Queen’s 20 greatest guitar moments, ranked
Queen’s popularity only seems to grow as new generations discover their bountiful catalogue. The unmistakable sound of the band was defined by the partnership of Freddie Mercury’s superhuman voice and Brian May’s proclivity for producing some of the most spellbinding and melodic guitar solos the world has ever heard.
Queen. Image: Michael Putland / Getty Images
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t have an opinion on Queen. There are those who just cannot abide the theatricality and bombast of some of the ever-ubiquitous quartet’s masses-pleasing anthems, but the band’s enduring popularity tells its own story – you can’t argue with that songbook.
But, even among the naysayers, few would dare question the saintly guitar playing ability of Dr Brian May. He was the one who laid the foundations for the band back in 1968 (then called ‘Smile’) while at university with his friend Roger Taylor. May’s aptitude for hook-laden riff and lead-writing was in evidence from a young age, as his band – soon rounded out by amiable bassist John Deacon and a shy but prodigiously talented vocalist by the name of Freddie – metamorphosed into Queen. In a few short years, Brian’s creative vehicle would grow into one of the most successful and cherished musical enterprises the world has ever seen.
Across 15 studio albums, Queen would stylistically diverge from the heavy blues rock-driven thrust of their early work, developing vaudevillian, surrealist pieces that stretched pop in a new direction, before flowering into their final incarnation as a titanic, arena-filling powerhouse, invading radio playlists across the world and re-defining the live rock show for the 1980s.
A key facet of all this is of course May’s impeccable guitar playing. His sound is irrevocably tied to that home-made Red Special guitar, of course. May’s homemade axe design has now arguably transcended into the collective consciousness, becoming as iconic as a Strat or a 355. For this list, we’ve given all the old discs a dust-down and a spin, keeping a tally of those moments that truly justify Queen’s mythological status.
20. Spread Your Wings (News of the World, 1977)
One of Queen’s most under-appreciated power-ballads, Spread Your Wings was an attempt to match up to the emotional might of Somebody to Love on their previous album, though it failed to gain traction with the record-buying public when released as a single the following year. Despite its overlooked status, Spread Your Wings is still a stunning song, with lyrics (penned by bassist John Deacon) spotlighting aspirations of stardom, in contrast to the humdrum reality of a life sweeping up at a bar. While the arrangement is initially conventionally performed with May’s driving power chords closely locking in with Mercury’s piano, at the two-minute mark, May ascends the fretboard and delivers some plaintive sustained note bends. This unlocks further colour in the second verse, as he responds to Mercury’s woeful tale with despondent, downbeat motifs, and adds flowing leads across the second chorus. The song concludes with an elongated yet restrained lead part, as May adds an unfurling melodic figure to the arrangement. While May could be a flashy and technical player, he’s at his best when his playing emphasises the song’s theme and feel, as evidenced here.
Did you know?
With punk in its ascendancy in 1977, News of the World was seen as the band’s attempt to get back to their rawer basics after being in the crosshairs of many a spiky-haired upstart for their perceived grandiosity. “The world was looking at punk and things being very stripped down.” May told The Quietus, “So in a sense we were conscious, but News of the World was part of our evolution anyway.”
19. I Want It All (The Miracle, 1989)
With its multi-tracked choral intro, diamond-shards of exploding leads and a powerhouse drum sound, I Want It All was, to most contemporary listeners, the sound of 80s Queen rounding off the decade in excelsis, following a two and a half-year break. It was, in reality, a band fighting against the odds to prove that their drive and mettle was unbowed. It followed the breakdown of May’s marriage and, most critically, Mercury sharing his HIV diagnosis with the band. May penned I Want It All after falling in love with his soon to be wife Anita Dobson, who’d often quip the titular demand when asked if she wanted anything. The circular Bm, G, A, Bm chord sequence snaps into solid synchronicity with the rhythm section, with occasional wiry leads creeping in as the song progresses. It’s after the song’s unexpected dual-May and Mercury vocal duet in the bridge that everything breaks down, as May tears into one of his most unhinged and mesmerising solos. So satisfyingly hysterical is the solo, that Taylor takes the song’s tempo off-road, before once again the song resets into its tight, riff-driven beat. “We were never able to perform this song live.” May sadly noted in the Greatest Video Hits 2 DVD commentary, “It would have become something of the staple core of the Queen show, I’m sure, very participatory. It was designed for the audience to sing along to, very anthemic.”
Did you know?
The Miracle’s bizarre album artwork merged the faces of the band’s four members. The idea was a visual representation of the band’s decision to drop individual songwriting credits and present everything as a product of the band. It’s not to everyone’s taste however, and often appears in those ‘worst album covers of all time’ lists.
18. Another One Bites The Dust (The Game, 1980)
While ‘funky’ might not be the first term you think of when describing the Queen sound, it’s a perfect label for their 1980 dancefloor aimed cruise missile. John Deacon’s bass-driven stomper, Another One Bites The Dust, was the band’s biggest ever single upon release. It originated as a purposeful pastiche of Chic, following Queen’s bassman spending time with Nile and crew in their studio. Aside from Taylor’s (looped) drum part, John played all the instruments himself to create the studio track, including the guitar’s palm-muted riff bass-riff doubling, and those slick double-stopping rhythm parts with his Fender Telecaster. While May isn’t given space for a show-stealing solo here, he does contribute some eerie Eventide Harmonizer-soaked sounds as the song breaks down before the final verse. Though …Dust would be their most commercially successful single, this groovy version of Queen never really bore further fruit, (with the critically mauled Hot Space two years later putting pay to any further diversions down to funky town) yet …Dust’ is a skilled demonstration of Queen confidently genre-flitting as a new decade dawned.
Did you know?
Another One Bites The Dust’s rock-solid 110 beats-per-minute tempo resulted in it being deemed by British health experts to be a perfect track to chest-compress to. As hilariously demonstrated by Alan Partridge on comedy series This Time.
17. Fat Bottomed Girls (Jazz, 1978)
When Queen rocked, they rocked hard. The rumbling, drop-D-tuned Fat Bottomed Girls is a runaway steamroller, with its folk-inflected riff framing the mechanical grind of the open D. It lays the perfect foundation for Mercury’s boastful, uber-rockstar vocal persona. Drop tunings were fairly unusual for May, but Fat Bottomed Girls called for it, being his attempt to channel swamp-style blues. The tone was achieved by using his signature Red Special and Vox AC30, though in the studio further processing was done to get the perfect sound for the track. “The more we mixed it, the more guitars seemed to sink into the mud.” May told Total Guitar. “So we kept adding more middle to high frequencies, giving clarity and presence. In the end it worked.” The song was released as a double A-side with Bicycle Race in October ’78. Today, listeners might baulk at the seeming objectification of the lyric, but that mighty riff still holds firm as one of Queen’s coolest. In defence of its lyric, May told Mojo; “Some of the inspiration for the song came from stuff I saw in Freddie’s life as well as my own. So it’s actually not so much of a heterosexual song. It’s a sort of pansexual song.”
Did you know?
May has been a Vox AC30 aficionado since the early days of the band, telling Guitar World, “I had a couple of transistor amplifiers when I was starting off. They didn’t sound any good. I used to use a fuzz box to get them to sustain. Then I got a Rangemaster treble booster – the kind that Rory Gallagher used to use. And then I went over to Wardour Street with my guitar just to try out some amps. I plugged into an AC30 and suddenly it was there: the sound I’d always dreamed of!”
16. Now I’m Here (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)
Brisk rocker Now I’m Here holds the title of the song that Queen performed live most often, with a whopping 689 live versions (according to setlist.fm) being trotted out since its first appearance on 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack. There’s good reason for this, the song’s arrangement is tailor-made for the stage, with the shifting dynamics of its slow building intro, exploding into a hulking monster of cross-wiring, major-scale ascending riffs, cleverly calculated to set venues off around the world. The song shifts into a power-chord driven juggernaut, with a lyric aptly inspired by touring excess while supporting (the name checked) Mott the Hoople in the US. The cursive lead break finds a playful May feeding off the song’s momentum by spouting sliding double notes and a few straggling leads instead of his usual melodic nature. The song’s celebratory feel is perhaps a consequence of the fact that May came up with the track immediately after coming out of hospital after coming down with severe hepatitis. He felt, by all accounts, like a ‘new man’.
Did you know?
When performed live, a stagehand (dressed as Mercury) would stand at the opposite side of the stage to Freddie, to create the stupefying illusion of Mercury teleporting around the stage as flashing spotlights illuminated him and the real Mercury during the intro’s “Now I’m here, Now I’m there” lyric.
15. Don’t Stop Me Now (Jazz, 1979)
The soundtrack to countless office shindigs, wedding discos and drunkenly debauched nights out, Don’t Stop Me Now crossed into the people’s songbook as one of the ultimate celebrations of letting one’s hair down long ago. But, in Queen terms, this most jubilant of tracks distils the band’s musical synergy like few others. Built around a contrasting piano part that interestingly balances a minor-chord intro with an up-tempo major key verse. Mercury drops a deliriously hedonistic lyric that is, legendarily, reflective of his own adventures in excess, May’s most satisfyingly gaudy of solos dives out of the mix and steals the show (seemingly purpose built for those tie-round-the-head, air guitarists). Starting with a stratospheric sounding G string bend from G to A on the 12th fret, May flourishes before further diving up to C from A♯. It’s the treble-boosted tone that makes it, though, particularly as the guitar is absent from the rest of the arrangement up to that point. This guitar flavour was largely down to the ‘Deacy’ amp – made by John Deacon out of a hi-fi amp and speaker that he saved from a skip. Outputting through the 0.45-watt amp is one of the secrets of May’s in-your-face tone.
Did you know?
In addition to the Red Special, the ‘Deacy’ and AC30 sound, another element of May’s tone is the old-fashioned sixpence coin he used as a pick. He still has them specially made to this day. He told Loudwire “It’s hard enough to give you all that contact, [and] it’s also soft enough not to break your steel strings because it’s made of nickel silver. It has this lovely, serrated edge, and if you turn it at an angle to the strings, you get a lovely kind of splatter. So to me, the guitar is like a voice, and that splatter is one of the consonants that helps to make the guitar talk.”
14. Crazy Little Thing Called Love (The Game, 1980)
Jokingly penned by Mercury ‘within 5 or 10’ minutes, the daftness of Queen’s camp rock’n’roll pastiche nevertheless was enough to bowl over the US market, and Crazy Little Thing Called Love granted the group their first number one single Stateside. “I did that on the guitar, which I can’t play for nuts” Mercury explained to Melody Maker. “In one way it was quite a good thing because I was restricted, knowing only a few chords. It’s a good discipline because I simply had to write within a small framework.” For the tearing lead break, May hung up his trusty Red Special and instead harnessed the tone of a Fender Esquire, owned by Roger Taylor, output through a clean Mesa Boogie MK2 amplifier. The retro-sounding resulting tone is undeniably smile-inducing, as May’s off-beat, double-note glide spills out into a swaggering strut of a solo in D major, with every bend and slide playing a role. Deacon’s memorable walking bass-riff is another essential element of the song’s old-school momentum.
Did you know?
When playing the song live, a total of four guitars were used between Mercury and May. While Freddie strums the rhythm chords on his blonde Telecaster, May provides a warm acoustic backing with an Ovation Acoustic, he then switches to a black Telecaster for the solo before finally picking up the Red Special for the frenzied outro. This can be witnessed at the band’s iconic Live Aid performance.
13. Keep Yourself Alive (Queen, 1973)
Right from the starting blocks, Queen’s musical might was insuppressible. The first evidence of it litterred their driving first single, which would also serve as the debut album’s opening cut. The train-like momentum of Keep Yourself Alive’s palm-muted (and phased) A major verse, in simpatico with an insolent riff, builds up an instant belter. It also features a prototype of the sort of huge chorus which they’d continue to effortlessly pen throughout their career. Its solo presents the first example of May’s double-tracked Red Special tone. “That was real tape phasing.” May told Guitar Player. “This was in the days when you took the tape off the sync head, put it through a couple of other tape delays, and then brought it back with the play head. There is no processing whatsoever on the solo in that tune, as far as I remember.” Though it’s often overshadowed by what was to come, Keep Yourself Alive is a lustrous guitar workout and an early sign that this band were going places. Fast.
Did you know?
Keep Yourself Alive was the song that the band were depicted as performing in 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody as their first with a nervous young Mercury (Rami Malek).
12. Stone Cold Crazy (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)
The frenzied mania of Stone Cold Crazy shockingly reveals a key moment in the development of high-octane proto-punk. It almost entirely absolves Queen of the ‘pompous’ charge that many of the ensuing movement would hurl their way. But, while this Sheer Heart Attack cut (and live favourite) is a quick-fire maelstrom of guitar and rapid vocals, it’s still a scrupulously competent piece of musicianship. Following the raw sounding wah-massaged feedback intro, the riff that May delivers is undoubtedly the fastest anyone had ever heard up to that point, darting between the core Gm, Bb and C chords that underpin it. His nimble fingering also results in the intermittent attacks of double-tracked lead that chop into the track violently. Nevertheless, complete control is always held, despite the speed. May improved on an original riff that Mercury had brought to the table many years prior. “I said, ‘that’s a great lyric and concept, but you need a better riff.’ Freddie said, ‘OK, what do you got?’ I started doing this frenetic riff to match the lyrics, and he really liked it. “ May recalled, to Guitar World, “We laid down Stone Cold Crazy’ very quickly, and we played it quickly. It’s one of the fastest tempos we’ve ever played.”
Did you know?
Stone Cold Crazy was the only track credited to the whole group in the 1970s (this would become the norm going into the 80s), it reflected the song’s long gestation period, as it had originally been mooted for their debut.
11. Hammer to Fall (The Works, 1984)
A live favourite, and one of the favoured few tracks that the band opted to include in their short – but certainly not forgettable – set at 1985’s Live Aid. Hammer To Fall is another of the band’s rousing calls to arms which worked tremendously as a live piece. Written by May for their eleventh studio album, The Works, the arrangement is defined by the main riff’s glancing blows back and forth between A to D, with a final E to A closing the loop. May’s guitar work is subdued during the chorus, before matching Mercury’s ‘Hammer to Fall’ lyrical melody with a weaving but pleasingly faithful lick. Hammer to Fall’’’s most jaw-dropping moment comes with a classic example of May’s pentatonic melodic lead construction that fires the song off into orbit as it nears its explosive conclusion. Perfect, compact 80s Queen.
Did you know?
The ‘hammer’ in Hammer To Fall is often thought to refer to the USSR’s iconic emblem, written as it was at the height of the Cold War. The lyrical allusions to mushroom clouds further point that way, so keep it in mind when next making a Cold War playlist!
10. Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy (A Day at the Races, 1976)
Furthering the nostalgic, Noel Coward cap doffs that Mercury was seemingly obsessed with making during the recording of Queen’s two ‘At The…’ LPs, Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy is by far the most successful. As Mercury theatrically delivers his innocent pledge of fealty to a prospective partner, May’s Red Special stirs in the wings, quietly murmuring along with the vocal melody. May’s subtle guitar work in the verse might be easy to miss as Mercury ramps up the melodrama, but his passion stirring solo is unavoidable, and sits among the finest in the Queen canon. With the neck and middle pickup slightly out of phase of his Red Special, May emits an incandescent firefly dance of a lead. The intricate melodic runs culminate in a pair of Cry Baby wah sweeps and a dream-like collision of spiralling figures that squeal away into the shadows as Mercury leaps back into the driving seat for verse three. Solo aside, May’s inventive trio of harmonised guitar swoops ingeniously bring to mind an old-fashioned clarinet sound.
Did you know?
The additional vocals during the “Hey, boy, where’d you get it from…” section were provided by the band’s trusted engineer Mike Stone, and not – as many believe – Roger Taylor
9. Play The Game (The Game, 1980)
Another masterful example of May restraining himself, and calculating the right moment to strike, Mercury’s Play the Game deftly displays the band’s grasp of dynamics when arranging. As Deacon and Taylor trustily follow Mercury’s piano-led ode to an ex-partner, the muted May dramatically surges into the fray with thunderbolts of descending power chords, and a chaotic back-and-forth section as the song nears its second verse, also yelping out occasional screams of lead which serve to eek out the colliding emotions of this alluring, fantastical piece. The central melodic solo is the sound of May in full Red Special-pomp. Starting in the key of G, May’s figure octave-leaps, note-matching Mercury’s strong vocal melody, augmented by the peppering of some fast-paced fretwork. While it’s a fairly simple piece of guitar arranging (by May standards), Play the Game is undeniably exquisite.
Did you know?
Play The Game was the song that broke Queen’s ’no synthesiser’ rule, with its snowstorm-like intro and interloping washes of electronic sound conjured by an Oberheim OB-X.
8. Dead on Time (Jazz, 1979)
An undervalued explosion of six-string wizardry, this hyperactive Jazz cut was all the evidence contemporary critics needed to proclaim May as one the greatest guitarists of his era. From the hurricane-like lead riff that sets the breakneck pace to the fire of the agile pull-offs during the solo. Brian long considered the track to be a favourite, though despite the song’s energy, it was never actually performed live. When asked by an instructional video for Star Licks Productions in 1983, May explained the secret behind writing a lead at such a pace. “Really, it’s just keeping [the strumming] hand moving in time, and snapping things off here, there’s lots of room for doing different things in that style. It was just a question of getting into the groove and seeing what came out.” With its perpetual motion inspired by early Queen classic Keep Yourself Alive, Dead On Time continues to be a sadly overlooked example of both May’s finesse and his power. It’s also a noted precursor to speed metal.
Did you know?
May’s academic achievements are well documented, first studying for a PhD at Imperial College in 1974 focused on the reflecting light of dust within the Solar System. Though Queen’s success forced him to put that on hold, Brian returned to it in 2006, and graduated in 2008.
7. The Millionaire Waltz (A Day at the Races, 1976)
A multi-sectioned baroque epic that veers off from an elegant piano and bass waltz into a densely packed feat of glorious harmonised guitar. This key A Day at the Races cut was conceived by Mercury as an evolving piece that would add a new graceful dimension to the band’s fifth record. For May, it was a chance to pen his most audacious and bewildering guitar orchestration yet, and a track that could actually surpass the bombast of the previous year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. “I think there are three octaves for each part, and six parts. I’m not sure but there must be about 18 or 20 guitar tracks.” May told On The Record in 1982, “It’s a funny sound. It makes a peculiarly sort of rigid sound. I was really surprised. It sounded like a fairground organ.”. The intensity of May’s thunderous death charge of a riff gallops us right back to Mercury’s Austrian Waltz-time verse, only this time May’s multi-tracked Red Special brazenly takes to the floor, showily pirouetting across the chord sequence. It’s an arresting moment on one of Queen’s most adventurous songwriting excursions. May would later bemoan that many people haven’t even heard of the track, as he considered it to be the song which “summed up most of what we were about!” (in an interview with Medium)
Did you know?
A Day at the Races was the band’s first completely self-produced record, though they had the able assistance of engineer Mike Stone.
6. We Will Rock You (News of the World, 1977)
Though Queen’s trusty stadium-pleaser is built on that swaggeringly cool beat, …Rock You was penned by May as a lead-in to one of his most exultant guitar moments. “It was an acknowledgement that our audience had become part of the show, and we could no longer just regard it as a one way experience.” May told Absolute Radio. “So, this was a way of embracing it.” When that humming Red Special does cut loose, it does so in magisterial fashion. With a dirtily overdriven (and treble-boosted) Red Special tone output through his trusty AC30, May’s lead part is grounded in an A chord that leaps from the first position all the way down to the same barred shape on the 14th fret, adding jovial sounding dives, squalls and bends around the chord’s perimeter. As with a number of other Queen songs, We Will Rock You has found its place as a go-to anthem for live events the world over, from sports, TV shows and even political rallies. “The greatest compliment is when people think nobody wrote it.” May laughingly told The Express, “They just think it has always been there.”
Did you know?
The studio recording contains no actual drums, it’s the band and their personnel collectively stamping their feet!
5. Tie Your Mother Down (A Day At The Races, 1976)
Led by May’s lassoing riff, the heavily anticipated follow-up to the previous year’s A Night at the Opera) kicks off in hair-raising style. Repetitiously hammering and pulling off the C note on his open A string, May’s electrifying Western groove is hammered to full force by Taylor’s pounding beat and Deacon’s supportive bass. Though Tie Your Mother Down’s lead riff is probably the easiest to learn out of the whole Queen canon, its urgent power is no less effective. Originally written by May on a Spanish guitar while on holiday in Tenerife, the head-banging main riff was indebted to a snapping technique that May’s hero, Rory Gallagher was adept at. The piece’s humorous title was only intended to be a placeholder that scanned appropriately, but Mercury insisted this remained the song’s title. “I remember beating out that riff and enjoying the feeling of bending the string,” May told Absolute Radio. The eventual lead breaks dart from fret to fret, with hurried melodic scale dashes as Deacon pursues with the stability of the main riff. The song’s headlong momentum would make it a sweaty, live favourite.
Did you know?
The harmonised introduction to the song was repeated at the very end of the album, following the closing track Teo Torriatte, as May hoped it would create the feeling of a circular journey.
4. Killer Queen (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)
Queen’s first successful diversion off the beaten heavy rock track into the land of regal high-camp theatricality. Killer Queen’s show-tune like construction was a different beast for May to tackle. The guitarist had been in hospital with hepatitis for part of the recording of Sheer Heart Attack, and was initially uncertain about Mercury’s new piece, “I remember thinking, ‘are we sort of selling ourselves as something that’s very light?’ But every slice through that record is a perfect vision, there’s lots of things that visit once only.” Said the guitarist, in Queen: The Greatest. With a swathe of vocal harmonies applied, May added noble-sounding guitar flourishes through the verse and some pulse-quickening double-slides before delivering one of the band’s most seductive solos. Once again, the tone and layering is everything here, as May’s initial lead part cavorts around Mercury’s topline melody in E♭ major, three separate guitar tracks enter the fray, all played on the Red Special, with a gorgeously thick mid-range tone that sustains with silky precision. “The best solos are something which you can sing as well as the melody line.” May explained in Guitar Player “The kind of solos I enjoy are where there’s a line which reflects the melody line but subtly changes it in some way. It opens up another little window in the song.” Killer Queen is the perfect audible example.
Did you know?
Upon release as a single in October 1974, Killer Queen was Queen’s first track to break through internationally. Hitting number twelve on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
3. The Prophet’s Song (A Night At The Opera, 1975)
Aside from a certain cut about a poor boy and his poor family, The Prophet’s Song could be considered the cornerstone of A Night at the Opera. Running at over 8 minutes, the multi-part, riff-driven monster transitions between a shifting sand of textures and moods. Inspired by a troubling dream that May experienced where the young guitarist was swept away by a flood, May injected a sense of rising, near-biblical panic into the piece. “Prophet’s Song was built around a different tuning, the bottom string was tuned down to D” he recalled in The Making of A Night at the Opera, “I became fascinated by what you could do with that, it gave the guitar a lot more depth. It gave the guitar a real doomy sort of growl to it.” Considered by many to be one of May’s finest compositional achievements, The Prophet’s Song develops from a folky acoustic beginning to an intensely tough slice of heavy metal. Those never-quite-the-same drop D riffs build, rise and fall while Mercury’s multi-layered vocals plunge the track into terrifyingly unsettling realms (particularly during the multi-tracked mid-section). May’s relentless riff ploughs onwards as pouncing leads flower into a rush of harmonised guitar, that lead us back to the central drop-D onslaught. Yes, this is Queen at their most prog, but it’s this whole cluster of sublime guitar moments that result in one of the band’s most respected monoliths.
Did you know?
The Prophet’s Song marked one of May’s first experiments with delay as a creative effect. “I discovered that if I played a note and then the repeat came back to me, I could play along with that note and then another repeat. You would build up three-part harmonies that way, and you could build up counterpoint and you could do rhythmic things.” May said in The Making of A Night at the Opera.
2. Bohemian Rhapsody (A Night at the Opera, 1974)
It’s the song for which Queen are most known – and one of the oddest chart toppers in the history of British pop. Defining the band’s colossal ambition, and accentuating the four’s distinct musical gifts, Bo Rap is both Queen’s baroque manifesto, and their devilishly fierce rock juggernaut. Though Mercury had been working on elements of the song since his teenage years, its complex production (covered in many a BBC Four documentary) has become the stuff of legend, particularly the layered vocals during its demented opera section. Though Mercury’s beautifully written song at the heart of the sprawling arrangement is utterly magnificent, we’d argue that guitar is the crucial element in the track’s longevity. The pained climb of May’s simultaneously regretful and triumphant solo was the result of May conceiving a melodic idea in his head, before he picked up the guitar. “I wanted to make a little tune that would be a counterpart to the main melody, I didn’t want to just play the melody.” May told the BBC, in their The Story of Bohemian Rhapsody documentary. Unusually for May, the solo was recorded on just one track. Often cited as one of the most effective guitar solos of all time, the musicality of May’s solo construction means that it’s just as compelling a hook as Freddie’s topline. We also need to highlight the dynamic masterstroke that builds to the orgasmic explosion of the rock section’s main riff. It’s an earned breakneck rush that leaves a blazed trail in its wake. And, as the characters of Wayne’s World will attest, it’s utterly impossible not to headbang too.
Did you know?
That rock section’s main riff was actually conceived by Mercury. “When Freddie used to pick up a guitar he’d have a great frenetic energy.” May told Guitar World “It was kind of like a very nervy animal playing the guitar. He was a very impatient person and was very impatient with his own technique. He didn’t have a great technical ability on the guitar but had it in his head. And you could feel this stuff bursting to get out.”
1. Brighton Rock (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)
Finally gaining some much-deserved recognition from its heavy use in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver in 2017, Brighton Rock is among the most beloved Queen songs by aficionados, and kicks off their superb third album. It’s the track with the longest guitar solo in Queen’s catalogue, and illuminates May’s guitar mastery like few others. “Brighton Rock uses my favourite pickup combination which I use 85% of the time, it’s the bridge and the centre pickup in phase.” May told Star Licks Productions in 1983, “It’s just hard enough and it’s just warm enough. It gives you a nice bit of sustain.” Through the lengthy solo, May bolts from lightning fast scale jogs, emits growls of pent up energy, before delivering dual-tracked, whammy bar swoops. The most enthralling moment comes at the 3:30 mark, as May’s nimble finger work creates a Catherine wheeling ascent of swirling guitar spirals, that reach their high-register summit with a satisfying squeal. The Echoplex-drenched sound allows counterpoint melodic lines to half-suggest themselves before being wrestled out of the way by further flurried ideas. The song understandably became a live highlight – with May’s centrepiece solo enthralling the gathered masses. When all’s said and done, Brighton Rock remains the sound of a player in absolute creative symbiosis with his guitar.
Did you know?
Early working titles for Brighton Rock included ‘Bognor Ballad’, ‘Southend Sea Scout’ and ‘Happy Little Fuck’