It’s hard to describe how something sounds. “Will this make my tone fuller and richer?” “What about using thicker strings? What type should I use?” “I’m running everything through Vintage 30 speakers, how will that change the sound?”
I’ve gotten pretty good answering these types of questions from years of practice, but it’s not easy. How can you describe with words what your ears are going to hear? It’s like being asked, “Why do you love your dog?” It seems simple, but it’s not. Even now when I’m asked to compare two or three pieces of really similar gear, well, bring out the alcohol.
Just a few years ago all you could really do to answer these inquiries was to think of the best adjectives possible, recommend a forum where other people who may have real experience with said product might chime in and ultimately, hope that whoever’s asking pulls the trigger and buys the product.
YouTube was around, but it was crude. It seemed like most videos were guys showing off how fast they could shred or stuck with stock Blue licks, all the while recorded with a shitty late ‘90s camcorder and its built-in microphone. They weren’t all bad, but separating the wheat from the chaff wasn’t easy
I really like that phrase.
Slowly but steadily over the past 5 years Keith Merrow has helped completely change the way gear is heard, marketed, and sold via his YouTube videos. Whereas in the past you’d hope that some lawyer had a good enough setup to give xyz gear good representation, Keith used his multimedia skills to make videos that were sonically and visually exciting and ultimately drove people to buy what he was using. Also, he wasn’t showing his face in the videos. It was all about the sound.
Some manufacturers started investing real money into making these kind of videos themselves to put on their YouTube channel, but many reached out to Keith and a handful of other insanely gifted players to showcase the gear. The results are real for these companies: More sales, more praise on forums, more street cred.
There’s an unspoken symbiotic relationship going on as well. Keith isn’t making people drool over what he’s demoing by playing “Smoke on the Water.” He’s a riff hoarder and shows off his original material on the video. This helps solidify his own brand, sell his music, and further his career. The manufacturer is getting one of the best players out there to use his gigantic talent to showcase their product and reach hundreds of thousands of potential customers. Both parties are taken care of and everyone is happy.
So where did it start? Where are you from?
I was born and lived half my life in the LA, California area, but I’ve lived in Oregon now for the past 17 years.
I started playing when I was about 12, picking up my mom’s acoustic guitar. I played that for a couple years. My parents never wanted to buy me an electric early on because of the “noise”. Then one day, they finally decided it was “time”. Since I had stayed interested in playing for so long they were like, “Okay, we can do this.” I started with a really cheap little rig, which was an LP clone and a 15 watt Crate. I used that for a long time. I guess I’ve been playing for like…20 years now.
What were your initial goals in music? Everyone has like the dream of, “I just want to be the rock star,” or something vague along those lines.
Well, the funny thing is I never really had any particular goal for music. It was mainly just, you know…a player, and I really, really liked riffs man. I’ve listened to metal since I was a little kid and it’s just one of those things where I really liked the metal style of guitar playing. I first got into it from my dad, who used to spin Black Sabbath records constantly. I got really into the Tony Iommi sound…high gain, down tuned. I was instantly attracted to it.
That’s kind of how it all started. I wanted to play some Tony Iommi riffs! From there, I kind of graduated into heavier stuff and it progressively got heavier and heavier until I got into extreme death metal. I love the sound, the intensity and the speed of it. It was just really cool, you know? Still is!
So you just really loved playing and obviously you have this talent built into you that could build on. Did you ever want to tour anything like that?
No. I had my stab at a few bands, but I just don’t really know if that’s the environment that I’m best suited in, I guess you could say. As a player, I’m the guy who likes to just sit there and play…not really for anybody, just for me, you know? I just like to play. I’m not really an entertainer.
I did some band stuff with my brother, who’s a phenomenal drummer. It never went anywhere more than just a local thing where we’d play shows a couple of times a week. That went on for a few years. But we never had any goals or ambitions beyond that. We never tried to get signed or tour or anything. It just never really seemed to be the goal. It was always just about playing.
Also, I guess as you start to get a little older, the idea of touring gets even further into the background where it becomes less important.
Don’t misunderstand, though! I’d still love to do it, because I think it’s an experience that I’d really want to have under my belt. It’d be a lot of fun with the right band, to travel and see different places, things like that. You may see me out there pretty soon!
Do you know any theory?
No. That’s the funny thing, and people ask me that a lot. They assume that I do just because of the kind of stuff that I’m playing. Up until a couple years ago, I never owned a guitar book or video and I’ve never had any formal lessons. I never wanted to do it someone else’s way. I always wanted to do it my own way. I just ended up figuring out most of the things I thought I needed to learn, by ear.
My theory is really, really limited, but in just the past couple years, I started to dive into it a little bit. Now that I’ve started reading about it, I’ve gotten a little more under my belt. I’ll take a hiatus from playing every now and then and grab a book and try to wrap my head around it, so I can try to put a label on what I’m doing, it’s kind of cool. Once I started reading up on that stuff, I was surprised how much of it I already understood.
So what came first with you, like home recording or the YouTube videos? How did the YouTube thing even happen?
That’s kind of a funny story actually. The home recording thing came way before. Recording was something I’d always been interested in. Like I said, I was that guy who liked to just play for myself, you know? So I would sit around and I’d write and record stuff, burn it onto a CD and then listen to it on my way to work. That’s as far as it ever went. I never shared it with anybody.
As far as how it got onto YouTube, I had a friend over…I don’t remember exactly how it went down, but we were looking for something in my closet. I had a closet full of gear and junk. So we’re cleaning out this closet, looking for something, and we found my camcorder sitting in there, like a little handheld camcorder. He’s like, “Oh, man, we should record some of your songs.” He’d been a big advocate of my music. He was one of the only people who would hear it and be like, “Man, this is awesome!” I thought he was just being friendly or whatever.
He’s like, “We should record you doing a play through of one of your songs and put it on YouTube.” I don’t think very many people were really doing that back then. It was new to me, at least.
I was just kind of like, “You know, I don’t want to be that guy. The one who puts his own shit on YouTube and has everybody fucking clown on it and be like, ‘Oh, man, this guy sucks or he’s a hack!’” I didn’t want that to happen. Music is a very personal thing for me. I didn’t want to have a bunch of douches ruin it for me by criticizing my music. I honestly thought that’s how it would go down because, that really is how it goes down for a lot of people.
My friend said, “No, no, I don’t think that’s how it would be.” So I did one and it got a really good response. I was kinda shocked! It was slow and very small at first because no one had anything to reference. You know, it was just like, well, here’s this guy playing this song and it’s kind of cool or whatever.
Keith’s First Video
It just built up momentum and people started spreading it all over the place. So, I did a couple more videos, which were real simple, just one angle, and real low audio and video quality all the way around, just a standard play through. Then people started asking me if they could download my music. They’re like, “Hey, I’d like to have this on my iPod or on my computer…how could I do that?” And that’s the first time anybody had asked me for my music. That felt cool.
So it was kind of a bit of an eye opener. People actually expressing interested in what I felt was just my hobby. It just kind of escalated from there and got bigger and bigger.
When did you realize it was catching on though?
You know, it took forever for me to actually realize it.
Yeah. I mean, I just kind of let it ride. I’d go to work, come home and check my email and be like, “Oh, I got 200 new subscribers on my YouTube channel, that’s cool.” It never really hit me. I’m just, such a jaded person when it comes to what I do. I try so hard not to be, you know, that guy that’s like, “Oh, man I’m going to conquer the world and I’m a bad ass!” I’ve never thought that way; I just like to let things ride. I don’t know, maybe I was afraid of what might happen if I started taking it real serious, you know?
But there was a turning point in my life. I was working this job that I’d been at for about six years for this hot tub repair company. It was literally the worst job ever. I had the worst bosses, the worst hours, the worst commute ever. It was hell every single day, you know? I was maxed out at my pay level and so it felt like a dead end.
I couldn’t advance any further. In all respects it was a good job as far as making money and bringing home the bacon. But, I’m one of those people that needs like an artistic outlet in life, whether it’s seriously sitting down and drawing on a napkin or playing music. I need to do things that I can use my imagination with or I go crazy. I don’t know if I’m like autistic or what. But it’s one of those things where—
Probably just artistic.
Yeah, maybe. But it was one of those things where I didn’t have any of those outlets at this job and it just, it killed me. It was so nuts and bolts there and it just sucked. I couldn’t handle it any more and I literally had a breakdown, I’m like, “Man, I need to do something different.”
And then I ended up getting laid off from that job when the big economic tank happened. I was real down. So I just kept playing music…I’m like, this is my release from everything.
So I put out some more music and people really latched on to it at that point. It was then that I had realized that there are people who are appreciating this and I think if it was more widespread, a lot more people would appreciate it and there might be some opportunity there.
I was talking to my wife and I was like, “What do I do?” I’m out of a job now, we’ve sold our house, I have job skills as far as doing things go, but mainly I’m a musician at heart. That’s all I want to do, that’s all I care about.”
I’ve known a bunch of musicians and they’re all the same way. That’s all they care about, that’s all they want to do.
So, I felt I needed to embrace what’s happening and try to make a push forward to see if I can actually do something with it, so I started giving lessons.
The majority of my lessons were all from people that play and listen to my music. That was awesome. It was like a new way to connect with people. It just kept growing…
Then I released Awaken the Stone King, which was technically the second full-length album. That one did really, really well. It was for sale at first and now I just literally give the stuff away, because people seem still willingly buy it. Fans set their own price and many have been generous. I think that’s really cool. I want people who can’t, or don’t want to buy it, to still have it if they want it.
It seems like selling albums is limiting in some ways; some people aren’t going to buy it anyway. So I think if I’m going to give it away, they might as well get it from me and have the option to buy it if they want. I mean, in this day and age with the way the music industry works and the way album sales work, I think that’s really just the best way for a guy like me to go about doing it. With no label, there’s not a whole lot of overhead, so it’s not like I’m out a whole lot, other than time and pride and all that kind of stuff. It’s neat to see how many people still put a value on it though, even though they don’t technically have to.
It seems like YouTube is almost the best way now to spread the word about gear. This is big part of what you do, so what was the first demo you did or what was the first company to reach out to you?
Well, Wes, who plays guitar in The Faceless, is the one who hooked me up with Bernie Rico Jr. Guitars. Bernie is the son of Bernie Rico Sr. of BC Rich. He has a custom shop in Hesparia, California.
I didn’t even really know Wes at the time, but he had heard my stuff and been kind of following the buzz around on the forums. That’s the combination of how that all started, it was a combination of YouTube, forums and friends like Wes. That guy opened a floodgate, and he probably doesn’t even realize it!
But anyway, Wes was on one of the forums and he’s a good friend with Bernie. He had just mentioned to him, “You need to reach out to this guy, he’s going to blow up, like, in the normal guy scene.” or some sort of “Wes-ism”. You know, the scene where people can relate to the guy playing in his bedroom… “it’s going to be a good thing”. So, Bernie contacted me.
It’s kind of interesting because, to my knowledge, that’s one of the first times ever that a company in the musical instrument industry has actually reached out to a regular dude that just has a YouTube channel to give him an endorsement. To be like, “Can you promote this product?” I mean, it happens with other things and it does happen with gear, where people will borrow something or get a discount or sponsorship, but I mean, a full guitar endorsement.
I think that was pretty unheard of at the time and it’s been about four years ago now. I think I’ve been on YouTube since 2006 now.
Oh, wow, that was early.
Yeah, YouTube was still kind of like…people were still trying to figure out what to do with it at that point. So that kind of opened the floodgates. Once that happened and people saw that a company was taking me seriously, I think a lot more people started taking it more seriously. In turn, I started taking it more seriously because it’s like, Wow, not only are people kind of digging the music, people are validating what I’m doing enough to ask me for partnerships and things like that, which is cool.
So what do you think your role is in the music industry?
That’s probably the best question of all right there, man. I don’t know! I think that I’m kind of like the regular guy who likes to share music, demo gear, offer help…
Well, you’ve got to give credit that to the fact that you’re inspiring other people.
What was it like the first time you saw a YouTube video of a player like covering one of your songs?
Oh, man, yeah, that’s an amazing feeling. The first time I saw that, I’m like, “Wow, someone actually likes it enough to want to pick up his (or her) instrument and play it.” There are seemingly hundreds of them now. The more it happens, I just…I feel so fortunate that however this all worked, and however it all went down, and it’s still going down…someone was inspired. I’m so thankful for it. It’s changed my life in a big, big way.
I’ve gone from totally hating what I do to absolutely loving every single day. I mean, I get up and I’m just, I’m stoked, you know? I’m like, “what’s going to happen today?” I mean, it’s like every day something profound happens. I’m so happy about that. I can be proud and excited, everyday!
Now that you’re such a well known name and gear manufacturers are seeing that you can really move a product, are you noticing any kind of like fakeness or desperation when businesses are approaching you?
Well, you know…yeah, in a way. I mean…
You know what I’m saying? You don’t have to give specifics or anything.
Yeah, well, there have been a couple companies that really want me to test stuff and use it in a video…do some kind of a “high gain metal” thing with it. Then they want me to pay for it. That one is like the no-no for me, you know what I mean? They approach me, asking me to test something, promo the hell out of it.. and then I can keep it for X-amount of money or something like that. Or a discount…
Well, it’s sort of a new way to advertise. I think they don’t understand the way that it usually works for other people. Because like I said, it’s still a relatively new thing.
You see it in the auto industry. A guy gets a car, and it’s a pretty sweet ride…so then he starts decking it out and it gets in magazines. All these companies start throwing products at him and his car, and then it builds up into this thing where it’s like a sponsored deal.
That’s kind of like what it is on this home studio thing. It’s a sponsored-type thing from all these different companies. They’ve built it up into what it is, for the most part.
When new people come around and they don’t really know how that works, they’re thinking, “Well, I’ll sell you this at a discount so you can do your thing,” you know, and that’s not really how it works most of the time. So that’s kind of an annoyance for me. I don’t want to be sold something I don’t really need, for the sake of promoting for them. That’d be like I’m paying to do work for them, you know? It’s weird.
How it kind of how that works these days: People will usually send a piece of gear and, you know, they’ll say, “You can keep the gear, do whatever you want with it, sell it afterwards, if you make a video or something.” So it’s kind of like a trade thing. I give them my most honest representation of what I was able to do with the gear. I don’t sugarcoat it, I rarely talk about it… I let the person watching the video decide if they like it. I don’t sell it to the viewer.
So 2012 has been pretty amazing and 2013’s probably going to be even bigger
Keith: I hope so, yeah. You know, the whole signature guitar thing [with Stricly 7 Guitars].
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, you’re humble but you know, you’ve got to realize that you have super powers.
I try to be humble but at the same time, extremely driven. I’m really diligent with social media. I’ve taken classes on that stuff! I’m like two terms away from my degree in multimedia, so it’s like I put in a lot of time and effort into all aspects of what I’m doing. That whole time I’ve gone without having that job, I basically went back to school because I want to do something more tailored to what I like to do. So I started to get my multimedia degree and, I’m real close to that now.
I’m taking fall off because it’s the first time since I started, probably, that I’ve taken any time off. I have to! I’m too busy right now…that’s the fucking best feeling ever. I’m overwhelmed and busy with work that I love. I mean, that’s literally the coolest thing ever, and that was my goal. Like I said, I’m extremely driven…I put my all into every little aspect of this crazy life.
Keith makes gear sound as great as it possibly can