands to sound like him, but we highly recommend that you put the hours of practise in if you want the Brian May guitar tone.
Here’s Tom to show us how it’s done
Hopefully, we’ve given you some inspiration with regard to getting started or adding to your pedalboard/live rig. For even more ideas check out the Guitar Effects section on the Dawsons Website.
As ever, if you need any help or advice then our Customer Service Team are more than happy to help over the phone on 01925 582420. Our in-store specialists will guide you through the wonderful world of guitar effects, just pop into your nearest Dawsons store.
Quick recap of products:
- Squier Bullet Stratocaster
- Vox AC15C1 Custom Guitar Amp
- Electro Harmonix Screaming Bird
- BOSS SD-1 Super Overdrive
- Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer
- BOSS CE-5 Chorus Ensemble
- BOSS DD-7 Digital Delay
- Guitar Strings
- Guitar Picks
Jon is a multi-instrumentalist with a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing venues here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons’ Music Web Team before progressing into his current role managing the Dawsons Blog.