While bands such as The Allman Brothers, Wishbone Ash, and Deep Purple may have been the originators of harmonized guitar leads, no guitarist took the idea further than Queen’s Brian May.
Brian revolutionized what guitarists could achieve in the studio, creating multi-part guitar orchestras in some of his most iconic solos such as Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy, Brighton Rock, and his version of the British National Anthem.
In the decades since those early Queen records, harmonized guitar leads have become an essential part of modern rock and metal guitar playing, with bands such as Metallica, Avenged Sevenfold, and Iron Maiden all heavily using the technique.
In this guide, we’re going to look at how Brian May crafts his harmony parts, executes them in the studio, and how you can incorporate the same ideas into your playing.
1. Multi-Part Harmonies
While bands such as The Eagles and Thin Lizzy would use dual guitar harmonies, Brian May would use three or more guitar lines in unison with each other to build richer, more complex harmony parts.
One of his most commonly used techniques was to build three-part harmonies across three different guitar lines.
While Brian used various different intervals and chord voicings, he most often used a classic 1, 3, 5 structure. Building upon the root note, he would harmonize with another guitar line playing the minor or major 3rd before adding a further harmony part playing intervals a 5th higher.
Looking at an E Minor chord:
E is the root
G is the minor 3rd
B is the 5th
If we were to apply this to a run up the E minor scale, the first guitar line would look like this:
Brian would then harmonize each note in that run with its corresponding 3rd, which would look like this:
A third guitar line would then harmonize each note with its corresponding 5th, like so:
Crafting multi-part guitar lines using these kinds of chord shapes was the bread and butter of Brian’s harmony sound.
2. Divergent Lines
As great as harmonized lead lines sound, Brian was aware that they could lose their impact if overused.
For this reason, another big part of Brian’s multi-layered style was playing guitar lines that diverged away from each other, before coming together to harmonize at key moments.
This is a trick that a lot of orchestral music uses too, having instruments play different lines off one another before bringing them together for extra emphasis.
The middle of the Killer Queen solo is a perfect example of this, as Brian used 3 different guitar lines playing at different times to build two melodies, before bringing them all together at the end.
The first guitar line is played like this:
The second guitar line then plays off the phrasing of the first, at the same time harmonizing with the sustaining notes of line 1, before coming together in the last 2 bars.
While line 1 and 2 bounce off each other, line 3 plays a separate, complementary melody that works as a counterpoint to the melody being created by the other 2 lines. It then comes together with the other lines in the final 2 bars.
3. The Importance of Timing & Phrasing
A significant factor in Brian’s sound is how he is able to play multiple different guitar lines so close to one another that they sound like one instrument. To hear the full impact of harmonized guitar lines, it is essential that they are tracked so closely to one another that they are indecipherable to the listener.
To do this, it’s important that guitarists understand the exact phrasing of any guitar line they play, as well as have complete control over string bends and vibrato. Most guitarists are surprised by just how much their takes differ when they first begin to record multi-tracked guitars, but like any other technique, this can be improved with practice.
Recording multi-tracked guitars to a click track or metronome at home is an excellent way to improve this skill. With the absence of drums and bass, you can really focus on getting the guitars to be as closely tracked as possible.
Begin with multi-tracking rhythm guitar parts played at a slower tempo. The slow tempo is crucial as it makes you concentrate on the space between beats and how the notes fit into those spaces.
Over time, you’ll notice that your double-tracked guitars begin to sound like one guitar track played with a slight chorus effect. Once you’re able to track two guitar lines this closely, move on to double-tracking lead parts with bends and vibrato.
Bends and vibrato are the most challenging techniques when recording multi-track harmonies as you’ll need to be able to exactly match the velocity and speed of the bends to achieve Brian’s sound.
Vibrato can be especially difficult to nail – if you record one track with a shallow, fast vibrato and one track with a wide, slow vibrato this will accentuate the phase effect, so it is important that you try to match similar vibrato on the different tracks.
As well as being a crucial skill in recording multi-part harmonies, being able to play close to your own takes has many advantages in general. Many guitarists, including Randy Rhoads, used to double-track all of their lead parts to achieve a fatter sound.
Double-tracking rhythm guitar parts are also the best way to add presence and body to your recorded guitar sound, so this is a skill that is well worth investing your time in.
4. Mix Up Tones & Sounds
When tracking multiple parts very close to each other, the human ear can struggle to differentiate the different lines being played.
By using slightly different tones and sounds across the different tracks, you’ll end up with a much richer-sounding recording, where each part has its own sonic space.
This is very similar to how brass sections will divide different harmony parts across different instruments with different timbres for a much larger, more impactful sound.
Brian was able to achieve this thanks to the unique pickup controls he had on his own guitar but even without a Brian May replica, you can achieve a similar effect with any guitar rig.
Experiment with recording different lines using different pickups – for example, record the first line with the bridge pickup and the second with the neck pickup. If you have access to many different guitars, try using a guitar with a humbucker for one line and a guitar with single-coil pickups for another.
Mixing and matching different amps is also a very effective way to achieve this. For example, pairing a classic British amp such as a Marshall with an American Mesa Boogie can sound fantastic.
By changing the sound of different takes, you’ll make each part of the harmony distinguishable to listeners, while tracking them closely will still make them sound like a cohesive whole.
Well, there you have it – four ways to replicate Brian May’s iconic guitar harmonies.
Whether you’re a fan of Queen or just looking to learn more about harmonizing or guitar playing in general, these methods will help you replicate the sound of the legendary Brian May.
Just remember to use multi-part harmonies, practice double-tracking your guitar tracks to be as identical as possible, and change the tone or amp settings of each track. That combined with a few other intricacies will set you well on your way.