Brian May's 20 greatest guitar moments

Brian May's 20 best guitar moments
(Image credit: Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty)

To celebrate Brian May been recently voted by Total Guitar readers as the greatest rock guitarist of all time, we thought it was the ideal occasion to dig the Queen vinyl out and find the man with the curly hair and curly guitar lead's finest guitar moments.

When you put them all together like this, it shows you the depth to May's artistry, and how he could take the bare bones of rock 'n' roll and clad it in orchestral finery, and find a sense of quasi-medieval mysticism to hoist his audience out of their present reality. 

It's an act of sorcery, really, and that he does it all with a homemade guitar and just a few well-chosen effects – used as the name suggests, for effect – makes it all the more remarkable.

We'll kick things off with a lively one, and a motto to live by...

1. Keep Yourself Alive (Queen, 1973)

As the opening track on their debut, the May-penned Keep Yourself Alive serves as one hell of a mission statement. The flanged rhythm gallop and bluesy leads explode with metallic thunder and his classically tinged, harmonised solo set the bar high right from the off.

2. Seven Seas Of Rhye (Queen II, 1974)

The closing number on Queen’s sophomore release, written by Freddie Mercury, features one of May’s more aggressive solos, a minor section brilliantly sandwiched in between staccato major runs caked in delay.

3. Brighton Rock (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)

By the time the quartet were working on their third album, their classic pop-driven sound was starting to solidify. That said, moments like the solo in Brighton Rock proved May could easily give Jimmy Page a run for his money and rock just as hard.

4. Now I’m Here (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)

The second single from Sheer Heart Attack strikes a perfect balance between riff and melody, from the palm-muted intro and full-fat chords to the bluesy solo, with May also performing the honky-tonk piano parts. It remains a live favourite to this day, with the Adam Lambert-fronted Queen using it to open sets over 2014 and 2015.

5. Stone Cold Crazy (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)

Often considered a precursor to the speed metal later played by bands like Motörhead, Stone Cold Crazy could very well be Queen at their heaviest. The fast-picked riffs are further intensified by the two screaming phaser-soaked solos.

6. Killer Queen (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)

The fact there are no guitars in Killer Queen until the halfway mark is precisely what makes its solo is so impactful. Instead of playing anything too predictable or bluesy, May harmonises against himself with an almost Vaudevillian swing.

7. Lily Of The Valley (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)

The final couple of minutes in a three-song medley include a background orchestra of guitars deceptively layered to sound more like synths or a string section. Playing for the song not the spotlight, it encapsulates May’s knack for more minimalist finishing touches.

8. Bohemian Rhapsody (A Night At The Opera, 1975)

Powerfully expressive and succinct, the midway solo in Queen’s biggest hit is often shortlisted as one of the greatest of all-time. Then, of course, there’s that riff famously immortalised in the car scene from 1992 comedy Wayne’s World...

9. Tie Your Mother Down (A Day At The Races, 1976)

Following all the success of Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen now stood as one of the biggest bands in the world. The A-chord boogie of its opening track was made to conquer stadiums, aided by some tasty slide work from May towards the end of his solo.

10. The Millionaire Waltz (A Day At The Races, 1976)

It might not be one of the anthems, but this piano-led number from their fifth album showcases May’s ability to add classical, almost medieval, guitar parts to Mercury’s prodigious operas. It’s playful and mischievous in ways no other guitarist could have ever conceived. 

11. It’s Late (News Of The World, 1977)

Penned by May as his own version of a three-act play, It’s Late features some heavy riffing behind a solo that utilises two-handed tapping. Eddie Van Halen may have taken much of the credit for the technique, but this NOTW deep cut had actually hit the shelves before his bands’ debut.

12. Bicycle Race (Jazz, 1978)

Trying to evoke a bicycle race on electric guitar isn’t the easiest of jobs in the world, which is precisely what made May’s duelling hard-panned runs so wonderfully inventive – almost parodying the slapstick silliness you’d expect to hear at the circus.

13. Fat Bottomed Girls (Jazz, 1978)

The fact that Brian May’s drop-D tuned Red Special rings ever so slightly out of tune when he hits harder on the lower strings only adds to this hit’s charm. With no keyboards or piano whatsoever, it exemplifies the more uncomplicated straight rock side of Queen.

14. Sail Away Sweet Sister (The Game, 1980)

Featuring large doses of the harmonised guitar sound May helped popularise as well as his own lead vocals during its verse and chorus, this deep cut from Queen’s eighth full-length album also contains some truly exquisite, sitar-sounding acoustic slide work.

15. Hammer To Fall (The Works, 1984)

This May-penned single proved Queen hadn’t forgotten where they came from, with his AC30 roaring every bit as hard as it was in the early 70s. You can really hear the squeak of his sixpence coin during the first half of the solo.

16. One Vision (A Kind Of Magic, 1986)

As a standalone riff, One Vision could very well be Brian May’s best. If it were not for his unmistakable guitar tone, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were hearing Eddie Van Halen’s whammy bar work during the brief yet wildly flamboyant solo.

17. I Want It All (The Miracle, 1989)

The Miracle’s lead single is quintessential Queen, its doubletime solo section culminating in a series of slow harmonised bends that hang in the air right before that final bridge. Pure magic.

18. Chinese Torture (The Miracle, 1989)

Both Steve Vai and Joe Satriani have praised May as an influence over the years – and interestingly this shreddy instrumental, which includes some intense chromaticism and sweep-picking, indicates the feeling could very well have been mutual.

19. Bijou (Innuendo, 1991)

This penultimate track from the final album released during Mercury’s lifetime proved the chemistry between the band’s singer and guitarist had never waned. May would later credit Jeff Beck’s instrumental masterpiece Where Were You as an inspiration behind his contributions.

20. These Are The Days Of Our Lives (Innuendo, 1991)

Written by Roger Taylor, this keyboard-led ballad is one of the less complicated tunes on the album it’s found on. May’s solo begins with a few delicate choice notes to reinforce the song’s fragility before going into some truly jaw-dropping David Gilmour-esque runs.

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Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences as a guitar player. He's worked for magazines like Kerrang!Metal HammerClassic RockProgRecord CollectorPlanet RockRhythm and Bass Player, as well as newspapers like Metro and The Independent, interviewing everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handled lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).