Queen was, and still is, a unique phenomenon in the world of rock. So, if you want to sound like Queen, then you have to sound just as unique, right? Which, if you put it that way, sort of implies that you shouldn’t sound like Queen at all. But in all seriousness, there’s something deeply satisfying, inspiring, and not to mention educational, about nailing the music of the band that you consider to be the best band in the world. In this blog, we take a deep dive into the remarkable sound that Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon managed to weave with such grace and have a look at exactly what made Queen Queen.

How to Sound Like… Queen!


The sound of Queen is not easily defined since their catalogue of songs is so incredibly diverse. Have a listen to the immensely popular Greatest Hits album and the first track up is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, followed by ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ – how vastly different can two songs be?

Here, we’ll try to pinpoint and understand the most recognisable elements of Queen’s music, meaning that some of what we cover might not even be applicable to some of their numbers. The one and only feature that you could maybe get away with calling the Queen ‘hallmark’ has to be Freddie Mercury’s voice, which also happens to be the hardest part to imitate. This is something that Marc Martel probably knows all too well, since he was responsible for ‘filling in for Freddie’ in the recent biopic Bohemian Rhapsody when original recordings of Freddie’s vocals couldn’t be used.

If we were to condense the Queen-sound down into a neat recipe, it might look something like this:

  • 3 to 4 part vocal harmonies (each vocal overdubbed 2 or 3 times)
  • 3-part multi tracked guitar harmonies
  • The Brian May guitar sound (Amplitube)
  • An open hi-hat on the backbeat (this may sound trivial, but it’s actually one of the essential finishing touches of the Queen-sound)

But, of course, it’s nowhere near as simple as that. And, since there is so much more involved, we’ve managed to write the rest of this blog about it.

That Queen Sound

On the face of it, Queen had your standard-issue seventies rock-band line-up: vocals, electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, and piano. But we already know there was far more to it than that.

Freddie Mercury’s Lead Vocals

As we’ve already mentioned, the unique vocal style of Freddie isn’t easy to mimic. You might be able to get close by playing around with different singing techniques alongside some good guidance, but it’s probably better to just let go of the idea of replicating the sound of Freddie and focus more on how Freddie approached the songs.

Freddie would never just turn up and let loose in the studio. Every note and phrase he sang had been considered in detail, so that every bit of the song had precisely the intended colour and emotion to it, from velvety soft to screaming hard. And he would never stop until he was completely satisfied.

‘I Want to Break Free’ is an astonishing example of this. It may seem like a fairly simple number, which is certainly true when you look at the chord progression and sparse accompaniment. But as soon as you listen closely to Freddie’s vocals, you notice that every line is unique. Without all of that intense work and precise decision making, this classic might never have been a classic at all.

Freddie’s precision goes even deeper. It’s no secret that he was blessed with an outstanding musical ear and the ability to hit clean, perfect notes, but even then he would not rest until, in his eyes, the recording was perfect. An example of this tireless perfectionism can be heard on ‘You Take My Breath Away’, which Brian May often cites when talking about Freddie’s vocal genius. Here, Freddie has overdubbed the same vocal line multiple times and made sure that the vocals come so close to one another that the soundwaves actually start to interfere. Most singers can only achieve this effect by sticking their vocals through a flanger.

You might be thinking: “If Freddie sang so perfectly, then I can just get away with sticking my vocals through AutoTune or Melodyne”, but we all know that it doesn’t work that way. Try sticking one of Freddie’s vocal lines through one of these programmes and you’ll immediately see that the notes aren’t actually perfectly in tune, and who wants that anyway? It’s that kind of perfection that kills off any character, and character is something that Freddie had in buckets.

Freddie’s Piano Style

In essence, Freddie Mercury played straightforward, straight-up rock piano, where the right hand plays three or four-note chords and the left hand doubles one or two bass notes. A little extra flair would be thrown in where needed, like during the classical flourishes in ‘Love of My Life’, but this was an exception to the rule. What was consistent in his piano style was a powerful, fiery strike and metronomic precision. A number where these two can be heard coming together is ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’:

In the studio, Freddie preferred to play pianos made by big, prestigious names like Bösendorfer and Steinway, and although the piano didn’t necessarily feature on every Queen song, it’s worth noting that this was Freddie’s go-to writing tool, and that this had a deep impact on how the sound of Queen was shaped.

How to Sound Like… Queen!

Queen Backing Vocals

It was the members of Queen themselves (apart from bassist John Deacon) who were responsible for Queen’s one-of-a-kind backing vocals. The immense sounding vocal harmonies that formed passages like the middle section of Bohemian Rhapsody were sung by the three men, who layered each vocal line together at least three or four times. The first take was sung with all three grouped around a single microphone, and to fill out the sound with body, the same line was then sung one or two times over the top, and the same process was repeated for all the other parts of the total harmony.

It’s worth doing some sums here: say you’re laying down a four-part harmony with three voices. So that’s 3 singers x 3 overdubs x 4 vocal lines = the sound of 36 singers. This method is actually easy to adopt and imitate in your own recordings, just as long as you’re lucky enough to have three vocalists on hand, each of which have a characteristic voice that compliments the others, since this is exactly why the voices of Freddie, Brian and Roger worked so well together. Even when singing a simple, one note phrase, this arrangement sounded big and broad. It’s just a case of hitting the right spot.

The essential bit that needs some solid practise before it can really be nailed is the performance. Queen were able to sing and play in the studio with the same all-or-nothing attitude that they had on stage. According to Queen, by the time you hit the record button, you shouldn’t be worried about singing in time or in tune – that bit should already be sorted. What happens now is a case of listening back to each take and where needed, just do it again. And, if you want that big sound, then avoid singing the various parts in exactly the same way. By allowing those small (yet acceptable) differences in timing and pitch between the different vocals to pass through, you create the feeling that you’re listening to a massive choir. A strong example of this effect is on ‘Somebody To Love’:

Let’s be clear, before this kind of sound can be achieved, you have to start by figuring out those three or four part harmonies note for note. It’s really not recommended to just hit auto-pilot and sing in thirds to harmonise with the main vocal. This just won’t cut it when it comes to that big Queen-style choir effect. Nor should you give into laziness and simply hang a carpet of ‘ooooooo’s and ‘ahhhh’s behind the main vocal. Like the vocal work on ‘Somebody to Love’, backing vocals can fulfil a myriad of different functions: from a simple atmospheric supporting chord to a complex interplay with the lead vocal and other instruments. Of course, this all depends on what the music needs and where it needs it. In short: always remember to serve the song.

How to Sound Like… Queen!

Brian May’s Guitar

Brian May’s role lay less in virtuoso guitar techniques, and more in making unique sounds and arrangements, but that’s not to say that his guitar technique wasn’t at a high technical level. Master guitarist Steve Vai once picked up and played Brian’s guitar through Brian’s rig, and while he was expecting to hear that Brian May sound, he was disappointed to just hear Steve Vai. So, even with Brian May’s complete rig, you won’t necessarily get the Brian May sound – maybe you have to be Brian May? No. The answer, as with any unique guitar sound, lies in the fingerwork, but if you want to try to come close to the sound, and have the cash to spare, then you could kit yourself out with the following:

  • (A replica of) the Red Special: a one-of-a-kind guitar that Brian built with his dad when he was about sixteen years old. While they decided to build a guitar themselves simply because they didn’t have the money to spend on a genuine Gibson or Fender, that’s not to say that Brian and his dad weren’t ambitious. They sought to make something entirely unique – something that you just couldn’t get anywhere else at the time. There’s a lot to say about this guitar, and a lot has been said about it, but when it comes to the remarkable sound of the Red Special, you need to look at its remarkable pickup system. Each of the three pickups has its own on/off switch and phase/out, or phase switch, opening up a mass of different sound profiles that spanned the Strat-esque, to the Les Paul-esque. Couple that with the fact that Brian and his dad had pretty much built a semi-acoustic guitar, where a part of the body is actually hollow, and this guitar invites deep interaction with the amplifier, giving Brian more room to play with feedback. The Old Lady (another of the Red Special’s nicknames) also features a self-invented tremolo system that was specially developed to support dive bombs while retaining tuning – remember – this is way before the Floyd Rose tremolo system was even a concept! The design of the Red Special is so good, Brian only ever put it down once – on the recording of ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, which (since it was an ode to classic fifties rock ‘n roll) yearned for the twang of a Fender Telecaster. Brian told their producer at the time that the Red Special could mimic the sound of a Tele pretty well, to which Mack replied “If you want the sound of a Telecaster, why don’t you just use a Telecaster?”.
  • A VOX AC30 amplifier and a treble booster pedal plugged in between the guitar and amp (take a look at the Catalinbread Galileo pedal)
  • (A replica of) the ‘Deacy Amp’: the little amplifier built by bassist John Deacon. You can tug an immense array of different sounds out of this wee amp, and it was used on many Queen recordings, even up to Brian’s most recent solo album, ‘Another World’.
  • A sixpence coin (if you can find one, of course, since they’ve been out of circulation since… 1970?).
  • A phaser.
  • A wah pedal, but not to create wah-effects. Brian would usually use a fixed wah to emphasise a specific frequency and result in a more nasal tone, for example.
  • An effect unit with a dual delay function (set at 800 and 1600 ms), so you can build Brian’s three-voice echo parts, like the ones you can hear during the bridge of Brighton Rock.

Maybe you can make just as good a start by investing in a copy of (the more affordable) Brian May Amplitube-plugin from IK Multimedia and use it in your recording software. This plugin was developed in collaboration with Brian May himself and gives you the opportunity to – in combination with the right electric guitar – get as close to the Queen guitar sound as possible. It even emulates the sound of the Red Special. The only thing missing is the sixpence piece.

Just like Freddie’s vocals, Brian’s guitar did exactly what a song needed at exactly the right moment, and this would vary from raw and growling to sweet and refined. The multifaceted raw side of Brian’s work can be heard on songs like ‘Death on Two Legs’ where you can hear that he’s done way more than just slap on a distortion and leave it at that, instead, you can hear a full range of different tones at play:

In ‘Good Company’, Brian May somehow made his guitar sound like a complete Dixieland brass section re-written in 8-bit for an old Nintendo game. And it’s in pieces like this that we see that, just like Freddie, Brian has a near-ridiculous level of perfectionism, considering the fact that he’s pretty much played in a full orchestra – note for note – and sought to mimic the sound of a clarinet, trombone, and so on, with nothing but a guitar. To make sure of the note separation and to remove that ‘guitar-like’ quality, he hit record, played in one note or a phrase, adjusted the settings of his gear, then recorded the next note or phrase and so on. In other words: pure focus and dedication.

And now we come to the most recognisable feature of Brian May’s guitar work: the harmonies. While it does display Brian’s ability to weave melodies, ‘Good Company’ doesn’t give the most typical picture of it. What’s more common in Brian’s playing is the flowing, homophonic phrases. Homophonic still means multi-note, but differs from polyphonic in that it describes ‘standard’ chords rather than moving, and more or less independent melodies. In ’Dreamer’s Ball’, Brian was able to fully, yet tastefully, indulge in this signature orchestral style:

However, as Steve Vai discovered, nailing the Brian May sound is not as easy as you might think. When working on his solo album ‘Mr. Bad Guy’, Freddie hired a session guitarist to perform the same Brian-style trick on the song ‘Man Made Paradise’, but it’s immediately clear that, even though it’s pretty well done, it has a much more ‘wooden’ quality when compared with Brian’s work.

How to Sound Like… Queen!
Photo (edited): Flominator

Roger Taylor’s Drums

Generally, Roger Taylor’s drumming is pure ‘70s rock: big, fat and never too complex. Where possible, Roger always approached recording his drums spatially, and tried to make it sound like his kit was in the same room. He would also only ever strike a cymbal at the same time as a drum. So, if a crash was hit, he would hit the kick drum at the same time. His trademark move, however, was an open hi-hat on the backbeat. Whenever he hit the snare on counts 2 and 4, he would briefly open the hi-hat for that ‘psst’ sound. On the Freddie Mercury penned classic ‘Somebody to Love’, you can hear every element that Roger enjoyed most about drumming, even down to the 6/8 time signature (or 12/8 to maybe be more precise):

For most of his career, Roger Taylor played Ludwig kits (while in the studio he would also play Gretsch kits) and a mix of cymbals from different names, and in terms of size, Roger preferred the largest shells going. So a twenty-six inch kick drum and twelve and fourteen inch toms were his regulars. He also wasn’t afraid of electronic drums, but this ventures into ‘80s Queen (Radio Ga Ga) territory, which most people may not immediately think of as the quintessential Queen sound.

How to Sound Like… Queen!

John Deacon’s Bass

Bassist John Deacon much prefers to stay somewhere in the background, but despite his shyness, his biggest influence was Chris Quire, the bassist from Yes, who is renowned for his incredibly melodic and anything-but-modest bass lines. Audacious bass work was probably not tolerated by the other members of Queen (it was more than the song needed), but John had a flair for providing what was needed while still adding a subtle melodic edge to his bass lines. He never repetitively droned the bass note of a chord, instead he would bind the lowest notes of a chord using the notes that sat in between, while adding rhythmic variation where it was needed. He would often fill gaps in the music with small variations and was never afraid to explore the entire fretboard. In the songs he wrote, he would give himself a little extra space to play. For example, have a listen to ‘You’re My Best Friend’ (and notice that it doesn’t end on the root note, but on the third):

It could be said that John Deacon’s bass work was definitely musical but not always perfect. Sure, many trained bassists are maybe tighter to the beat these days, and are more consistent in terms of sound, but if you listen to how John works with the drums, it sounds nothing short of awesome. In other words: always listen to how the instruments sound together, rather than to the individual tracks.

And if you want to know how John did it, you’ll need to know that he tended to prefer fingerstyle playing techniques and that his favourite weapon of choice was a Fender Precision bass strung with flatwound strings (in the ‘70s at least, but which later evolved into roundwounds). He would swap amplifiers regularly, and if you want a more detailed rig rundown, you can find it all in this comprehensive Music Radar blog.

The Mountain Studios in Montreux: Queen’s ‘kingdom’ from 1978 until 1995 and where they recorded several of their albums:

How to Sound Like… Queen!
Photo: Nono du 59

“The death is formula. I think if you say it has to all sound like Queen as people expect, then you’re disappearing. You have to search for new ground and then just let a few of the familiar things creep back in”
Brian May

Queen’s Songwriting

If you think that nailing a Queen-style song is simply the case of mimicking the Queen sound, you’re missing something. The sound of Queen looms just as largely in the songwriting as it does the instruments, playing styles, and recording techniques. Listen again to a more stripped down live version of ‘Somebody to Love’, without the immense backing vocals. The song still stands up, and even without the trademark vocals, you can imagine it being a monster hit:


In terms of sound and instrumentation, Queen was often a real rock band, but when you look at the melodic work, we can hear strong classical influences. We come across very little of the repetitiveness of standard rock and blues in Queen’s melodies. For a start, they often move within a broad range, so if you want to sound like Queen, it’s best not to stick to the fifth for an entire song – you’re going to need an entire octave, and preferably more. Secondly, a mass of variation occurs within the melody and this usually moves towards a crescendo. Instead of hitting the highest note repeatedly, move slowly towards it so that the high point remains something special. And lastly, in many Queen songs you’ll hear melodic notes that aren’t part of the chords. For example, a D is sung over a C chord, but – as we’ll discuss in more detail below – this doesn’t come from a jazz-style approach, so there’s no drawn-out emphasis on dissonance, instead there’s added colour and tension that quickly returns to a more relaxed feel. But as always, there are some exceptions!

Chords & Chord Progressions

When it comes to harmonies, Queen veered away from classic rock like AC/DC or the Rolling Stones. Just like The Beatles on their later albums, the four members packed tons of harmonic variation into their songs. The songs written by Freddie Mercury certainly go all over the place, and a good example of this is ‘We Are the Champions’, the chord progression of which we’ve written out below:

Cm   Gm/C …
Eb    Ab/Eb …
Eb    Bb/D     Cm     F7    Bb
Ab/Bb    Db/Bb    Bb7     C
F      Am     Dm     Bb     C
F     Am     Bb     Gbdim7
Gm    C7/G     Bbm     Bbm/Db      Bbm/E     Bbm/G
F      Gm7    Bbm    Abm6     Csus4     Fm
Gm/F     Fm    Gm/F     Fm    C7sus4

Within a single minute, Freddie has already switched keys twice: C-minor to Eb-major to F-major. Although this level of harmonic richness might be seen as standard-issue Queen by the average listener, if you’re trying to write a Queen-style song, you don’t have to go quite so bonkers. Just bear these few points in mind:

  • The most important rule of all: you can get up to all sorts of harmonic antics as long as it comes across naturally and is always in service of the song. Don’t try too hard to be interesting or get too intellectual about it. You don’t want your listener to think: ‘Wow! What a fascinating chord change!’, you want them to think ‘Wow! What a great song!’ First and foremost, Queen always wanted to entertain people.
  • Avoid rolling around the classic I-IV-V and II-V-I chord progressions, but use all of the other steps, in different orders and structures.
  • Switch keys once or twice in one song? No problem. But don’t make it a thing – again, it needs to come across naturally so don’t force things. At the same time, don’t be cheap about it, so avoid the cliched ‘key change’ at the end of a song.
  • You have major, minor, diminished, augmented, suspended 2nd and 4th, 7ths, and here and there added 6ths and 9ths at your disposal.
  • You’re better off leaving out 11th and 13th chords and all the other more unusual jazz-flavoured alterations.
  • Give the bass notes plenty of thought. In rock, blues, and jazz, the bass often just follows the root note of the chord. Queen took a more classical approach to this where the bass is far more active, meaning that it could fall on the third, the fifth, the seventh, or something even more out there. This will make sure that you have all of the necessary colour and more fluid transitions between harmonies.
  • If you use a chord that isn’t a simple major or minor three-note triad with the root at the bass note, make sure that the chord eventually resolves into a simple triad. Queen was fairly traditional, even classical in that regard. An example of this kind of arrangement is ‘You’re My Best Friend’. This incredibly accessible pop song starts on a Dm chord with a C as the bass, but Queen doesn’t linger on this dissonant harmony, instead, they neatly resolve it to a C-major chord. In short: build the tension, then pull it back. A nice exception is ‘We Are the Champions’, which ends on a C7sus4, which works beautifully with the song and suggests that the struggle continues for all eternity.


Many Queen songs include a guitar solo, but they seldom last any longer than a verse and again, had to serve the song. There were never any showy, technical passages, just melodic phrases that were usually a continuation of the vocal melody. Queen also never allowed drum solos to stretch beyond the odd extended drum fill, and for bass and piano solos, the same applied.


There’s actually not all that much to say about the lyrics. They’re actually pretty diverse, but a good rule to follow is not to make them too pompous. For instance, never get moralistic, poetic, spiritual, and avoid discussing activism or politics. Again, Queen placed entertainment above all else, so even if a set of lyrics had a political edge, the message would always take second place to a song that you can easily sing along to. It’s also best to avoid lyrics that are too ‘flat’. In other words: steer clear of short cliches like ‘I love you baby. Stay with me. Please don’t go! How could you leave?’ and so on. Try to give your song some unique yet catchy phrases. The best examples are the ones penned by Freddie, who liked to fill his songs with sparkling and evocative terms like “I’ve come here to sell you my body / I can show you some good merchandise” from ‘Let Me Entertain You’. But of course, that’s not always necessary – it depends on the song. A track like ‘I Want to Break Free’, written by bassist John Deacon, where the lyrics themselves aren’t necessarily special, the lines ‘break free’ and ‘God knows’ set it far apart from a billion other songs about heartbreak.

The Two Magic Words

The magic words when it comes to Queen’s sound are variation and perfectionism. The four members of Queen would get easily bored, and couldn’t stand it if any song they were working on started to sound like any of their earlier material. This is exactly why it’s hard to find two Queen songs that sound alike. Each song needs to be seen as a small, singular piece of artwork framed by their signature style, sound, melody, arrangement, etc. This level of variation can also be seen within the songs. Queen always sought to tell a musical story with each song, so every verse or chorus never had precisely the same delivery as the last. So, if you want to sound like Queen, you could follow the traditional song structure (intro, verses, choruses, solo, bridge, and outro), but you’ll need to avoid literal repetition and make sure that there’s a cohesive storyline running through the song. Besides that, there was a healthy difference in musical tastes between the four members of Queen, which would often lead to heated, even explosive debates. They could argue endlessly over the smallest of details, but according to them, this only meant even better results. Above all, every member of the band were tireless perfectionists that refused to rest until every number had, according to them, exactly what it needed.

Symphonic Rock: Classical Influences

Queen are considered a symphonic rock band, or a band that was influenced by classical music. We’ve already taken a look at the influence that classical music had on Queen’s melodies and chord progressions, which comes out in full force in the careful choir arrangements and orchestral-style guitar work, none of which is strange, since Freddie had a particular weakness for opera music (as evidenced by the solo album, Barcelona) and romantic composers. Brian was also fascinated by Renaissance music which is heard most clearly on his multi-tracked guitar arrangement of ‘God Save the Queen’. Looking at the back catalogue and how they approached their recorded work, you can see that they much preferred to do everything themselves. One of the few exceptions was the orchestra they recorded with on ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’, where they collaborated with soundtrack composer Michael Kamen. But this was only because writing a piece for every section of an orchestra is a specialist skill of its own. Another typical hallmark of symphonic rock in general is long songs made up of different sections, and those who aren’t so familiar with Queen might think that this is their standard, but that’s not entirely true. Queen liked to pen fairly compact songs, so ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was an outlier, as was ‘Innuendo’ and some earlier tracks like ‘The March of the Black Queen’.

Queen in the studio while they worked on ‘One Vision’ (1985). The presence of a camera crew probably made them behave a little differently but you still get a nice picture of the personalities that made up the band and how they worked. The exceptional thing that happens here is more the fact that they wrote a song together:

A little Brian May quote from this clip beautifully sums up Queen’s perfectionism: “The funny thing is, there are more and more aids to recording, which should make it quicker, but in fact it takes just the same amount of time.”

Deep Dive: Killer Queen

Killer Queen (1974), which also happens to be Queen’s earliest hit, is perhaps the most ‘Queeny’ number there is. Written by Freddie Mercury, a little bit of all the elements we’ve covered are present in this song:


We hear Freddie giving every vocal line its own sound and character, and he does this with as much precision as possible. Just listen to the various subtle vocal variations that occur within one short line like “For cars she couldn’t care less / Fastidious and precise”.


Backing Vocals

The backing vocals switch between a multi-tracked Freddie (on parts like “She’s a Killer Queeeen”) and a typical, rich Queen choir sound where Freddie, Brian, and Roger sing on parts like “Anytiiiime” and “Drive you wiiild”:


You get every facet of Brian’s playing in this song. Raw sounds, sweet sounds, big, small, clear, dull, open, nasal, melodic solos, and polyphonic as well as homophonic harmonies:



Everything Together

Putting covers and parodies aside, which songs do you see as worthy odes to the Queen-sound and legacy and why?

See also…

» DAW Software
» Instrument Plugins
» Effect Plugins
» Amplitube Brian May
» VOX AC30
» Catalinbread Galileo Pedal
» Queen Song/Guitar Books
» Queen Merchandise

» Pop Song Structuring: Verse, Chorus, Bridge and More Explained

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