“Picks were too bendy. I couldn’t feel what was happening as the thing touched the string”: Brian May explains why he uses sixpences instead of picks

Brian May
(Image credit: Dave Benett/Getty Images)

Every guitarist has their go-to type of guitar pick: some prefer thinner ones for softer sounds, while others opt for heavier plectrums to help facilitate, well, heavier playing. 

This isn’t a science, more of a general rule of thumb. Paul Gilbert, for example, can shred with ultra-thin picks, and has even taken to drilling holes in his picks to help him play even faster.

And then there’s Brian May – one of the greatest electric guitar players ever, who doesn’t even use a guitar pick at all.

Instead, the Queen legend favors a sixpence (a small copper-nickel coin that was in circulation in the UK until 1980) and has done so for most of his career, using the loose change to help craft his most iconic guitar solos and riffs.

That May uses a sixpence has been common knowledge for quite some time, but the reasoning behind his decision is decidedly less so – evidenced by the fact he still gets questioned about his affinity for the sixpence.

The Red Special mastermind recently sat down with The Guardian to answer fan questions and was, naturally, asked if he still uses the coin to play.

Brian May

(Image credit: Andrew Chin/Getty Images)

“Pretty much always – sixpence, or the fingers,” he responded, before elaborating on precisely why he does. “I used to play with those little plastic picks but I always found that they were too bendy. I couldn’t really feel what was happening as the thing touched the strings. 

“I went into harder and harder picks, until they were too stiff. Then one day I picked up a coin, which happened to be a sixpence, and I thought, 'That’s all I need.' Sixpences are very soft metal, which doesn’t hurt the guitar strings, but if I turn that serrated edge at an angle to the string, I can get that kind of articulating, percussive consonant sound – I call it graunch. 

“Before about 1950, they had a high content of nickel, which makes them really soft, so I especially like a 1947 sixpence – the year that I was born.”

In other Brian May news, it was announced earlier this year that the guitarist's Star Fleet Project – recorded with Eddie Van Halen – would finally be coming to streaming this year, along with unreleased EVH solos.

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.