Brian May

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For the Australian film composer, see Brian May (composer).
Brian May
CBE
Brianmaywestminster.jpg
May in 2013
Background information
Birth name Brian Harold May
Born (1947-07-19) 19 July 1947 (age 67)
Hampton, Middlesex, England, UK
Genres Rock, hard rock, heavy metal, pop rock, progressive rock
Occupations Musician, singer, songwriter, record producer, astrophysicist, author, contributor
Instruments Guitars, vocals, keyboards
Years active 1965–present
Labels Hollywood, Parlophone
Associated acts Smile, Queen, Phenomena, G3, Queen + Paul Rodgers, Anita Dobson, Kerry Ellis, Queen + Adam Lambert, Lady Gaga
Website brianmay.com
Notable instruments

Brian Harold May CBE (born 19 July 1947) is an English musician, singer, songwriter and astrophysicist who achieved international fame as the lead guitarist of the rock band Queen. He uses a home-built guitar, the Red Special. His compositions for the band include "We Will Rock You", "Tie Your Mother Down" and "Fat Bottomed Girls".

He was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2005 for "services to the music industry and for charity work".[1] May attained a PhD in astrophysics from Imperial College in 2007 and was Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University from 2008 to 2013.[2] He has homes in London and Windlesham, Surrey.[3] He is an active animal rights advocate and was appointed a vice-president of animal welfare charity the RSPCA in September 2012.[4]

In 2005, a Planet Rock poll saw May voted the 7th greatest guitarist of all time.[5] He was ranked at No. 26 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time".[6] In 2012, May was ranked the 2nd greatest guitarist of all time by a Guitar World magazine readers poll.[7]

Early life[edit]

Brian May, the only child of Harold and Ruth May, was born in Hampton, London and attended the local independent school for boys, Hampton Grammar School (now Hampton School).[8] During this time he formed his first band with vocalist and bassist Tim Staffell, named 1984 after George Orwell's novel of the same name.[9] At Hampton Grammar School, he attained ten GCE Ordinary Levels and three A-Levels (Physics, Mathematics and Applied Mathematics).[9] He studied Mathematics and Physics at Imperial College London, graduating with a BSc. degree.[10]

Musical career[edit]

1968–1970: Smile[edit]

Main article: Smile (band)

Brian May formed the band Smile in 1968. The group included Tim Staffell as singer and bassist, and later, drummer Roger Taylor, who also went on to play for Queen. The band lasted for two years from 1968 to 1970, as Staffell left in 1970, leaving the band with a catalogue of nine songs. Smile would reunite for several songs on 22 December 1992. Taylor's band The Cross were headliners and he brought May and Staffell on to play "Earth" and "If I Were a Carpenter".[11] May also performed several other songs that night.

1970–1991: Queen[edit]

Main article: Queen (band)
May (right) on stage with Queen in 1979.

May also served as Queen's backing vocalist. In Queen's three-part vocal harmonies, May was generally the lower-range backing vocals. On some of his songs he sings the lead vocals, most notably the first verse of "Who Wants to Live Forever", the bridge on "I Want It All" and "Flash's Theme", and full lead vocals on "Some Day One Day", "She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettoes)", "'39", "Good Company", "Long Away", "All Dead, All Dead", "Sleeping on the Sidewalk", "Leaving Home Ain't Easy" and "Sail Away Sweet Sister".

Throughout Queen's career May frequently wrote songs for the band and has composed many significant songs such as the worldwide hit "We Will Rock You", as well as "Tie Your Mother Down", "Who Wants to Live Forever", "Hammer to Fall", "Save Me", "Fat Bottomed Girls", "Flash", "Now I'm Here", and "I Want It All". Typically, either Freddie Mercury or May wrote the most songs on every Queen album.

May playing his signature Red Special guitar, which contributed an essential part of Queen's sound.

After the famous Live Aid concert in 1985, Mercury rang his band members and proposed writing a song together. The result was "One Vision", which was basically May on music (the Magic Years documentary shows how he came up with the opening section and the basic guitar riff) and the lyrics were co-written by all four band members.[12]

For their 1989 release album, The Miracle, the band had decided that all of the tracks would be credited to the entire band, no matter who had been the main writer. Still, interviews and musical analyses tend to help identify the input of each member on each track. May composed "I Want It All" for that album, as well as "Scandal" (based on his personal problems with the British press). For the rest of the album he did not contribute so much creatively, although he helped in building the basis of "Party" and "Was It All Worth It" (both being predominantly Mercury's pieces) and created the guitar riff of "Chinese Torture".

Queen's subsequent album was Innuendo, on which May's contributions increased, although more in arrangements than actual writing in most cases; for the title track he did some of the arrangement for the heavy solo, then he added vocal harmonies to "I'm Going Slightly Mad" and composed the solo of "These Are the Days of Our Lives", a song for which the four of them decided the keyboard parts together. He changed the tempo and key of Mercury's song "The Hitman" and took it under his wing, even singing guide vocal in the demo. May also co-wrote some of the guitar lines in "Bijou".

Two songs that May had composed for his first solo album, "Headlong" and "I Can't Live With You", eventually ended up in the Queen project. His other composition was "The Show Must Go On", a group effort in which he was the coordinator and primary composer, but in which they all had input, Deacon and Taylor with the famous chord sequence. In recent years, he has supervised the remastering of Queen albums and various DVD and greatest hits releases. In 2004, he announced that he and drummer Roger Taylor were going on tour for the first time in 18 years as "Queen", along with Free/Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers. Billed as "Queen + Paul Rodgers", the band has played throughout 2005 and 2006 in South Africa, Europe, Aruba, Japan, and North America and released a new album with Paul Rodgers in 2008, entitled The Cosmos Rocks. This album was supported by a major tour.[13]

1983–1998: the Brian May band[edit]

May playing his Red Special, c. 1981

During 1983, several members of Queen explored side projects. On 21 and 22 April in Los Angeles, May recorded his first solo work, a mini-album entitled Star Fleet Project, on which he collaborated with Eddie Van Halen.[14] May contributed to former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett's album Feedback 86, playing guitar on the track "Cassandra" and providing guitar and vocals for "Slot Machine". "Slot Machine" was also co-written by May.

May worked with his second wife Anita Dobson on her first album, in which she sang vocals to the EastEnders theme tune. In this form the tune became the song "Anyone Can Fall in Love".[15] May himself produced the song, which reached No. 4 in the UK Singles Chart in August 1986.[16] In 1989, May contributed guitar solos to the song "When Death Calls" on Black Sabbath 14th album Headless Cross, and the Living in a Box track "Blow The House Down" from the album Gatecrashing.

"After the tragic break-up of any band, it feels impossible to continue but I was really glad that Brian did launch a solo career. He had such a lot of music in him and a great deal more to give"

 —Joe Satriani[17]

Following the death of Freddie Mercury in November 1991, May booked himself into a clinic in Arizona, and states; "I regarded myself as completely sick. I was wounded and very much in pieces. I went into a serious depression. I was subsumed by feelings of loss."[18] He chose to deal with his grief by committing himself as fully as possible to work, first by finishing his solo album, Back to the Light, and then touring worldwide to promote it. He frequently remarked in press interviews that this was the only form of self-prescribed therapy he could think of.[19] According to Def Leppard vocalist Joe Elliot, "It was undoubtedly an enormous and terrible blow to lose someone he was so close to. Personally, I know it ripped the heart out of Brian, but having said that, he was in great spirits after the album was finished."[17]

In late 1992, the Brian May Band was officially formed. An early version of the band was loosely formed for 19 October 1991, the date of the band's last concert of reunion.October 1991, when May took part in the Guitar Legends guitar festival in Seville, Spain. The line-up for his performance was May on vocals and lead guitar, Cozy Powell on drums and percussion, Mike Moran and Rick Wakeman on keyboards, and Maggie Ryder, Miriam Stockley and Chris Thompson on backing vocals. The original line-up was May on vocals and lead guitar, Powell on drums and percussion, Michael Casswell on guitar, Neil Murray on bass, and Ryder, Stockley and Thompson on backing vocals. This version of the band lasted only during the South American support tour (supporting The B-52's and Joe Cocker) on only five dates.

Afterwards, May made significant changes, feeling the group never quite gelled. May brought guitarist Jamie Moses on board to replace Mike Caswell. The other change made was in the backing vocals department, when Ryder, Stockley and Thompson were replaced with Catherine Porter and Shelley Preston. On 23 February 1993, this new line-up of The Brian May Band began its world tour in the US, both supporting Guns N' Roses and headlining a few dates.[20] The tour would take them through North America, Europe (support act: Valentine) and Japan. After the tour ended on 18 December 1993, May returned to the studio with fellow surviving Queen band members Roger Taylor and John Deacon to work on tracks that became Made in Heaven, the final Queen studio album.[21] The band took Mercury's solo album demos and last recordings, which he managed to perform in the studio after the album Innuendo was finished, and completed them with their additions both musically and vocally.[22] Work on the album after Mercury's death originally began in 1992 by Deacon and May, but was left until a later date due to other commitments.[21]

In 1995, May began working towards a new solo album of covers tentatively named Heroes, in addition to working on various film and television projects and other collaborations. May subsequently changed the approach from covers to focus on those collaborations and on new material. The songs included Another World, and featured mainly Spike Edney, Cozy Powell, Neil Murray and Jamie Moses. On 5 April 1998, Cozy Powell was killed in a car accident on the M4 motorway near Bristol, England. This caused a huge, unexpected disruption to the upcoming tour for The Brian May Band, with a new drummer being needed at short notice. Steve Ferrone was brought on to help May finish recording drums and to join the band for the early stage promotional tour of five dates in Europe before the world tour. Following the early promotional tour, Eric Singer replaced Steve Ferrone for the full 1998 world tour.

2000–present[edit]

May performing in Chile, 2008

From his last solo release in 1998 May has been performing as a solo artist, as part of an ensemble, and infrequently as Queen with Roger Taylor. On 22 October 2000, Brian May made a guest appearance at the Motörhead 25th Anniversary show at Brixton Academy along with Eddie Clarke (former Motörhead guitarist) for the encore song "Overkill". In the Queen's birthday honours list of 2005, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire "for services to the music industry".[23] May is a friend of singer and musician Phil Collins and was a special guest at the Genesis reunion concert at Twickenham Stadium in 2007.

May worked extensively with stage actress and singer Kerry Ellis after he cast her in the musical We Will Rock You. He produced and arranged her debut studio album Anthems (2010), a follow-up to her extended play Wicked in Rock (2008), as well as appearing with Ellis at many public performances – playing guitar alongside her. He also contributed a guitar solo to Meat Loaf's Hang Cool, Teddy Bear album in exchange for the use of drummer John Miceli. Along with Elena Vidal, Brian May released a historical book in 2009 entitled A Village Lost and Found: Scenes in Our Village. The book is an annotated collection of stereoscopic photographs taken by the Victorian era photographer T. R. Williams and it is sold with a focussing stereoscope. May became an enthusiast of stereoscope photographs as a child, and first encountered the work of Williams during the late 1960s. In 2003 May announced a search to identify the actual location of the Scenes in Our Village images. In 2004 May reported that he had identified the location as the village of Hinton Waldrist in Oxfordshire.

On 20 May 2009, May and Queen band mate Roger Taylor performed "We Are the Champions" live on the season finale of American Idol with winner Kris Allen and runner-up Adam Lambert providing a vocal duet.[24] In November 2009, May appeared with Taylor on The X Factor, with Queen mentoring the contestants, then later performing "Bohemian Rhapsody". In April 2010, May founded the "Save Me" 2010 project to work against any proposed repeal of the British fox-hunting ban, and also to promote animal rights in Britain.[25] In February 2011 it was announced that May would tour with Kerry Ellis, playing 12 dates across the UK in May 2011.[26] On 1 March 2013 May and Ellis played a free thirty minute acoustic set at St Pancras railway station to launch Tiger Track, a three-week tiger conservation event. Their set list included Queen's Crazy Little Thing Called Love.[27]

On 18 April 2011 Lady Gaga confirmed that May would play guitar on her track "You and I" from her latest album Born This Way, released on 23 May 2011.[28] In June 2011, May performed with Tangerine Dream at the Starmus Festival on Tenerife, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first spaceflight.[29]

On 26 August, May performed "We Will Rock You" and "Welcome to the Black Parade" with American rock band My Chemical Romance at the Reading Festival.[30] On 28 August, May performed "You and I" live with Lady Gaga at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards at the Nokia Theatre, Los Angeles.[31] On 16 September 2012, May appeared at the Sunflower Jam charity concert at the Royal Albert Hall, performing alongside bassist John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin), drummer Ian Paice (of Deep Purple), and vocalists Bruce Dickinson (of Iron Maiden) and Alice Cooper.[32]

At the 2011 MTV Europe Music Awards on 6 November, Queen received the Global Icon Award, which Katy Perry presented to Brian May.[33] Queen closed the awards ceremony, with Adam Lambert on vocals, performing "The Show Must Go On", "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions".[33] The collaboration garnered a positive response from both fans and critics, resulting in speculation about future projects together.[34] Queen + Adam Lambert played two shows at the Hammersmith Apollo, London on 11 and 12 July 2012.[35][36] Both shows sold out within 24 hours of tickets going on open sale.[37] A third London date was added for 14 July.[38] On 30 June, Queen + Lambert performed in Kiev, Ukraine at a joint concert with Elton John for the Elena Pinchuk ANTIAIDS Foundation.[39] Queen also performed with Lambert on 3 July 2012 at Moscow's Olympic Stadium,[40][41] and on 7 July 2012 at the Municipal Stadium in Wroclaw, Poland.[42]

On 12 August 2012, Queen performed at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.[43] May performed part of the "Brighton Rock" solo before being joined by Taylor and solo artist Jessie J for a performance of "We Will Rock You".[43][44] On 20 September 2013, Queen + Lambert performed at the iHeartRadio Music Festival at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.[45] In 2014 Queen recorded the soundtrack for the British independent film 51 Degrees, directed by German film director Grigorij Richters. The film will have its first private viewing at the 2014 Starmus Festival.[46][47][48][49][50][51] The film is about Damon Miller (Moritz von Zeddelmann), a filmmaker who is tasked to capture the last moments of life on Earth before it collides with an Asteroid. It’s a cross genre film with factual elements and real experts throughout but dramatised to have more of an impact on the audience. It is narrated by Damon's son, in the future, who has created the film as a tribute to his father.

2004–2009: Queen + Paul Rodgers[edit]

Main article: Queen + Paul Rodgers

At the end of 2004, May and Taylor announced that they would reunite and return to touring in 2005, with Paul Rodgers (founder and former lead singer of Free and Bad Company). Brian May's website also stated that Rodgers would be "featured with" Queen as Queen + Paul Rodgers, not replacing the late Freddie Mercury. The retired John Deacon would not be participating.[52]

Between 2005 and 2006 Queen and Paul Rodgers embarked on a world tour, the first leg being Europe and the second, Japan and the US in 2006.[53] On 25 May 2006, Queen received the inaugural VH1 Rock Honors at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, and May and Taylor were joined on stage with the Foo Fighters to perform a selection of Queen songs.[53][54] On 15 August 2006, May confirmed through his website and fan club that Queen + Paul Rodgers would begin producing their first studio album beginning in October, to be recorded at a "secret location".[55] The album, titled The Cosmos Rocks, was released in Europe on 12 September 2008 and in the United States on 28 October 2008. Following the album the band again embarked on a tour through Europe and parts of the US, opening on Kharkov's freedom square in front of 350,000 Ukrainian fans.[56] The show in Ukraine was later released on DVD.[56] Queen and Paul Rodgers officially split up on 12 May 2009. Rodgers does not rule out the possibility of working together again.[57][58]

Highlights[edit]

May performing in Frankfurt in 2005.

Brian May began composing in 1968 to 1969, and through the years he has collaborated with other songwriters, including Frank Musker, with whom he wrote "Too Much Love Will Kill You", and with Elizabeth Lamers, whose music won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically & Lyrically in 1996.[59] A meticulous arranger, he focuses on multi-part harmonies, often more contrapuntal than parallel – a relative rarity for rock guitar. Examples are found in Queen's albums A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, where he arranged a jazz band for guitar mini-orchestra ("Good Company"), a vocal canon ("The Prophet's Song") and guitar and vocal counterpoints ("Teo Torriatte").

May explored a wide variety of styles in guitar, including sweep picking ("Was It All Worth It", "Chinese Torture"), tremolo ("Brighton Rock", "Stone Cold Crazy", "Death on Two Legs", "Sweet Lady", "Bohemian Rhapsody", "Get Down Make Love", "Dragon Attack"), tapping ("Bijou", "It's Late", "Resurrection", "Cyborg", "Rain Must Fall", "Business", "China Belle", "I Was Born To Love You"), slide guitar ("Drowse", "Tie Your Mother Down"), Hendrix sounding licks ("Liar", "Brighton Rock"), tape-delay ("Brighton Rock", "White Man") and melodic sequences ("Bohemian Rhapsody", "Killer Queen", "These Are the Days of Our Lives"). Some of his solos and orchestral parts were composed by Freddie Mercury, who then asked May to bring them to life ("Bicycle Race", "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon", "Killer Queen", "Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy"). May also performed notable acoustic works, including the acoustic guitar live version of "Love of My Life" from 1975's A Night at the Opera, the finger-picked solo of "White Queen" and the skiffle-influenced "'39".

In January 2007, the readers of Guitar World voted May's guitar solos "Bohemian Rhapsody", "Brighton Rock" into the "top 50 Greatest Guitar Solos of all time" ("Bohemian Rhapsody" was voted No. 20 and "Brighton Rock" was voted #41).[60]

Aided by the uniqueness of his guitar – the Red Special – May was often able to create strange and unusual sound effects. For example, he was able to imitate an orchestra in the song "Procession"; in "Get Down, Make Love" he was able to create various sound effects with his guitar; in "Good Company" he used his guitar to mimic a trombone, a piccolo and several other instruments for the song's Dixieland jazz band feel. Queen used a "No synthesizers were used on this album" sleeve note on their early albums to make this clear to the listeners.[61] May also used his guitar to create the chime effect in Bohemian Rhapsody.[62]

Other instruments[edit]

The first instrument May learned to play was the banjolele, which he played on Queen's song "Bring Back That Leroy Brown" (live and in the studio). For "Good Company", he used a regular baritone ukulele which he had bought in Hawaii on a holiday. Occasionally, May would also record on other string instruments such as harp (one chord per take, then copied and pasted by the engineer to make it sound like a continuous performance) and bass (on some demos and many songs in his solo career, and the Queen + Paul Rodgers album).

As a child, he was also trained on classical piano. Although Freddie Mercury was the band's primary pianist, May would occasionally step in (such as on "Save Me", "Flash", "Who Wants To Live Forever"). From 1979 onwards, he also played synthesisers, organ ("Wedding March", "Let Me Live") and programmed drum-machines for both Queen and outside projects (such as producing other artists and his own solo records).

May is also an accomplished singer.[63] From Queen's Queen II to The Game, May contributed lead vocals to at least one song per album. May co-composed a mini-opera with Lee Holdridge, Il Colosso, for Steve Barron's 1996 film, The Adventures of Pinocchio. May performed the opera with Jerry Hadley, Sissel Kyrkjebo, and Just William. On-screen, it was performed entirely by puppets.

Musicianship[edit]

Influences[edit]

May tapping.

"He's a class act from head to toe, and it shows in his playing. I can listen to any player and pantomime their sound, but I can't do Brian May. He's just walking on higher ground."

 —Steve Vai[64]

Brian May has been referred to as a virtuoso guitarist by many publications and musicians.[65][66][67][68][69] He has featured in various music polls of great rock guitarists, and in 2011 was ranked number 26 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time".[6] Former Van Halen vocalist Sammy Hagar stated, "I thought Queen were really innovative and made some great sounding records.. I like the rockin' stuff. I think Brian May has one of the great guitar tones on the planet, and I really, really love his guitar work."[69] May mainly used the "Red Special", which he designed when he was only 16 years old.[70] It was built with wood from an 18th century fireplace. His comments on the guitar:

"I like a big neck – thick, flat and wide. I lacquered the fingerboard with Rustin's Plastic Coating. The tremolo is interesting in that the arm's made from an old bicycle saddle bag carrier, the knob at the end's off a knitting needle and the springs are valve springs from an old motorbike."

—Brian May[71]

In addition to using his home-made guitar he prefers to use coins (especially a sixpence from the farewell proof set of 1970), instead of a more traditional plastic plectrum, on the basis that their rigidity gives him more control in playing.[72] He is known to carry coins in his pockets specifically for this purpose.[72]

May's early influences were Cliff Richard and the Shadows, who he says were "the most metallic thing(s) out at the time." Many years later he gained his opportunity to play on separate occasions with both Cliff Richard and Shadows lead guitarist Hank Marvin. He has collaborated with Cliff Richard on a re-recording of the Cliff Richard and The Shadows (then known as The Drifters) 1958 hit "Move It" on the Cliff Richard duets album Two's Company which was released on 6 November 2006.[73] On Queen for an Hour 1989 Interview on BBC Radio 1, May listed Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton as his guitar heroes. In a 1991 interview for Guitar World magazine, May referred to the Who as "my inspiration", and on seeing Led Zeppelin stated, "We used to look at those guys and think, "That's the way it should be done."[74] Influenced by Jimmy Page, May states; "I don't think anyone has epitomised riff writing better than Jimmy Page – he's one of the great brains of rock music".[75][76]

During the time in which May and his father were building the Red Special, May also produced plans to build a second guitar. However, so successful was the Red Special, that May had no need to build another guitar.[77] These plans were eventually given to guitar luthier Andrew Guyton in around 2004/05, some slight modifications were made and the guitar was built. It was named "The Spade", as the shape of the body resembled the form shown on playing cards. However the guitar also came to be known as "The Guitar That Time Forgot".[77]

Equipment[edit]

Guitars and keyboards[edit]

May's Red Special before (top) and after (bottom) restoration

Most of May's electric guitar work live and in the studio was done on the Red Special, which he built with his father during his teenage years.[78][79][80] From 1975 onwards, he has also had some replicas made, some of which were also used for live and recording purposes, others were mainly spares. The most famous replicas were made by John Birch (in 1975—May actually smashed it during a concert in the States in 1982), Greco BM90 (featured in the promo video of "Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy" in 1977), Guild (back-up from 1984 to 1993), Fryers (1997–1998, used both live and in the studio) and Guyton[81] (back-up from 2003 to present). On stage, May used to carry at least one back-up guitar (in case he broke a string) and occasionally would use others for certain songs or parts, such as alternate tunings. Currently, May owns a company which makes guitars whose design is modelled after the original Red Special guitar.

  • July 1973 – May 1974: Fender Stratocaster Pre-CBS
  • October 1974 – May 1975: Gibson Les Paul Deluxe, and the Stratocaster from the previous tour.
  • November 1975 – May 1976: Same two guitars as before, plus a natural finish John Birch replica of the Red Special.
  • September 1976: Same three as before, plus a Martin D-18 acoustic for "'39".
  • January 1977 – August 1979: Just the Birch replica plus an Ovation Pacemaker 12-string acoustic on some numbers ("'39", "Love of My Life", "Dreamer's Ball").
  • November 1979 – June 1982: Birch replica (back-up), Fender Telecaster ("Crazy Little Thing Called Love" 2nd verse, middle-eight and solo), Ovation (acoustic numbers).
  • July – November 1982: Added a Gibson Flying V as second back-up. On 9 August 1982 Brian smashed the Birch guitar, so the Flying V became the only spare.
  • August – October 1984: The Flying V became a second back-up again as his main spare was the Guild replica. He also used Roger Taylor's Gibson Chet-Atkins Classical Electric.
  • July 1985 – August 1986: Gibson Flying V no longer used. The rest remained the same.
  • In 2012 he received a double-neck replica of the Red Special with the second neck having 12-strings. He used this guitar at a few gigs with Adam Lambert now being able to play the 12-string part from the studio version of Under Pressure live.[82]

He currently has a Guild 12-string to replace his Ovation Pacemaker. Some of the non-RS electric guitars he used in the studio included:

  • Burns Double Six on "Long Away" (1976) and "Under Pressure" (1981).
  • Fender Telecaster on "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" (1979). It was used for the video (but not the recordings) of "Back Chat" (1982).
  • Gibson Firebird on "Hammer to Fall" and "Tear It Up" (album versions only, not on stage).
  • Ibanez JS on "Nothing But Blue" (1991).
  • Parker Fly on "Mother Love" (1993–1995).

For acoustic, he favoured Ovation, Martin, Tōkai Hummingbird, Godin and Guild. On a couple of videos he also used some different electric guitars: a Stratocaster copy on "Play the Game" (1980) and a Washburn RR2V on "Princes of the Universe" (1986).

In 1984 Guild released the first official Red Special replica for mass production, and made some prototypes specifically for May. However the solid body construction (the original RS has hollow cavities in the body) and the pick-ups (DiMarzio) that were not an exact replica of the Burns TriSonic did not make May happy, so the production stopped after just 300 guitars. In 1993 Guild made a second replica of the RS, made in just 1000 copies, of which May has some and used as a back-up. At the moment, he uses the two guitars made by Greg Fryer—the luthier who restored the Old Lady in 1998—as back-up. They are almost identical to the original, except for the Fryer logo on the headstock (May's original one has a sixpence).

In the studio, May used Yamaha DX7 synths for the opening sequence of "One Vision" and the backgrounds of "Who Wants to Live Forever" (also on stage), "Scandal" and "The Show Must Go On". He mostly used Freddie Mercury's 1972 Steinway piano and reportedly now owns the instrument in question. May was keen on using some toys as instruments as well. He used a Yamaha plastic piano in "Teo Torriatte" and a toy mini koto in "The Prophet's Song". He also used a "genuine George Formby Ukulele-Banjo" in "Bring Back That Leroy Brown" and "Good Company"

Amplifiers and effects[edit]

May has used Vox AC30 amplifiers almost exclusively since a meeting with his long-time hero Rory Gallagher at a gig in London during the late 1960s/early 1970s.[83] In the mid-1970s he used six of them, with an Echoplex delay (with extended delay time) plugged into a separate amplifier, and a second Echoplex plugged into yet another amp; he used a homemade booster, his only effects pedal, which was on all the time.[84] His choice is the model AC30TBX, the top-boost version with Blue Alnico speakers, and he runs the amp at full volume on the Normal channel.[85] He also customises his amps by removing the circuitry for the Brilliant and Vib-trem channels (leaving only the circuitry for the Normal), and this alters the tone slightly, with a gain addition of 6–7 dB. He always used a treble booster which, along with the AC30 and his custom 'Deacy Amp' transistor amp, was built by Queen bass player John Deacon, went a long way in helping to create many of his signature guitar tones.[86] He used the Dallas Rangemaster for the first Queen albums, up to A Day at the Races. Effects guru Pete Cornish built for him the TB-83 (32 dB of gain) that was used for all the remaining Queen albums. He switched in 2000 to the Fryer's booster, which actually gives less boost than the TB-83.

When performing live, he uses banks of Vox AC30 amplifiers keeping some amps with only guitar and others with all effects such as delay, flanger and chorus. He has a rack of 14 AC30s, which are grouped as Normal, Chorus, Delay 1, Delay 2. On his pedal board, May has a custom switch unit made by Cornish and subsequently modified by Fryer that allows him to choose which amps are active. He uses a BOSS pedal from the '70s, the Chorus Ensemble CE-1, which can be heard in "In The Lap of The Gods" (Live at Wembley '86) or "Hammer to Fall" (slow version played live with P. Rodgers). Next in the chain, he uses a Foxx Foot Phaser ("We Will Rock You", "We Are the Champions", "Keep Yourself Alive", etc.), and two delay machines to play his trademark solo in "Brighton Rock".

Personal life[edit]

Brian May in 2010

From 1974 to 1988, May was married to Chrissie Mullen, who is the mother of his three offspring: Jimmy, born on 15 June 1978; Louisa, born on 22 May 1981 and Emily Ruth, born on 18 February 1987. May and Chrissie separated in 1988. Their separation and eventual divorce was publicised by British tabloid newspapers following reports that he had an affair with EastEnders actress Anita Dobson, whom he met in 1986, and who gained fame in the 1980s as Angie Watts.[87] After a concert at Wembley Stadium, she inspired him to write the 1989 hit "I Want It All". They married on 18 November 2000.[88]

He has stated in interviews that he suffered from severe depression in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to the point of contemplating suicide,[89] for reasons having to do with his troubled first marriage, his perceived failure as a husband and a father, his father Harold's death and Freddie Mercury's illness and death.[90]

May's father Harold worked as a draughtsman at the Ministry of Aviation and was a long-time cigarette smoker. As a result, May dislikes smoking,[91] even to the point where he has prohibited smoking indoors at his more recent concerts.[92] His father was disappointed that he abandoned his scientific education to become a rock musician, but after May flew both his parents to New York to attend Queen's first concert in Madison Square Garden, his father said that he "got it".[93] According to The Sunday Times Rich List he is worth £85 million or around $135 million as of 2011.[94]

Astrophysics[edit]

May studied physics and mathematics at Imperial College London, graduating with a BSc (Hons) degree and ARCS in physics with Upper Second-Class Honours. He then studied for a PhD degree at Imperial College, studying reflected light from interplanetary dust and the velocity of dust in the plane of the Solar System. When Queen started to become successful, he abandoned his doctoral studies, but co-authored two scientific research papers: MgI Emission in the Night-Sky Spectrum (1972)[95] and An Investigation of the Motion of zodiacal dust Particles (Part I) (1973),[96] which were based on his observations at the Teide Observatory in Tenerife.

In October 2007, more than 30 years after he started his research, he completed a PhD thesis in astrophysics,[97] entitled A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud, passed his viva voce, and performed the required emendations.[98][99][100][101] He was able to submit his thesis only because of the minimal amount of research on the topic undertaken during the intervening years and has described the subject as one that became "trendy" again in the 2000s. He graduated at the awards ceremony of Imperial College held in the Royal Albert Hall on 14 May 2008.

He is co-author, with Sir Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott, of Bang! – The Complete History of the Universe (published in 2006)[102] and "The Cosmic Tourist" (published in 2012).

Asteroid 52665 Brianmay was named in his honour on 18 June 2008 on the suggestion of Sir Patrick Moore (probably influenced by the asteroid's provisional designation of 1998 BM30).[70][103]

May appeared on the 700th episode of The Sky at Night hosted by Sir Patrick Moore, along with Chris Lintott, Jon Culshaw, Prof. Brian Cox, and the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees who on departing the panel, told Brian May, who was joining it, "I don't know a scientist who looks as much like Isaac Newton as you do".[104] May was also a guest on the first episode of the third series of the BBC's Stargazing Live, on 8 January 2013.

On 17 November 2007, May was appointed Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University,[105] taking over from Cherie Blair, and installed in 2008.[106] He held the post until 2013.

Activism[edit]

May filming for the BBC's The One Show in 2011 for an anti badger culling campaign.

Brian May has formed a group to promote animal welfare. Though a Conservative Party voter most of his life,[107] he has stated that their policies on fox hunting and the culling of badgers meant he did not vote for them at the 2010 General Election. His group, Save Me (named after the May-written Queen song), campaigns for the protection of all animals against unnecessary, cruel and degrading treatment; with a particular emphasis on preventing hunting of foxes and the culling of badgers.[108] The group's primary concern is to ensure that the Hunting Act 2004 and other laws protecting animals are retained in situ.[25]

In an interview in September 2010 with Stephen Sackur for the BBC's HARDtalk program, May said that he would rather be remembered for his animal rights work than for his music or scientific work.[109] May is a staunch supporter of the RSPCA, the International Fund For Animal Welfare, the League Against Cruel Sports, PETA UK and the Harper Asprey Wildlife Rescue.

In March 2012, May contributed the foreword to a target paper published by the think tank the Bow Group, urging the government to reconsider its plans to cull thousands of badgers to control bovine TB, stating that the findings of Labour's major badger culling trials, several years earlier, show that culling does not work. The paper was authored by Graham Godwin-Pearson with contributions by leading tuberculosis scientists, including Lord Krebs.[110][111][112]

In 2013, Brian May joined French guitar player Jean-Pierre Danel for a charity Danel launched to the benefit of animal rights in France. The guitarists signed guitars and art photos together, and were joined by Hank Marvin.[113]

In May 2013, May teamed up with actor Brian Blessed and Flash cartoonist Jonti "Weebl" Picking, as well as animal rights groups including the RSPCA, to form "Team Badger", a "coalition of organisations that have teamed up to fight the planned cull of badgers".[114] With Weebl and Blessed, May recorded a single, Save The Badger Badger Badger – a mashup of Weebl's viral 2003 Flash cartoon meme, Badger Badger Badger, and Queen's Flash, featuring vocals by Blessed. Weebl animated the music video, parodying both Weebl's original animation and a scene from Flash Gordon, a film featuring music by Queen, and in which Blessed played Prince Vultan. On 1 September 2013, Save The Badger Badger Badger charted at No. 79 on the UK Singles Chart, No. 39 on the UK iTunes chart[115] and No. 1 on the iTunes Rock chart.[116]

Stereophotography[edit]

May has had a lifelong interest in collecting Victorian stereophotography. In 2009, with co-author Elena Vidal, he published his second book, A Village Lost and Found, on the work of English stereophotography innovator T. R. Williams.[117] He was awarded The Royal Photographic Society's Saxby Medal in 2012 for achievement in the field of three-dimensional imaging.[118]

May made a significant technical contribution to the book to accompany the exhibition 'Stereoscopic Photographs of Pablo Picasso by Robert Mouzillat' held at the Holburne Museum in Bath, UK from February 2014 to June 2014. The book provides a cross-section of photographs of Picasso in his studio, at the bullfight at Arles and in his garden. May's 3D 'Owl viewer' is used to view the photographs in 3D.

The purchase of his first card in 1973 started May on a lifelong and world-wide search for Les Diableries,[119] which are stereoscopic photographs depicting scenes of daily life in Hell. On 10 October 2013[120] the book 'Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell' by Brian May, Denis Pellerin and Paula Fleming was published.[121]

Discography[edit]

With Queen
Main article: Queen discography
Solo discography
Main article: Brian May discography

Bibliography[edit]

References[edit]

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External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Cherie Blair
Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University
2008–2013
Succeeded by
Sir Brian Leveson