With some great artists, it’s easy to pinpoint the time at which their classic tone launched itself upon the listening public. As far as American fans go, at least, Brian May’s unmistakable guitar tone arrived in 1974 with the release of the radio single “Killer Queen,” from the Sheer Heart Attack album. Think of it as “the tone that launched a thousand ships.” The great heavy rock sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page and a few others were already on the map, but man, this was a new, exciting, dynamic lead guitar tone that sent kids scurrying for the secret of the sound. And while many would think they found it easily enough — or discerned its origins, at least — the real secret behind May’s signature guitar tone, as is so often the case, wouldn’t be clear until the full story unfolded over the course of time.
Concert appearances and TV footage helped to reveal the public face of that searing, sustaining, violin-like sound, partly achieved by the unusual no-name electric in the hands of the bountifully-hairdoe’d Queen guitarist (more of which later), but largely —more spectacularly — by the stack of Vox AC30 amplifiers that rose from the backline. Aha! There we have it … although, this was also something of a surprise in the age of the Marshall stack. These amps hadn’t seen much prominent use since the days of The Beatles, and were mostly known for their chime and shimmer. Could they really produce such a smooth, saturated lead tone?
In two words, yes … and no. The AC30s were a big part of the live formula for Brian May, and still are, but there has always been a lot more to the story. Turn up these great British-made amps, with their legendary class-A output circuits based on four EL84 tubes pumping around 36 watts through a pair of Vox-labeled Celestion alnico speakers, and you do indeed get a mighty, mighty guitar tone. Just not quite the Brian May guitar tone. Early on, May discovered the magical properties that the Dallas RangeMaster Treble Booster had for boosting old-school tube amps into overdrive, and has always used one of these — or, often, a custom-made version — to kick his AC30s over the top. So does this get us there? Partly, but not entirely. Perhaps May’s renowned use of a metal guitar pick, actually a reshaped sixpence (a small, discontinued British coin), completes the list of magic ingredients? Well, it contributes, certainly, but is just another little part of the equation.
As with so many classic recorded guitar tones, there’s a big secret weapon at the heart of May’s sound — or, should we say, a little one — one that fails to reveal itself on the concert stage. In May’s case, this takes the form of an unassuming box of tricks known as “the Deacy,” a small, transistor-based amplifier built by Queen bassist John Deacon. Although it only has an output of around one watt, this totally solid-state amp produces a biting, saturated overdrive sound when cranked up and placed in front of a microphone, and has often been blended with an AC30 in the studio to produce a lead tone that could not be captured by the tube amp alone. The solo to the major hit single “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the most obvious example of this sound, but May has used it on many, many other tracks too. Let’s face it, whatever our guitar heroes are thrashing away in front of on the live stage, the tones we really know them for are those that they produce on record. If there’s any one secret ingredient that flavors the stew for Brian May more than any other, it’s this unassuming little Deaky amp.
Assessed in its own right, May’s guitar is of course a “myth buster” in the broader sense: consider all the effort players put in chasing the tones created by their heroes’ purportedly vintage masterpieces — the late ’50s Gibson Les Paul Bursts, early ’60s SGs, pre-CBS Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, pre-Baldwin Gretsches. Well, here’s a skilled musician giving it his all on a home-made axe that, if not for its association with his legendary tonal achievements, would probably be laughed off the stage by the guys showing up with their major-brand instruments at any weekend warrior club gig across the country. Take that, gear snobs; carve your scrapyard mantelpiece and bend your motorcycle kickstand into just the right shapes, and it might be all you need to create tonal history. But let’s leave the details of that one for a Legendary Guitar story, shall we?