Interviews: Brian May: Guitar For the Practicing Musician '93
Interview with Brian May and Nuno Bettencourt
Brian, are you aware that while you have influenced a lot of people, if they do a Brian May lick they have to sound like you?
NUNO: I have to agree with that. It's one of those things in Brian's case where it wasn't so much just the style, it was a sound also that not a lot of people had. Personally, I think the sound itself was way ahead of its time as far as the smoothness and the amount of distortion you could have and still sound that smooth. Back during Queen II and their first record it was as heavy, if not heavier than Eddie's sound at times. You're right - when you try to do a Brian lick you can't just play the lick, you've got to get that sound. You know you can't get it but you get as close as you can. You've got to try to sound like that. Or else it won't sound like Brian.
BRIAN: That's funny. It makes me smile that you thought that way.
Were you aware of when you got that sound, when you didn't sound like your hero?
B: I think we all start out -
N: Emulating another player.
B: Yeah, taking in what everybody has and trying to do it. Definitely. I remember hearing George Harrison say they tried to do what The Shadows did and it came out sounding like something totally different. I suppose that's what always happens. There is this nice kind of translation process that happens. You take something in and then you do it in your own way and it becomes your own style. I suppose we all do that. I was never aware that it was anything that special. To be truthful, I'm embarrassed if somebody says that because I don't have this feeling that what I've done is anything great in terms of great shakes. But I'm happy that people find it a springboard for what they do. If that happens it's wonderful.
Are you not aware that your sound is unique?
B: That's partly accidental because me and my dad made the guitar and I found the amplifier. I had this sound in my head. I knew that I wanted it to be like a voice so there was some planning involved. But really I was lucky that I found it. I suppose I had a slight doubt in the beginning that maybe it was a little too mellow. And it was sounding different to everybody else. I felt that it was like a voice and I kind of went on with it.
Nuno, have you found your sound or are you still on the prowl?
N: I don't think my playing is going to end up being like that - finding a "sound." For instance, I got a chance to go to a Van Halen rehearsal. I walk in and hear Eddie and I go, "Jesus, there's that tone he has." I was thinking to myself, "I would love to play his stuff. I would love to see if it sounds like that." They stopped for a second and he goes, "You've got to try my stuff out." I sit down and grab his guitar and start playing and unfortunately it sounded just like me.
N: I was like, "Oh man, it is in the guy's fingers." That's a lot to do with the fingers: the expression, an attack, and how you make things ring and not ring. So I guess the sound I'm always looking for tends to always be there no matter what I do. I don't know if I'm discovering a sound or if it's just the way it is.
Are particular guitars and amps important? Brian, it's part of your signature.
B: I don't have much interest in guitars and equipment to be truthful. The most boring thing that can happen to me in an interview is when people say, "What number do you turn up to?" At that point I kind of turn off because I don't give a fuck really. If it sounds good, it is good. I don't have any interest in gear.
But your sound was based on a guitar that you built and the Vox AC30.
B: There you have it. I was lucky. I suppose if it hadn't worked out I would have kept looking for something that worked.
Nuno, when you started you put the guitars together yourself. Is the Washburn N-4 similar to the guitars you built for yourself?
N: Whatever you feel comfortable with is the best guitar for you. That's pretty much what it is. The Washburn is what I built myself in the beginning but better made.
Do you have an amp sound?
N: On the last record I pretty much used a Soldano head for rhythm and I used a G-K for solos. Live I just use an ADA amp.
Were there sounds on records that made your hair stand on end?
B: I'll never forget the first time I heard The Who's "My Generation." It was on a tiny radio and me and my friend raced out and bought the thing and played it over and over again. It was that sort of enormous clang that killed me. That was one of my moments. There's a few of The Who's early records which were like that. For lead sounds I would say Jeff Beck. Jeff hates his record "Hi-Ho Silver Lining." Apparently he was pushed into it, but the solo on that where it kind of splatters in the middle and then bursts into probably an accidental, double-track harmony bit killed me and I wore that into the ground. One of the most perfect sounds I remember is Edward's on "The Best of Both Worlds." It's a huge, fat rhythm sound. It's just the way he strokes it. It's actually gently played in a way but it sounds so vast. I love that sound. He calls it "brown."
N: He always had this ability to have one or two tracks that sound big and thick.
B: Alex Van Halen's sound has a lot to do with that. It's a very unusual drum sound, totally different from anyone else's approach to a snare sound. There is only guitar, bass and drums on that but it sounds massive.
N: Van Halen II was such a big-sounding record but there is nothing there. Eddie is on one side, reverb on the other side and the production is not even that big.
B: And Hendrix; certain people just have that magic. I was lucky enough to see Hendrix a few times and twice we played on the same bill. I was very young and we were 15th on the bill and he was top of the bill. Once, on a thing called "Christmas on Earth" at Olympia in London, we went on and I distinctly remember everybody plugged into the same gear. There was a row of Marshall stacks and I plugged into one and it sounded like three-inch shit. Hendrix plugged into it about five hours later and it sounded like a bomb, like the earth was exploding. I've never figured out what happened. There were no tricks involved that I saw, but he just had that knack of getting that hugeness, that beautiful, smooth breadth out of it that no one else could do. There were no PAs in those days so it wasn't like he was miked into the PA. The PA was two Wenn columns. In case you didn't know what they are, that would be something like four 10-inch speakers on each side. But it was massive, what can you say?
What about your own sound on record?
B: I don't know, really. To be truthful, I'm always slightly dissatisfied with my sound on record. Sometimes it was close, like on "Fat Bottomed Girls." In the studio I thought it was "IT" in capital letters but by the time we got out onto a record and I heard it on the radio I thought, "No, it's not really there."
N: Exactly. I felt the same way. Believe it or not, on this third record [III Sides to Every Story] when I got my sound in the studio I said, "God, I finally found what I wanted. This is what I wanted to sound like for so long." We did the tracks and I remember doing "Warhead" and "Color Me Blind" and I'm loving every minute of it. Then when it got back from mastering, they did nothing to it except transfer it from tape to digital to make parts. I got it back and I was depressed. Whatever EQ change occurs from that tape machine to parts for a CD, it made it that couple of chromosomes short of what I always dreamed it would be.
B: Strange, both you and I are ridiculously attached to pursuing this thing to its ultimate.
N: I know exactly what you mean.
B: Nuno is the same as me. You finish it, you put it on tape and then you are there at the mix. You make sure it goes on the tape, you make sure it comes off the tape. You go along to the mastering session to make sure it gets on the CD right. But there still can be things that leak through. I don't know what it is but it never ends up exactly the way you thought it would.
N: No, it never does. It's just little things, the magical moments, the magical sound that you get. By the time it gets to CD or tape it's never there.
B: I thought vinyl was great. Some of those cuts we did on vinyl I still like a lot. The original cut of "We Will Rock You" I still like a lot and, crazy enough, it is still better-sounding on vinyl. The CD doesn't quite make it.
N: LPs still sound the best. There is warmth to them.
B: Strange but true.
N: All a record is is a diary of where you are at a particular point mentally and physically. It's just another day. Then you move on; that's all you can do. It sounds like when you listen to your records you don't enjoy them so much as hear their flaws.
B: It takes a while before you can enjoy them. For me, when the record's just finished I can't bear to listen to it because it's too late to be able to change anything. It's going to be torture, so I don't want to hear it for a few months. Then later you can excuse it by saying, "That was me then - I'm me now, I'm different now" so you can regard it with more of a sense of humor.
N: He's absolutely right. Yesterday in the dressing room was the first time I've listened to our record in months. A fan gave it to me as a gift to listen to. We were listening to it in the dressing room and we didn't mind it so much because the wounds were healed.
B: That's right, that's the way to say it. You don't mind as much. They sent us a version of a live Queen concert we did in Tokyo that the Japanese are going to put out. It's a whole video and everything and I watched it and thought we would never have allowed that to go out at the time with the mistakes. But in retrospect I thought, "It's cute. It's the truth about what happened at that time." I can say to myself, "That was then and this is now." It didn't bother me.
Did either of you keep those wonderful cassette mixes of the sounds you loved before they lost some magic?
N: I would never go back and listen to them because it would just bring back the pain, knowing that what I'm listening to nobody else has.
B: That's exactly right. We had a classic case with "Sleeping on the Sidewalk," which we did as a first take. I was trying to explain to Roger [Taylor, Queen drummer] what I wanted, which was a simple blues shuffle beat type thing. We did endless takes and it never sounded as good as the first take. I took the cassette mix home of that first take and it sounded incredible. In my mind, we never got the sound of that first cassette mix. I have no idea why but it always sounds like it's half falling to pieces, whereas on that first cassette it all gelled and sounded like it was a band.
N: We did rough mixes of everything so we could listen to it. When we went to mix the record for real I was upset half the time because the rough mixes kicked its ass. But as far as the overall tone and sound, there might be [only] one thing that you couldn't use.
You couldn't dump the roughs in digitally and play along?
N: It doesn't matter. It's that particular day. You can put something on an SSL [board] if you want and call it up exactly the same. It will not come up the same.
B: It sounds like we're all idiot astrologers but it's true: There is a magic at the moment which never comes back. Usually it's screwed up by some oink that's in there that you could never live with.
Oddly enough you can hear somebody else's music and just enjoy it.
N: You've got to understand that all that matters in your life is you've got to be able to sleep at night. That's the most important thing. No matter if everybody likes it, you've still got to be able to sleep at night and know that's what you wanted, or attempted what you wanted.
I meant it's easier to listen to somebody else's record and just enjoy it.
N: Of course. I'm sure if someone came in and wasn't in the band and listened to the rough mix and there was that little oink they wouldn't even care that it was there. They wouldn't notice.
I'd like to explore guitar solos. Fill in the blank: A good guitar solo is based on the relationship of
N: It's got to be the relationship within the song. I think it should be a song with in the song. They should complement each other somehow.
N: It's a difficult thing. It's also an interpretation of the song. There's one guy I'm sure I've mentioned to you before named Mike Slammer. He plays on a lot of records. At one point he was in this band called Streets with Steve Walsh from Kansas. Every song on both records they had, the solos had to be the most perfect thing you've ever heard for each song. They weren't the most dazzling to blow anybody's mind but they were so on and so beautiful; they just flowed. A lot of people have that great vision. That's why Brian is so great to me. It was not so much when he played but when not to play and what not to play. That's the most important thing in a solo, when to know enough is enough.
B: Interesting. He said it all. I have nothing to add. That's what we all strive for. Sometimes vou're lucky. I haven't heard this guy you're talking about. I have to check that out.
Brian, on your solos it sounds like many of your melodies are worked out more than improvised.
B: I suppose it depends on what you mean by "worked out." Worked out for me is sometimes just hearing it in your head. That would happen very often with Freddie [Mercury]'s songs. For some reason Freddie had a way of painting a picture which I always felt I had something to contribute to. Almost always when it came to the point where I was going to play on a song that Freddie had written I knew what I wanted to play. Sometimes I would say to Freddie, "I want the chords to be a certain way so that I can do that." Playing the solo was just a matter of reproducing what was in my head. I could hear it as part of the song all along. Sometimes the guys would be doing it for days on end. I'd always know that when the time came to do my bit I knew what it was going to be like. In that sense it was worked out. I wouldn't normally sit down and write things out. Hopefully the only time I would get analytical was after the event. I think it's best to normally let things happen. I had some kind of idea. I had some training because of piano lessons. I knew what harmonies were. But if you get too technical about it, I think you can get a little sterile and you start doing the expected thing; whereas if you allow yourself to be intuitive a lot better things come out.
Your soloing is based on articulate melody and a keen sense of rhythm.
B: That's very kind of you. I was always interested in both. I'm interested in things that make up magic moments. Timing-wise Ginger Baker was fascinating because he was always doing things which sounded like they were in a particular time but actually they were in another. Unless you listened very carefully you would think the first beat of the bar was someplace completely different. I was always intrigued by that. Clapton, in those days of Cream, would also play licks which would seem to be in a different time signature to what they actually were. I always found that exciting. I suppose some of that crept in.
Those solos which started in your head - were they refined to what we hear or complete in your head?
B: Sometimes it would change a bit but basically the best stuff I did I knew what I was doing. It's very seldom that I approached a solo with no idea and came up with something good. It usually comes out like something I would throw in the bin. I know before I start playing whether I have something to say or not. If I don't have something to say, the best thing is not to do it and come back on another day.
But you improvise in your mind.
B: More or less usually, yeah.
N: I'm pretty much the same way. Usually it starts as an improvisational kind of thing, but I have to agree with Brian. Most of the time if you have a sense of melody in your head it's easier outside of the instrument. I've often had these melodies come to me by singing or on the piano. They come to you quick enough that you just want to put it down with guitar. That's what I meant earlier by songs within songs. I always treat the solo as a little song within the song.
Do melodies come easier on a piano?
N: They come differently, not easier. I think it's a different type of mood. What I mean by writing on a piano - I never mean sitting down and writing a melody with the piano - I mean sitting down playing some chords on the piano and hearing a melody. I've never written a melody on the piano by hand. I play chords and have hummed melodies.
B: It starts in the head, doesn't it really?
B: Not in the fingers in any sense. If I write anything that's decent it comes when I'm not anywhere near a piano or a guitar or anything.
Can you point to songs that developed that way?
N: So much for me, but never a full song was written away from an instrument. A major melody or an actual chorus might be written. A lot of the third side, a lot of "Who Cares," was written hummlng around.
B: The song "Too Much Love Will Kill You" from my album [Back to the Light]. We worked on that song for a couple of days and I never went near an instrument. I never touched a piano to the point where we were going to put down a demo. By that time the song was totally finished. It was obvious in my mind how it should go. The piano was immaterial really; the only thing that mattered was getting the feeling across. I wasn't concerned about anything else.
Can you give me examples of solos where for you personally it felt successfull?
N: To be honest with you, if I didn't personally feel at that moment in that song that I had done it to my satisfaction, it wouldn't be on the record. I'm not talking about being perfect solos or the ultimate in godlike form but for my safisfaction. If it be "Cupid's Dead" or "Politicalamity" and I had the vision for the solo, I would not leave that room until it was there.
B: He's a much better guitar player than I am.
N: Let's stop that right away.
B: He can do half a million things which I can't.
N: Brian still feels that there is still a guitar Olympics going on.
B: I watch this guy with great amazement. It's the next generation. People like me will actually never get much better. I'm too old to get any better now. The stuff that Nuno is doing is truly dazzling. It's great and wonderful to watch. It's not just techno-flash, it's stuff with meaning and it's got great feeling.
"Cupid's Dead" Is a good example of the importance of rhythm in the solo.
N: It probably comes a lot from playing drums for a long time. Usually I walk in time. It bugs me if I'm out of time when I walk. I've always had the clock within me wanting to come out.
B: It's very rhythmic, the stuff you've got on the new album. It's great. It's like it has a life of its own. It seems like you could be playing any notes but it would still be coming out in time. It's unstoppable. I like that feeling.
When I speak about you, Nuno, I always mention your note placement. No matter what the note is, you place it so it feels right.
N: The overall consensus of any comments that I've heard seems to be the placement of things. I'm starting to realize it more and more. I don't notice until somebody shows me. That's like with Brian when we were trying to tell him about his sound and that vibe that he puts out. It's hard to tell when you are on the inside.
Brian, a successful solo of yours?
B: "Killer Queen." I just like the riff. For me, what Nuno was saying about what you leave out is important, and Freddie was an expert at that. There's nothing cluttered about "Killer Queen." There's a fantastic amount going on, but nothing ever gets in the way of anything else. I was pleased that the solo went along with that. Everything is crystal clear. And when the three voices of guitars are all doing little tunes of their own, it feels almost accidental that they go together. I was pleased with how it came out.
When you recorded the harmony parts would you do one part at a time?
N: I hope so.
B: You mean do we go all through one part and all through the next part? You can't do two notes at one time. When you are using the guitar in that way, it's not a polyphonic instrument. You can only play one and get the sound. It has to be one at a time. I think it's good to work in sections because otherwise you tend to forget where you're at.
N: There's so many solos to me like "Killer Queen" where all of a sudden there would be the most amazing melody and there would be a little bit of an orchestration, almost out of time, or a couple of harmonies splitting out here and there. That is a big trademark of Brian's. That's what always slayed me.
B: I had reservations about the song being a single at first. I was always worried. When we put out "Killer Queen" everybody thought it was the most commercial. I was worried that people would put us in a category where they thought we were doing something light. Sheer Heart Attack was, in my mind, quite heavy and dirty and "Killer Queen" was the lightest and cleanest track and I was worried about putting it out. But when I heard it on the radio I thought, "It's a well-made record and I'm proud of it so it doesn't really matter." Plus it was a hit so fuck it. A hit is a hit is a hit.
N: You can't control the hits, man. They are just going to happen.
What song that was not a hit do you think deserves more attention than it got?
N: For me, one of the biggest disappointments was that we would have liked to have been known for "Get the Funk Out." It happened somewhat in Europe but in America and the rest of the world it didn't do anything. That was a good, very well-balanced Extreme song which had a lot of the elements. On the first record there was a song called "Smoke Signals" which I wish would have been heard.
What were the elements?
N: It had a lot percentage-wise of what Extreme does. If I had one song to play you to say what Extreme is, I would want to play you "Get the Funk Out." I think it has most of what we were about in one song.
B: That's very apparent to me. I would agree with that. That crystallizes my feelings about Extreme more than anything else. For myself, I'd be wrong. It's mostly self-indulgent stuff that I wouldn't want to tell you.
N: What if I came from America and I was 17 and never heard of Queen and you had one chance to say, "This is what Queen did" to sum it up?
B: Nuno is into Queen II. Most of the tracks on that album I think are - quality-wise in the writing and arrangement - equal to anything we did. Generally that's the album that has sold less than almost anything else we ever did. I suppose if it was done to quality I would want you to listen to Queen II. That was a great moment for us when we were just bursting into that position of having real control over what we were doing. I would probably go for that.
N: I'll take Queen II for $200.