Queen’s Brian May Shares Honest Opinion on Kurt Cobain, Reacts to Being Named the Greatest Guitar Player of All Time

During his recent visit to The Howard Stern Show on SiriusXM, Queen guitarist Brian May looked back on Total Guitar‘s recent list of the greatest guitarists of all time where he took the top spot. When asked to how he feels about the honor, he replied (transcript via Blabbermouth):

“I take everything like that with a pinch of salt, really, ’cause you can’t say who’s best. The nice thing about guitar playing is that everybody’s different. You can’t really rank people. Of course I’ve got my favorites too. But the fact that people put me in that position makes me smile. It’s a lovely feeling.”

As May explained further, he doesn’t really feel like he’s “the best” or even “in the first million.” Instead, he shared a few other great names that he worked with who he believes are better. Brian continued:

“I’m not in the first million guitarists in the world; I know that. There’s people I listen to every day that do things that I could never do.

“Nuno, I listen to Nuno Bettencourt [of Extreme] and I just smile because it’s so beautiful and it’s so way out of what I could ever do. It doesn’t bother me, ’cause I don’t feel in competition. I just love the guy and I love what he does.

“Same with Jeff Beck. Same with Eddie Van Halen. We worked together, and it was the most wonderful experience. My jaw dropped every time he touched the strings. It was just beautiful.

“So, there are so many wonderful guitarists. Steve Vai is just colossal, beautiful. And of course I still have my old heroes. Eric Clapton is still my hero. Jimi Hendrix is still my hero. Of course — it’s always gonna be that way. Jeff Beck, to me, is something so exceptional and outside anything you could have imagined.”

brian may best solo ever

While discussing the issue, May also reflected on his playing style and personal approach to the instrument. He offered:

 “All I ever did, really, was play the way I feel and make the guitar my voice. I play like I would like to sing. I’m not the world’s greatest singer. I’m not the world’s greatest guitarist either, but thank you for saying so. But I can speak with the guitar; I can make it sing; and that’s all I do. It just comes inside.

And that’s when he touched upon the very core of this issue and explained that music is never really a competition. To prove his point, he also brought up Nirvana founder and frontman Kurt Cobain who was often praised for his unique approach to songwriting. May said:

“I don’t think any guitarist should feel like they have anything to prove. It’s not a competition. Kurt Cobain [of Nirvana] is a great example. There’s not a lot of technical stuff there, and he didn’t work that hard at being technical, and yet he gives us a legacy of some of the greatest guitar music of all time.”

Kurt Cobain - Guitar Solos

“So it’s not about technique. It’s about what you put into it and what you feel and how that feeling gets across in your guitar playing.”

The list in question, published by Total Guitar, was published in early 2023 and featured a total of 100 entries, all voted by the magazine’s readers. The decision-making was started with a shortlist of 250 names (not that short, but still a “shortlist”). As the votes kept coming in, they divided them into a few categories and got a total of 80 guitarists. Eventually, they also added a few other which they thought were impossible to avoid due to the major impact that they made. You can read the full list here.

For many years now, the whole grunge movement was often discarded as inferior due to the lack of the technical aspect of it. But in the past decade or so, more and more guitar players and other musicians are praising the likes of Kurt Cobain. Despite the not-so-virtuosic pieces of music, Kurt found a different way to express himself and that’s exactly what made him so famous.

Nirvana - The Man Who Sold The World (MTV Unplugged)

And, in recent years, it’s become pretty popular among famous guitar players to point this out or just reflect on Kurt’s influence. Late last year, the Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan reflected on Kurt while discussing his band’s work in the early 1990s. He said:

“At the time when [‘Gish‘] came out in 1991, all the reviews were [saying we sounded] like throwback psych, hippie crap, jam band, Grateful Dead…“

“I think it was so not what people thought music would be that they just grasped at comparisons. I mean, there’s reviews that were like, ‘They sound like a cross between REM, The Black Crowes, and Jimi Hendrix… it didn’t even make sense. Like, the DNA splices they would put together to try to describe our music was so off.”

One of Kurt Cobain's Final Interviews - Incl. Extremely Rare Footage

Discussing it further, Corgan explained that Kurt Cobain’s solos were mostly “ironic.” He continued:

“When people reacted to us, it was almost as if we were heretics or something; it was strange to us. And there was also the whole thing of playing solos, which was verboten in alternative circles at the time, you weren’t supposed to play solos. And if you even think of Kurt [Cobain] on Nirvana [songs], he would play ironic solos, but they weren’t real guitar solos…

“Kim Thayil [of Soundgarden] would play solos, but they weren’t solos played by people who were necessarily trying to play like Richie Blackmore. I was trying to play Ritchie Blackmore. My father was a guitar player, so I came from that route of, like, if you’re gonna play a solo, you better play a good solo.”

Photo: TheMillionaireWaltz (Μπράιν Μέι 2017), P.B. Rage (Nirvana around 1992 (cropped))

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.

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