May’s Delays

The phenomenon of Queen has provided hundreds of publications with miles of column inches. Most guitarists know the story of how guitarist Brian May built his first instrument out of a fireplace, that he uses Sixpences for plectrums and is a fan of the good old Vox AC30, while currently playing through a wall of massed Matchlesses.

May’s guitar sound is unique. It has often been emulated, but never quite equalled. As much a trademark of the Queen sound as the amazing voice of the greatly missed Freddie Mercury – and an arguably more recognisable one – is Brian’s multi-layered guitar orchestrations. The ultimate example of this is perhaps Good Company from ‘A Night At The Opera’, although dozens of Queen songs feature a layered guitar somewhere.

To faithfully recreate this technique live would be impossible without additional guitarists on stage, so early on in the band’s career Brian began using delays to create the other parts. ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, Queen’s third album, features the May song Brighton Bock, during which he uses a single repeat to create two-part harmony from a single guitar line. But what about the three-part arrangements?

Three-part harmony is a great deal more difficult to achieve, but as technology advanced, the May set-up began to incorporate modified Echoplexes (high-quality tape echo machines) for these delays, and during live renditions of Brighton Rock he would use two units linked together for a piece that subtly changed every night. To many people’s minds this is the most riveting guitar solo that the world’s stages have ever seen (or heard).

How It’s Done

The technique works by taking one original guitar note and adding two repeats, or delays, of it. As subsequent notes in a run are played – which have to be in exact time with the repeats – a kind of fake three-part harmony is produced (this is because each new note is in harmony with the repeat of the last note and the one before that). The harmony itself is real enough, it’s just not being played by three guitarists!

To accomplish this feat, the delays must be set equidistantly from one other – for example 900ms and 1800ms – and it sounds best with each one going to a different side of the stereo picture. This explains, at least partly, why May uses so many amps on stage, as one delay would be fed into a single AC30 and panned hard left while the other would go into a separate combo and be panned hard right.

The original dry, or unaffected, guitar sound would come from yet another amp and be dead central. (Brian also uses a smidgen of chorus, to thicken things up a bit.) Using this delay method and playing a simple run of E, G sharp, B and back to E, magically gives you you the E chord. Of course you must keep in time with yourself otherwise it can sound really messy – and remember that any mistake will be heard three times!