Learn to Play: Brian May's "Killer Queen" Solo

"Killer Queen," from the album Sheer Heart Attack, is one of Queen’s most well-known songs and contains one of Brain May’s most memorable solos from more than a dozen albums and a multi-decade career. The album, released in ’74, marked Queen’s departure from heavier styles and their first foray into genre-bending, diverse material. May’s solo was multitracked to achieve a distinctive cascading effect, which we cover in this Learn to Play video.

The Gear of Brian May

The guitar May used for "Killer Queen" and almost exclusively through his whole career was one he made with his father in his youth dubbed "Red Special." This guitar ranks as one of the most iconic single rock instruments of all time and has been replicated by a number of companies in limited editions over the years including Guild and Burns, as well as May's own brand. May toured with a number of other guitars as backups and for specific parts, including an Ovation Pacemaker as well as a Gibson Flying V he used on several tours.

In addition to his own guitar builds, May was always something of a gear tinkerer notably stacking arrays of differently voiced Vox AC30s for his live rigs. These amps would often be modified to bypass the vibrato and "bright" circuits, and this preference served as the basis for a later May signature AC30 which included just one knob for volume on its control plate.

As explained by influential musical engineer Peter Cornish on his website:

"All the AC30 amps used by Brian May were modified by me to improve their reliability; I removed all the valves (tubes) that were in the 'Bright' and 'Vib/Trem' preamps and also the 'Vib/Trem' oscillator and modulator valves. This reduced the drain on the power transformer with consequent reduction of temperature rise in the amp cabinet. I also replaced all the valve rectifiers (GZ34) with solid state rectifiers and upgraded the smoothing capacitors. This increased the amp power stage headroom giving a much clearer sound."

As for effects, May used a number of treble boosters to help achieve the distinct high-end bite heard on most of his solos, as well as multiple EP-3 Echoplexes that were modified with extended tape loops. Given his pedigree of experimenting with gear through his musical career, it seem fitting that May would later earn his PhD in astrophysics.

For this video, we couldn’t use Red Special, but are instead running a Les Paul Special into a Vox AC15. For that unmistakable May zing, we have a Catalinbread Galileo, a pedal specifically designed to capture the distinctive tone of the "Killer Queen" solo and other Queen hits. Follow along as Joe teaches us each individual part to May’s famous solo and then demonstrates how each piece fits together to form the final product.

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