Friday, August 10, 2012

Here’s why the *%@$ Brian May is still in the competition

Brian is on his way to being crowned the greatest guitarist of all time. At least that seems to be the growing sentiment after three rounds of voting at Guitar World’s online poll of the World’s Greatest Guitarist.

Jeff Beck & Brian May
Brian and Tom Scholz of Boston were paired up in Round One. (Coincidentally, I compared Tom and Brian here in an early blog entry.) Brian defeated Tom and advanced to Round Two against The Guv’nor, Jeff Beck. To the surprise of most GW readers, Brian knocked out Beck, and in an even bigger upset for many he trounced George Harrison by a margin of 73 percent to Harrison’s 27 percent.

Brian’s winning streak is leading at least one poll reader to ask: “Who’s doing this voting? It’s gone from ridiculous to absurd to just plain obvious . . . May over Beck, now May over Harrison, what a fiasco.” And this reader is equally perplexed: “Could someone, anyone, please tell me why the *%@$ Brian May is still in this competition??!!”

In a way I agree with them. Brian typically doesn’t crack the top 10 of the world’s best guitarist polls in all the years I’ve come across them. The marquee players always dominate: Hendrix, Van Halen, Clapton, Page, Blackmore, Beck, Iommi; and later joined by the likes of Vaughn, Vai, and Satriani.

Brian, Bert Weedon, G. Harrison
I think it’s safe to say that Brian enjoys tremendous respect from all of these players (as these two photos suggest) but since pre-Internet reader polls relied on hardcore guitar aficionados and not the general public in supporting their idols, it was the hard rock and heavy metal fanboys that took the time to vote. So no surprise that the names stayed the same year after year.

So what has changed? Why is Brian being positioned as one of the front runners in this Internet-based poll? Well, let’s look at GW’s suggested criteria for voters to consider:

Ability. How good a player is he or she at their given style?
Influence. Who inspired more kids to beg their parents for a guitar for Christmas? Who inspired a wave of copycats?
Chops/Versatility. Is the guitarist in question a one-trick pony or a master of many styles?
Body of Work. Who had the more consistent career? Who has played on more classic albums?
Creativity. Who pioneered new techniques? Who sounds the most radically different from what came before them?

Brian should rank highly in all of these categories I would think. Let’s see.

Ability — He’s better than me . . . which is not saying a lot, I admit. Obviously, he’s competent enough to alternate between rhythm and lead seamlessly and can play two- and three-part harmonies by himself. Is he a good rock guitarist, assuming we pigeonhole him into that style? Sure, no debate there. The interesting thing is I remember an interview with him years ago where he stated he felt his guitar playing isn’t any better now than it was when he was 16 years old. From a purely academic point of view, this is probably true. Like any other passionate teenager discovering the guitar, he no doubt mastered the blues scales, copied popular riffs and licks at the time, and different picking techniques fairly quickly before mastering songwriting and musical theory later on.

Influence — This is probably the most ambiguous category to comment on. When I took up the guitar at 15 it definitely wasn’t because I wanted to play like him; I wanted to play Randy Rhoads riffs and the hammer-ons and pull-offs of Van Halen, both hugely popular metal guitarists at the time. Queen was still my favourite band but I didn’t even consider emulating Brian because Queen songs were so effing complex. The intro to Crazy Train is a piece of cake compared to Ogre Battle. Does Brian influence pre-teens nowadays to take up the guitar? I have no idea. Lots of them like to do their best air guitar to the solo on We Will Rock You or Bohemian Rhapsody, so maybe that’s an indicator. I have come across people like Malmsteen citing him as an influence and even David Lee Roth claimed in a radio interview that the first Queen album was the blueprint for how Van Halen approached many guitar sounds.

Chops/Versatility — Is Brian a one-trick pony? Logic would say no. Queen covered so much musical territory that Brian has proven time and again he can adapt to diverse styles. Does the guitar orchestration on Love of My Life sound remotely similar to his work on Crazy Little Thing Called Love? What about his playing on Procession versus the vaudeville strumming on Bring Back That Leroy Brown? How about the Spanish guitar in Innuendo vs. the blues playing on See What A Fool I've Been? How about disco  with Another One Bites the Dust? Granted, Brian didn’t get much into country although he gets close to folk in many of his songs like Long Away or Let Your Heart Rule Your Head. Let’s not forget he’s composed for film, theatre, and computer games and has guested on a rap song by Dappy. Speaking of guest appearances, he’s in demand as a studio musician. He’s added a Red Special touch to songs by Meat Loaf, Jeffrey Osbourne, Lady Gaga, and the 50 other artists who saw value in his contribution.

Body of Work — Which Queen albums are considered “classic”? It’s probably a safe bet that all of their ’70s records would qualify, maybe even 1980’s The Game given its singles’ success. But I must say that listening to the guitar work on Dancer, Chinese Torture, or even the recent Cosmos Rockin’, it’s obvious that Brian continues to push for new sounds and challenges. Has his career been consistent? Compared to whose? Sure, Queen proper ceased once Freddie died but Brian (and Roger!) continue to try new things musically themselves at the same time creatively shoehorning the Queen catalogue into new opportunities in all media formats.

Creativity — Again, looking at Queen’s diverse body of work, Brian used his guitar not only for strong rhythm and solo work but as an instrument for obtaining unique sounds. His multi-tracking efforts are famous enough — not unlike what Tom Scholz was doing in his basement recording studio — but Brian experimented very early on and created a sound unique in the world of rock music. What about the sound effects on Get Down, Make Love or simulated bagpipes on Gimme The Prize? No shredding here, but what Brian does always suits the mood or spirit of the song.

And what about the fact that Brian built his own guitar? What kind of creativity does that require? Let’s see any of the other 127 guitarists on this GW poll do that.

So, back to my theory as to why Brian is getting the lion’s share of online votes for each successive round in this competition . . . well, I think he’s shown himself to be much more than just a competent, innovative guitar player. That alone should be enough to garner a strong following amongst hardcore guitar players responding to the poll. But I also believe Queen songs have garnered a new generation of fans who appreciate their music as a whole: the strength of their songwriting, the staying power of their melodies, the constant reminder in pop culture that a lot of current musicians look to what Queen did as an example of what is possible.

So when GW runs a poll like this, social media kicks and hordes of Queen fans respond, not just the guitar players in the crowd. In addition to being an amusing read, it’s also encouraging to see the passion in the comments people make about their favourite musicians. Music is about making an emotional connection and from what I’ve been reading, guitar playing and rock music isn’t burning out or fading away anytime soon.

Final thought — I think there should be a poll to determine which famous person has explored their fullest potential in all aspects of his or her life. Brian would certainly be in the top 10 for that list, wouldn’t you think? How many world-renowned professionals in any discipline have attained a PhD in an unrelated field, written three books, is an active supporter for charitable causes, and — best of all — built a musical instrument that is as good, if not better, than anything commercially made? Not too many.


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