In the world of rock guitar, gear is king. And technique, one might say, is queen. Both rule, but the equipment can receive an unfair share of royal treatment. There is good reason for this. Electrified instruments playing electric music require heaps of wires, circuits, specialized effects, and amplifiers to make the sounds we’ve come to associate with hard rock and heavy metal. But those sounds didn’t come about by accident. They were designed at particular times by particular guitarists and engineers—serious gearheads. Perhaps the most obsessive of them all is Brian May, whose flashy but tasteful playing with Queen set the bar for pyrotechnics artists and fellow gearheads like Eddie Van Halen. Maybe it’s his work as an astrophysicist (no, really!) that inspired his scientific approach to making music. Wherever it comes from, no one plays, and sounds, quite like Brian May.
In the video above from 1984, May gives lessons on how to play his famous licks and solos from eighteen Queen songs. But first, he gets into the technical specs of his amplifiers, effects, and his guitar, “Red Special,” an instrument of his own design and build that functioned like no other at the time. Even today, no guitar but a Brian May signature guitar—now mass-produced—sounds like a Brian May guitar. At one point, May says, “I’ve had this guitar for 20 years, and it’s pretty much the only thing I can play to get the right sound.” He still feels the same way, as you can see in his much more recent “Rig Rundown,” that periodic delight of guitar geeks everywhere in which famous guitarists showcase the gear that gets them “the right sound.”
May’s full immersion in the technical details of electric guitars and amplifiers is rivaled only by his complex and intricate guitar lines. If you can keep up with him in the instructional video at the top, you might just learn a thing or two about the so-called “lick.” Just above, however, May helps guide us through an exploration of a much more direct and primitive means of expression—the riff. The BBC special also features such masters of this repetitive, rhythmic motif as Joan Jett, Wayne Kramer, Nile Rodgers, Tony Iommi, and Dave Davies, as well as—in archival footage—riff pioneers Chuck Berry and Link Wray, each of them demonstrating the earworms they’re known for. Brian May’s riffs—in “Bohemian Rhapsody” for example—may be more classical than most, but they’re no less memorable. And after watching his extended lesson, you now know exactly how he built them, piece by piece.