May was born in Hampton, in Richmond, and attended Hampton Grammar School (now Hampton School) where he excelled at Mathematics and Science and achieved ten GCE Ordinary Levels and four Advanced Levels in Physics, Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Additional Mathematics. He was also a member of the school dramatics society.
May's father Harold worked as a draughtsman at the Ministry of Aviation and had been a long-time cigarette-smoker. This likely contributed to his early death. As a result, May dislikes smoking, even to the point where he has prohibited smoking indoors at his more recent concerts.
His avoidance of alcohol can be traced to an early concert where Queen played with the band Aerosmith, and May had a conversation with fellow guitarist Joe Perry backstage. Perry brought out a bottle of whisky and shared it with May.
May studied physics at Imperial College London, graduating with a B.Sc. (Hons) degree and ARCS with Upper Second-Class Honours. He then proceeded to study for a Ph.D, also at the Imperial College London departments of Physics and Mathematics, and was part way through this Ph.D programme, studying reflected light from interstellar dust and the velocity of dust in the plane of the Solar System, when Queen became successful. He abandoned his physics doctorate but did co-author two scientific research papers: MgI Emission in the Night-Sky Spectrum (1972) and An Investigation of the Motion of Zodiacal Dust Particles (Part I) (1973), which were based on May's observations in Tenerife. He is the co-author of "Bang! – The Complete History of the Universe" with Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott, which was published in October, 2006. More than 30 years after he started his research, in October 2007 he completed his Ph.D. thesis, entitled A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud, passed his viva voce, and performed the required corrections. He officially graduated at the postgraduate awards ceremony held in the Royal Albert Hall on the afternoon of Wednesday May 14, 2008. On November 17, 2007, Brian May was appointed Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, taking over from Cherie Blair, and installed in 2008.
Brian May has been referred to as a virtuoso guitarist. He has used a range of guitars, most often the "Red Special," which he designed with his father, Harold May, and built with wood from a 19th century fireplace. His comments on this instrument, from Queen In Their Own Words (ed. Mick St. Michael, Omnibus Press, 1992, p. 62) are:
|“||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.||”|
In addition to using his home-made guitar he prefers to use coins (especially a sixpence), instead of a more traditional plastic plectrum, on the basis that their rigidity gives him more control in playing. He is known to carry coins in his pockets specifically for this purpose.
May's early heroes were Cliff Richard and The Shadows, who he says were "the most metallic thing 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.
May was proud upon hearing that Cliff Richard had mentioned in an interview that he would have Brian May in his personal fantasy band. As well as recording with Hank Marvin, May also contributed to the 1996 album Twang!: A Tribute to Hank Marvin & the Shadows, playing FBI. The album featured many other renowned guitarists.
In Queen's three-part vocal harmonies, his was generally the lower-range backing vocal. On some of his songs he sings the lead vocal, most notably the first verse of Who Wants to Live Forever, and also "Some Day One Day," "All Dead, All Dead," "Long Away," "Leaving Home Ain't Easy," "Good Company," "Sleeping on the Sidewalk" and "'39."
In recent years, he has overseen 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 have recorded a new album with Paul Rodgers for release in 2008, along with a major tour.
During the time in which Brian 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 simply had no need to build another guitar. 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". As yet, this guitar has not been used in any recordings and remains in May's possession.
Brian May began composing in 1968/1969, and has covered a wide variety of styles during his career. 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. A meticulous arranger, he focuses on multi-part harmonies, often more contrapuntal than parallel — a 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"), tapping ("Bijou","It's Late","Resurrection", "Cyborg"), Hendrix sounding licks ("Liar", "Brighton Rock") and melodic parts ("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"). May also performed notable acoustic works, including "Love of My Life" from 1975's A Night at the Opera, the fingerpicked solo of "White Queen", and the skiffle-influenced "'39".
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 sound effects with his guitar that were so unusual that many thought a synthesizer was being used. 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.
May's abilities are not restricted to one instrument. During his Queen days he performed ukulele ("Good Company" and "Bring Back That Leroy Brown") and sometimes piano, detaching on a soft and gentle style[opinion needs balancing] ("All Dead, All Dead", "Save Me", "Dear Friends"). He also played part of the synthesizer intro (the melody) to "One Vision". He recorded some other instruments (maracas, banjo, etc), including the harp on "Love of My Life", which was recorded in overdubs and mixed to sound as one performance.
May is also an accomplished singer. His wide vocal range went from notes around low A (110 Hz) to very high tenor Ds and Es (mostly in his solo career). Occasionally he contributed falsetto parts as well ("Ogre Battle", "Why Don't We Try Again"). From Queen's Queen I to Hot Space, May contributed lead vocals to at least one song per album.
May composed a mini-opera, 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.
Most of May's guitar work was done on the Red Special. However, he has used a number of other electric guitars, including a Burns Double Six (Long Away), a Gibson Les Paul (as a backup during the early tours.), a Gibson Flying V (spare during Hot Space tour), a Fender Telecaster (Crazy Little Thing Called Love), an Ibanez JS (Nothing But Blue),a Greco BM90 (featured in the promo video of "Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy", but was not actually used in the studio), a Tōkai Hummingbird Acoustic on some recordings, and a Parker Fly (Mother Love).
In early Queen tours he had a Stratocaster as spare guitar, replacing it with a Les Paul Deluxe in 1974, then a John Birch replica of his Red Special the next year. In a concert in the States on the 1982 Hot Space North American tour, he got frustrated with that instrument and smashed it, thereafter using a Gibson Flying V until he got more suitable replicas of his beloved Red Special. 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 pickups (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 backup. At the moment, he uses the 2 guitars made by Greg Fryer — the luthier who restored the Old Lady in 1998—as backup. They are really identical to the original, except for the Fryer logo on the headstock (May's original one has a sixpence).
For acoustic guitars, he mostly used Ovation 12-Strings, Martins, and a Gibson Chet Atkins for nylon-string parts. He created the unique "buzzing" tone heard on "White Queen (As It Began)" and "Jealousy" by placing pieces of piano wire under the frets. His ukulele was Aloha. Pianos he recorded include Bösendorfers, although in concerts he relied on Freddie Mercury's Steinway. May used Yamaha DX7 synths for the opening sequence of "One Vision" and the backgrounds of "Who Wants to Live Forever", "Scandal" and "The Show Must Go On".
May was keen on using some toys as instruments as well. He also used a Yamaha plastic piano in Teo Torriatte, a "genuine George Formby Ukulele-Banjo" in Bring Back That Leroy Brown and in Good Company and a toy mini koto in The Prophet's Song.
May has used Vox AC-30 amplifiers almost exclusively since a meeting with his long time hero Rory Gallagher at a gig in London during the late 60s/early 70s. 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. He also customizes 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 6-7dB. He always used a 'treble booster pedal' of some kind which, along with the AC-30, went a long way in helping to create many of his signature guitar tones. He used the Dallas Rangemaster for the first Queen albums, up to A Day at the Races. Then, effects guru Pete Cornish built for him the TB-83 (32dB of gain) that 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.
Live, he uses banks of AC-30 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 you can hear 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 Brighton Rock solo.
Another particular choice of May is the plectrum: he uses an English Sixpence coin from the '60s. This gives a mysterious, clean and crystalline tone.[opinion needs balancing] Bandmate and electrical engineer John Deacon also built May a small DC-powered amplifier which he often used when recording. Known as the 'Deacy amp', it was reproduced as the "Brian May Special" by Vox in 2003. Vox have also released a Brian May custom AC-30 model with a single volume control and a rear mounted guitar input jack so multiple amps can be stacked on top of each other. The Digitech corporation recently released a pedal called the "Brian May Red Special" from its artist series of pedals made to emulate the tones of famous guitarist. This particular pedal is made to simulate the tones from seven Queen hits, as well as the tone of the Red Special, the Deacy amp, the Treble Booster and the Vox AC-30s. Also V-stack made a "simulator" of Brian May's sound.
Last, but not least, a quite influential factor on his sound in studio is the particular positioning of the microphones. This allowed May to cut down the noise produced by the extremely loud AC30 at full volume and also nailed particular, unique mid-loaded tones. For example, to record the solos of Bohemian Rhapsody and We Will Rock you, most of It's Late and almost every guitar part in We Are The Champions, microphones were placed in the corners of the room, at the center of which there was the amplifier. This makes his tone even more difficult to copy,[opinion needs balancing] because the amplifier sounds significantly different if microphoned up in one way or another.[opinion needs balancing]
Contributions to Queen
After the famous Live Aid concert in summer 1985, Mercury rang his band mates 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 Roger Taylor on lyrics, with Freddie Mercury being more a producer and arranger than a proper co-writer, and John Deacon mostly absent.
For their 1989 release album, The Miracle, the band had decided that all of the tracks would be credited to all the band, no matter who had been the main writer. Still, interviews and musical analyses tend to 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, Mercury with the first verse.
The Brian May Band
The Brian May Band was officially formed in late October 1992, following the release of his album Back to the Light.
An early version of the band was loosely formed for 19 October 1991, when May took part in the Guitar Legends guitar festival in Seville, Spain. The line-up for his performance was May (Lead Vocals & Lead Guitar), Cozy Powell (Drums & Percussion), Mike Moran (Keyboards), Rick Wakeman (Keyboards), Maggie Ryder (Backing Vocals), Miriam Stockley (Backing Vocals) and Chris Thompson (Backing Vocals).
Following the death of Freddie Mercury in November 1991, May chose to deal with his grief by committing himself as fully as possible to work, first by finishing his solo album 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.
The original line-up was Brian May (Lead Vocals and Lead Guitar), Cozy Powell (Drums and Percussion), Mike Caswell (Guitar), Neil Murray (Bass), Maggie Ryder (Backing Vocals), Miriam Stockley (Backing Vocals) and Chris Thompson (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.
Most significantly, May brought guitarist Jamie Moses on board to replace Mike Caswell. May considered Moses a perfect fit to the band. The other change made was in the backing vocal department. Ryder, Stockley and Thompson are 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. The tour would take them through North America, Europe 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 album.
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 of his second album from covers to focus on those collaborations and on new material. The songs recorded for that album, Another World would feature mainly Edney, Powell, Murray and Moses, who had become his core support/collaborative team.
On 5 April 1998, Cozy Powell was killed in a car accident on the M4 motorway near Bristol, England. This caused a huge, unexpected dent in the upcoming tour for The Brian May Band, with the need for a new drummer on short notice. Steve Ferrone was brought on to help May finish recording drums for the title track "Another World" and to join the band for the early stage promotional tour of five dates in Europe before the world tour.
The line up was then Brian May (Lead Vocals & Lead Guitar), Spike Edney (Keyboards), Neil Murray (Bass), Jamie Moses (Guitar), Steve Ferrone (Drums & Percussion), Susie Webb (Backing Vocals) and Zoe Nicholas (Backing Vocals). Following the early promo tour, Eric Singer replaced Steve Ferrone for the full 1998 world tour. The band then consisted of Brian May (Lead Vocals & Lead Guitar), Spike Edney (Keyboards), Neil Murray (Bass), Jamie Moses (Guitar), Eric Singer (Drums & Percussion), Susie Webb (Backing Vocals) and Zoe Nicholas (Backing Vocals).
In 2005, Edney and Moses were recruited along with Danny Miranda (Bass) to join the Queen + Paul Rodgers tour, to fill the roles of keyboard player and second guitarist respectively.
In late 2008 he will be reuniting with Paul Rodgers for a European tour playing major cities, including two dates at the O2 arena in London.