Although better known for his electric guitar wizardry, the Queen guitarist is a sophisticated acoustic player too. Stuart Ryan reveals all.
Stuart Ryan examines the acoustic playing of a fantastic electric player - the great Brian May.
Brian May is such an iconic figure in the world of rock that it almost feels like sacrilege to picture him with an acoustic guitar, rather than the famed Red Special blazing through a wall of cranked AC30s. However, while the electric guitar undeniably drove Queen’s biggest hits, the acoustic has been key to some of their finest ballad work that has had crowds singing along in stadiums across the globe. Brian’s most famous acoustic tracks include Love Of My Life (check out the spine-tingling live duets with Freddie) and Is This The World We Created. However, post-Queen his Guild 12-string has become an even bigger part of his live shows and you’ll often hear seminal Queen hits like Somebody To Love performed in a solo acoustic and vocal context.
Born in London in July 1947, Brian May’s earliest influence was Cliff Richard and The Shadows, which of course featured the legendary Hank Marvin. Later on he was heavily influenced by the pioneering rock bands of the 1960s and early ‘70s; The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix all loomed large on his radar. His early forays into music as a child included learning the banjolele, ukulele and classical piano (it’s tempting to always picture Freddie at the keys but Brian was also a competent pianist and he would occasionally take that role in the studio). Guitar became his primary focus in his teens and at the age of 16 he built the legendary Red Special with his father’s assistance. However, this home-made instrument was not the only idiosyncrasy within May’s playing – he quickly developed a love of using sixpences in place of plectrums, a feature that certainly contributed to his bright, clear tone. On acoustic he is both a strummer and fingerpicker, often fingerpicking on a 12-string, which is no mean feat.
For this study we’ll take a look at May’s fingerpicking style, which is typically used to back up a vocal line. However, he is by no means a simple ‘three chord trick’ merchant and his acoustic parts feature detailed, almost classically-inspired moving lines along with a plethora of chord voicings and sophisticated harmony. This study isn’t too challenging for the picking hand and your standard pima approach will work well. The real work is for the fretting hand, which will be moving around various triad and larger chord shapes so when you come across chords that are new to you take some time to internalise and memorise them for future use.
the guitar has been key to some of queen’s finest ballads that have had crowds singing along across the globe