Brian May: 10 of his greatest guitar riffs
Best-known to most, of course, as the guitarist with legendary British rock band Queen, Brian May has established himself as one of the world’s most recognisable guitarists thanks to a unique style and, in no small part, a unique guitar – the ‘Red Special’- famously designed and built by May himself and his father using materials from the mantle of a fireplace and an old table.
Even since the passing of Queen’s frontman Freddie Mercury, May and drummer Roger Taylor have soldiered on with a rotating cast of musicians and vocalists, but May has never really been one for solo albums, releasing only three over the course of his long career.
This week though a newly-remastered and expanded edition of his 1992 debut album Back to the Light returns to stores, with the album set to reach our shelves on Friday (August 6). To celebrate its return, we went combing through Queen’s discography and dug out 10 of Brian May’s finest guitar riffs. Are you ready to rock?
‘Keep Yourself Alive’
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Album one, track one. ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ serves as the opening salvo from the band’s eponymous 1973 debut album and kicks off with a chugging, phasing guitar riff in one ear and a smooth, bluesy lick in the other. Not a bad way to open your account…
‘Son and Daughter’
Queen’s early output – particularly their debut album – was quite a bit lighter on the vocal theatrics that would later become such a big part of their sound, but that just leaves room for more guitars, and May wasn’t about to waste it. Probably one of their heaviest riffs ever, ‘Son and Daughter’s intro is a belter.
‘Stone Cold Crazy’
Another great example of just how heavy Queen were able to sound when they really turned it on, ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ is glued together by a thunderous hard rock riff played at frenetic speed.
‘Let Me Entertain You’
It’s 1978, punk has happened, and the game has changed. May’s response? Activate ‘shred mode’. Ironically featured on an album named Jazz, Queen never sounded more metal.
Not one of their best-known songs, granted, but to be fair it was a deep cut on one of their best albums so perhaps ‘Sweet Lady’ gets a little overlooked, but May’s intro riff here is a cracker.
‘Fat Bottomed Girls’
Maybe it’s the tuned-down guitars or the slow, thunderous simplicity of the riff from 'Fat Bottomed Girls' that makes it sound quite unlike May’s signature sound, but it stands out because of that and it’s packed with growling menace.
If you’ve doubted the wisdom of the mantra ‘keep it simple’ when it comes to guitar riffs, think of all the most iconic; Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’, The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’; they all follow the same rule, and it’s the same with ‘One Vision’. Arguably one of May’s most recognisable riffs ever.
‘Hammer To Fall’
Often what makes a guitarist’s sound unique is not in the chords that they play but the voicing they use to play them (see also the career of Chic’s Nile Rodgers for a full master class on the subject), and the riff to Hammer To Fall’ is pure, distilled Brian May. Simple but effective.
‘Tie Your Mother Down’
The second single from their 1976 album A Day at the Races, the intro riff from ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ is surely one of May’s best ever and with a shuffle-boogie rhythm in the vein of ZZ Top’s monster hit ‘La Grange’, it propels the entire song.
Yes, look, we know it tops every ‘Best Song Ever’ poll going and yes, we could talk about the adventurous arrangement and the glorious, layered vocal harmonies and all the rest of it. But you know, we know, and the entire cast of Wayne’s World knows what the best bit is, and it’s this.
Back to the Light is available in hmv stores from Friday August 6 - you can also find it here in our online store.