Known for his iconic guitar sound, Queen’s Brian May prefers using a coin – specifically Britain’s sixpence, which he says offers more control – over a conventional guitar pick.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, May is especially fond of pre-1956 sixpence coins, he said in a recent interview with Premier Guitar, a U.S. magazine devoted to guitarists.
“I can even feel the serrations … I can feel it in my fingers,” said May, who was appointed as a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2005 for “services to the music industry and for charity.”
“I hold it loosely so that it can flex and so you get all the flexibility, but it gives you variation as well.”
The 72-year-old guitarist and astrophysicist described the sixpence sound as “very clean, very nice—and if you angle it like this, to varying degrees, it gives you this kind of splutter, which in combination with the heel of the hand gives you almost the same kind of articulation as a human voice.”
“I love that ability … it’s a kind of consonant sound, you know?”
The pre-1956 sixpence is also preferable over a plectrum because the soft silver doesn’t damage the strings, May said.
“This is like nickel silver and they last forever, and I have a thousand of them, and they’re very cheap. So this, to me, is the ultimate. Also, they don’t get stuck in the string. A lot of plectrums, they have a lot of point to them and are sort of getting stuck under the string. This will never do that because it’s round.”
After the death of Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury in November 1991, May released his first solo album, Back to the Light, in 1992.
During the ensuing worldwide tour in 1993, May ordered sixpence-sized “coins” minted for sale to concertgoers. Better described as medals, the 36-millimetre pieces depict May’s name, bust and “BACK TO THE LIGHT” on one side with the phrase “FIRST PICK,” the word “OFFICIAL,” May’s initials “BM” and the year-date on the other side.
Other sixpence-sized May “coins” were issued in limited quantities for other tours in 2008 and 2014.
Other famous guitarists who use coins as plectrums include ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, who prefers the sound of the Mexican peso.