One of the guitars great individualists, Queen’s Brian May talks to Steven Rosen during Los Angeles studio sessions for the bands latest album.
Were you writing songs back when you had your first band, Smile?
Yes, but mostly we were playing other people’s material, adaptations of other people’s material. We did a heavy version of If I were a Carpenter and a lot more or less pure jamming where we’d start off with a riff and build on that. We had an elemental version of Doing Alright which was on the first Queen album. There was a particular track called Earth which was a Smile single which was released in America and sold zero. I quite liked it. I think we did a couple of adaptations of Motown things, and we did a couple of Cream songs like N.S.U. and I think we also did Sweet Wine.
Had you built your own guitar by the time Smile was formed?
Oh, yeah, long before that. I was playing in an amateur group called 1984, and I had it then. But I don’t want to talk about 1984 it was just a schoolboy band.
What was the main reason for building your own guitar?
Because I couldn’t afford what I wanted. I thought I wanted a Les Paul or a Stratocaster, though I’d never had one in my hands. I didn’t particularly like what most of my friends had, which were Hofner Coloramas and Futuramas. I sort of liked them but I thought I could do better. So my father and I set about it. Originally I designed the pickups but I ditched them because, although they had a good sound, they didn’t have a uniform enough feel. You’d squeeze the string and they would just make the wrong sound, so I threw them out and put Burns pickups on; which were commercially available at the time, and they’re what I still use. I filled them up with Epoxy resin, to stop them from being microphonic but, apart from that, they’re standard.
What types of amplifiers were you using in the early days?
(Vox) AC30’s from pretty early. First of all I was using an old valve amplifier which was part of a radio we had at home. We disconnected the radio part and plugged into the preamp and that was the first thing I used. That’s when we were playing in each other’s houses. Next, I bought a Burns amplifier which I was never very happy with. By then I had played some of my friends’ AC30’s and that’s what I went to. I got a secondhand AC30 pretty soon after that, and I’ve stuck with the AC30’s ever since. The Shadows were the big AC30 people in those days, that’s where I got the idea for it.
How did Queen evolve from Smile?
Smile got very disillusioned and split up. Although we’d put a record out, it didn’t sell and we felt like we were going nowhere; it was just general depression. Sometimes we’d play in a club and get a good reaction, but it wouldn’t lead anywhere because you’d go to the next place and no one had ever heard of you. So we thought we’d try to make a record because that’s how you get to the next stage. That’s how you get to the point where people know who you are and instead of just listening to you while they’re drinking their beer and picking up girls, they’re going to come and listen to you because they like you. So we directed our efforts towards writing, and Queen started to come together at that time. We already knew about Freddie (Mercury) because he was a friend of our Bass player and he had come to some of our shows. I shared a flat with Roger in those days and Freddie would come and stay sometimes. We talked and talked and we were both big Hendrix fans. By that time Hendrix had come along and complete changed all our lives – particularly mine. Anyway, we got together and we wrote and said if we’re going to approach this, then we have to become a proper group. We figured at some point in your life an opportunity had to come along, you have to get your break, and we felt that what distinguished the men from the boys is that some people are ready for it and some aren’t. So we said, when it comes we’re going to be ready; everything’s going to be rehearsed, we’re going to know what the stage act is going to be like, the whole thing is going to be professional before we ever set foot on a stage – that was our aim.
The thing that really helped was when a friend of mine knew somebody who was going to be an engineer at the new De Lane Lea studio. They said if we would come along and make some noise so they could do their acoustic tests, they’d make some demos for us. So that’s what we did and we made four demos with Louie Austin, who was one of the engineers there. We had some friends who took those demos around to record companies but most of then weren’t very interested. A couple of them were fairly interested. EMI was enthusiastic but wouldn’t commit to us at that time. Trident wanted us, although they weren’t actually a record company, they were a production company. For some reason we decided that was a good idea, to go with a production company, make the album, and then go back to the record companies. Trident is a long story which went very, very sour. It took another 18 months before we had the album finished, which was terrible because you can imagine getting up every day and wanting to have that thing finished so you can get on to the next step. For one reason or another we couldn’t get it finished. Eventually the album was made and it was taken around to the record companies again. This time most people were interested. There was a sort of buzz out there because people had heard about what we were doing, so at that time everyone was keen. EMI was the keenest of all and we got a message from the saying ‘don’t sign with anyone until you talk with us’. We finally signed to then: or rather Trident signed to them and that was to be a continuing problem. We now had a record company but we weren’t actually signed to them, we were signed via a third party which gave rise to all sorts of bad experiences. In effect, our manager was our record company and that’s an impossible situation because if your manager is your record company you have no one to represent you to the record company.
So we made the album (Queen), and it did reasonably well, but it really didn’t sell that many. It did, however, give us enough notice to be able to go back in and do a second album. They gave us the proper time to do it and off we went.
Were you still feeling your way around in terms of a sound and direction on the first Queen album?
I wanted to do this orchestrating guitar stuff on the first album but we didn’t have the time. We were stuck in the studio at odd hours, in between other sessions and there just wasn’t the time. We concentrated on putting an album out which was a reflection of what we were on stage, because at that time we hardly played any gigs, except private gigs where we’d invite 100 people and play for them. We’d done a couple of things we thought were worthwhile, some college dates, but very little really. We really didn’t want to do the wrong things. We’d already driven ourselves mad playing pubs and little clubs up and down the country in Smile, and we didn’t want to do through that again because we thought it’d kill us, it would get too depressing.
The second album was much different from the first.
Much different, yes. Then we had a chance to do with the studio all the things we wanted to do, such as the multipart guitars. I actually did a multipart guitar on the Smile record, very early on, but I really wanted to go to town and have an orchestral guitar effect behind the main guitar. The first thing that you hear on Father To Son, well Procession, is a completely guitar orchestrated thing anyway, but when the song comes in and you expect just the crunch of the guitar, there’s a wash of harmony guitars behind. I always wanted to do that and it fulfilled a dream – I wanted to get that on record. When Queen II came out it didn’t connect with everyone. A lot of people thought we’d forsaken rock music. They said ‘Why don’t you play things like Liar and Keep Yourself Alive‘, which were on the first album. All we could say was give it another listen, it’s there, but it’s all layered, it’s a new approach. Nowadays people say ‘Why don’t you play like Queen II (laughter)?’. A lot of our close fans think that, and I still like that album a lot. It’s not perfect, it has the imperfections of youth and the excesses of youth, but I think that was our biggest single step ever.
Where did you acquire the technical knowledge of being able to put all those guitar parts on record?
Musically, my background was that I was taught piano, so I learned harmony structure there and I used to listen to the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly and The Crickets and work out all the harmonies they were doing – the harmonies the Jordanaires were doing behind Elvis, too. That was a real passion of mine; I was alsways interested in how those effects were built up. I used to sing along with the records and sing all the parts so that I knew what everyone was doing. I had a feel for what harmonies could do, how they could produce tension and how they could produce emotion in different ways. I applied that to what I was doing with the guitars.
Technically it wasn’t that hard because I had Roy (Thomas Baker, producer) who at that time was a very technical person. He’d come up as an engineer working with the producers of the day and he was possibly the number one ‘state of the art’ technical producer – that was his angle in those days. We were already big-headed enough to think we were producing it anyway, and we knew what we wanted because we had the sound in our heads. In Roy, we had someone who could come up with a way of doing it. He knew how to layer these things and multi-track them and bounce them. Mind you, it was mainly 16-track for those first couple of albums.
How are you able to match the exact vibrato and pick attach for the various parts?
Just work on it. The reason I was doing it was to avoid having to put an organ behind there. The guitar for me is an emotional thing and you consciously play it, you consciously mark out the notes and squeeze the string. But there’s sort of an unconscious thing there too, and the emotion comes from that. There are things going in there which you almost don’t realise you’re putting in, and that’s the thing about the guitar, I wanted every part to have that tension and emotion in it, and that’s when I thought you would get the maximum impact and effect. I just didn’t want someone hitting a chord on a keyboard. Synthesizers were beginning to be around then, and most of the synthesizers at that time were very cold, with no emotion. I wanted it all to be guitars and so that’s why I did it. On every part I was out there and putting everything into it that I could. The thing that a lot of people still don’t realise about guitar harmonies is that they shouldn’t be parallel, any more than vocal harmonies should be parallel; that’s not the way to get the real feeling into it and little discords and all this weaving in and out, just the same way people build up orchestral scores.
In the studio I always used the guitar I built with the AC30’s and some other little amps. I started to use small amplifiers, hi-fi amps really, which you could push very hard and get different sounds out of, strings sounds. My ultimate favourite is something John Deacon made our of a home hi-fi system. The speaker is tiny and he put a little amplifier inside it – it has an unbelievable sound!
Sheer Heart Attack seemed to be another step again beyond Queen II
The second album did OK but we felt it had been misunderstood by a lot of people. They all thought, as I said, that we’d forsaken rock and roll. We were slated for that album by the critics; the critics unanimously hated it, wrote it off as worse than rubbish. We thought on the next album, instead of having everthing layered and happening at once like it was on Queen II, we would spell it out and one thing would happen at a time, so that everyone would know what was going on. So Sheer Heart Attack is quite simply structured really, and although there are a lot of different textures happening, they all happen one after the other instead of one underneath the other.
We were also very singles-minded about songs. Killer Queen was a lighter song but we knew exactly how we wanted to treat it. We wanted to state the song, have the harmonies, and the solo. That was a three part solo and one of the first solos I did where the three parts were actually starting in different places. It wan’t the first, but it was one of the first where there were almost three different tunes going on.
Is the solo on Killer Queen something you thought about before recording it?
Yes; I didn’t write it down, but I had it in my head – that bell-like effect. I just worked with it a little while. In the early days some people had put echo on the guitar sounds and I hated it, so I had this big thing about ‘Don’t you dare touch the guitar, don’t you dare put anything on it’ so everything in those days was totally dry.
In those early days were you still using a sixpence as a pick?
Sixpence, yes. With the serrated edge. I still am.
I see those first three Queen albums as the initial stage of the band’s development, would you agree?
Yes, after Sheer Heart Attack was a big step. This was the point where we split from Trident, at long last. Believe it or not, we never even thought about money until that point. We thought the money would come and it would take care of itself in time. We could afford to eat, but it was close. Even at the time of Killer Queen we were earning about thirty pounds a week, and by the time you paid your rent you had very little. Then we began to think ‘Hey, there should be some money coming in from this. How come none of it is coming to us?’. And we also got very unhappy about problems of artistic freedom and other things.
We bought our way out and went with John Reid, who was on top of the world at the time. We went away into the country and worked on A Night At The Opera. That album was the second huge step in our career.
Weren’t you about ready to split with Roy Thomas Baker at this point?
No, not really. There was never any animosity with Roy. A Day At The Races was the first album we actually produced. We kept Mike Stone, who had been assisting Roy, because we needed an engineer. At that time Roy got The Cars and we had come a long way together. I think between us and him we evolved that style of production which has now gone out into the world and got to other people. Mike Stone was involved from the beginning too, the harmonies, doing the guitars that way, getting the ambience bigger on the drums and making them sound bigger.
That was sort of a new thing in those days. Now it’s become almost a little school of production. Mike is out there and he’s doing Journey, and Roy had done Cheap Trick. And there was another guy working with us and he’s done Foreigner. Mike is doing Asia too, which is different but it’s an extension of what we were doing.
By the time of The Game album, Mike had grown totally fed up with us and didn’t want to work with us anymore. Roy actually came back to do the Jazz album, which was before The Game. After Jazz we again felt we had to get away to new territory, and so for the first time we went away on our own, to Munich, and by a very happy accident we met up with Mack. We asked the studio who they had and they said they had ‘Mack’. We didn’t really know who he was, except we knew he worked with ELO. He turned out to be a real find. He was someone who had been working with a lot of people we admired, like Zeppelin and Deep Purple. He’d done things with guitar-oriented groups. Everything we did on The Game was different from the way we’d done it before, it was a fusion of our methods and his methods. There was some conflict, I had a lot of disputes with him over how we should record guitars. I suppose by that time I wasn’t even thinking about it, I just wanted to record it the way I always recorded it. But Mack said ‘Look, try my way’. Eventually we did compromise and got the best of both worlds.
His two big contributions were, firstly, in his approach to backing tracks. Instead of working for days and playing the backing track over and over again, Mack would have us play the thing and if we broke down half way through, he would drop in everything. Which we thought was a joke at the time, both technically and feel-wise. But strangely enough, the way he got us to do it did work. It enabled us to maintain the freshness of the backing tracks. Perhaps we sacrificed a little bit of perfection, but we hadn’t lost all the feel. Previously we had done backing tracks to such an extent that we did them to death: they became perfect but sterile. I had given up trying to play anything decent on a backing track, because all the things I liked guitar-wise couldn’t be used when that particular backing track wasn’t used because the drums weren’t right. Doing it Mack’s way we were able to get good performances out of all of us and get a complete backing track down in half a day. The other big contribution he made was in the drum sounds. He had a different approach to drums using much less Eq and much less post-production. He got all the sound in the studio at the time with just the mikes, and it was big and ambient but crisp and not flabby.
By this time you must certainly know what you want your guitar to sound like.
I like it to be rich and warm, but at the same time aggressive and with an edge to it. Getting back to Mack, our approach to the guitar differed because he wanted me to try different amps and I wasn’t happy with that, but for certain things it worked out well. On Crazy Little Thing Called Love where we were going for a period sound, I played a Telecaster through a Boogie amp and it worked out fine. It was different. I kicked against that, but in the end I saw it was the right thing to do.
As far as recording my own guitar, he wanted to use more mikes and get the same approach as you would with the drums, that started to make it too distant for me. I wanted the guitar to be inside the speaker and the ambience to be created in the listener’s environment. This all came from my resistance to putting echo on anything. I regarded ambience on the guitar as the same as echo and thus making it less immediate. I wanted to hear all the guts and the string stretch and the fingers.
Moving up to the present, you’ve completed a solo album called The Star Fleet Project?
I realised a big gap in my life was not playing with other musicians. I wanted to get out and find out what it was like to play with other people – I had almost never done it. We’ve never been into the superstar thing of people guesting on the albums. In this case we really needed it because we got sorely fed up with each other after we finished touring in Japan last November. We decided we couldn’t stand the sight of each other for a few months and we had to take a break. We needed new energy. I also produced a group called Heavy Petting, played on a few sessions, and did the solo album. I still think that Queen is stronger than any of its parts; that’s why there’s still a band called Queen.
You’re working on a Queen album right now?
I see it as being musically a lot closer to the middle period than the last three or four albums. A lot closer to A Night At The Opera and News Of The World and a little bit to The Game. But some of the writing is the next step beyond, it’s not going back in time. We’ve also integrated some of the more modern technologies like drum machinges and we’ve dabbled with the Fairlight. But we haven’t gone totally toward making machine music because the fact is we don’t like it! The human element is very important.
The band has always made a point in avoiding synthesizers and artificial sounds.
Latterly we introduced them but we made a big point of that because we wanted people to know that all those guitar and vocal harmony things weren’t synthesizers. In the end, when synthesizers grew up and we grew up, we decided there’s no reason to be that fussy about it, – as long as they don’t replace us.
Is your stage setup still the same?
Yes, I generally use 12 AC30’s but sometimes they’re not all used. I used to use a modified Echoplex which I did myself. The modification was to put in a long rail instead of a short one and to turn the feeback to zero so it’s just a single repeat, but now it can be done digitally so I now have a couple of digital delays – they don’t wow and flutter and give up halfway through the night!
Looking back at the Queen career, how would you sum it up?
Everyone thought we had this huge monster plan, the ‘Queen machine’, but it’s an illusion. What happened was we followed our noses and we were lucky enough to find an audience who went along with us. It’s as simple as that. We’re very fortunate.