Welcome to YouTube Millionaires, where we profile channels that have recently crossed the one million subscriber mark. There are channels crossing this threshold every week, and each creator has a story to tell about YouTube success. Read previous installments here.
Steve Onotera didn’t want to be a guitar teacher.
He wanted to be a rock star.
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As a 13-year-old, he saw Blink-182 once live in concert, and he was utterly, completely smitten. That, he decided, was what he wanted. So he picked up a guitar, and by the time he was ready for college, he was ready for his passion to be his career. He enrolled in music school in Toronto, and during his first year, met this guy named Joel. They shared a similar goal: hit it big in the music industry. It seemed far-fetched.
Until Joel and his band went viral.
See, when Onotera met Joel, he was just some guy. But now, you probably know him as Joel Cassady, aka the founder and frontman of Walk off the Earth. When the now chart-topping band first went viral on YouTube with its “five people, one guitar” cover of “Somebody That I Used to Know,” Onotera was inspired. If his college pal could make it on YouTube, so could he.
That was in 2012. Now, a decade later, Onotera is Samurai Guitarist, and he’s got more than a million subscribers tuning (pun intended) in for his musical content.
Check out our chat with him below.
Tubefilter: If somebody’s reading this and has never seen your videos and doesn’t know who you are, tell me a little bit more about your background and how you ended up on YouTube.
Steve Onotera: This is a bit of a long story, so I’ll try to make it somewhat short, but I picked up guitar when I was 13. I saw Blink-182 playing in 1999. Since then it’s always been a thing that’s driven me for the past 20 years.
I just never really knew how I would accomplish this goal of reaching people and building an audience and doing all that kind of rock star-type stuff. So I tried bunch of things, played a bunch of gigs, ended up in school for music in Toronto.
And when I went school for music, the first guy I really connected with—his name was Joel—we ended up being roommates and started playing together, and he joined this band. About four months after him joining the band, they were doing YouTube stuff and they hit it like massively big with a cover of the Gotye song “Somebody That I Used to Know.” They did a video where the five of them were playing one guitar.
Tubefilter: Oh, I’ve seen that!
SO: Yeah, Walk off the Earth. So the band were very good friends of mine, and Joel was my closest musical friend. And he was just this guy I connected with at college, and this was the first time I’d ever seen anybody reach any form of real success in the music industry. These guys were not rock gods who I had on a pedestal that were just on a whole nother level. These guys were my friends. I knew them. And to see them go from playing the same shows I was playing with some other bands to like being on Ellen and getting a record deal…In a way it was like overnight success they’d been working toward for 10 years.
But I saw that happen through YouTube, and that planted the seed in my head that there’s something to this YouTube thing. I was like, well, these guys are no different than me. It’s not like they’re these musical prodigies. If they can do this, I think I can do this too.
I was watching the news coverage of their video, “five people play one guitar.” And I remember very clearly this one news anchor was like, “That was pretty cool, but I wonder what it would be like if one person played five guitars.” He was kinda like, “Haha, okay, that could never happen.”
But then I was like, “You know what? I wonder if I could play five guitars.” So in my little basement apartment in Toronto, I went to all my friends and borrowed five of their acoustic guitars and I set them up and I figured out how to play them like a harp and shot a video of me playing a Beethoven song on five guitars.
I didn’t have YouTube channel at this point, but I knew there was something into this YouTube thing. So I just kind of sat on that, put it on a hard drive. I remember my last year at college, we had to make a business plan for what we wanted to do after college. And most people were making things for like teaching studios or jazz bands or whatever, but I made one for a YouTube channel. I still have hte document for this And this was like years before I even started on YouTube, but I came with a business plan for it.
Tubefilter: And then…?
SO: So then I graduated college and I’m like “Oh my god, okay, what am I gonna do?” I had to actually figure out a way to make a career of this information and this skill I’ve been practicing for the last however many years.
My first thing I started doing was like, I was trying to move down to Nashville to write country music, essentially, just because I feel like I have a bit of a knack for that style of music, even though I don’t necessarily love it a ton. I saw that as being like a way to attain that thing I always wanted, which was just success in music. So I started going down to Nashville and writing country music.
Then a friend of mine from back home in Winnipeg was like, “Hey, I wanna start a band and try to try to do something.” So I was like, well, I got this idea. I was like, “Here’s how we’re gonna do this. I got a bunch of ideas for YouTube videos, these crazy ideas that have been kind of stockpiling for the better part of two years. We’re gonna basically take the Walk off the Earth approach. We’re gonna do a bunch of songs, but we’re also gonna do crazy covers on YouTube and that’s how we’re gonna grow.”
We worked on that band for maybe a year and a half, two years, and just kept on hitting hurdles. It was hard finding singers. I’m not a singer, so it was hard finding singers and hard finding people to commit to it, especially when it’s just an idea. It was very much a vision that I had on how we would do this. It’s hard to get people to commit to a vision.
And I needed that. I knew I needed the full buy-in. These video ideas I had took a lot of time to get going. So I just got frustrated and was like, “I’m gonna start doing this myself.” I started shooting these videos and posting them on Instagram.
Tubefilter: Oh, Instagram was first?
SO: Yeah. This was back when Instagram was 15 seconds long. I would make some of these little things, post them on Instagram, and it was cool because for the first time in my life, people who I never knew were watching my stuff, commenting and subscribing on my Instagram page. It was kind of my testing ground to see if there’s something to this.
Before long I’d built up maybe 500 followers on Instagram, which seems like nothing now. But back when you’ve never reached anybody outside your friends and family, like this was like earth-shattering to me. The question I kept on getting on my little 15-second Instagram videos was like, “What’s your YouTube channel? Where are the full videos?” So the natural next progression was couple months after I started doing the Instagram thing. I started a YouTube channel and called it Samurai Guitarist. And that’s my story. I guess the origin story of me starting YouTube. I tried to keep it short but that’s the best I could do.
Tubefilter: Perfect. Where did “Samurai Guitarist” come from?
SO: Well, I should say I actually rebranded—I switched over my Instagram handle before I made the YouTube channel. So at some point I rebranded my Instagram channel because my name is Steve Onotera, which is not the most memorable name. Especially if you’re trying to get like people like, “Hey, go check me out. It’s steve’firstname.lastname@example.org.” It’s just like, one’s gonna remember how to spell that or remember it.
I was thinking what I can do to be a little more engaging and interesting and fun, and I’m of Japanese descent, so the first thing that came to my mind was like, “Okay, do a samurai thing.” It’s been fun to do in that sense, it’s easy to do branding around it. All my merch is Samurai Guitarist stuff and I can basically go to any artist and be like, “Hey, what’s your version of Samurai Guitarist?” And everyone comes up with something different, but it’s always a cool image.
It’s just so much easier to build a brand around than my name. I don’t remember exactly the moment of inspiration where I was like “I want to be Samurai Guitarist.” I think it was one of those things where it was very natural and obvious to me.
Tubefilter: Can you talk a little more about the transition from Insta to YouTube?
SO: I went on Instagram and was like, “Okay, everyone go follow me on YouTube now.” And before I did that, I kind of had started making videos to release there. I’d stockpiled a couple videos. And I was like, I know I’m onto something because a lot of these have been received really well on Instagram. And I’m sitting on this five guitars, one person video, which I felt like had great virality. That’s just a recipe for viralness. And that was kinda my whole thing at the beginning. I was just gonna make viral videos and just do the Walk off the Earth thing. Eventually one of these videos was gonna go to the top of Reddit and it would put me on the map.
And that happened. I think it was like the fourth video that I did. I did a cover of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” using iPad apps. I just downloaded a bunch of guitar apps on an iPad. This was like three months after starting my YouTube channel. So I knew that I was kind of on to something, but this was just further reaffirming that there was something here.
And like, again, this was me, someone who was desperate for any sort of success, for the first time seeing hundreds of thousands of people watch my stuff. It’s just like an inexplicable. It’s a rush. Especially when it’s something that you’ve wanted since you were 13 years old.
That was the first time things started rolling a little bit, but it was never a smooth, easy task. I think the really difficult thing about doing those big viral types of videos I was making was that a lot of effort went into them and some of them did well, but some of them didn’t, and it was super discouraging to put like a month into a video and see it flop and then try to get like amped to have to do the whole thing again.
I think I took that approach for like two years and maybe built up, I don’t know, I wanna say maybe 30,000 subscribers. Then I started switching more to talking to the camera and instructional guitar stuff, even though I didn’t be a guitar instructor. But having done music school and taught a lot of guitar in my day, I knew that there was some information I could tap into.
So I started doing long-form stuff, and like any other YouTube person who’s been at this for a while will tell you, sometimes it does well, and the algorithm, for whatever reason, turned in my favor around three years in, and I got like 40,000 subscribers in the course of two months, and I hit 100,000 subscribers. That was super cool. Then it slowed down for a while, and I felt like things were just on the down and out. Then one of my videos got a million views; that was the first time that happened. That kept things going for a while. Then the roller coaster goes up, it goes down. Some eight years later here, I am finally hitting a million subscribers.
So it was a long journey. It was a path, and I thought it would happen faster. At points I did. But then also there were times where like, “Oh my God, this is never gonna happen.”
Tubefilter: But now it has.
SO: Yes. And now it has. It’s interesting in the sense that a lot of people ask me, “How do you feel about the million subscribers?” And the way I respond is it’s like….If you were saving up $100, but you weren’t saving up $100 to buy something. It’s not like you were saving up to buy some cool thing. You’re just saving up $100 for the sake of saving up $100. When you’re at $50, it feels impossible to do it. And then you earn a penny, you earn a more pennies, and you finally think “I’m on the way,” but it still feels impossible. But by the time you get like 70 bucks, 80 bucks, you’re like, “This is eventually gonna happen.” And it kind of becomes like normal for it to be on the horizon.
When it happens it’s like, “I hit that hundred mark. Now what?” Nothing changed. Just the number on a screen. And if you had given me $100 when I first started saving it, it would’ve been the same way. If I started YouTube and I just hit it viral right away and a million people came to my channel, that would’ve been incredibly overwhelming and the emotions would’ve flooded over me, but the day I had a million subscribers it was just like, oh, well it’s a Tuesday.
It was like, “Cool, I can stop thinking about it, I guess.” Leading up to it, I was like, “What’s gonna happen?” And then when it happened, I think I just stopped paying attention, which is I think better for the way you approach things and a better way of going about the whole thing. But yeah, it was interesting because a lot of people reach out to congratulate me and I’m very grateful for that. But it was also like, I don’t really feel different. This is another day. It’s a Tuesday.
Tubefilter: I feel like a fair number of people I speak to who hit a million after having been at this for eight or 10 years have this kind of mindset. It happens, and it’s casual, and you stop looking at the subscriber count.
SO: That’s exactly how I feel about the whole thing. There were bigger milestones, I think, that happened along the way. Like the first time I was able to support myself. The first couple years of YouTube, I’d moved back in with my parents at like age 20, feeling like a complete loser. All my friends were buying houses, getting married. And I was living in my parents’ basement, making a YouTube channel.
So a bigger milestone to me was like, when I moved out and was able to pay for my own rent and actually like pay taxes for the first time. The government actually wanted money from me. Being able to buy a house, that was a big one.
When we launched the course platform, online guitar courses, launching that platform and seeing the revenue that brought in and being able to adjust our style of living around that. To me, all those things were bigger milestones than the million.
It is cool! This is pretty cool. I got a YouTube plaque, so one of three things I’ve ever won in my life. And it was a goal. That was a goal when I first started and finally hitting it is certainly a sense of reward, but there’s not like an emotional attachment to it. I don’t feel really a whole lot different.
Tubefilter: What does the average day look like for you in terms of producing your videos and courses and living the rest of your life?
SO: We have a bit of a weird life in the sense that I work from home and my wife, she is employed by Samurai Guitarist incorporated. So we both work for the same thing, both work from home. We have one young kid, another one coming. Basically my days are wake up around noon, which is weird, but I’m a musician, so that’s not that weird, waking up around noon. We have lunch together. We spend some time doing whatever, hanging out, going for a walk. Uh, then Kenji used to take a nap around like three to six, but that doesn’t seem to be happening now.
During that time I would do my workout, maybe do some emails or whatever kind of stuff I could do with the computer. I would make dinner for the family, hang out a little bit after, and then around 10 o’clock when he goes to sleep, that’s when I would get to work. I would often work between like 10 to four would be like pretty normal. I mean, not normal, but I’ve been doing this for years, so it doesn’t seem that abnormal.
Usually Monday is idea day. I’ll try to come up with an idea, rough the script out. Tuesday is often recording the guitar and music examples. Wednesdays I’ll shoot the video, do a rough edit. Thursday is if there’s anything else that needs to be done, such as B-roll or whatever, I’ll shoot that on Thursday, come up with the thumbnail, do some animating work on Friday if I need to, and then repeat everything the next week.
And of course I do a wide range of types of videos, so that’s not a hard and fast thing by any means. If I need to come up with more intense samples. I’ll try to start them the week before if I can and maybe do an easier video the week before, but I try to do a video a week and sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less.
With the courses, those aren’t a ton of fun to do, but they are important. I usually write them on planes whenever I’m flying. I’ll try to write out a course and script a lot of what I do out. So the last time I went down to L.A., I wrote half the course on my flight down, half the course on the flight back. Then what I’ll do is probably at some point, just set aside two weeks to shoot the whole thing. Then I hand it off to my partner and she does all the animating and editing for those. I’ll do the animating and editing for my videos, and it’s a massive undertaking. They often take like many months to get done and then we launch them and then repeat.
Tubefilter: How many people total are on your team? Just you and your partner?
SO: Yeah, it’s just us. Those are the employees of Samurai Guitarist Incorporated. But every now and then I’ll outsource little things here and there, like my merch designs. I’ve got a number of artists that I contact. There’s a friend of mine who’s an audio mixer, so if I’m trying to really, really make a great-sounding recording, I’ll get him involved.
But for the most part, as far as YouTube goes, 99.9% of everything you see is like, I’m the only one who has hands on it. Which isn’t ideal. But the things that I don’t like doing are the things that only I can do. If I had my way, I would come up with a body double who could deliver the scripts, because I don’t like doing that. I don’t like sitting here and reciting my scripts, but only I can do that. I really quite enjoy editing and animating, but like that’s the kind of thing that I could hire out. I enjoy thumbnails a fair bit. A lot of the time, sometimes it’s a grind, but that would be also another thing I could outsource. But that’s the kind of stuff that I actually enjoy doing.
Tubefilter: Do you have any plans for yourself and your videos and your content over the next year or so?
SO: More stuff that’s different and interesting. I’ve got a couple ideas I’ve been sitting on involving traveling somewhere and checking out some little different music-related things. I think it would be fun for me to try to incorporate the things that really drew me into YouTube and music in the first place. Like, I don’t play as much guitar as I would like to because a lot of my time is spent doing editing and scriptwriting and stuff like that. An idea I had was one of my favorite guitar players, say I learned one of his songs and—this is just a pipe dream—but I learned one of his songs and practice it for a month and get as good as I can, then go to the studio where he recorded it, even hire like his backing band that he played with. To me that would be in the realm of exactly the kind of thing that I would want to do with this. That would be so, so much fun.
That kind of thing. Connecting with the passionate side, the musical side of things, and just involving that more in new and natural and exciting ways. I think it’s my goal with this, whatever that means. Finding ways to do that, that aren’t just trying to come up with an idea and just wishing I was actually playing guitar instead of in front of a camera.