Classic interview: Brian May on the guitar greats and the magic of The Riff – "It's a basic, primal need"

Brian May classsic interview
(Image credit: Steve Granitz / Getty)

From the archive: When Total Guitar met Brian May back in 2001, Queen weren't a going concern, and wouldn’t be until the 2004 reincarnation which saw May and Roger Taylor (John Deacon having declined to take part) joined on vocals by Paul Rodgers, for the Queen + Paul Rodgers outings. 

So the Queen guitarist, despite being a man of many interests, had time to fill. When we spoke, he was heading up the compilation and launch of The Best Air Guitar Album in the World… Ever! What better excuse, then, to quiz him on his choices, and tease out some classic rock anecdotage and riff wisdom along the way...

---<Cue wibbly wobbly time travel effect>---

DATELINE: JANUARY 2001 - Hang on, isn’t this air guitar stuff taking the piss out of our great guitar heroes?

Air guitar is a basic, primal need

Brian May

“Well, I think imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I also think air guitar is something more basic than that. I’ve had lots of time to think about it during the last few months, and I think it’s a basic, primal need. 

“I don’t think people even choose to do it, it just creeps up on them and they have to do it.”

Inspired by a poll that saw Queen at number one with Bohemian Rhapsody, May’s guitar tech Pete Malandrond remarked that the selection would make for a great album. 

“I thought, ‘Well, yeah’ and the strange thing was that if we were going to make the best air guitar album in the world ever, it would mean putting together the finest guitar music ever made.

"Those moments when someone discovers a great new riff are very akin to those moments where you feel you have to jump up and air guitar to that riff. There is a kind of direct link between the riff player and the air guitarist."

Let's go through the album's highlights track by track…

Tie Your Mother Down - Queen 

"Tie Your Mother Down was voted in the top 20 of that poll on the internet," says Brian," and I had a Bob Geldof moment: I thought, 'Well, if this is my party, I'm going to invite who I like!' 

"So Tie Your Mother Down was in there from the start. And the number one in the poll was Bohemian Rhapsody, which was why we'd all got excited about the idea in the first place." 

Are Rock You and Tie Your Mother particular moments he's especially proud of? 

"Well, there was another factor: Steve Pritchard at Virgin said, 'You have to have We Will Rock You on there: it's the archetypal anthem', or whatever. And I said, 'But it's not necessarily an air guitar number apart from ten seconds at the end'. So my solution was to put that ten seconds on the beginning of Tie Your Mother Down and get on with it. Free of charge, I have to say." 

Smoke On The Water - Deep Purple 

A classic riff that's often the first thing a new guitarist learns. In his experience, what makes a good riff? 

"Well, I think the silences are very important. You can't just [makes widdle noises] and it’s a great riff, you need some strategic silences. I mean, I'm being analytical after the event – I'm sure all the greatest riffs came instinctively. 

"Not that I've made that many great riffs, but the people I know who have, like Tony lommi, Jimmy Page, they don't sit down and say, 'Okay, how am I going to create a riff today?' They hear things in their head and at a particular moment, they come out. 

"I haven't had the chance to ask Ritchie, but I was wondering about the Smoke On The Water riff: did that riff come out of the fact that the casino burnt down [Smoke On The Water's lyrics refer to a fire which broke out in the Montreux Casino, Switzerland. Purple were in the audience of a Frank Zappa concert waiting to record their album Machine Head in the casino after the show. When somebody let off a flaregun, it hit the ceiling and set the casino ablaze] or was it something that was kicking around anyway?" 

What were the first riffs Brian learned? 

"I think one of the first, which is on the album, is an acoustic riff from Eddie Cochran: Summertime Blues. There you notice the very strategic gaps. It's not just strumming, there's something very aggressive there: it's push and stop. 

"To me, that may be the first rock riff ever. I would be willing to debate this one day," he laughs. "I think the first heavy metal – or heavy – riff was You Really Got Me by the Kinks. 

"Van Halen's version is wonderful, with some phenomenal guitar playing from Edward, but when you put the original on, it still sounds great, devastatingly powerful. Made, I imagine, on an amp that had been completely destroyed by playing too loud for too long. 

"You can hear the speakers flapping around. I'm lucky enough to be able to remember it first time round, and boy, it was an amazing thing to hear on the radio. You had never heard anything like it. Flat­out distorted guitar [hums riff, emphasising gap]. The silences speak almost as loud as the notes." 

Song 2 - Blur

Some songs on the album seem like personal recommendations, others not so much. I'm guessing this isn't particularly? 

"I have to be honest: to me this is probably not one of the great moments of guitar playing, but it is a great moment in air guitar, because it gets you up. 

"If you're going to start worrying about how derivative it is and whatever you might get into a sticky wicket, but it was on the list from the beginning and every time we played it somebody would get up and wave their arms about and go 'woo-hoo'. 

"So I had to admit it was a caste-iron, golden air guitar hit. I'm a convert. We all have our prejudices and I probably was prejudiced against Blur, but I think there's a great moment there. So bloody good on 'em." 

Walk This Way - Run DMC & Aerosmith 

The classic rock-hip-hop crossover. Queen were sampled a lot back in the early days of hip-hop: Another One Bites The Dust was sampled by Grandmaster Flash ... 

"That's right, and We Will Rock You has been sampled endlessly. Walk This Way goes back to the Aerosmith version, which I probably prefer, but I was convinced about this version because it just gets more people up." 

Queen always seemed keen to embrace new sounds and technology. Do you think you would've dabbled with the rock-rap crossover? 

"Well, in a sense, We Will Rock You is a rap. There's almost no tune to it, it's purely about rhythm in the backing track and in the singing. John Deacon, the Queen bass player was very much into the funky side of things..." 

Another One Bites The Dust's bassline bears a strong resemblance to the bassline for Chic's Good Times (a line that was itself sampled by early rappers like the Sugarhill Gang). Was that a deliberate nod? 

"I think it was a slightly conscious thing," says Brian. "That was the kind of music John was into, and I think he felt that Queen weren't multi-dimensional enough. 

"He wanted to introduce that element and in doing so, he gave us the biggest hit we ever had, worldwide. Another One Bites The Dust was even bigger than Bohemian Rhapsody." 

Rebel Rebel - David Bowie

Bowie's had a million great guitarists over the years, yet on this track he plays guitar himself. Why this one? 

"I suppose it has a ring to it of the R'n'B stuff that we grew up with. R'n'B means something different these days; in those days it meant everything from Lightning Hopkins to Chuck Berry. That riff is, to my ears, from that world. It's so insistent." 

I always associate your playing style with that of Bowie's early guitarist Mick Ronson. Did you know him or play with him? 

"I did. I only played with him once, which was at the tribute to Freddie. And Mick, bless him, was already pretty far gone [Ronson died from cancer in 1993]. 

"But a wonderful player. I did love his playing. We bumped into each other on a social level a number of times, because he was around Trident Studios recording with David and we were managed by Trident Studios in the beginning. So when they were doing Space Oddity and stuff like Hunky Dory, we were there. I remember talking to him about Starman, which Mick did the string arrangement on too. I thought that was magnificently done, arrangement-wise and guitar-wise." 

I do equate your style with his: the perfect, melodic solo... 

"Yes, I think 'there are similarities and that we probably came from similar places. That R'n'B thing in the beginning, but wanting to get more and more melody in there." 

Mick Ronson didn't improvise solos – and I imagine this might be true of you as well – they were composed beforehand and always a very structured thing. 

Frank Zappa said "How can you make a mistake? It's your song, it's your riff, it's your performance, it's your moment on that night - there is no such thing as a mistake"

Brian May

"Yes. I did a bit of both. It's a bit of a trap, because you compose things in your head and they get on the record and after that, you're kind of expected to always play them the same way. That's an interesting subject. 

"I remember talking to Frank Zappa about it. I regard him as one of the most daring improvisational guitar players ever, and I said to him, 'How do you manage to do that? You don't feel constrained by what people expect?' He said, 'No – do you?' And I said, 'Yes, and I also feel constrained by the fact that I might mess it up if I wandered too far away from the original'. 

"He said: 'How can you say that? How can you make a mistake? It's your song, it's your riff, it's your performance, it's your moment on that night – there is no such thing as a mistake. Whatever you play is right.' A very good attitude. He was a genius." 

Did you follow his advice? 

"Yeah, but it was a bit late, really." 

Where Were You - Jeff Beck 

This seems like a more personal choice, because although it's a beautiful track, it's not necessarily an air guitar moment... 

"Yes, you're right, I suppose. I don't suppose many of the general public will have had much of a chance to hear something like that, ever. So I wanted it on there. We thought for a while that Hi Ho Silver Lining should go on there, especially as there's a guy air-guitaring to it on an advert on TV already. But we'll save that for Air Guitar 2, I think. 

"I'm a great fan of Jeff Beck. I think he's possibly the greatest living guitarist. For innovation and technique and sheer genius, I don't think anyone quite comes close. And I would stick my neck out even further and say that Where Were You might be the finest piece of guitar music ever recorded.

"I'm a huge Jimi Hendrix fan and he's done 98 percent of the greatest guitar moments on record, but with that track I think Jeff blew the whole world away. I talked to Zac about it and I said, 'I realise this is an indulgence from my point of view' and he said, 'No: anyone who air guitars to this has reached a new plateau…'"

Sultans Of Swing - Dire Straits

Dire Straits came out at the same time as punk, but, weirdly, there were a lot of people who liked both. 

"That's true. A lot of people said this was too soft, but by the end, when he's widdling away and doing those lovely little snapping bits, everyone was converted. It's an absolute air guitar classic. It's irresistible." 

On the subject of punk: there isn't any on the album…

"The record company didn't want any on there," says Brian. "They thought it might put people off. But I said, 'We're not doing this for the money, we're doing it for the spirit of air guitar and the Sex Pistols have to be on there!' I would have put on two or three tracks. God Save The Queen was on the original list, but we couldn't get permission. I think that first album [Never Mind The Bollocks] is colossal. 

"It matters to me not a bollock that it was a social statement – that's all rather dubious and manipulative as far as I'm concerned – but it was a great rock album. Indisputably so, I'd say. Fantastic guitar sounds and all the attitude that makes great rock music." 

Monkey Wrench - Foo Fighters 

You've worked with the Foos. How did that come about? 

"Well, to me they are totally cutting edge of what rock music's about today. Monkey Wrench wasn't as big a hit as it ought to have been, but I think it had a big effect on bands in general. 

"You've got two of the greatest drummers in the world in that band, and one of them plays incredible guitar and sings incredibly well and writes incredible songs. So Dave Grohl, thank you very much and I hate you!" 

Zakk Wylde had a go at them recently for having no solos [his exact words: "If I ever run into Dave Grahl, I'm gonna kick his fuckin' ass. I think he sucks and he wrote this cheese-dick song for Ozzy that I have to play on and I'll never forgive him for that. Foo Fighters is a candy-ass girl band"]. I, er, think he was saying there are a few rock bands around that are influenced by grunge but don't rock hard enough. 

"Well, it's a point of view, but a lot of the greatest guitar has been rhythm guitar. Pete Townshend's a great example. The Kinks are a great example. Malcolm from AC/DC epitomises rock guitar for me as much as someone who can play 50,000 notes a second." 

Brian May

(Image credit: Steve Granitz / Getty)

Surfing With The Alien - Joe Satriani 

To a lot of people, the words Joe Satriani suggest guitar overindulgence, but this track – while full of widdling – does manage to stay entertaining. 

"Yeah, I would say 'guitar indulgence'. I'd take out the word 'over' 'cos I don't think you can over-indulge"

We have just been to a UK guitar show. On every stall was a guitarist playing at 10,000 miles an hour. Sometimes you wonder if it's not a bit too much.

"To me that's a crime of omission, rather than overdoing it," says Brian. "Because if you have enough creative stuff going on alongside it, it can still be great. I mean, look at Eddie Van Halen: he's capable of the fastest widdling, but he's so full of ideas and the sound is so wonderful and it's such a broad canvas he paints on you couldn't possibly call him overindulgent. 

"I feel the same about Joe Satriani. Yes, it's technical, but there's a great soul in that man. There's a blues feeling, even in the most melodic stuff there will be a twist here and there which just shows you it all comes from the heart. I'm a big fan." 

Apache - The Shadows

This had a huge impact when it came out. 

"It's hard to put your mind back, but that was the heaviest thing around in those days! You'd have to hear it in context to get that thrill, I guess, but I was surprised to hear it stands up today. There's a whole catalogue there: FBI, Man Of Mystery. Once you've got your mind into that place, it's heavy shit. It's very incisive and the sound's superb and air guitar-wise it's a must." 

"It's cheesy, but only in the sense that Reservoir Dogs is cheesy. It's the Reservoir Dogs of its day." 

Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen 

Famous among the air guitar fraternity for that Wayne's World moment. 

"We considered doing an air guitar edit so it goes 'Mama, just killed a man' then 'der-der der-de'. But we thought we'd be challenging the bounds of taste, so we put the whole thing on." 

There are two well-constructed solos on there. Did you agonise over them at the time? 

"No. The riff thing is more Freddie's than mine. I may have influenced the way it came out, but it was more in his head than mine. The solo's more mine. 

"We'd been working on the backing track and playing with the vocals and everything and I could hear what I wanted to play before I picked up the guitar, which is always the best way. So there wasn't much conscious effort there." 

Any tips for anyone trying to play the solos? 

"With or without guitar? With guitar? I think it's interesting to learn these things and then do them your own way. I love that story about the Beatles and Apache. They said they heard it on the radio and had a vague idea of how it went, so they tried to play it their own way. And eventually they recorded it: it was called Cry For A Shadow. But they hadn't absorbed what the song was like, so their version is utterly different from the original. Which is great. I think we all do that. 

"I have a theory that nobody creates in a vacuum. We all take in stuff, whether we admit it or not, it gets taken in and processed and comes out differently. And that's our creativity... " 

Scott Rowley

Scott is the Content Director of Music at Future plc, which means he’s responsible for the editorial strategy on online and print brands like Louder, Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog, Guitarist, Guitar World, Guitar Player, Total Guitar etc. He was Editor in Chief of Classic Rock for 10 years and Editor of Total Guitar for 4 years. Scott appears on Classic Rock’s podcast, The 20 Million Club, and was the writer/researcher on 2017’s Mick Ronson documentary Beside Bowie.

With contributions from