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Articles > John Deacon Articles > 11-01-2005 - Bass Player
Queen's "Killer Queen" -- John Deacon's Complete Bass Line
By Bill Leigh & Chris Chaney
With its powerful blend of pop, prog, and pomp, British rock band Queen has become respected around the globe for its exceptional musicianship and metal-meets-vaudeville songwriting and performance style. But that wasn't the case prior to 1974, when the group's third album, Sheer Heart Attack, introduced the young quartet's masterful songcraft capabilities through "Killer Queen," the first of several huge international hits. Soon after, rock fans worldwide would place guitarist Brian May and singer/pianist Freddie Mercury among rock royalty-but what about bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor? According to one expert, they were among the best in the business. "Roger is absolutely the musical instigator of that band," says bassist Danny Miranda, who has toured all year with Queen + Paul Rodgers, stepping in for the retired and reclusive Deacon, while former Free and Bad Company singer Rodgers fills in for Mercury, who died in 1992. "Roger dictates the feels and the tempos, and he's a powerhouse-probably the loudest drummer I've ever played with." As for Deacon? "Grossly underrated. His bass parts are like little stories, yet he never gets in anyone's way. With all the guitars and vocals going on, he finds the spaces and plays basically what he wants. He's loose, fluid, and quite busy at times, but I can't find one song where he stepped on the vocal or guitar parts."
Miranda, whose resume includes nine years with Blue Oyster Cult and an appearance on the new live Queen + Paul Rodgers album, Return of the Champions, knows "Deacy's" parts extremely well, since he also plays with the Las Vegas production of We Will Rock You, a comic play based around Queen's music. He describes "Killer Queen" as a mini-masterpiece. "They get in so much information within a few minutes," he exclaims. "There's very little guitar in the beginning, but the song grows dynamically with the guitar getting more prominent and the bass opening up in the second verse. It's like you're reading a book that gradually gets to the good part."
"Killer Queen" is in 12/8-like 4/4, but with a triplet feel-and it begins with Deacon laying out as steady piano chords accompany the first two lines of the first verse. Then, with a luscious P-Bass tone and a tasty bar 6 pentatonic fill, Deacon ushers in the band as the verse phrasing accelerates. For the next four bars it's a quarter-note walking feel with careful attention to note duration. "That's what I took the most time on-the length of these notes," says Miranda, explaining how he cops Deacon's feel. "The verses have to breathe. If a note sustains too much or too little, it dramatically changes the feel."
Bar 11 momentarily cuts the count in half, with John's fill leading to the three-bar pre-chorus, where he outlines Mercury's tidy chord progression with root notes in a two-feel. The clipped G and F, on the second half of bar 14, leads nicely into the asymmetrical eight-bar chorus, with its five-plus-three phrasing. Bar 18's four-beat walk-up leads to a mini-climax in the next bar, with John reaching high to catch the unison rhythm.
Beginning in bar 23, Deacy sits out for nearly the first two bars of the guitar interlude. "That space creates an incredible crater," says Miranda. "So when the bass comes back in it's like a punch in the face. Nobody does this anymore; everyone's afraid to stop playing. But I think it's ballsy as hell, because everybody's going to pay attention to the next thing you play." In this case it's a steep, two-octave slide from a high F on the G string to low F on the E string, then working back up melodically to a held high C at the start of the second verse. Miranda observes, "Deacy plays very staccato at times, almost like a Paul McCartney vibe, which enables him to play a bit more busy under Brian's sustained chords. So when he does play long notes he makes such a big statement without being very phallic about it."
After hanging back with sustained notes at the top of the verse, John enters the fray with the same fill as in bar 6, then goes back into the walking feel at bar 31 and two-feel at bar 36. Miranda says Deacon's upper-register fill in bar 38 is his favorite part of the song. "Who would think of playing that, and then afterward not continuing to play that busy? He just makes a statement in those two bars and gets back to laying it down. It makes you want to follow the bouncing ball of the bass."
In bar 43, at the end of the second chorus, Deacon plays the chorus-ending riff in double-stop 5ths, though he doesn't do it the first or third time through. "He's not one to do something cool and repeat it," says Miranda. Following the second chorus, check out the question-and-answer hits with the drums, starting at the end of bar 47. The second half of the guitar solo follows the verse structure, with the bass dropping out at bar 51 and re-entering with the same fill at bar 54. Deacon's interplay with drummer Roger Taylor marks the song's dynamic climax, with the final chorus starting at bar 70, and the syncopated outro at bar 78.
Miranda emphasizes the importance of focusing on the feel and placement of the bass in the song. "The piano is the core, but it's not very big-sounding, and there's quite a busy vocal, too. Deacy was very careful about where the bass lies and the kind of space it takes up, how it breathes against the snare, and when to open up." He's also quick to compare Deacon to his other great bass hero, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. "Much like JPJ, Deacy was surrounded by monster musicians but really cut a niche for himself without putting too much attention on himself. He's not a player like [Cream's] Jack Bruce, who demands to be in the forefront at times. Rather, he's very much a support instrument, but in a way that opens up sonic barriers to make everyone else shine."
Can Be Heard On
Queen + Paul Rodgers, Return of the Champions [Hollywood]; Blue Oyster Cult, A Long Day's Night [Sanctuary]
Bass '63 Fender Precision with DR Highbeams
"No question the P-Bass is the sound of Queen, and nothing sounds like a P-Bass except a P-Bass."
Rig Two '80s Ampeg SVTs with two SVT 8x10 cabs; two Hughes & Kettner Quantum heads with two H&K 8x10 cabs
"They told me, 'Use whatever you want, just get a lot of them.'"
English singer/songwriter James Blunt, Canadian singer/songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, and Green Day's American Idiot [Warner Bros.]
"And lots of Queen, of course. It's my job, but I'm also really a fan."