In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview, he tells TG editor Chris Bird how he created his unique sound, and pays tribute to his heroes and friends who placed high in our poll – from Hendrix and Clapton to Eddie Van Halen and Nuno Bettencourt...
What does it mean to you to come in at number one in Total Guitar ’s poll of the greatest rock guitarists?
“I’m absolutely speechless. I’m blown away. I have to say it’s completely unexpected. Obviously I’m deeply touched that people feel that way about me. I’m not under any illusions that, technically, I’m even on the tree of great guitarists.
“I guess this tells me that what I’ve done has affected people, and that means a great deal to me. I will never claim to be a great guitarist in the sense of, you know, a virtuoso. I guess I just try to play from my heart and that’s about it.”
Perhaps you’d like to reflect on the players who came behind you in our poll? Jimi Hendrix was second.
“Oh my god! Well, it is very humbling. Jimi is, of course, my number one. And I’ve always said that. To me, he’s still something superhuman. It’s like he really did come from an alien planet, and I will never know quite how he did what he did.
“And every time I go back to Hendrix, I’m thrilled and stunned, and I get that feeling all over again, like either I’m going to give up playing guitar, because I can’t face up to this, or I’m gonna really have to get into it in a big way and try and do what is in my own body and soul. I never stop learning from Jimi. Strangely enough, these days I very seldom play his stuff but it’s kind of inside me anyway.”
I think that’s the same for a lot of people, isn’t it? Jimi’s part of the backdrop of guitar music.
“Yeah. So I’m deeply honoured. I never would have thought the day would come. I know my dad would have had a wry smile on his face.”
A few of the other players in the poll will also resonate with you. After Hendrix was Jimmy Page. How did he influence you?
“He’s almost my generation, but a little bit older, and we went to the same primary school, although he was, I think, two or three years above me – and that’s a lot when you’re small. So I always looked up to him, I gotta say, because he’s kind of a local boy to me.
“Strangely enough, we live quite close to each other at the moment. To me, he’s a master of invention, that’s what I would say. And he’s a major, major force in defining what heavy rock became as it was being born. I never get fed up of listening to those Zeppelin albums, and I never will.
“And it’s a funny feeling as well, because we were boys trying to do our thing and hoping that one day we might be rock stars and live their life, and listening to Communication Breakdown and Good Times Bad Times, I remember I had that feeling of, ‘Oh my god, he’s doing what I want to do and I either have to give up or else I have to try bloody hard.’”
Do you feel there are any parallels between Page and yourself, given that you went to the same school?
“There must be something in the water around that Richmond and Twickenham and Feltham area because The Yardbirds came from there, as you probably know, most of them. Two of them went to my school, Chris Dreja and the bass player Paul Samwell-Smith. And also The Rolling Stones, of course, and also Clapton is not far away, so I was incredibly lucky.”
It’s funny you mention Eric. He came fourth in the poll!
“Well, I’m kind of embarrassed because Eric is still my hero, of course. And it’s just wonderful. It’s like when the people at the Oscars say, ‘It’s great to be in this kind of company.’ What an amazing honour.”
Another player I think you’ll be interested in is your pal from your Starfleet Project days, Eddie Van Halen. He came third.
“Yeah, Eddie is incomparable. He stands there as one of the pillars of the development of electric guitar technique. He’s a wonderful guy. And you know, it’s funny, during lockdown, you start to look at your life again, and one of my regrets is that certain people, I think, I’ve let slip away.
“I haven’t talked to Eddie for a long time and I really regret that. I’d like to change that because he’s a fantastic guy, not just a great performer but an incredible spirit. The spirit, it’s blinding, and again, you could never get fed up of listening to that.
“And Eddie can pick up any guitar – and I remember this from the Starfleet Project sessions – it doesn’t matter what guitar it is, he will make it sound like him! I watched him pick up a bass when we were doing a demo and he made that sound like Eddie Van Halen. It’s just astounding what he can do with those fingers.”
Listening to Starfleet Project, there’s a great synchronicity between Eddie’s playing and your own. You complement each other so well. Was that to do with the way you were playing, or was it to do with the tones you were driving for?
“Yeah, it was a great moment. It’s one of those moments which I will always fondly remember. We were all in a little bit of downtime in our own projects. Queen was in a bit of a hiatus, and I think Van Halen weren’t doing too much and my neighbour Alan Gratzer from R.E.O. [Speedwagon] wasn’t doing much and we got together.
“It was one of those few occasions where I was the prime mover, I got up and made the phone calls and said, ‘Shall we do this?’ I think at that time it was new for me. I was used to answering other people’s calls.
“So having the courage to do that and then actually acting it out and doing it in the studio live – and that was totally live; what you hear is absolutely what happened in those moments – it was thrilling beyond belief.
“The adrenaline flowing through our bodies was extraordinary. And yes, I think the thing that probably brought us together was the blues thing, you know, because both Edward and I had had that in our DNA, the blues stuff, and then we veered away into something very different.
“But when we started particularly the Blues Breaker track, I think we kind of had Eric Clapton in our minds and the people that Clapton would revere like BB King, Muddy Waters; it was the power of the blues which made us gel. I remember Eddie saying, ‘You know, you got me to play today in a way that I haven’t played for years.’ Just simple and from the heart and with that kind of feeling. So yeah, it was a great time.”
We also ran a heavy metal poll. Would you like to guess who came on top of that one? It’s sort of a leading question, actually!
“Oh, god! Tony Iommi?”
That’s right! Obviously there have been rumours of collaborations between you and Tony for a long time. Is there any chance that could still happen?
“I think there is a chance. We do more talking than anything else, but we do a lot of talking. He is really my dearest friend in the business and has been for so many years. I could write books about Tony because he’s just the most [pauses]... I don’t even know how to put it into words. You know, he’s a luminous human being is Tony, with a wonderful, kind nature and an incredibly baffling sense of humour.
“And, of course, he is the father of heavy metal. He did that. He made that happen. And it’s from his fingers and his mind. That young ex-welder, he made that happen. So, you know, he forever wears that medal, I think. He founded this stuff, heavy metal, in my opinion. I mean, I think probably most people would agree, judging by your poll!”
Yeah, we were really pleased with the outcome of the poll. It feels very representative.
“I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but the funny thing about guitar playing is that you can’t really rate it. You can’t really give it points. That would be my response. I’m hugely honoured that people have, but every guitarist has his own signature and his own spirit.
“I don’t know if it’s true with any other instrument, but it seems to me that the guitar is perhaps the most expressive instrument because anyone can pick it up and make some kind of noise which affects people. So we’re all different. And I think when people see this poll, I can see the comments saying, ‘Well, what about Stevie Ray Vaughan?’ And they’re all going to be right. You know, ‘Where’s Steve Vai? Where’s Joe Satriani?’
“It’s true because there’s such an amazing rainbow of players that, really, you don’t want to be putting them in any kind of hierarchy. You just want to be enjoying the special stuff that they bring. Anyway, I’m hugely happy! Maybe that’s contradictory, but that’s the way I feel.
“You know, it’s never been a competition for me. It’s always just about the joy. And if I see a guitarist who is blindingly brilliant, I still get that pang of like, ‘Oh my god! I can’t do that.’ Then I meet them and they say, ‘Oh well, you do this that I can’t do,’ you know, and, although I don’t think I’m a technician, I have something. I’ve been told that I have something.”
On the subject of tone, obviously, the Red Special guitar is at the core of Queen’s sound. Did you have that sound in your head when you were designing it, or was it more of a process of tonal evolution?
“Hmm, a bit of both. I think I did have a sound in my head, I wanted it to be my voice. And I was inspired by certain moments of guitar playing like a lot of Jimi Hendrix, a lot of Eric Clapton. The Hi Ho Silver Lining solo from Jeff Beck, who, to me is still – I don’t know where he is in your poll – but to me he is a sort of unattainable perfection.
“He’s in a class of his own. So I was inspired by things like that and I wanted my guitar to have that voice. I wanted it to have the smooth tones of a singer, but also the ‘consonants’, sort of the definition which gives you the words when you’re singing.
“So I did look for it. And I made a guitar with that in mind, and I think with a bit of luck and a bit of good design I made a guitar which actually did feed back – and that’s another story because all the Fenders and Gibsons of the time were made so they would not feed back.
“That was the whole kind of principle of the early electric guitar – so that you could amplify it on the stage and it wouldn’t feed back. So I’d seen feedback, I’d seen Pete Townshend – again, wow! Pete Townshend’s a god of guitar and always will be! I’d seen him stand there and let the guitar explode into life on its own.
“I’d seen Hendrix do it, I remember Jeff Beck doing it at the Marquee Club, just putting his guitar and resting it on the ground and rotating it and getting all different notes out of it. So that's what I wanted my guitar to be. I wanted it to have a voice of its own that I could scarcely control. I suppose that was in my mind. And it did work out well. It didn’t happen immediately though.”
And how about your tonal journey with amplification?
“I tried a number of amps and it was okay. But there was one day, well, it comes down to Rory Gallagher – and I’m mentioning all the great names who to me were inspiring!
“I went and saw Rory Gallagher at the Marquee one night. Me and my mates hid in the toilets while everybody was ejected after the gig [laughs], and we went up to Rory and said, ‘How do you get that amazing sound?’ And he was the most delightful person in the world.
“He took loads of time to show us. He said, ‘Well, it’s just this guitar you know, Brian,’ – it was like that! ‘And I have this Vox AC30 amp and I have this little box which is a treble booster, a little Rangemaster Treble Booster.’ He said ‘That’s it. That’s the way it’s always been.’
“So I went out the next day to Wardour Street and bought two AC30s, taking all of the money that I had in my bank account because I was a student, and found a Rangemaster.
“I plugged it all up with my guitar and it was there. And I don’t think really it’s changed significantly [since]. And I could just feel it. It sustained. It had a beauty to it. It would roar. But you could also hear the notes within a chord if you backed it off a little bit.
“And I know why now. The Vox AC30 works in a different way from most guitar amps. And it does give you that smooth transition into compression and distortion, which to me is just the voice that I always wanted. So that’s it really.
“But, you know, the funny thing is most people’s sound – I’m sure you’ve heard this all the time – is in the fingers. I remember when I played with Hank Marvin – here’s another name I’m dropping – a great hero to me and happily now a friend of mine.
“I played with Hank Marvin, and he picked up my guitar and I thought, ‘Oh my god, what’s that going to sound like?’ Well, folks, it sounded like Hank Marvin! It’s in the fingers! I’ve had that pleasure of discovery many times. Duane Eddy is the same. It doesn’t matter what guitar
he picks up, you know, and he played my guitar when we were on tour, which is a thrill. It’s just there. It’s in the way people play, I think. And I’ve had that said about me. I remember I’ve picked up other people’s guitars and they went, ‘Oh, so it’s not your guitar. It’s you, is it?’ And I go, ‘Well, I dunno!’”
Now that Brian May Guitars and AmpliTube Brian May are both available, it’s possible to get seriously close to the Queen sound with technology, but what’s the last secret ingredient?
“I think it’s in the way you interact with your instrument. And again, it is a very expressive instrument because there’s so many ways you can do that. People hit it with different stuff, and I’m tending to be less of a ‘pick’ player than I used to be. I love playing with the fingers more these days.
I find I can get more expression and I can still pick up the sixpence and get that nice kind of ‘graunch’ as I call it as you scrape it over the string. I mean, if you wanted a secret ingredient, that’s probably it. The sixpence was a big part of getting that sort of articulation in the sound.”
How early on were you using the sixpence?
“Oh, from the beginning pretty much. I used to use anything I could find. I used to like soft picks. I used to make them out of the inserts from biros, ballpens and stuff . And I remember I made a pick out of some material that was used to hold lighter flints that my dad had. And then I discovered I preferred something more and more rigid, something that didn’t give at all, because I could feel all the movement from the string interaction in my fingers.
“And one day, I just picked up a coin and it happened to be a sixpence and I discovered it gave me everything I needed... And more, really, because you can play with the angle and you can get a real kind of scrape, or ‘scrawp’, by angling it to the strings.
“But if you play with it parallel to the strings, it's actually a very smooth sound – and that’s soft metal so it doesn’t actually break the strings too fast. It messes up your windings after a while!"
The ‘clink’ of metal on metal is key to your tone, isn't it?
“Yeah, but there again, these days I do a lot of that stuff with the fingers and it sort of gives me the choice. It gives me a little bit more range of tones.”
Are you super-analytical about your technique?
“No. Haha, no! Well, I suppose I was in the early days. I was into everything when I was a boy and I was certainly into the electronics and the amps. I made myself some delay machines, I adapted some Echoplexes to give me the long delays that I needed to do that kind of cannon thing.
“And I actually designed a machine where I could press a button and then press another button and it would give me a loop and I could play to the loop. And I’ve seen Ed Sheeran does that now, and that’s an avenue which I never really followed up.
“But I was into all those technicalities and my dad was an electronics engineer, so he encouraged me to get into the workings of the AC30 and the treble boost, which is quite crucial.
“As far as technique, no, I don’t think I was ever analytical except after the event. I like to let the instincts govern what I do and then very often think about it afterwards. And maybe there’s a revisit if I think, ‘Oh, yeah, I did that instinctively but maybe I could do a bit more of this and a bit less of that and it would be better.’”
You’re quite a technical player, though. You've always had a very polished and tidy delivery.
“To me it is about singing. It’s about making that guitar sing. That’s my whole kind of judgement. And you know, if it communicates the way I feel then I’ve done the job.”
A lot of your solos certainly seem driven by singable melodic licks.
“I like to be melodic. Yeah, I do. I love to be melodic. Again, it’s this thing about the vocal. When we were working with Freddie, a lot of the time I was sitting there producing him, being the person that he could bounce off [when] doing his vocals. And then very often, he would sit with me and do the same thing when I was doing the guitar.
“You know, I might be working towards something, doing a number of takes, then he’d say, ‘No no no, let’s use take two. You had a really great melody there. That’s what we need.’ So we were always conscious that we were weaving themes together, not just kind of showing off and putting lots of noise on there. It’s about singing songs and melodies. And adrenaline!”
- Queen's Brian May on Freddie Mercury's guitar skills, Bohemian Rhapsody actors and the most difficult song to play live
There are so many incredible, musically-diverse arrangements in the Queen back catalogue. Freddie’s vocal lines and your guitar parts seem to gel together sublimely.
“Yeah. And I think we learned from the best. We were lucky as kids. We had that explosion of rock ’n’ roll, but there was a background of such a wide range of music.
“So, as kids, we all listened to lots of classical music because it was on the radio, and the beginnings of music hall and skiffle, and I particularly was very aware of the arrangement side of things. Again, not too analytically, more instinctively, but the recordings of [60s surreal trad jazz ensemble]
“The Temperance Seven to me are a shining example of how you can make beauty in layering harmonies. You can see it as a sandwich, you can slice through it and see what’s happened at any moment or you can see it as lines which weave around each other like snakes. And I love it.
“I still listen to those beautiful arrangements of The Temperance Seven. I don’t know who did it. It says it’s arranged by J. Kronk. I suspect it was all of them who contributed because they’re immensely complicated. So there’s a big influence on me.”
Is there a defining Queen song which sums up your input into the band, your sound and your technique in a nutshell?
“Oh, that's a hard one. I could give you something unexpected which would be Lily Of The Valley. Lily Of The Valley was one of the first times I really got into an orchestration. And the song is really piano/bass and it’s a beautiful, lyrical song, so it was essential not to get in the way.
“But I designed this whole arrangement to be like what you would do if you were arranging for strings. And I was very pleased with that because it’s very sympathetic to the song and the sounds are great.
“I was experimenting mainly with the AC30 but beginning to experiment with smaller amps as well to get that sustained string sound, particularly the ‘Deacy’ amp. I’m not sure if I had it at that point or not, but it was around that time that I started using this little amp that Deacy [John Deacon, Queen bassist] made out of rescued bits from a skip!
“It’s actually quite a legendary piece of gear. I still have it; I still love it. So Lily Of The Valley, that’s one of the things that I’m proud of that I went out on a limb, and I think the result is very suitable for the song. That’s a Freddie piano part. Very distinctive Freddie. I’m just the string arrangement!”
Your ‘string’ arrangements are amazing for their harmonies. How would you tend to get started with those layered harmonies?
“Well, I think you have to think in chords. I think you have to imagine what’s changing in the chords underneath. I mean, you can just play a guitar line then play a guitar line in parallel with it, and lots of people have done it. But it’s not evocative because it doesn’t echo what’s actually the spine of the song – which is the chord structure.
“So, whether I’m playing or whether I’m just thinking about it, I’m imagining the chords changing underneath and adapting what I’m playing to that. So, what happens is, you perhaps play a line which you hear in your head like a sung line and then in harmonising it you have to figure out what would go with the chords. And it’s not being analytical. You can feel it. You can feel what happens.
“And the joy of it to me is sometimes you will get a lovely harmony, a 3rd or a 5th or a 6th and then in order to get to the next chord you have to go into dissonance. And it’s those little points of tension, which give it its power. So, it’s a combination of dissonance and harmony, or ‘consonance’ if you like, going in and out in mysterious ways which make the magic happen.
“Now, you can see, if you want examples, go back to Glenn Miller, and again, The Temperance Seven, Mantovani, how many different influences you can find. [I listened to] people who were aware of this stuff and those wonderful arrangers who did Frank Sinatra’s stuff. I think it’s Nelson Riddle.
“There’s there’s a wealth of information and inspiration in a lot of those pieces of music, which are not considered part of rock music, of course, but nevertheless they’re music and all those wonders are there to be found.”
Perhaps not something people might easily identify in Queen without having a deep knowledge of those styles of music though.
“To me, it’s a never-ending source of joy to find stuff like that, I must say. On an instinct, I played last night on my – I call them ‘micro-concerts’.
“I lost a dear friend of mine who died last night from coronavirus and I thought, ‘Should I play it?’ And I played this for him – an old song called Stranger On The Shore by Acker Bilk. He was the leader of his jazz band and a great clarinettist and it’s been in my head for a while for some reason. It’s a very wistful kind of tone poem.
“So I played that last night. I always like to check what’s in there, so I went back and listened very carefully to the arrangement because it’s all strings with a little combo behind. The strings are a great foil for the melody and the melody wouldn’t be what it is without those lovely little changes behind.
“Well, I didn’t go into it very deeply because I only had an acoustic guitar, but I did an acoustic guitar backing track which echoed those chord sequences and then I could play on top of it. I don’t think I’ve got it quite right, actually. If I was in the studio, I would spend a bit more time and get it right, but it’s close.”
With the current lockdown measures in place and the troubled times we find ourselves in, what’s next for Queen and yourself?
“I’m playing more than I would when I’m at home normally. I’m not playing as much as we do on tour because that’s intense. That takes a lot of care of the fingers to be able to withstand that amount of stress. We postponed all our European and British dates, which would have been starting around now; we sold 400,000 tickets for that tour.
“It’s very, very painful to have to stop, but I could see it coming quite a long time ago. I remember thinking when we finished our Australian tour, ‘I don’t think we’re going to get to Europe,’ because it was all starting to happen then. So what we’ve done is reschedule them for the same time the following year.
“So we’re touching wood, hoping with fingers crossed that things will be ‘normal’, but I have this feeling inside me they won’t be normal. I just hope that they are playable and that we are a little bit back to being social animals.
“I’m also praying that we’ve learned some lessons from this and we don’t go back to abusing the planet quite as badly as we had been to the point where the coronavirus first struck. I’m so amazed by how wildlife all around the world has recovered, because the hand of man has been loosened.
“It’s nice to see that it’s brought out some good sides of human nature. And I think it’s made us look in different ways. I mean, I took up the veganuary challenge on January 1st this year thinking, ‘Well, I’ll just do it for a month and see how it feels and probably that’ll be it.’
“But it made me feel so much better that I stuck with it. And then the more I’ve seen of the way things are at the moment, I wasn’t a preacher before but I think I may be [now] because I think the way forward [for humanity] is to become plant-based. It would make such a vast difference to the condition of the planet, to the condition of our health and to the lives of animals which we abuse so appallingly badly.
“So I’m sticking with it now, and I don’t think anything will stop me being a vegan for the rest of my life now. If everybody just ate less meat the planet would improve immediately and so would our health and so would a lot of animals, so I would definitely advocate that.
“For me, I’m an animal campaigner, so it became an issue with me. I thought, ‘Well, why am I campaigning for animals and I’m still eating them?’ So it was kind of a logical step for me and I just feel so much better now. It has taken away a lot of my inner strife. I just don’t think about it anymore. I just eat plants and I’m happy. But anyway, tell me the rest of the guitarists in the top 10!”
We got far as Eric Clapton, didn't we? David Gilmour was next – another melodic player…
“Yeah, a beautiful player. I love him. I have an enormous respect for him. I saw one of his first shows with Pink Floyd, which I’ll never forget. He was doing crazy things with a bottleneck, which fitted right in with their kind of chaotic performances at the time. He’s always been a great favourite of mine. A beautiful player.
“And we did play together for Armenia at one point. I asked him to come in and play Smoke On The Water for Armenia Relief. I occasionally see him. We don’t keep that well in touch, but I’m very well aware of what magnificent work he does. What about Jeff Beck?”
He’s ninth, after Ritchie Blackmore and Alex Lifeson.
“I was gonna mention Ritchie Blackmore next. Another great hero of mine. He’s crazy. I mean, yeah, it was extraordinary watching him. I think he’s one of the most dangerous guitar players ever. And I mean that is in the best possible way. Beautiful! He was there way ahead of any of us. Where’s Dimebag Darrell in the heavy metal poll? He must be up there!”
Second! You’re doing really well. You’ve guessed the top two of the metal poll! Randy Rhoads was third. The result of the poll seems to give props to the classic era of metal. You have to go to fifth to see Mark Tremonti, ninth for Synyster Gates, 12th for Nuno Bettencourt; but the results are very classic-oriented.
“Oh, now there’s an awesome player. Incredible. Nuno is outrageous! We’ve played together a lot and we’ve hung out together a lot. I think one of the most memorable nights was when Extreme played the Freddie Tribute (concert at Wembley Stadium in 1992). I didn’t really know what was gonna happen. They kept it a secret. I thought they were going to come on and play a lot of their hits, but they came on and did an entire Queen extravaganza.
“And I watched it with my jaw dropped open. It was incredible, the depth they’d gone into to play it so beautifully and perfectly but also with their own interpretation so that was an amazing moment. I remember talking to Nuno afterwards and I said, ‘I had no idea you were going to do that’ and he went, ‘No, you didn’t, did you?’ Amazing! But his soloing? Beyond belief! I feel rather sad that they didn’t continue on as a band. They didn’t really achieve their potential in the world. It’s very odd.
“They had that massive hit with More Than Words and then I think unfortunately it was difficult for their audience to appreciate what they really were as a band. It was one of those strange moments where you get a hit but it doesn’t define you in the way you want to be defined. That’s the way I see it. Because they’re a magnificent group.
“Nuno’s really very underrated I would say. He’s one of the greats. One of the greatest living guitarists, I would say. As is – you know who we haven’t mentioned – Eric Johnson! I mean, there is a phenomenon. There is just another whole universe of guitar playing. It’s astoundingly beautiful.
“And I have to mention my friend Arielle who’s been on tour with him and often does his parts for him cos he doesn’t feel like doing them. He wants to do something else! She’s an extraordinary player, too. She’s not that famous yet, but I’m sure she will be. She gets this inexplicable tone. It’s like liquid metal! I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like golden peas coming out of a pod!
“It’s a bit like Eric, you know, you just don’t know where that sound comes from. That’s what I love about guitar playing. You look around and you see endless wonders and you don’t have to decide what you like best. You can just enjoy it all!”
Perhaps that’s what our poll has revealed with its breadth.
“Well, I’m blown away. Absolutely blown away. Thank you, readers, for this. I will never forget it.”