Queen guitarist Brian May is still using a sixpence instead of a conventional plectrum. In fact, he finds that this choice is much better suited for his music and style of playing.
May, who’s well-known for this choice, was recently answering fan questions of The Guardian, sharing a whole lot of stories from his career. One of the fans, only labeled as “Nrdawes” on the website, asked him whether he still uses a sixpence for a plectrum. May confirmed that he is and then proceeded to explain why plastic plectrums just aren’t his thing:
“Pretty much always – sixpence, or the fingers. I used to play with those little plastic picks but I always found that they were too bendy. I couldn’t really feel what was happening as the thing touched the strings.”
So the next obvious question would be — what about heavier picks? Well, Brian did give them a go but not even that proved to work for what he wanted to achieve:
“I went into harder and harder picks, until they were too stiff. Then one day I picked up a coin, which happened to be a sixpence, and I thought, ‘That’s all I need.'”
Getting into more details about the properties of sixpences, May explained what actually makes them so good. After all, this isn’t exactly a guitar-focused product by default. He continued:
“Sixpences are very soft metal, which doesn’t hurt the guitar strings, but if I turn that serrated edge at an angle to the string, I can get that kind of articulating, percussive consonant sound – I call it graunch. Before about 1950, they had a high content of nickel, which makes them really soft, so I especially like a 1947 sixpence – the year that I was born.”
Since his very beginnings as a musician, May had very specific preferences. Of course, there’s his Red Special, a guitar that he made with his father back in the day. To this day, he still uses it at every single live show and swears by it.
During the chat, May also reflected on his re-release of the “Star Fleet Project,” his 1983 album that saw him doing something outside of Queen for the first time. The record featured an all-star lineup of musicians, including none other than Eddie Van Halen.
For The Guardian’s Q&A article, May was also asked by a user LucyOR98 about the inspiration for this project with such a lineup of musicians. He replied:
“There were two. One was the song, which was a theme tune for a children’s TV series called Star Fleet. It was a science fiction Japanese adventure story, done with robots.”
“I used to get up on Saturday mornings to watch it with my little boy, who was four or five at the time.”
“The other inspiration was: I’m in LA, and I’m sort of separated from Queen because we needed some space. I just got up one morning and thought: ‘I could phone anyone – I could go and play.'”
“I don’t think it would have happened in London. I feel more free in Los Angeles, strangely enough – it kind of opens up my social nerve.”
May simply decided to hit up his friend Alan Gratzer, the original drummer of REO Speedwagon:
“I called my neighbour Alan Gratzer, the drummer from REO Speedwagon, and asked him if he thought the idea would work.”
And, of course, there was also Eddie Van Halen:
“Then I called Ed Van Halen, a friend who I didn’t see that much of and an extraordinary musician, and he went: ‘Tell me where and when, I’ll be there.’ Then I phoned up all the other guys: Phil Chen, then of Rod Stewart’s band, and Fred Mandel. Everybody said yes. It was amazing.”
As May also explained in this fan Q&A, he’s very open to collaborations. However, one collaboration that he really wish he could have done was with John Lennon. The talk about this came up when a user named MarceloNeves asked about the “biggest regret as far as not recording with another artist,” to which he replied:
“I very seldom turn down a collaboration. A regret is that I didn’t get the chance to work with John Lennon. The Beatles didn’t always agree, they were always pulling and pushing – a bit like us and Queen – and I think John would be such a stronger pusher and puller.”
“You’d have to work really hard to keep up, to believe in your instincts. I could imagine us hitting it off.”
Brian May’s “Star Fleet Project” album is celebrating its 40th anniversary. May has released the “Star Fleet Sessions” box set on July 14, 2023. The release includes a remixed version of the album, as well as some of the previously unreleased sessions. In the official statement, May said of it:
“It’s all here. ALL of it. Every note we played on those two days is right here, on show for the first time. I will take you behind the scenes into that studio with us for two unforgettably exhilarating days.”