The legend of the guitar hero is one that was filled with wonder and mystery. Long have we heard tales of fabled rock minstrels, indulging in wine, women (or men) and song as they laid down a path of musical savagery. The guitar heroes of old were the masters. Such masters offered inspiration by way of a million-notes-a-second shredding, adorned with top hats, Piccadilly hippy fashion, kimonos, 1970’s chic, dangling cigarettes, low-slung Les Paul guitars, and battered Stratocasters.
They were mysterious as well. An album here, a concert there, and we continue to wait. We replay our favourites while we search and scour the magazines, the newspapers and MTV news, hoping for word of the next song and the next show…
Oh, how times have changed.
Fast forward to today’s reality, which isn’t the old one. The album culture like that of the 1960s through to the 2000s has long left us for singles and EPs, the top songs rarely pass the 2:30 mark, and guitars have (almost) disappeared from the modern hit parade (some exceptions apply, of course). There are still the masters, who continue to play for niche audiences who can still appreciate one who can play their instrument. But where can the modern guitar hero be found today?
I can tell you where. They’re now on YouTube.
That is where musicians/content creators such as Mary Spender and Paul Davids can be found, among an entire treasure trove of peers (Rick Beato, Rhett Shull, Rob Baker, Tash Sultana, Ella Rae Feingold, RJ Ronquilio, and I could go on…). The freedom to create content that is reflective of them is unmatched, not to mention the connection between the artist and the audience.
The Evolution of the Modern Guitar Hero
If we look at the case of Paul Davids and Mary Spender, the paths that led to YouTube were quite different.
Paul was a working musician, playing and recording as a sideman for artists in the Netherlands (where he’s from), as well as working as a guitar teacher at his local conservatory. Some of the first videos that he posted to his YouTube channel were backing tracks that he created (the first one dating to April 2013, and has since gotten 1.4M views). It wasn’t until November 2015 that he began producing tutorials for popular songs, eventually moving on to lessons, comparison videos, vlogs and other content. It was a bad experience playing with another artist as a sideman that made him decide to go forward with his channel and make something for himself. Thanks to that decision, he was eventually able to leave his teaching position and focus on content creation full-time.
Mary Spender had a slightly different path. She wasn’t working as a full-time musician after studying classical music at university. Mary spent her days doing temp work and data entry while performing solo gigs in pubs on the weekend. The first video on her YouTube channel dates back to August 2009 (a cover of “Dead and Done” by Bobby Long), and the second a short film called “Blues Duet” to June 2014 (only a five-year gap, but who’s counting.) What followed was a string of cover videos, short films, interviews and product reviews. An invitation to appear on Anderton’s TV YouTube channel was the first sign of growth and opportunity for the young admin worker. As content and quality grew, so did the need to build on the platform, eventually moving to a music-industry job while doing YouTube, and eventually becoming a full-time content creator.
The Modern Guitar Hero is (mostly) an Independent One
The recording contracts that once fed the hears (and wallets) of the old guard… well… they no longer exist. At the same time, with the advent of inexpensive recording equipment and instant access to a worldwide audience, you don’t need one anymore.
Being in control of their career, even from small beginnings, did mean long hours in front of the computer, learning how to work with video and, above all, engaging with their audience. Being independent means that you are not just a musician, but every other person on a sizeable team that past artists had at their disposal (management, booking, publicist, guru, stylist, dog walker to the stars, etc.) Some YouTubers have been fortunate enough to hire people to work for and with them (managers, assistants, etc.) to help carry the workload (be it filming, editing, posting, etc.) and find and manage additional opportunities. A luxury, though not a necessity; if one prefers the complete DIY approach, then carry on!
Independence means doing what you want and finding your audience, but also means assuming all the risks. There is no label to bankroll a project; you’re on your own. But when it works, the rewards are all yours to reap. Both Mary and Paul enjoy sizeable audiences on their channels (at the time of writing, Mary has 668K subscribers, while Paul has 3.12M subscribers) that have allowed them to devote their time to the medium and earn a living making content and music. The audience, however, must be maintained.
The Modern Guitar Hero is consistently present
Ask most YouTubers what is the most important part of the job, and you’ll probably hear that posting consistent, quality content is the main driver. Be it the algorithm, the engagement, or what have you, one of the keys to both artists’ success has been regular postings to the platform. They have a schedule and strive to keep it; the audience has expectations, and they need to be met if they are going to remain engaged.
Both channels offer something different for the guitar-playing audience and music fans in general. Paul has a more educational lean toward his content, with lessons and demonstrations. Mary offers more essay-style content about life as a musician, and performances of covers and original material. In true crossover fashion, they have also appeared on each other’s channels, offering a glimpse of one to the other’s audience.
The Modern Guitar Hero Is One With The Audience
For many musicians, several different revenue streams are needed to help keep the lights on (performing, teaching, session work, scoring work, and even writing blog posts for an awesome German website!)
Thanks to platforms like Patreon, the Modern Guitar Hero can make rent just by engaging with their audience.
Both Mary and Paul use the platform to their advantage, creating even more exclusive content for patrons, all for a low monthly fee (exclusive videos, early peeks at upcoming content, MP3s, tabs, discounts on products, etc. not to mention the Discord channels). Many are willing to pay a small fee for this level of access and exclusivity, which in turn allows the Modern Guitar Hero to freely create without fear of not making next month’s rent. It is the modern-day fan club, and the artist is in control.
The Modern Guitar Hero Shares The Secrets
Beyond patronage, the Modern Guitar Hero is often called to educate.
For the heroes of old, there were clinics in music stores (if the faithful were near one at the time) or the proliferation of instructional videos and DVDs.
Like many other YouTube guitarists, Paul and Mary both offer online courses that are exclusive to buyers and go beyond what is offered on their channels. Paul’s courses focus on guitar playing for different skill levels and styles. Mary has one guitar course to demonstrate her unique fingerstyle playing, but also on music production and building a YouTube channel (talk about sharing secrets!)
Much like Patreon, this provides yet another revenue stream for creators, and a passive one at that after the content is created. Being more in control of their career, and knowing their audience, they know what to teach, how to teach it and how to present it with great impact.
The Modern Guitar Hero Still Creates
At the time of writing, Mary is actively preparing a new album and is on the path to getting her 1,000 true fans on Patreon to help fund the project. Both have also released music on streaming services over the years so that people can listen on the go. Like with their courses and content, being independent means doing what you want to do, when you want to do it. Thanks to the means offered to the Modern Guitar Hero, there is already an audience who is supportive and waiting for the next video, the next song, and the next lesson.
The Modern Guitar Hero Is One Of Many
This is a tale that is common among many YouTube guitar players (and musicians from all walks of life; this is not just an exclusivity for guitarists). The possibility of reward for hard work isn’t promised, beyond the satisfaction that you’ve made something that is yours that will hopefully find an audience. For people like Paul and Mary, the reward has been great, and those of us who watch all benefit.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
“Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.”