By Strings Direct – 29 August, 2023
"I will never claim to be a great guitarist in the sense of a virtuoso. I just try to play from my heart ♥️ "
Week in, week out we look at many different guitar players from all genres and all generations and they are all iconic guitar legends in their own way 🤘. However, very few guitarists can be identified from just one note; one note that completely resonates with the player's identity, the player's signature sound, attack, and expression.
Such unique attributes grace guitar players so legendary almost go into another stratosphere. The spotlight falls on a player that can truly make the strings sing, a player that not only defined himself through individuality but nonetheless expresses himself from within. A prolific musician and creative artist always in line to reinvent in a dynamic fashion.
We delve into the world of this player and worlds beyond as we look further than the stars with this astronomical doctor of the arts. 🎭 Recently voted the No. 1 classic rock guitarist of all time by the readers of Total Guitar!: Mr Brian Harold May CBE.
“I guess this tells me that what I’ve done has affected people, and that means a great deal to me. I will never claim to be a great guitarist in the sense of, you know, a virtuoso. I guess I just try to play from my heart and that’s about it.”
Brian May - Total Guitar Magazine
The Astronomy Of Guitar 🎸
Ironically the 19th July, a date that currently resonates in the UK media in 2021, a date of great significance both in the present and in the past; back in 1947, Hampton Hill, Twickenham born to parents Ruth and Harold, a genius of our time was brought into the world, Brian Harold May. An only child about to be a solitarily significant icon for generations to come.
Brian May has a really interesting backstory as a musician and this has been well documented over the years simply because its intriguing and it’s highly relative to his individuality as a guitar player.
A key detail in his upbringing was the fact that his father Harold was a Draftsman at the Ministry of Aviation, this would of course mean that his father was a highly educated technical engineer putting together technical drawings and plans for machinery, buildings, electronics and infrastructure.
The influence of his father’s profession would be a key source of inspiration throughout his entire life both in a world of education and musical creativity.
From a very young age May displayed a great level of intellectual ability. At the age of 11 he won a scholarship to attend Hampton Grammar School where his education blossomed and began to be heavily recognised as he attained multiple GCE levels in physics, mathematics and applied mathematics.
This high level of attitude progressed Brian to the Imperial College London to uptake mathematics and physics where he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in physics in 1968 with honours.
With such incredible qualifications and optimal promise within the world of physics Brian was personally invited by Sir Bernard Lovell to work at the Jodrell Bank Observatory while continuing preparation for his PhD.
Surprisingly May declined this extravagant offer! Why!? What possessed him to deviate from his lifelong studies… ?
Like many of us May was secretly torn between two realities and passions, music was very much the dominant counterpart to his highly educated and decorated catalogue of studies.
As a child he had a good relationship with music and was very much surround by it, like many of the youth of that generation what we now regard as timeless classics was of course just the latest new sound that week. 🎼.
At the age of 5 Brian was enrolled into Piano 🎹 lessons - a very standard extracurricular development based activity back then of course.
May didn’t take too well to this new commitment as it was on Saturdays and he felt it disrupted his time out playing, rightfully so, right! 😆 He was clearly a highly opinionated and diplomatic 5 year old. 😉
The interest in stringed instruments began through curiosity and admiration of one of his fathers pastimes.
“I think I was about eight. My father played a thing called a ukulele banjo, which is like a little miniature banjo. It was made famous by people like George Formby and Billy "Uke" Scott, who played when my father was a kid. My father taught me about six or seven chords on that. When I asked for a guitar for my eight or ninth birthday, I converted the chords from four strings to six strings. I sort of made up chords, and I to strum and sing during the skiffle boom. Lonnie Donegan, who was a big skiffle figure in England, was influenced by American blues. He would do Leadbelly songs and some stuff he wrote himself. I liked him a lot.”
Brain May - In Guitar Player Magazine ***
January 1983 Issue
The Red Special 🎸
Brain May’s journey and progression into the guitar was let's say 🤔 … Extraordinary.
“I had those chords to start off with, and then I began to notice on records by Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley that there were some people there playing some amazing stuff.
[Ed. Note: Most of the electric guitar on early Presley records was played by Scotty Moore, Joe Maphis accompanied Ricky Nelson on his LP and was afterwards replaced by James Burton.]
It's funny, but I couldn't even hear it well enough to be able to attempt to play it. People like the Shadows, who were playing quite simple instrumental music, I could lock onto and learn more-for-note.
So I learned to play what I call "single-note style" - as opposed to just strumming - from the Shadows and the Ventures. Another band was the Sputniks: they were from Sweden.
They did a lot of stuff which I was struggling to play, and then I discovered that they were speeding up the tapes to be able to play that fast [laughs]. Speed used to come into it a lot in those days. When I was at the school in fifth and sixth form - I would be about 16 or 17 - there was a kind of competition to see who could play the new stuff quickest. So when the new instrumental records came out, we would all feverishly study them at home until we were able to play them. The Sputniks used to do this incredibly fast stuff like "Orange Blossom Special", and we used to really kill ourselves - make our fingers bleed - trying to play it. That's where I learned technique, really. Was this on acoustic guitar?
At that time I had an acoustic guitar which I made a pickup for and electrified. I used to play that through an old radio which we had at home. To make the pickup, I got some magnets and wound a coil around them and stuck it under the strings. It worked pretty well. At that time, we thought it would be interesting to make a guitar, seeing as I couldn't afford a Stratocaster. So my father and I started making a guitar when I was 15, and we finished it when I was 17.”
Brain May - In Guitar Player Magazine ***
January 1983 Issue
This guitar which completely reflects the personality of his keeper is truly one of the greatest stories in rock 'n' roll history.
The fact that Brian was unable to attain guitars of the time such as Fender and Gibson fuelled his creative side along with his fathers ability to build to specification with precision. This completely hand-built and independently imagined instrument has its own place in the rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame.
The materials sourced are fascinating enough to start with, the neck of the guitar was crafted from and old mahogany fireplace, the body of the guitar was made from an old piece of oak and various other pieces of wood, the tremolo system in the guitar was machined by Brian and he also utilised springs from a motorbike, his mothers sewing box was also a source of creative inspiration, raided for buttons to be sacrificed as fret markers!
The only part of the guitar that is pretty much not handcrafted is of course the Burns Tri-Sonic pick ups, these were used in the final process of the build as Brian was unable to get the sound he was after building his own pickups.
The guitar cost around £8 to build! Astonishing, but it is now of course priceless for its history.
This incredible home project has graced every iconic album and recording by May’s greatest musical achievement Queen, because it can be heard all over 200 million album sales, mind blowing.
A monumental product between father and son, a small bedroom within the family house was even converted into a workshop just for this task! The creation began in 1963 and was completed in 1965, this unique piece is now an additional member to one of the greatest & most theatrical rock 'n' roll bands to ever exist.
“The Red Special.” or to Brian personally as “The Old Girl”.
This incredible video displays the guitar up close and personal in stunning high-definition just before just before a requested paint restoration.
👑 Queen 👑
“It’s about making that guitar sing,” - Brain May for Total guitar (2020)
Following his passion alongside his education May start out playing in his teenage years in a group formed at school. 1984 named after the famous George Orwell publication was Brian’s initial outing into the world of live music.
We revisit why Brian didn't accept this incredible offer to join Sir Bernard Lovell and work at the Jodrell Bank Observatory. The answer was simply stay with the musical group that formed in 1986 called “Smile”.
Many of his fellow musicians and creative friends had gone onto semiprofessional status within the arts, but Brian was always taught to keep his education at the forefront of his extracurricular activities in the shadows.
As Smile reached the end, as members moved on, a significant moment in musical history occurred.
A familiar situation: bands across the circuit who have crossed paths previously tend to cross paths again at just the right time. May and the drummer of the band Smile, Roger Taylor, formed group with the singer of an outfit called “Wreckage”.
His name was the late and everlastingly great Freddie Mercury. 🤘 🎤
Within a few months together they were joined by a fourth member on the bass guitar John Deacon.
The band Queen had materialised and would quickly go on to become one of the most significant rock 'n' roll bands of our time.
The unique theatricality and new wave reinvention of using harmonies was something that set them apart from every other rock act both then and now.
The creativity within the quartet was truly awe-inspiring, Freddie Mercury was not only a flamboyant and revolutionary frontman but effortlessly one of the greatest vocalists to ever grace contemporary music.
Queen's lasting impression on musical history is beyond words, to this day the significance of this particular album is still defying the boundaries of all musical boarders and stereotypes.
A masterpiece in popular music and a bold statement of freedom of expression along with artistic freedom. This complete work along with Queen’s entire back catalogue of studio recordings and iconic live performances has paved the way for revelation in rock 'n' roll.
Nationwide success quickly developed into global success and now Queen are held in a realm of unexplainable admiration. ♥️
Symphonic Strings 🎶
“Most people’s tone is actually in their fingers. I was quite shocked when I played with Hank Marvin. I always thought his tone was all about his guitar. He picked up my guitar and immediately it sounded like Hank Marvin… it’s what’s in the fingers, the spirit and the mind. I probably sound like me on any rig.”
Brian May - guitar.com -26th April 2017
The above statement definitely resonates with myself and many others in the belief that the true tone of the player and the signature sound they're identified by is definitely 95% in the fingers and the soul of the player.
This is of course fundamentally true but getting the exact or closest possible spec gear along with strings will certainly get you a lot closer to the soul and sound of a legend. 😉
Brian May is a precision engineered perfectionist so his string choice should of course fall into that category.
So an early discovery within this incredible interview with Guitar Player magazine back in 1983 we discover the essentials of Brian May's core set up; both strings and choice of plectrum.
“How do you string your electric guitar?
I use Rotosound round-wound strings, gauged .008, .009, .011, .016, 0.22, and .034, high to low.
Do you use a pick?
I play with an English sixpence. It's a coin made of soft metal with a serration on the edge. I hold it loosely between the thumb and the first finger, with the first finger bent down. (Note: actually Brian uses his own coin, because the sixpence is out of circulation. More information in the article about the Brian May Guild Signature Guitar)”
Brian In Guitar Player Magazine ***
January 1983 Issue
There doesn't seem to be much information on why Brian magnetises towards a lighter string gauge but as you can see he has a very light, very accurate touch and is a very delicate player it seems.
We cage a further update from his long serving Guitar technician Pete Malandrone. This is a question and answer on an open forum on Brian May’s official website which is such a cool thing. 😎
On 27 Jun 2006, Steve wrote:
I've recently purchased some Brian May Optima strings. I am use to using The Optima 24 karat gold 9s on my Epiphone Les paul Custom. And I have noticed a little bit of difference between the general feel of the strings, but one real difference I have noticed is that the Brian May strings tend to not hold up very well tuning wise, is there a reason for this? Do you use Brian May strings on your Red Special? And have you noticed this also? Cheers, Steve Martin
Pete Malandrone replied:
The Optimas may feel a little more "slinky" because of the gold plating. As for staying in tune, I find them incredibly stable. Having said that they do, in my opinion, need a good deal more stretching out than say, a set of Ernie Balls. The advantage of the strings, for me, is their longevity in the tonal brightness department. Maybe they just don't suit your Epiphone, buy a decent guitar............ only joking.
I think it's great when an artist comes forward and comments about why they use certain equipment Guitars strings pedals etc... . But I really think it's great to hear from a long-serving tech like Pete because he lives and breathes the gear and knows every nuance of what could and does go wrong and always looks to improve it.
As long as the artist remains happy and the equipment remains stable for the performance then the tech is everybody's best friend. The following Rig Rundown truly opens up everything you ever wanted to know about one of the greatest guitar players ever!
We find that it's fairly simple and all makes sense: really nothing over complicated or extravagant. The up-to-date string choices discussed and the pros of the strings are really conveyed.
As highlighted in the video Pete does bring up the earlier gauge being .008 and states that they were breaking a lot of strings and more to the fact that Brian of course uses a sixpence as a plectrum which will only heighten the probability of breakages.
It seems that they've settled on the incredible Optima Gold Strings .009 - .042 and really put their full trust into the strings night after night. Gold standard strings for a gold level Guitar God.
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