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Tone on a Budget - Brian May

Issue #40

Brian May’s tone is without a doubt one of the unique voices in Rock guitar
Jamie Humphries

Searching for that unique Brian May tone? Want to do it without breaking the bank? After countless hours spent with the We Will Rock You show, Jamie Humphries probably has more experience than anyone at getting the perfect sound. Here's Jamie's guide to doing it the affordable way.

The origins of 'that sound'

Brian May’s tone is without a doubt one of the unique voices in Rock guitar. It’s almost like a mystical chain of events resulted in the equipment that came together to produce his sound. Although that sound has evolved and changed slightly over the years, it has always stayed faithful to Brian’s initial vision of how he imagined his tone to be. I think that in itself is a very interesting fact that, from the very conception of the Red Special, he knew in his mind how he imagined his voice on the guitar.

Right from the outset, he wanted a rich smooth distortion that would produce feedback, inspired by Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. Originally, in fact, the Red Special was going to have an “F” hole, a design that was actually used by Andrew Guyton when building Brian’s “Badger” guitar. He also wanted to produce a wide array of tones, from thick resonant crunch, to screaming overtones. This came from experimenting with the pickup selection and phasing options.

When it came to producing the distortion and amplifying it, he chose the Dallas Rangemaster treble booster; a unit that produced gain boost fed into the front end of the amplifier. Additionally, the treble booster cut bottom end, while simultaneously boosting upper midrange frequencies, producing a clean, cutting distorted tone.

Brian's two major influences when he started out were Hank Marvin and Rory Gallagher, both of whom were Vox AC30 users. Brian loved the clean loud sound of the Vox, but found that when he drove the amp hard, the overdrive it produced was too thick and muddy. Driven with the treble booster though (as Rory Gallagher had proved) the Vox amp reacted perfectly, producing a defined clear distortion.


But there was a lot more than just a desire for a certain sort of distortion going on in Brian's head at the time. He was also inspired by classical music, as well as traditional “seaside” Trad Jazz played by the likes of the Temperance Seven that had been briefly popular in the UK during the early 1960s. He found that he could create those using the pickup phase switches on his Red Special, along with a wah pedal being use purely as a tone control. Running his guitar into a treble booster and then into the home made “Deacy” amp, built by John Deacon (see our review of the Deacy amp in this issue - Ed) he was able to create an array of imitation brass and woodwind sounds and an example can be heard on the classic Queen recording “Good Company”. This studio approach became very much a part of Queen’s voice, with Brian arranging multiple guitars performing contrapuntal melodies and harmonies.

When it came to his live rig, for a long time Brian had looked for a way of reproducing his studio sound live. He introduced a second amp to which he fed tape echo delay from an Echoplex and eventually a third amp; the two outer amps with different delay times, and the middle amp dry. He even rebuilt his tape echo units, to enable him to get longer delays. The result was that Brian could perform a “canon” whereby he would play a musical phrase which would then be repeated by both amps at a set different time. This would also provide Brian with three part harmonies live.

I should also point out that at different points in his career Brian has used different types of modulation. Originally he favoured phaser effects, mainly the Foxx Phaser, but later he moved to using chorus, which was very apparent during the mid '80’s. 

Brian’s rig nowadays includes three modified Vox AC30 TBXs, although he has nine on stage the remaining six are spares. The two outer amps are all effect, delay and chorus, while the middle amp is totally dry. This creates a very wide stereo tone, but at the same time it's very direct and punchy; the advantage of running a wet, dry, wet rig. The guitars are all fitted with KAT strap treble boosters (also reviewed in this issue - Ed), with the exception of the semi acoustic Guyton “Badger” Special. From the strap booster the signal goes into the wireless pack, and is driven hard by the booster. The rack contains the wireless receiver, two TC Electronics G Major 2 effect processors, and a Dunlop rack wah. There is a Mike Hill custom built switcher that routes the signal to various sources; the effects to the outer amps, plus a main signal feed to the dry centre AC30 or the Deacy amp. There is also a KAT treble booster in the rack for the “Badger” Guyton guitar, as this guitar is on a double lead. Also in the rack is an Avalon pre-amp for the piezo acoustic pickup on the “Badger” guitar. There is also a power unit that could power a small village, supplying clean spike free power to the rack wherever in the world Brian is!

The entire system is operated by a KAT MIDI switcher which sits on top of the rack; the rack is like a work station for Pete Malandrone, Brian's long serving guitar tech, as he is as much a part of the performance as Brian, switching in and out Brian’s effects, and routing his signal to any desired amp or effect in the rack. The final piece of the puzzle is the sixpenny piece - the sixpence. Brian loves the sound of the serrated edge of the coin against the strings, which is especially apparent during clean passages when the guitar volume is backed down. For younger readers and those abroad who are scratching their heads over this, the sixpence was a legacy from Britain's pre-decimal coinage, replaced in 1970. Uniquely, Brian has always used these as picks.

The budget approach

When I was given the task of creating  this Tone on A Budget I knew it was going to be tricky and had to make some decisions about the type of guitar I was going to us,. Also, would I use an amp, stomp boxes or a modelling unit?  There are several things we need to consider when creating Brian’s tone:

  • Single Coil pickups
  • Versatile pickup switching/phase reversal
  • Smooth overdrive/distortion
  • Reduced low end, boosted upper midrange
  • Two independent delay times
  • Modulation; chorus/phaser
  • Wah pedal (tone only)
  • Sixpence

I would favour a single coil pickup guitar over a humbucker to achieve Brian’s tone. Although it doesn’t switch in the same way, with a Strat you can have both the bridge and middle pickups engaged. To my mind, other than a Brian May guitar, the only other guitars I know of that are capable of the unique switching are the Fender Elite Strat, The Musicman Reflex Game Changer and the Gibson Nighthawk.

I have chosen to use the BMG Special for this demonstration, as I feel it is an affordable guitar, and is obviously based on the original, albeit it has a few variations to make it more wallet friendly. This is a great guitar; visually authentic, it captures the correct sound and feel, and with such hardware as a Wilkinson trem, Brian May branded pickups, it performs superbly. That said, if you were trying to get somewhere near the right sound and couldn't afford want to buy a BMG, then a Strat would do as well as just about anything.

Now for amp choice. With the rate that technology is being developed, it's now possible to get a great guitar sound using your smart phone! Companies such as IK Multimedia, with Amplitude, and Positive Grid with Bias, Bias FX and JamUp, make apps that really will enable you to choose authentic amp and pedal models. I have apps for both my Mac and my iPad by both of these companies and I’ve successfully managed to produce great Brian May tones with them. This approach is seriously worth trying for bedroom use.

But for our first rig I’ve chosen to go the secondhand eBay route for a quite brilliant modelling solution that bears Brian’s signature: The DigiTech Red Special pedal. This pedal has been discontinued, but they can be picked up pretty cheaply on the secondhand market and they are fantastic. With the help of producer Eddie Kramer, who was the consultant for the modelling, and Brian May, DigiTech produced a modelling pedal that replicated Brian’s AC30/treble booster tones, his Deacy, and his Red Special and Trisonic pickups. For the money, this is by far the best BM tone solution I have seen. This pedal is designed to be used with a Red Special, but the Old Lady has also been modelled. Depending on whether you use humbuckers or single coils, the guitar control will transform the sound of your regular guitar into the sound of the Red Special! It sounds totally authentic, and if you are on a tight budget it means you don’t have to trade in your favourite Fender for a BM! The amp models are brilliant; The Vox tones are authentic, and the Deacy sound is uncannily accurate. As well as this the pedal offers multiple delays, and modulation, and an acoustic emulator for those “39” moments. The delays sound great, the more you push down the pedal the more delay is increased, giving you the perfect “Brighton Rock” tone. Check out the modulation at the start of the video lesson; straight off of “Keep Yourself Alive”, fantastic stuff. The pedal is fully programmable, and the heel/toe footswitch also activates other effect combinations. The pedal comes with selected BM tones based on a handful of classic Queen songs. If you are serious about a BM tone, and even if you don’t own a BM guitar I would start scouting for one of these. Check out the video to see why!

For our final rig selection I went the analogue route, and based my choice on a similar idea to what we use at We Will Rock You, but with a twist. Buying a Vox AC30, or another brand of EL84 loaded amp is going to push your budget through the roof. With that in mind I have replaced our amp with a wonderful pre-amp pedal, the Thundertomate TAE pedal, (www.taefx.com) (a review is planned for the near future - Ed). This pedal is basically a Brian May Vox in a pedal, all analogue. It can be placed in front of your amp, or in the effects loop, turning your existing amp into a close replica of a Vox. You can also run it with a power amp into a cab, or as I did direct to the desk, as the output is a beautifully voiced speaker emulator. I used a BMG Special, into a Fryer treble booster, and also added an MXR chorus, then into the TAE and straight out to the desk. This is essentially what we used at Rock You, but with a Vox instead of the TAE.

The final piece of the tone puzzle is a sixpence piece coin. These are vital in achieving that rasp across the strings, as well as the correct pick attack. These can be bought in bags of 100 via eBay.

Finally if you rather go a route not covered here, either with your own existing equipment, or an app, try opting for a light classic crunch and boost the front end. You don’t want to add distortion from the pedal, just boost to drive the amp. Roll off bottom end and boost the mid range, and some top end presence, but avoid making the tone thin and fizzy. Adding some chorus or phaser will also add to the authenticity of the tone. Finally remember, if you are going to get a clean tone, don’t touch the pedals or an amp switcher; to achieve clean tones, back off the guitar volume. Good luck!

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