Success, for all the long awaited goodies that it promises, is not all you might think it would be.
If you doubt that, ask Brian May. For a kickoff, Brian knows that success has not helped his guitar playing. Quite the reverse, in fact. Queen are so busy today that Brian never has the chance to practice. He is constantly besieged by requests for photo calls, interviews, radio programmes and TV appearances, in addition to the live work, recording and rehearsing that's part of the band's normal duties. The time he gets to himself is severely limited.
Brian is very much a musician's musician. He has developed a style of guitar playing that is all his own and surprisingly for a member of a band so early in their career, he is already rated as a significant guitarist in his own right.
"I can't say that I'm exactly happy with the state I've reached in my playing", says Brian. "I went through a period, I suppose it was between the ages of 19 and 20 in which I developed and progressed one helluva lot. My playing, in fact, developed when I switched from being a rhythm guitarist to a lead guitarist and I started to think about notes rather than just sound. In the last few years, however, I don't think I have really improved that much. I suppose it's the law of diminishing returns. Each little improvement I can find I have to work for a considerable time and at the end the change is almost imperceptible".
Brian concentrates mainly on writing and arrangement but that does not mean he has forsaken his future as a guitarist.
"For me the guitar is the ultimate expressive instrument. I am trying to improve my piano playing but I just do not believe I will ever be able to express the degree of emotion on the keyboards that I can with the guitar. But I'm sad to say I don't really have the time to practice with the guitar that I should have".
More of course has happened to Brian May in the last 18 months than has happened in the previous 24 years of his life. The big thing is the phenomenal success of Queen. After striving for years in bands of varying stature, Brian finally found people with whom he could work in total harmony. He has managed to combine with them to produce one of the true really unique sounds to hit us in the last three or four years.
In the middle of it all, of course, Brian got ill and illness in itself can reveal truths that otherwise might be missed.
"Getting ill really turned my life upside down. Before that I must say I had worried a lot about things in the band and my life in general. There always seemed to be something that needed some worry. Today I don't worry nearly as much. I've realised that the things that belong to my music and the band are important, but not nearly as important as some of the basic factors in life.
"I suppose I'm what you'd call a worrying sort of person, but I have managed to control my worry to the extent that it is now bearable. When I came back from being ill I found that my playing was very rusty. I suppose that's not unusual really. I found that I'd lost some of my speed and some of my actual ability with the instrument.
On the other hand, I realised that a rest had enabled me to see things from a completely different angle and I managed to pull out some ideas for Queen's stage show and general presentation that everybody seemed to like and that we actually used on the last British tour.
"My playing skill came back pretty quickly after a few rehearsals and I felt that I actually gained a lot from having the rest".
Of course the kind of rest that Brian May had meant that the band had to record their last album Sheer Heart Attach in a very stop/go manner. Often Brian would be unable to make a session or if he could, he wasn't able to play to his satisfaction. That meant that parts of the album are heavily over-dubbed and recorded at different times.
"I must say I was surprised the album turned out so well", Brian admits.
"For some strange reason we seemed to get a rather different feel on the album because of the odd way we were forced to record it and even allowing for all the problems we had none of us were really displeased with the end result".
Success is also supposed to mean, among other things, more money than most people ever dream of. That's generally true, but there are exceptions, Queen among them.
Brian admits that although Queen are one of the biggest bands in this country they are never the less spending more money than they are making.
This is because the band follows a policy inaugurated by Yes of ploughing back a large amount of their earnings into the group's future. Many people might think its extravagant, for example, to use nine AC30 amps on stage as Brian does. Each one is an original old valve model and he and his road crew scour the instrument shops looking for old AC30s.
"They're getting pretty hard to find now but we've managed to find enough. Every time we go on tour all the amps are serviced and if any valves need replacing then they are replaced. I use the amps this way: I started off using one AC30 because I found it gave me a far better sound that anything else I could buy. When the band started playing larger venues, rather than swap amps and lose my sound, I decided to use two AC30s in parallel.
"Remembering that we only have three instruments in the band, I use many echo guitars in my playing and I reamplify these through a second set of AC30s. In fact, some of the effects are so complicated that they're put through another pair of echo chambers, and are re-amplified by my third set of AC30s. Each of these pairs are in turn miked and fed to the main PA mixer. The three other AC30s I have are all kept for spares, as it is probable, given the age of the AC30s that I might have some trouble.
"One of the main problems we have is that the sound we hear on stage is now so totally different to the sound the audience hears. Although it would be possible for the PA to amplify my guitar sound level enough for the audience to hear on stage I need to feel that I am achieving the guitar sound I want. This is really why I use so many amps. It's strange, you know that it's possible to stand on stage as you're playing and feel a tangible wall of sound from the amps.
It is a very clearly defined area and I realise that if I enter the area I could start to produce feed-back and in fact I use this very often for special effect. On stage my movements are closely limited by this area of sound and by using the geography of the stage I can add and subtract from whatever I'm playing.
"I think that my set-up produces the most acute circle of sound but I am aware that all of the others have similar problems or advantages, depending on how you look at it.
One of the biggest problems I have is the variation in this circle of sound that exists between concert venues. The Rainbow, for instance, always gives me real problems. For some strange reason — I suppose it is because the roof is so high — all of the sound seems to be dragged upwards and away from the amps. I have to drive them beyond the point at which they're happy to produce a level acceptance to me so that I feel happy on stage.
"Usually this unsettles me a little and it does reflect in my playing but then all the stage arrangements can have a good or bad effect upon playing.
"I remember that at the end of our British tour, the last time around, a film crew was there for the first night of our Rainbow concerts. Because of them we had extra mikes faded through our PA and eventually our PA blew up the afternoon of the performance. When we got on stage we were acutely conscious of where we had to be for the video cameras and all in all it contributed to spoil the gig just a little bit.
"If I get on stage and feel that everything is just right the whole thing seems to take off".
Most Musicians suffer seriously through lack of money. Given the type of income Queen must bring in, they should have a whole warehouse of guitars and the odd assortment of saxophones, trumpets and what have you. Brian May has none of these things.
"The only instrument I'm really interested in improving on is the piano. At the moment I'm limited because I cannot hear where all the notes are on the piano as I play it.
"I feel on the guitar that if I hear a particular note or a particular run I can find it instantly but on the piano it's considerably harder for me. I have to sit there and actually find my notes before I can practice them and get them in the right order".
Interview by Michael Burgess
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