One of the Guitars great individualists, Queen’s Brian May talks to Stephen Rosen during Los Angeles Studio Sessions for the bands latest album.
Were you writing songs back when you had your first band, Smile?
Yes, but mostly we were playing other people’s material, adaptations of other people’s material. We did a heavy version of ‘If I were a Carpenter’ and a lot of more or less pure jamming where we’d start off with a riff and build on that. We had an elemental version of ‘Doing Alright’ which was on the first Queen album. There was a particular track called ‘Earth’ which was a Smile single which was released in America and sold zero. I quite liked it. I think we did a couple of adaptations of Motown things, and we did a couple of Cream songs like ‘N.S.U’ and I think we also did ‘Sweet Wine’
Had you built your own guitar by the time Smile was formed?
Oh yeah, long before that. I was playing in an amateur group called ‘1984’, and I had it by then. But I don’t want to talk about 1984 before because it was just a schoolboy band.
What was the reason for building your own guitar?
Because I couldn’t afford what I wanted! I though I wanted a Les Paul or a Stratocaster, though I never had one in my hands. I didn’t particularly like what most of my friends had, which were Hofner Coloramas and Futuramas. I sort of liked them but I thought I could do better, I thought I could make something better. So my Father and I set about it. Originally I designed the pickups, but I ditched them because, although they had a good sound, they didn’t have a uniform feel. You’d squeeze the string and they would just make the wrong sound, So I threw them out and put Burns pickups on; which we commercially available at the time, and they’re what I still use. I filled them up with epoxy resin to stop them being microphonic but, apart from that, they’re standard.
What types of amplifiers were you using in your early days?
(Vox) AC30’s from pretty early. First of all I was using an old valve amplifier which was part of a radio we had at home. We disconnected the radio part and plugged into the preamp and that was the first thing I used. That’s when we played in each other’s houses. Next, I bought a Burns amplifier which I was never really happy with. By then I had played some of my friend’s AC30’s and that’s what I went to. I got a secondhand AC30 pretty soon after that, And I’ve stuck with AC30’s ever since. The Shadows were big AC30 people in those days, that’s where I got the idea from.
How did Queen evolve from Smile?
Smile got very disillusioned and split up. Although we’d put a record out, it didn’t sell and we felt like we were going nowhere; it was a general depression. Sometimes we’d play in a club and get a good reaction, but it wouldn’t lead anywhere because you’d go to the next place and no one had ever heard of you. So we thought we’d try to make a record because that’s how you get to the next stage. That’s how you get to the point where people know who you are and instead of just listening to you while they’re drinking beer and picking up girls, they’re going to come and listen to you because they like you. So we directed our efforts toward writing, and Queen started to come together at that time.
We already knew Freddie because he was a fiend of our bass player and he had come to some of our shows. I shared a flat with Roger in those days and Freddie would come and stay sometimes. We talked and talked and we were both big Hendrix fans. By that time Hendrix had come along and completely changed all our lives – particularly mine.
Anyway, we got together and we wrote and said if we’re going to approach this, then we h