Component is a section of Aux.Out for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Kevin McMahon chats about his online guitar lessons and learning music in the 21st century with YouTube’s six-string professor.
Meet Warren Lain. On paper, he’s a 30-year-old UCLA graduate in Ethnomusicology, who hails from the Bay Area and has a penchant for tacos. Step into the ubiquity of the Internet, however, and he’s a one-stop shop for digesting Radiohead guitar instruction. Currently, his YouTube channel hosts over 60 Radiohead-related videos covering approximately 35 songs. Each video is carefully crafted and coherent, a rare feat amongst aspiring Internet guitar sages, and he also speaks with a relaxed vernacular, common to many on the West Coast, which puts a stranger at ease and allows for a comfortable conversation.
My interest with Warren started two years ago. I had just begun to take the guitar seriously following a rather reformative and outright transcendental experience at Radiohead’s 2012 Bonnaroo performance. At the time, it just made sense to try and learn “Paranoid Android” (as it likely does to many beginners), and thus my first brush with Warren commenced. This lasted all of 35 seconds. At that point, I was forced to accept that my motor skills were on par with someone experiencing an epileptic fit, and I quickly moved on to a more manageable task.
Admittedly, I faced a few common distractions, namely college and part-time jobs. My responsibilities required me to be very diligent with my own time, and the lack of funds for any sort of formal lessons didn’t help, either. This meant wading through the murky ambiguity of deciding what to learn and how. So, I began structuring a lesson plan for myself by gathering basic knowledge of chords and scales online and attempting easier songs. This meant long afternoons bugging the shit out of my neighbors, especially my earnest attempt to perfect The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun”.
Along the way, I hit a number of roadblocks. Countless hours were spent sharpening skills that would eventually feel natural over time; for example, controlling any string noise or even something as basic as chord shapes. After a year of perseverance, however, I shifted away from 12-bar blues towards what really interests me in music: composition. And really, there’s no mainstream rock act out there with compositions as strong and diverse as Radiohead.
That brings us back to Warren. Now that I’d at least had a rudimentary understanding of the six-string, I began studying his videos and was floored at how much I took away from each one. In short: Each one of Radiohead’s songs read like a short novel on composition and how music can work. For his part, Warren simply sheds light on what is already there, which was (and still is) quite valuable to an undeveloped pupil like myself — whether it’s the use of the Dorian mode on “Knives Out” or the vocal bass notes within “Paranoid Android”.
Dr. Seuss once wrote, “You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.” That speaks volumes for anyone attempting to learn the guitar, or any instrument for that matter. Although, technically, I’ve never taken a guitar lesson, I’ve committed to hours of passive guitar instruction, which, to me, is the most intriguing facet of this musical journey. Still, it’s certainly helped having Warren “around” for the assist.
So, to return the favor, I contacted the online guru for a one-on-one interview to gain a little insight into his process. Almost immediately, we bonded over Radiohead and how the UK outfit has been so formative in our respective paths.
When did you start making online lessons?
I started October 10th, 2007.
The release date for In Rainbows.
Two things occurred that day. I made my first YouTube video. My housemate, who was a videographer, asked me if I could learn an In Rainbows track on the spot, and if he could film it and put it on YouTube. The second was the formation of my band via Craigslist. I attribute a lot of that movement to In Rainbows and the effect it had on me when it first came out. I wouldn’t say it single-handedly inspired me to become an online music teacher, but it definitely set off something in me. I had always kind of flirted with the idea of taking music more seriously and really trying to develop more music-centric things in my life, but I had never seen it as a prospect in terms of a profession. Once I followed through, the response was a pretty big shock to me. It was a big tipping point as far as putting myself out there.
So, you’re talking about feedback from people who watched the video?
Yeah. I put that video up under the name warrenmusic, which was funny because a month later all the YouTube usernames were taken, just because I didn’t want to say, “Radiohead tutorials,” you know? I thought that would be kind of limiting. I proceeded to put it up on social media just for friends and family for the novelty, but it was just silly to me at that point. But then in a week’s time, I had a few thousand views, and the numbers kept going up for a while, and I was thinking, I do not have this many friends. [Laughs.]
It was also good time alignment because the top search for that day had been Radiohead’s album, so my video came up. Subsequently, that overflow led to people asking me to do more videos. I think they recognized I could do it by ear since it was the first day and there wasn’t tablature or sheet music available yet for the songs. That lust for more drove me to keep it up. I thought it was so cool to have people sincerely asking me like that.
I think the nature of a band like Radiohead helps to incite a more focused and passionate response than you would have otherwise experienced.
Certainly. That’s definitely a part of it. Radiohead has always had a devoted fan base, and I’m fortunate in the sense that I get to “suckle off the teet” a little bit. But I also think there’s a difference in the way I approach making tutorial videos. Each video ends up taking me hours on each end in preparation and filming for a little 10-minute thing, just because I have to do it and say it just right. It was nice in that I didn’t worry too much about how they would be received, but I really put a ton into them. So that way anybody who’s actually going to sit through this and take the time is going to walk away with more than just knowing how to play a song.
They’re going to learn why the song is cool, how it’s structured, a little bit of music theory, and maybe have their curiosity peaked about learning something like relative pitch. I have kind of a unique way of trying to make a song into an entry point of a larger subject, which is (hopefully) musicianship. So, yes, I’m teaching these songs, and yes, Radiohead has a super devoted fan base, but I think what I bring to the table is how much I try to pack in there to create something that adds value to what would otherwise be a standard tutorial.
I definitely absorbed that from watching your videos. Now your style of teaching is making both cover and tutorial videos, I assume, to encourage ear training. Do you find stressing the broader points of musicianship difficult to transfer to an online audience?
In my experience, there is always a very wide spectrum of how committed or interested students can be about any subject. You have the students that are very passionate and then just burn out; then you have other people that are super reserved and quiet, and you would never know that they have this deep, deep commitment to learning something they care about. There really are all sorts and dimensions to it. One of those things that you’re going to get is people who are just there for one song, their favorite song, ya know? And they’re never going to come back, and that’s alright, but as a teacher it’s something you come to understand.
But I don’t worry about that too much. I look at my videos as having a low barrier to entry. They’re not easy-to-play songs necessarily, but they allow someone to get into a song without the greatest time commitment. The videos allow those people to stop there, but there’s a certain pocket that I shoot for that I believe want to go beyond. Hopefully, for those people, I give them more than just fret and strum.
How about your favorite theoretical techniques that Radiohead employ regularly?
Oh, man! So many. Umm, well for starters, Radiohead like to use this thing called hidden syncopation. Syncopation, to make it short, is playing in such a way where you’re not on the beat, and Radiohead will hide that, meaning the listener will think the beat is somewhere, but it’s actually not at that place. Sometimes, the beat will reveal itself later in the song and sometimes not at all. When I first discovered that “Videotape” was syncopated, it pretty much broke my mind. [Laughs.] “Little by Little” also falls under this category of hidden syncopation. I remember a guy who put together a tutorial for that song and had it on the down beat, and that’s how I heard it the first time too, but as I kept listening, it became more clear to me that they had just hidden that syncopation from the beginning.
Another thing that they do is employ a lot of non-diatonic chord progressions. Meaning, they’re not playing your standard I-V-I or I-V-vi-IV major scale chords in a nice, little pleasant tonality. They put stuff together that is really out of the box. They use chromaticism, and they use modal substitution, or chord borrowing, which I really like. Radiohead are really masters of interesting rhythms. Jonny Greenwood will play in 5/4 sometimes; the song like that that sticks out for me is “These Are My Twisted Words”. “Pyramid Song” also has an interesting sort of shuffle rhythm that you don’t notice until the drums come in.
What would you say is your favorite guitar work on a Radiohead song? Why?
I would have to say “These Are My Twisted Words” because at the time it really expanded my mind in terms of what I thought Radiohead was, you know? They do crazy stuff, lots of alternate tunings and things, but this was like a whole other level of experimentation and innovation for them. So, it is really cool to hear that. Everybody’s favorite is “Paranoid Android” because it’s such an iconic song with very distinct separate parts, but “Lotus Flower” also sticks out to me. When Thom [Yorke] first played that, and it was just a guitar song, I thought it was a really simple, beautiful thing. “Give Up the Ghost” actually is one of the more arresting, kind of sublime guitar pieces. Even though it’s not super technical, it’s just really sweet and very special to me. [Laughs.] Yeah, I guess I don’t know; it’s like picking between children, man!
What’s the best Radiohead song to learn for a beginner other than “Karma Police”, “Creep”, and “High and Dry”?
“Lotus Flower” is a pretty decent one to attempt. If you can tune your guitar to drop-D, it’s relatively easy to approach. The song is kind of slow and repetitive, so it is manageable for beginners.
Biggest perk of (semi) Internet celebrity?
The biggest perk for sure, without question, was the fact that I had hosts when I decided one day, on a whim (very out of character for me), to buy tickets to two Radiohead shows in England. I got the cheapest tickets I could find, which had me flying to Berlin and flying home out of London; in between, I had two and a half weeks. In that span, I had hosts take care of me, show me around, feed me. In Berlin, in Prague, in Paris—Aubervilliers, which is like a suburb outside of Paris— Bolton, and London proper. I had hosts in all these cities. It was amazing to be able to travel so cheaply and meet these people with whom I am connected to solely because of the Internet. While there, I also hosted a few workshops, and there was a girl who rode a train like 60 miles just to attend the orientation. It was such a privilege to feel that kind of support. So, yeah, the best thing about Internet “fame”—which I am certainly not famous—is how YouTube has opened the door for me to connect with so many people. It’s incredible.
What are you up to now?
Doing a few things. I’m writing my own solo album. I’ve been working on it on and off for about three years now, and I’m also producing a friend’s album. He’s my music buddy and partner in crime on my YouTube channel in a couple of those videos. I also have a lot of ideas on how I want to build an online musicianship course geared towards guitarists. It’s in the formative stages right now, and if I can gather the momentum, I want to launch the website as a sort of hub for people to learn music. It’ll encompass ear-training, different theory sub-sets, and forums to help people get where they want to go.
How have you seen the way people learn music change? In what ways hasn’t it changed?
I think a lot of the fundamental things about learning music are the same and always will be. There will always be a certain slice of the population that doesn’t even need a teacher, almost savant types — like Thom Yorke, who was never classically trained and has no problem doing amazing things with sound. Just by their ear and some crazy intuition, these people can really advance quickly. You also have those who, no matter how hard they try, have a constant struggle. I really am impressed by those people, because it’s not easy for them, and pushing through that takes extreme discipline and desire. And then you have all the people in between. That right there is why we need teachers to help guide the way, because unless you’re in that small pocket I just mentioned, it’s really hard to learn something on your own.
Now, this teacher can be present and active, or they can also be passive. For instance, when you read a book and learn something, that book is a passive teacher. That’s why the Internet is so weird, because it’s really in the middle of the two. I make a video once, and for me, it’s passive from that point on, but for everyone else it can kind of be experienced as something that was made specifically for them. People will message me every once in a while saying, “I searched for a long time and just couldn’t figure this song out until I watched your video,” which obviously makes me feel really good, but it also shows how the Internet can bridge the gap a little bit. It enables people to have a platform to multiply themselves, and that multiplication can make a connection with someone, even on another continent.
We live in a great, great time to learn music. Even if you can’t afford private lessons, there are all these resources at your finger tips, and the only tough part about that is how quickly the quantity can become overwhelming. Finding a way to navigate that is sometimes difficult, and that’s why it will always be easier to have a teacher. And in that sense, I believe we won’t ever see the disappearance of music teachers or teachers of any sort. It’s hard to replace human guidance for the large portion of the population that learn best in that light.