Brian May explains why he uses a sixpence as a pick

Among the many homemade aspects of Brian May’s guitar setup, which include his Red Special electric guitar and the occasionally-used “Deacy” amp, the Queen legend has been known for using a sixpence as a guitar pick.

Now, in a newly-posted interview with BBC Radio, May went in-depth about what first brought him to the sixpence, and why he prefers it over a standard plectrum.

“I used to use very bendy picks because I thought it was good for getting speed," he explained.

"But I gradually discovered that I wanted more and more hardness in the pick, and the more rigid it is, the more you feel what's happening at the string in your fingers. So in the end, I picked up a coin, and it was just perfect. That's all I needed. And I changed the way that I held the pick, sort of bending one of the fingers around, and I never went back from that point."

May pointed out that the sixpence has another advantage. “It's hard enough to give you all that contact, [and] it's also soft enough not to break your steel strings because it's made of nickel silver,” he said.

"And it has this lovely, serrated edge, and if you turn it at an angle to the strings, you get a lovely kind of splatter. So to me, the guitar is like a voice, and that splutter is one of the consonants that helps to make the guitar talk."

May, of course, is not the only guitar legend to use a coin for a pick – ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons famously employs a peso as a plectrum. In an interview with Guitar World, Gibbons explained how he came upon the unusual choice.

“Tommy Carter of Jimmie Vaughan's Dallas band the Chessmen used a quarter to play bass,” Gibbons said. “He described the serrated edge of the coin as producing a delightful scratchiness as he scrubbed the strings. That gave me the idea, and our love of the Mexican border is what drew us to the peso. The peso coin is a rarity, but we've still got a few filed down for the ready.”

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.