Three years ago I started to teach myself guitar through YouTube.
I’d search a song – Stairway to Heaven, Wagon Wheel, Wish You Were Here, Get Lucky – and I’d scroll through all of the tutorials, and before long I discovered a YouTube channel run by a guy named Marty Schwartz. He had a lesson for like, every song ever. And the lessons were really good, and he just seemed like a cool guy, and I kept getting better and learning new stuff. And I didn’t pay a cent for any of it, which could never happen before YouTube.
Marty Schwartz now has a massive following. He has over 1.3 million subscribers and 400 million views. He is your friendly neighborhood YouTube guitar teacher, and he has literally taught millions of people how to play the guitar.
I’ve done eight of these interviews now. This was very different from the others. Most of them last twenty or thirty minutes. Marty and I were on the phone for two hours. We talked about his career and religion and stress and baseball and Led Zeppelin and what it means to be 24 years old. There is a lot I had to cut. At times it felt like he was interviewing me, and then I would go off on a crazy tangent, and then he would go off on a crazy tangent, and then we’d slowly regroup. I think an hour went by before I asked my second question.
And that’s exactly how I want these interviews to go. I don’t really want them to be interviews. I want it to be more of a conversation, where I can talk and have some fun with cool and interesting people.
Marty Schwartz, welcome to the blog.
Marty, you live this awesome life where you give guitar lessons on YouTube, and you jam with your band, and you can support yourself and your family from it. How does that happen? What is your story?
Out of college, I was working at a music store part time and teaching some students and I was in a band. And then I got laid off from the music store. And I was thinking, that part of my paycheck is my rent, what am I going to do? Being laid off was horrible and stressful, but I took action and started to teach guitar full time. It worked out because of referrals – I was young, I was excited, I got along with people, and then I continued to tour with my band and play gigs.
Many years later, I’m in my thirties and I’m married with two young kids. I get to the point where I’m teaching elementary school music and I’m giving guitar lessons and I have no more free time left in my day. I can’t make any more money and I’m just not quite making enough to pay the bills. Being so busy didn’t leave me any creative energy. But I was starting to get settled into my job at the school, and I thought that would be my full time career, and maybe I’d go back to school and get a full teaching credential to get the benefits.
Then 2008 happens and the economy crashes and I get laid off from the teaching job. And not only did I get laid off, but the regular gigs I had ended as well. And then not only that, but a lot of the private students I taught had parents that were getting laid off, so they couldn’t do lessons anymore until they figured out their employment situation. I actually taught kids for free for awhile, because I certainly empathized with their situation, and I was in the same one.
All I could think about was my family and my house and my bills and the possibility of moving back into my dad’s house with my kids, and the horrible failure of that and what that would mean. But I remember – after I was called into the school and they told me they were cutting the funding for music, I drove home and pulled up my laptop and I made a cover video of The Beatles’ Don’t Let Me Down. It was the first conscious video I ever made. And I was just like, OK, everything is coming to an end, I have no control, so all I can do is go play guitar and make a video of it.
My thought originally was to make YouTube videos to promote myself as 1) a guitar player and 2) a guitar teacher, so that when referrals called, I could point them to my channel to show my style of teaching. I started to get a little bit of a following, maybe 100 views, and then I just continued to make a a ton of videos with no idea of what would happen.
Eight years ago, the climate on YouTube was so different than it is today. Like, you could actually look up a song and have there not be a video of it. This is impossible now.
At the time, one of the big channels was Next Level Guitar, and I did some videos for them. And then I hooked up with the marketing/business guy over there, Tim Gilberg, who liked my lessons a lot. And so he made me an offer and we started Guitar Jamz. That’s when it became an official entity. We went into a partnership – he knew how to run a business and put the infrastructure in place, and I just did the videos my way. Once that happened, I was just making non-stop videos and it started to take off. And now, I just consider myself your friendly, neighborhood guitar teacher on the computer, even though I actually make income from the DVD sales on the website.
Thinking back now, it’s like, some of the best stuff happened to me after terrible situations. It was never something I planned. I was just trying to make a few extra hundred bucks a month.
What is your process for creating a video?
It’s getting harder and harder to do, but first I try to think of a song that I already know how to play. If I’ve done too many of those in a row, then I feel like I owe it to people to do something a little more complicated, so then I try and learn a new song. I usually think about this and practice in the morning.
After lunch is when I film it. I do everything by myself – I’ve got a studio with a computer, cameras, lights, guitars, everything. Sometimes I’ll film the close up first, because that’s harder and takes more of my energy. And then I film the intro and the outro at the same time, because that’s one angle from far away.
I call the intro the sizzle. Every video of mine has a sizzle. I don’t open with talking, I open with what you’re going to learn right away. For that part, I’ll turn the camera mic down manually and crank the guitar up to get better tone.
And then I take the card over, put it into the computer, I edit it myself, and then I upload it to YouTube. My goal is one video a day, but I never reach that. I just tell myself that’s the goal, so it gives me an itchy feeling if it’s been three or four days since I’ve done one.
As you started to pass some significant milestones – 1,000 subscribers, 10,000, 100,000 – was there a point where you were like: Whoa, this is becoming big, and I need to be aware of what I’m saying and what I’m doing?
I’ve never really said things that were too out of line or anything … but actually, I have a perfect example.
A few years ago I did a Michael Jackson video while he was still alive. And I covered my face with a medical mask, because every time you saw him he’d be wearing one of those. That was just me having fun. And then he died, and now I’m mocking the great Michael Jackson. There are some really crazy Michael Jackson people out there.
Oh, and the one that I love – this is awesome because this guy was so mad at me – was a video I made for Every Rose Has Its Thorn. I’m a little cheeky in that video. I’m just mocking them, and I say: Why is it that every rock ballad video from that era has a shot of the band on tour, really exhausted, just looking out the window? And I got a message from this rocker guy who was like: Yeah, you’d be tired too, bro, if you were touring and doing shows, but you’re just in your basement playing guitar.
But I just get a chuckle because if I was, like, hanging out with Brett Michaels, I’d totally say the same thing to him. And he’d probably find it funny too.
You have over 1 million subscribers and 400 million views. Have the folks at Google or YouTube ever reached out to you?
No. My partner Tim used our YouTube status to go to their headquarters in LA and film a little side project, but I’ve never heard from anyone.
Have you heard from anyone of note?
I don’t hear from celebrities too often. The majority of people I hear from are professional athletes. I bring this up because I saw all of the baseball stuff on your blog – about four or five years ago, I got invited to hang out with the Red Sox. I got to go down during batting practice and the players were like, super fans. They had bought my DVD’s. Beckett was really into guitar, and that old knuckleball pitcher…
Yes, Wakefield. Really into guitar. And Saltalamacchia, the catcher, who is humongous by the way. These guys were so excited to meet me and it was just blowing my mind, because it was still early in the game of what I was doing. It’s one of those moments where you go – oh shit, this is real. The numbers that show up on the screen are real people.
The Red Sox told me that because of their curfew on the road, they’re basically stuck in the hotel, so they all get together and play guitar and watch my lessons. And because they’re athletes, they’re really competitive, so they try to out-do each other.
Do you see yourself moving on to something else, or are you just planning to perpetually upload YouTube videos until the end of time?
I am planning to move on from here. I don’t exactly know what that will be. I’ve been doing the videos for so long that I think one natural thing for me to do is get out more and do clinics and possibly more gigs. I would love to collaborate with musicians more. I want to be out more, interacting live with people.
But I feel like, who I am is set. So anything that I do out of here will be related to what I’m doing now. I’m just looking for other avenues to continue being myself. I definitely want to evolve as these platforms evolve.
How does one pull off the fedora?
Well, a lot of comments tell me that I don’t pull it off. What’s funny is that when I booked the first session for Next Level Guitar, I was just thinking it would be cool to wear a hat to set me apart. I had just won that hat in a benefit concert we were doing for my friend who needed a kidney transplant. I just bought a ton of raffle tickets and won. So there was some good karma on it.
I brought the hat with me to the first session, and I definitely thought about not wearing it. I asked the guy filming it what he thought, and he was like: Oh no, that’s cool, do it man! So I just did what he said. But it was like the greatest thing ever, and a total accident, because it was a really eye-catching thumbnail.
So I probably don’t pull off the fedora. But just like my buddy Papa Stash can’t shave his mustache now, I’m stuck with the fedora.
***Rapid fire questions***
Normally I ask five of these, but I was having too much fun so I asked eleven.
You’ve jammed with lots of cool people. Who are some of your favorites? I played with Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead, which was a dream come true. And Tenacious D, which is one of my favorite bands of all time. And the band that made me want to pick up an instrument was Blues Traveler, and I’ll be playing with them pretty soon. So that will be the trifecta.
You can only play one guitar lick for the rest of your life. What would it be? A funky, bluesy, soulful B.B. King lick would be good with me.
Memorable concerts you’ve been to: The Jackson Victory Tour when I was a little kid, that blew my mind. I saw Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and the Chili Peppers – all in one concert! – which was the kickoff show of the Blood Sugar Sex Magik tour. Pearl Jam didn’t even have their first album out yet. I also saw the original lineup of Guns N’ Roses at the Forum in LA, which was pretty magical.
You live in San Diego. Are you a Padres fan? I was super into baseball when I was growing up, but over the last decade I haven’t followed sports at all. My wife and kids veto any kind of sports following. I just don’t have that veto power, unless it’s like the NBA Finals or something.
What do you remember about your bar mitzvah? I did not have a Bar Mitzvah. So the rapid fire answer would be … no memories. My dad is Jewish, my mom is Catholic, so under Jewish law I am not Jewish. But I think I fit in quite comfortably in any type of Jewish situation. I feel Jewish, you know what I mean?
Zeppelin II or Zeppelin IV?: II. Ramble On is just, like, one of the best songs ever.
Abbey Road or Sgt Pepper? Abbey Road
Quadrophenia or Tommy? Tommy
Exile on Main Street or Sticky Fingers? Exile
Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town? Born to Run
Blue Album or Pinkerton? Pinkerton
And, finally, what do you think about the state of music in 2015?
Well, there’s a lot of whining, from all types of people, but musicians especially do it. Any time spent complaining about not getting paid enough or the depreciation of music is a waste of energy. Or going on Facebook and complaining about how the alt music scene sucks now.
Just like anything, you have trade-offs. Before the internet, if you didn’t have a record deal, you’d have to spend a few million dollars on a music video and a few million dollars on promotions just to finagle your way onto MTV. Or else you didn’t have a music career. So people would complain about that. And now you cut to 2015, and you can just be yourself, and you can be discovered, but you have to cut through the noise. It’s a trade-off.
For me, the state of music and what’s happened has been the greatest thing, ever. So I can’t talk about how things were better before. Being able to have something like YouTube where anyone can put their song up, for free … that’s exposure you could have never had before. There has never been more choices and more opportunity for musicians. It’s not about waiting around for someone to help you, you just gotta go get it.