Brian May, the only child of Harold and Ruth May, was born in Hampton, London and attended Hampton Grammar School (now Hampton School). During this time he formed his first band with vocalist and bassist Tim Staffell named Nineteen Eighty-Four after George Orwell's novel of the same name. He graduated from Hampton Grammar School with ten GCE Ordinary Levels and four Advanced Levels in Physics, Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Additional Mathematics.
May's father Harold worked as a draughtsman at the Ministry of Aviation and had been a long-time cigarette-smoker. As a result, May dislikes smoking, even to the point where he has prohibited smoking indoors at his more recent concerts.
From 1974 to 1988, May was married to Chrissie Mullen, who is the mother of his three children: Jimmy, who was born on 15 June 1978; Louisa, who was born on 22 May 1981 and Emily Ruth, who was born on 17 February 1987. Chrissie and Brian separated in 1988.
He has stated in interviews that he suffered from depression in the late 1980s, even to the point of contemplating suicide, for reasons having to do with his troubled first marriage and his perceived failure as a husband and a dad, his father Harold's death, and Freddie Mercury's illness.
May is now married to former Eastenders actress Anita Dobson, whom he met in 1986, and who gained fame in the 1980s for providing vocals to the theme tune to the aforementioned soap, entitled "Anyone Can Fall in Love". May himself produced the song, which reached #4 in the UK Singles Chart in August 1986.
According to The Sunday Times Rich List he is worth £70 million as of 2009.
One of his earliest bands, Smile, were formed in 1968 by Brian May. The group included Tim Staffell as singer and bassist, and later, drummer Roger Taylor, who also went on to play for Queen. The band lasted for only two years from 1968 to 1970 as Staffel left in 1970, leaving the band with a catalogue of only nine songs. Smile would reunite for several songs on 22 December 1992. Taylor's band The Cross were headliners and he brought May and Staffell on to play "Earth" and "If I Were a Carpenter". May also performed several other songs that night.
In Queen's three-part vocal harmonies, May's was generally the lower-range backing vocal. On some of his songs he sings the lead vocal, most notably the first verse of "Who Wants to Live Forever", the bridge on "I Want It All", and the chorus of "Fat Bottomed Girls", along with full lead vocals on "Some Day One Day", "All Dead, All Dead", "Long Away", "Leaving Home Ain't Easy", "Good Company", "Sleeping on the Sidewalk" and "'39".
Throughout Queen's career May frequently wrote songs for the band and has composed many significant songs such as the worldwide hit "We Will Rock You", as well as "Tie Your Mother Down", "Who Wants to Live Forever", "Hammer to Fall", "Save Me", "Fat Bottomed Girls" and "I Want It All".
After the famous Live Aid concert in summer 1985, Mercury rang his bandmates and proposed writing a song together. The result was "One Vision", which was basically May on music (the Magic Years documentary shows how he came up with the opening section and the basic guitar riff) and Roger Taylor on lyrics, with Freddie Mercury being more a producer and arranger than a proper co-writer, and John Deacon mostly absent.
For their 1989 release album, The Miracle, the band had decided that all of the tracks would be credited to the entire band, no matter who had been the main writer. Still, interviews and musical analyses tend to help identify the input of each member on each track.
May composed "I Want It All" for that album, as well as "Scandal" (based on his personal problems with the British press). For the rest of the album he did not contribute so much creatively, although he helped in building the basis of "Party" and "Was It All Worth It" (both being predominantly Mercury's pieces) and created the guitar riff of "Chinese Torture".
Queen's subsequent album was Innuendo, on which May's contributions increased, although more in arrangements than actual writing in most cases; for the title track he did some of the arrangement for the heavy solo, then he added vocal harmonies to "I'm Going Slightly Mad" and composed the solo of "These Are the Days of Our Lives", a song for which the four of them decided the keyboard parts together. He changed the tempo and key of Mercury's song "The Hitman" and took it under his wing, even singing guide vocal in the demo. May also co-wrote some of the guitar lines in "Bijou".
Two songs that May had composed for his first solo album, "Headlong" and "I Can't Live With You", eventually ended up in the Queen project. His other composition was "The Show Must Go On", a group effort in which he was the coordinator and primary composer, but in which they all had input, Deacon and Taylor with the famous chord sequence.
In recent years, he has overseen the remastering of Queen albums and various DVD and greatest hits releases. In 2004, he announced that he and drummer Roger Taylor were going on tour for the first time in 18 years as "Queen", along with Free/Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers. Billed as "Queen + Paul Rodgers", the band has played throughout 2005 and 2006 in South Africa, Europe, Aruba, Japan, and North America and released a new album with Paul Rodgers in 2008, entitled The Cosmos Rocks. This album was supported by a major tour.
The Brian May Band was officially formed in late October 1992, following the release of his album Back to the Light.
An early version of the band was loosely formed for 19 October 1991, when May took part in the Guitar Legends guitar festival in Seville, Spain. The line-up for his performance was May (Lead Vocals & Lead Guitar), Cozy Powell (Drums & Percussion), Mike Moran (Keyboards), Rick Wakeman (Keyboards), Maggie Ryder (Backing vocals), Miriam Stockley (Backing vocals) and Chris Thompson (Backing vocals).
Following the death of Freddie Mercury in November 1991, May chose to deal with his grief by committing himself as fully as possible to work, first by finishing his solo album and then touring worldwide to promote it. He frequently remarked in press interviews that this was the only form of self-prescribed therapy he could think of.
The original line-up was Brian May (Lead Vocals and Lead Guitar), Cozy Powell (Drums and Percussion), Mike Caswell (Guitar), Neil Murray (Bass), Maggie Ryder (Backing vocals), Miriam Stockley (Backing vocals) and Chris Thompson (Backing vocals). This version of the band lasted only during the South American support tour (supporting The B-52's and Joe Cocker) on only five dates. In Spain, a Catalan band called Sweet Sister support the tour.
Afterwards, May made significant changes, feeling the group never quite gelled. Most significantly, May brought guitarist Jamie Moses on board to replace Mike Caswell. May considered Moses a perfect fit to the band. The other change made was in the backing vocal department. Ryder, Stockley and Thompson were replaced with Catherine Porter and Shelley Preston. On 23 February 1993, this new line-up of The Brian May Band began its world tour in the US, both supporting Guns N' Roses and headlining a few dates. The tour would take them through North America, Europe (support act: Valentine) and Japan.
After the tour ended on 18 December 1993, May returned to the studio with fellow surviving Queen band members Roger Taylor and John Deacon to work on tracks that became Made in Heaven, the final Queen studio album. The band took Mercury's solo album demos and last recordings, which he managed to perform in the studio after the album Innuendo was finished, and completed them with their additions both musically and vocally. Work on the album after Mercury's death originally began in 1992 by Deacon and May, but was left until a later date due to other commitments.
In 1995, May began working towards a new solo album of covers tentatively named Heroes, in addition to working on various film and television projects and other collaborations. May subsequently changed the approach of his second album from covers to focus on those collaborations and on new material. The songs recorded for that album, Another World, would feature mainly Spike Edney, Cozy Powell, Neil Murray and Jamie Moses, who had become his core support/collaborative team.
On 5 April 1998, Cozy Powell was killed in a car accident on the M4 motorway near Bristol, England. This caused a huge, unexpected disruption to the upcoming tour for The Brian May Band, with the need for a new drummer on short notice. Steve Ferrone was brought on to help May finish recording drums for the title track "Another World" and to join the band for the early stage promotional tour of five dates in Europe before the world tour.
The line up was then May (Lead Vocals & Lead Guitar), Edney (Keyboards), Murray (Bass), Moses (Guitar), Ferrone (Drums & Percussion), Susie Webb (Backing vocals) and Zoe Nicholas (Backing vocals). Following the early promo tour, Eric Singer replaced Steve Ferrone for the full 1998 world tour.
From his last solo release in 1998 May has been performing as a solo artist, as part of an ensemble, and infrequently as Queen with Roger Taylor.
On 22 October 2000, Brian May made a guest appearance at the Motörhead 25th Anniversary show at Brixton Academy along with Eddie Clarke (former Motörhead guitarist) for the encore song "Overkill".
In the Queen's birthday honours list of 2005, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire "for services to the music industry".
May is a friend of singer and musician Phil Collins and was a special guest at the Genesis reunion concert at Twickenham Stadium in 2007.
On 17 November 2007, Brian May was appointed Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, taking over from Cherie Blair, and installed in 2008.
He has also played guitar for three songs on Kerry Ellis's Wicked in Rock album as well as producing producing her debut album. Whilst producing the album, Brian contributed a guitar solo to Meat Loaf's Hang Cool, Teddy Bear album in exchange using drummer John Miceli.
Along with Elena Vidal, Brian May released a historical book in 2009 entitled A Village Lost and Found: Scenes in Our Village. The book is an annotated collection of stereoscopic photographs taken by the Victorian era photographer T. R. Williams and it is sold with a focussing stereoscope. May became an enthusiast of stereoscope photographs as a child, and first encountered the work of Williams during the late 1960s. In 2003 May announced a search in order to identify the actual location of the Scenes in Our Village images. In 2004 May reported that he had identified the location as the village of Hinton Waldrist in Oxfordshire.
In November 2009, May appeared on the popular reality TV show The X Factor with band mate Roger Taylor as Queen mentoring the contestants, then later performing "Bohemian Rhapsody".
At the end of 2004, May and Taylor announced that they would reunite and return to touring in 2005, with Paul Rodgers (founder and former lead singer of Free and Bad Company). Brian May's website also stated that Rodgers would be "featured with" Queen as Queen + Paul Rodgers, not replacing the late Freddie Mercury. The retired John Deacon would not be participating.
Between 2005 and 2006 Queen and Paul Rodgers embarked on a world tour, the first leg being Europe and the second, Japan and the US in 2006. On 15 August 2006, May confirmed through his website and fan club that Queen + Paul Rodgers would begin producing their first studio album beginning in October, to be recorded at a "secret location". The album, titled The Cosmos Rocks, was released in Europe on 12 September 2008 and in the United States on 28 October 2008. Following the album the band again embarked on a tour through Europe and parts of the US, opening on Kharkov's freedom square in front of 350,000 Ukrainian fans. The show in Ukraine was later released on DVD.
Queen and Paul Rodgers officially split up on 12 May 2009. Rodgers does not rule out the possibility of working together again.
Brian May began composing in 1968/1969, and through the years he has collaborated with other songwriters, including Frank Musker, with whom he wrote "Too Much Love Will Kill You", and with Elizabeth Lamers, whose music won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically & Lyrically in 1996. A meticulous arranger, he focuses on multi-part harmonies, often more contrapuntal than parallel — a rarity for rock guitar. Examples are found in Queen's albums A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, where he arranged a jazz band for guitar mini-orchestra ("Good Company"), a vocal canon ("The Prophet's Song") and guitar and vocal counterpoints ("Teo Torriatte").
May explored a wide variety of styles in guitar, including sweep picking ("Was It All Worth It", "Chinese Torture"), tapping ("Bijou","It's Late","Resurrection", "Cyborg", "Rain Must Fall", "Business", "China Belle", "I Was Born To Love You"), slide guitar ("Drowse", "Tie Your Mother Down", "Radio Ga Ga"), Hendrix sounding licks ("Liar", "Brighton Rock"), tape-delay ("Brighton Rock", "White Man") and melodic parts ("Bohemian Rhapsody", "Killer Queen", "These Are the Days of Our Lives"). Some of his solos and orchestral parts were composed by Freddie Mercury, who then asked May to bring them to life ("Bicycle Race", "Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon", "Killer Queen", "Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy"). May also performed notable acoustic works, including the acoustic guitar live version of "Love of My Life" from 1975's A Night at the Opera, the finger-picked solo of "White Queen" and the skiffle-influenced "'39".
In January 2007, the readers of Guitar World voted May's guitar solos "Bohemian Rhapsody", "Brighton Rock" into the top 100 Greatest Guitar Solos of all time ("Bohemian Rhapsody" was voted #20 and "Brighton Rock" was voted #41).
Aided by the uniqueness of his guitar — the Red Special — May was often able to create strange and unusual sound effects. For example, he was able to imitate an orchestra in the song "Procession", in "Get Down, Make Love", he was able to create sound effects with his guitar that were so unusual that many thought a synthesiser was being used. In "Good Company" he used his guitar to mimic a trombone, a piccolo and several other instruments for the song's Dixieland jazz band feel.
May's abilities are not restricted to one instrument. During his Queen days he performed banjolele ("Good Company" and "Bring Back That Leroy Brown") and sometimes piano, detaching on a soft and gentle style[opinion needs balancing] ("All Dead, All Dead", "Save Me", "Dear Friends"). He also played part of the synthesiser intro (the melody) to "One Vision". He recorded some other instruments (maracas, banjo, etc), including the harp on "Love of My Life", which was recorded in overdubs and mixed to sound as one performance.
May is also an accomplished singer. His wide vocal range went from notes around low F (87 Hz) to very high tenor Ds and Es (mostly in his solo career). Occasionally he contributed falsetto parts as well ("Ogre Battle", "Why Don't We Try Again"). From Queen's Queen II to The Game, May contributed lead vocals to at least one song per album.
May co-composed a mini-opera with Lee Holdridge, Il Colosso, for Steve Barron's 1996 film, The Adventures of Pinocchio. May performed the opera with Jerry Hadley, Sissel Kyrkjebo, and Just William. On-screen, it was performed entirely by puppets.
Brian May has been referred to as a virtuoso guitarist by many publications. He has used a range of guitars, most often the "Red Special", which he designed when he was only 16 years old. It was built with wood from an 18th century fireplace. His comments on this instrument, from Queen In Their Own Words (ed. Mick St. Michael, Omnibus Press, 1992, p. 62) are:
"I like a big neck – thick, flat and wide. I lacquered the fingerboard with Rustin's Plastic Coating. The tremolo is interesting in that the arm's made from an old bicycle saddle bag carrier, the knob at the end's off a knitting needle and the springs are valve springs from an old motorbike." Brian May
In addition to using his home-made guitar he prefers to use coins (especially a sixpence from the farewell proof set of 1970), instead of a more traditional plastic plectrum, on the basis that their rigidity gives him more control in playing. He is known to carry coins in his pockets specifically for this purpose.
May's early heroes were Cliff Richard and The Shadows, who he says were "the most metallic thing out at the time." Many years later he gained his opportunity to play on separate occasions with both Cliff Richard and Shadows lead guitarist Hank Marvin. He has collaborated with Cliff Richard on a re-recording of the Cliff Richard and The Shadows (then known as The Drifters) 1958 hit "Move It" on the Cliff Richard duets album Two's Company which was released on 6 November 2006. On Queen For An Hour 1989 Interview on BBC Radio 1 May listed Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton as his guitar heroes.
May was proud upon hearing that Cliff Richard had mentioned in an interview that he would have Brian May in his personal fantasy band. As well as recording with Hank Marvin, May also contributed to the 1996 album Twang!: A Tribute to Hank Marvin & the Shadows, playing FBI. The album featured many other renowned guitarists.
During the time in which Brian May and his father were building the Red Special, May also produced plans to build a second guitar. However, so successful was the Red Special, that May simply had no need to build another guitar. These plans were eventually given to guitar luthier Andrew Guyton in around 2004/05, some slight modifications were made and the guitar was built. It was named "The Spade", as the shape of the body resembled the form shown on playing cards. However the guitar also came to be known as "The Guitar That Time Forgot". As yet, this guitar has not been used in any recordings and remains in May's possession.
Most of May's guitar work was done on the Red Special. However, he has used a number of other electric guitars, including a Burns Double Six ("Long Away"), a Gibson Les Paul (as a backup during the early tours), a Gibson Flying V (spare during Hot Space tour), a Fender Telecaster (Crazy Little Thing Called Love), a Stratocaster copy in the "Play the Game" promo, an Ibanez JS (Nothing But Blue),a Greco BM90 (featured in the promo video of "Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy", but was not actually used in the studio), a Tōkai Hummingbird Acoustic (on some recordings), a Parker Fly ("Mother Love") and a Washburn RR2V in the video for "Princes of the Universe".
In early Queen tours he had a Fender Stratocaster as a spare guitar, replacing it with a Les Paul Deluxe in 1974, then a John Birch replica of his Red Special the next year. In a concert in the States on the 1982 Hot Space North American tour, he got frustrated with that instrument and smashed it, thereafter using a Gibson Flying V until he got more suitable replicas of his beloved Red Special. In 1984 Guild released the first official Red Special replica for mass production, and made some prototypes specifically for May. However the solid body construction (the original RS has hollow cavities in the body) and the pickups (DiMarzio) that were not an exact replica of the Burns TriSonic did not make May happy, so the production stopped after just 300 guitars. In 1993 Guild made a second replica of the RS, made in just 1000 copies, of which May has some and used as a backup. At the moment, he uses the 2 guitars made by Greg Fryer — the luthier who restored the Old Lady in 1998 — as backup. They are almost identical to the original, except for the Fryer logo on the headstock (May's original one has a sixpence).
For acoustic guitars, he mostly used Ovation 12-Strings, Martins, a Godin Thinline A-12 for the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert performance of "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and a Gibson Chet Atkins for nylon-string parts. He created the unique "buzzing" tone heard on "White Queen (As It Began)" and "Jealousy" by placing pieces of piano wire under the frets. His ukulele was Aloha. Pianos he recorded include Bösendorfers, although in concerts he relied on Freddie Mercury's Steinway. May used Yamaha DX7 synths for the opening sequence of "One Vision" and the backgrounds of "Who Wants to Live Forever", "Scandal" and "The Show Must Go On".
May was keen on using some toys as instruments as well. He used a Yamaha plastic piano in "Teo Torriatte", a "genuine George Formby Ukulele-Banjo" in "Bring Back That Leroy Brown" and in "Good Company", and a toy mini koto in "The Prophet's Song".
May has used Vox AC30 amplifiers almost exclusively since a meeting with his long time hero Rory Gallagher at a gig in London during the late 60s/early 70s. His choice is the model AC30TBX, the top-boost version with Blue Alnico speakers, and he runs the amp at full volume on the Normal channel. He also customises his amps by removing the circuitry for the Brilliant and Vib-trem channels (leaving only the circuitry for the Normal), and this alters the tone slightly, with a gain addition of 6-7dB. He always used a 'treble booster' of some kind which, along with the AC30, went a long way in helping to create many of his signature guitar tones. He used the Dallas Rangemaster for the first Queen albums, up to A Day at the Races. Then, effects guru Pete Cornish built for him the TB-83 (32dB of gain) that used for all the remaining Queen albums. He switched in 2000 to the Fryer's booster, which actually gives less boost than the TB-83.
Live, he uses banks of AC30 amplifiers keeping some amps with only guitar and others with all effects such as delay, flanger and chorus. He has a rack of 14 AC30s, which are grouped as Normal, Chorus, Delay 1, Delay 2. On his pedal board, May has a custom switch unit made by Cornish and subsequently modified by Fryer that allows him to choose which amps are active. He uses a BOSS pedal from the 70s, the Chorus Ensemble CE-1, which can be heard in In The Lap of The Gods (Live at Wembley '86) or Hammer to Fall (slow version played live with P. Rodgers). Next in the chain, he uses a Foxx Foot Phaser (We Will Rock You, We Are the Champions, Keep Yourself Alive, etc), and two delay machines to play his trademark Brighton Rock solo.