Q #1,972: Happy birthday to this guitarist who co-founded Queen in 1970.
Guitarist Brian May co-founded Queen alongside vocalist Freddie Mercury, and drummer Roger Taylor. May has almost exclusively played one guitar for most of his career, and that is not to say exclusively used guitars made by one manufacturer. He and his father constructed his ‘Red Special’ in the early 1960’s, to May’s specific design requests. After seeing Jeff Beck create multiple types of feed back live with his guitar, he wanted to have an even greater command over the instrument.
What’s more; May and his father did all of this with what could basically be described as household items. The wood used for the guitar’s neck, came from another resident’s fireplace mantle that was to be discarded. The bridge of the guitar is a hardened steel knife edge, and the springs used for string tension came from a motorbike. He even experimented with incorporating an internal Vox-based distortion unit, to which he would eventual remove to settle on the use of the cranked amplifier. It’s no wonder that May has gone on to earn a PhD in Astrophysics, amidst a musical career that has kept him more than busy to begin with.
In 2005, Brian May was appointed a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his, “services to the music industry and charity work.” Eligibility for such an appointment is based on significant achievements made for the United Kingdom, although different titles can and have been awarded to those from other countries as well. The Sovereign of the United Kingdom grants these appointments, and the Sovereign is none other than Queen Elizabeth II. The next highest order of appointments would be a knighthood. What would be the appropriate way to address such a prolific member of society? Sir Dr. Brian May? Perhaps a more Shatner’d version of a James Bond introduction; “May. Brian May. CBE. PhD. Killer Queen.”
Brian May has been included and voted onto multiple “Greatest Guitarists of All Time”-type lists, while also being responsible for a great many Queen hits, himself. Some of May’s Queen compositions include ‘We Will Rock You,’ ‘Tie Your Mother Down,’ and ‘Fat Bottomed Girls.’ Consider the spine tingling ‘The Show Must Go On,’ the final track on the album “Innnuendo,” which basically chronicled Mercury’s illness and impending death. Around that time, it was only media speculation that Freddie Mercury was ill, but he and the band knew he was on ‘borrowed time.’ Unsure of whether he could handle the final vocal parts, May essentially had a heart to heart with Mercury expressing that he knew it might not be an easy performance to capture, to which Mercury reportedly responded with “I’ll fucking do it, darling.” Mercury took a measure of vodka, and went in to deliver the performance that appear on the final recording. Mercury passed away on November 24th, 1991.
As if that was not enough of a goose bump inducing, hair raising “final” performance, all of the material that appears on their final album ‘Made in Heaven’ was assembled from a multitude of sessions that Mercury performed up until his death. Brian May describes the sessions, saying that Mercury said, “Get me to sing anything, write me anything and I will sing it and I will leave you as much as I possibly can.” Mercury wanted to leave the band with as much material as he could. May says that he feels ‘Made in Heaven’ is “possibly the greatest Queen album we ever made. It has so much beauty in it. It was a long, long process, painstakingly put together. A real labour of love.” The show must go on, indeed.