Updated: Dec 14, 2020
For every guitar player who is inspired by the glorious guitar sounds of Brian May, emulating them remains a sometimes elusive goal. That's why we've created this article to shed some light on how you can achieve the silky sounds of Brian May's signature guitar tone.
How do I recreate Brian May's guitar sound?
Brian's guitar rig is deceptively simple. There are three components that have been in place since Brian and Roger started performing as Smile in the late 1960s (Technically four, if you include the role that the sixpence coin plays in the Queen sound - if you'd like to read about why Brian May uses a sixpence you can READ MORE HERE).
The Brian May Red Special
The most well known is of course the iconic “Red Special” guitar. Designed and built by Brian and his father in the early 60s, the guitar is still played by Brian and has featured on every Queen album and live show. Brian does have a number of meticulously researched and hand built replicas built by English luthier Andrew Guyton and Australian Greg Fryer, but the Red Special is still Brian's first choice. The excellent book by Simon Bradley detailing the design and history of Brian's guitar has recently been re-published and gives a fantastic history of the making of the guitar.
Brian and his father even made the pickups for the guitar, but some design issues could not be overcome and Brian opted to purchase some pickups. These were the famous Burns Trisonics, which combined with the unique wiring and switching system, gave the guitar its wide range of tones.
Various copies of the iconic guitar are available to buy from the standard BMG Red Special, to very high end replicas of the original instrument by companies such as KZ Guitar Works. Dansan Guitars and Ferrari Guitars. Single coil equipped guitars such as the Fender Strat can also be used, but without modification these guitars cannot recreate the “out of phase” tones of the original
Why did Brian choose to play an AC30?
Brian's amplifier of choice remains the Vox AC30, made famous by the Beatles and other “British Invasion “ bands of the 1960s. Brian tells the story of how he saw Irish blues rocker, Rory Gallagher play at the Marquee Club in London in the late 60s. Brian and his friends stayed after the show and managed to talk with Rory who showed Brian his guitar set up. This included the AC30, a thirty watt valve/tube combo with two Celestion speakers and another key component, a Range Master treble booster. This simple unit is where the magic happens.
Why does Brian May use a treble booster?
Rory Gallagher, who usually played a Fender Stratocaster, was driving the input of his amp using the Range Master treble booster. The story goes that Brian soon managed to buy some used AC30s and a treble booster and plugged in his homemade guitar. Finally Brian had found his signature sound.
This combination is what you hear on the early Queen albums along with other guitar effects including phaser, flanger, wah wah and of course a tape delay. Brian's father also built another treble booster as did bassist John Deacon, who also built the small transistor amp that Brian used extensively for guitar overdubs and harmony parts.
Brian May demonstrates his guitar rig.
Leaping forward a few years to the early 80s, Brian was one of the first guitarists to be featured in an instructional video tape series called Starlicks. A number of famous guitarists demonstrated their rigs and some signature guitar licks. These were of varying quality in terms of instructional value, but Brian's video stood out as he showed his guitar setup and famous signature guitar parts.
What's Brian May's guitar amp settings?
Early in the video, Brian shows the amp he is using and importantly demonstrates the sound without and then with the treble booster. Brian always uses one of the two input channels on a Vox AC30, namely the “Normal channel”. The bright or “Top Boost” channel is by nature very bright sounding and rather harsh at high volume. By contrast, the normal channel has more bass and is rather “woolly sounding” as the amp is turned up. When the treble booster is connected to this input it has the effect of driving the input of the amp and cutting the bass. At full volume this creates the smooth, rich distorted sound that Brian is renowned for.
Using the amps on full volume is a key feature of achieving the sound, but also one of the drawbacks. The amps are very loud and very noisy when driven by the booster. Check out some clips of Queen concerts in the 70s. Between the songs or in quiet parts of songs you can hear the hiss from Brian's amps, particularly when the phaser pedal is on. Running the amps at full volume decreases the lifespan of the tubes/valves in the amps and also leads to other component failure.
How many amps does Brian May use?
Brian's main guitar rig has always consisted of three AC30s, allowing him to send delay signals to two of the amps and a “dry'', unaffected signal to the other amp. This has been refined over the years to add a stereo chorus and to replace the fragile tape delay units with digital delays.
The additional amps you see onstage at a Queen concert are a back-up rig for emergencies and also amps carrying spare speakers, which can sometimes blow when used at constant high volumes. Over the years various technicians have also made modifications to the Vox amps to make them more reliable for touring purposes. The AC30s that Brian plays through differ from the models you can buy in stores in that everything except the normal channel of the amp is removed. A power conditioning unit is also used so that the amps receive consistent 220v of power, wherever in the world the band is performing.
How do I sound like Brian May?
To the guitarist wishing to get the Brian May sound, there are a number of issues. The high volume problem can be addressed by using various units that can be inserted between the amplifier and speakers of the AC30. These “power soak” devices allow the main output of the amp to be reduced (attenuated) without adversely affecting the drive and tone. These are usually passive devices, requiring no power. They do get rather hot with prolonged use and some do have built in fans to compensate.
Alternatively other pre-amps can be used in conjunction with a treble booster to create the rich, overdriven sound at a more manageable volume. These include The Mayday by Greg Fryer, and the TAE by Massive Unity.
Other modern digital FX processors can recreate the sound of a driven AC30 using digital modelling. These include The Helix by Line 6, The Kemper profiler, and the AXE FX 3 by Fractal Audio. These units have the advantage of also containing a wide range of guitar FX and guitar speaker simulations which can also be used direct to a PA system or recording studio setup.
Purists will of course say that there is no substitute for the real thing, but the many alternatives allow guitarists wishing to recreate Brian's signature guitar sound some practical choices. Indeed I
almost forgot to mention that some years ago Brian collaborated with the American company DigiTech to create an effect unit which contains many of his signature guitar sounds and could be plugged into any amplifier or sound system. The pedal also contains a setting that converts the sound of any guitar pickups to simulate the sound of the Trisonic pickups in the original guitar. The “Red Special” pedal was marketed for a number of years from 2006 and second hand units command quite high prices when they come up for sale.
How do I play like Brian May?
Beyond purchasing the components required to replicate Brian May's signature sound, emulating the way Brian plays the guitar is another challenge. His guitar style has been much examined and dissected over the years. Much has been written and much more will be written. The internet also gives the player a massive resource to learn from.There are thousands of tutorials, videos and backing tracks available. Enough to keep Brian May guitar fans occupied for as long as they wish.
For those of you who have stuck it out this far, here's my breakdown of the equipment I use to get Brian's signature sound when I perform with Majesty on tour.
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