Brian May Admits That He Still Struggles With This Queen Riff Live: ’It Isn’t Natural’

Although he’s an absolute guitar icon and was one of the four creative driving forces of Queen, Brian May admits that there’s one band’s classic riff that he still has trouble playing live.

It’s one of those riffs that probably most people reading this article know how to play. However, when there’s a rush of adrenaline involved during Queen concerts, Brian simply can’t do that well-known riff from “Bohemian Rhapsody” live.

Of course, even the seemingly simplest riffs have nuances that only their original writers and performers know, so he might be a bit too critical of himself. But during a recent chat with Total Guitar, Brian couldn’t help but admit that he simply can’t nail it, explaining (via Guitar.com):  

“It’s not a riff that a guitarist would naturally play. And that’s a double-edged sword. It’s difficult for the guitar to get a hold of it, but once you have got hold of it, it’s very unusual…”

Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (Official Video Remastered)

“To be honest, I still don’t find it easy,” May said. Now, it’s not like he always has trouble with it all the time. It seems that the issue only comes up while he’s playing live with the current iteration of Queen.

“I can play it at home okay,” he said. “But in the heat of the battle… When we’re playing it live, and there’s huge adrenaline, it’s the climax of the show, and that riff comes along, it’s not the easiest thing to play.”

It would be hypocritical to say that we don’t know what this is like. There’s always at least that one guitar part that’s generally not considered difficult to play but it really gets to you if you’re overly excited.

In the case of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Brian says that he needs to keep himself relaxed and focus on keeping track of his fingers. Why? Seems like the riff just “isn’t natural.”

“I’ve got to keep a part of my brain cool just to handle where the fingers have to go because it isn’t natural,” Queen legend explained. “It’s one of the most unnatural riffs to play you could possibly imagine.”

However, adding that the riff requires some serious stretching in order to perform properly, Brian admitted that this is “the joy of it, really, because it’s so unusual.”

And one of the reasons why this is the case is because — as Brian says — frontman Freddie Mercury preferred to write songs in keys that might not be that comfortable for guitar players.

Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody (Live Aid 1985)

“Freddie had a habit of writing in E♭ and A♭, so it was always a challenge for me to find places on the guitar to make that work,” May said. However, there’s a silver lining:

“But it obviously contributed a lot to the way I developed as a player. It was a good thing, even if it was… Strange!”

Ever since his emergence on the rock ‘n’ roll scene, Brian May has been known for his somewhat unusual approach to guitar. It all starts with his legendary home-made Red Special guitar, which he plays at every live show to this day, as well as his habit of using a sixpence instead of a conventional guitar pick.

He uses it “pretty much always,” as he said during an interview in 2023. It’s “sixpence, or the fingers,” as he pointed out. The conventional option for rock players of all kinds simply doesn’t cut it for him.

Why Brian May Uses a Sixpence

“I used to play with those little plastic picks, but I always found that they were too bendy,” he said. “I couldn’t really feel what was happening as the thing touched the strings.”

So what about heavier guitar picks? Why doesn’t he simply get one of the good old Dunlop Jazz III and its variants?

“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.'”

Brian May Explains Guitar, Sixpence, Phase & Cello Tone and Echoplex Delay

“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.”

Photo: Raph_PH (Queen And Adam Lambert – The O2 – Tuesday 12th December 2017 QueenO2121217-26 (39066621655))

Author

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor.