At the mention of Queen, the first person that comes to mind is its celebrated lead Freddie Mercury. However, legendary guitarist Brian Harold May created this group long before Mercury introduced us to his impressive vocal range. Born in 1947, May was the only son of Scottish mother Ruth Irving and English father and former Ministry of Aviation drafter Harold May. The acclaimed guitarist has been married twice.
He has three kids from his first marriage to Christine Mullen, which lasted between 1974 and 1988. May met his current partner Anita Dobson at a 1986 film premiere while Mullen was still his wife. His conflicted feelings inspired May to write the 1989 Queen hit I Want It All. Brian married his second love in 2000, and they have remained together since then. May’s musical career has been as colorful as his personal life.
Finding the Best Solo by Brian May
Total guitar might have ranked Bohemian Rhapsody as an all-time guitar favorite, but if you ask Brian May, that is not his favorite project. In a past interview, the guitarist named Killer Queen his most treasured solo. May loved Killer Queen because of the adventure of creating its guitar harmonies.
According to the legend, this project was a dive into the unknown. May also named Key To Love as his best guitar solo. He described this track by another legendary guitarist Eric Clapton as one of the most passion-filled pieces he had ever listened to in his life. He even regarded it as one of his inspirations.
Favorite Guitar of Brian May
You cannot tell Brian May’s story without mentioning his favorite instrument, ‘the Red Special’. This guitar derives its name from the reddish-brown shades of its Rustins Plastic Coating. Some people also call this guitar ‘the Fireplace’, because its neck was fashioned out of fireplace mantel wood. The Red Special was the project of May and his dad. Although May’s parents had gifted him an acoustic guitar, he needed an electric instrument for his music, and he couldn’t afford expensive versions like Gibsons or Fenders. However, building the Red Special wasn’t easy, seeing the project lasted around one and a half years. For starters, the old neck wood made it harder to shape the neck. May even had to fill some wormholes with matchsticks.
The first Red Special instrument featured on many live appearances and Queen albums. But although the singer still plays the original guitar, he has performed using official replicas on different occasions. One notable copy was designed by John Birch and it appeared in several live performances before May broke it during a 1982 concert. Several other companies have produced official replicas, including Guild Guitars and Burns Guitars. However, Brian May Guitars is the only authorized dealer of the Red Special today.
Manufacturers like Greco, Carpinteri, Scheithauer, Dillion, Harley Benton, and Dansan have also produced unofficial versions of this iconic guitar.
Before Queen, There Was Smile and 1984
Brian May formed his first music group, 1984, alongside his buddy Dave Dilloway. Later, the duo welcomed vocalist Tim Staffell who would become May’s future bandmate. In her book Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury, Lesley-Ann Jones describes 1984 as a cover group that recreated hits from bands like The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and The Shadows. May’s second project was a group called Smile, which he started with Staffell in 1968 while they were both undergraduates.
The band also had a third member, Chris Smith, an organist, and fellow student. However, Smile still needed a drummer, prompting them to advertise the position on the bulletin of Imperial College London. The ad caught the eye of dentistry undergraduate Roger Taylor, who played for a pop group called The Reaction at the time. Taylor impressed May so much that he described him as the best drummer they had ever met. Together, they performed covers and original songs, making Smile a college house band. They even landed a record deal with Mercury Records America.
A notable Smile fan was Farrokh Bulsara, who later adopted the name Freddie Mercury. He loved Smile so much that he attended their gigs around campus, making friends with the group members and eventually living together. Though he recognized their brilliance, Mercury constantly suggested tips to better the group.
Staffell soon lost interest in the band, saying they had ditched heavy rock for more disciplined music. Staffell’s exit left May and Taylor in a confusing position, pushing them to the brink of abandoning their music dream. Mercury later came on board as the lead singer, though he didn’t stop offering his ideas to the band. Mercury was all about experimenting, suggesting bold costumes and stage arrangements. Smile later rebranded to Queen, inviting bassist and fourth member, John Deacon.
Brian May On Freddie Mercury’s Death
Like the rest of the world, May was devastated by Mercury’s death. This was one of the reasons he slid into depression in the early ’90s, including other causes such as his father’s demise and his failed marriage. However, May managed his grief by immersing himself in work. The legend completed his album Back to the Light, and took a global tour to market it. Other bandmates also honored Mercury with a tribute concert and the Made in Heaven album produced in 1995. Additionally, they released a single in 1997 called No One But You before the band took a break.
Performing at the Legendary Live Aid Concert
There’s no doubt that Queen put up a memorable show at the live aid concert. Some might even argue it was the band’s best performance and one of the most iconic shows the rock fraternity has ever seen. But according to May, Queen had an unfair advantage at the concert since they had previously performed in football stadiums. Mercury was also good at pumping up the crowd so that everyone felt like they were a part of the performance. In a separate interview, May described their 22-minute set as “Kind of ok”. Referring to the 2018 production Bohemian Rhapsody, the guitarist termed the Live Aid scene a faithful recreation of the exact moment.