Personalities | Brian May | Queen’s Guitar King | Guitar Heroes

Queen guitarist Brian May is among the most recognizable players in the world. His distinctive tones, created by the home-made guitar he built when he was 16 and has used throughout his career, are integral to the sound of Queen.

Many of the sounds he produced were so innovative that the first seven Queen albums pointedly stated that no synthesizers had been used on their records. May has also written some of Queen’s most famous hits.

May, born in 1947, grew up in Hampton, South West London. He started playing guitar at the age of seven. Academically gifted, particularly in physics, he made his own guitar with help from his father when he was unable to afford the Fender Stratocaster he wanted. The Red Special (also known as the Fireplace Guitar, because the mahogany neck was carved from a 200-year-old fireplace) took 18 months to build at a cost of £18, and he played it with a sixpence rather than a plectrum.

May formed 1984 with bassist friend Tim Staffels prior to entering Imperial College, London in 1965. After 1984 broke up, May and Staffels formed the trio Smile with drummer Roger Taylor. After one failed single, ‘Earth’, in 1969, Staffels left. Staffels’ flatmate Freddie Mercury approached May and Taylor about forming another band. In 1971, bassist John Deacon joined them, completing the Queen line-up. Their debut album, Queen (1973), featured a variety of styles and included their first May-composed single, ‘Keep Yourself Alive’. Queen II (1974) reached No. 5 in the UK charts thanks to extensive touring.

Sheer Heart Attack (1974), recorded while May was suffering from hepatitis and a duodenal ulcer, brought their stylish rock into focus, exemplified by the ‘Killer Queen’ single that, like the album, reached No. 2 in the charts. May’s guitar was also showcased on the opening ‘Brighton Rock’. With A Night At The Opera (1975), Queen moved beyond conventional rock categories into one of their own, a theatrical pop dominated by multilayered guitars and vocals. The operatic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, with May’s memorable solo, became a global hit.

A Day At The Races (1976) kept to the formula, with May drawing on Queen’s hard roots for ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ and contributing one of his finest solos to Mercury’s flamboyant ‘Somebody To Love’. There was a rockier edge to News Of The World (1977), opening with May’s anthemic ‘We Will Rock You’, and a broader sweep to Jazz (1978), which featured the May-penned ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’. This trend continued on The Game (1980), the first Queen album to use synthesizers. May contributed two ballads, ‘Sail Away Sweet Sister’ and ‘Save Me’.

Queen explored a more rhythmic direction on Hot Space (1982). May’s guitar parts were more succinct, and he wrote three tracks on the album, including the single ‘Las Palabras de Amor’. The band took an extended break in 1983, and May recorded a solo project with guitarist Eddie Van Halen that was released as a mini-album, Star Fleet Project...

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