MysteryGuitarMan | YouTube Filmmaker

Many of us outside the YouTube realm are curious to know how to make it big on the hub for Internet video content, so we sat down with YouTube guitarist and filmmaker, Joe Penna, to discuss the realities and perks of being a YouTuber. What we found, was an artist in love with his career choice and dedicated to producing some of the greatest online videos on YouTube to date.
Fun Facts
  • What takes up most of your time right now? Definitely doing a lot of the actual production stuff — editing, cutting together. If I ever do a video similar to this last video that I did, I have to go through a lot of video responses, and I have to pick which ones work and which ones don’t.
  • Guilty pleasure: Ke$ha. I’m so sorry – Ke$ha. I don’t feel any particular fondness over her, but the songs, they’re so catchy! I feel so bad.
  • What’s your relationship status? Married. My marketing team says single, but the bling on my hand says married.
  • Your weakness: Biceps. I am a weak person.
  • You seem like a chill guy but what are your pet peeves? Chewing loudly. If somebody is smacking their lips loudly — unnecessarily. I’m like, “Ah! No! Stop it!”
  • Ideal girl: She’s 5’4” and 27 years old. Her last name was Evershed before I married her — first name Sarah. She’s very white. I’m really just describing my wife. [I’m being] very specific — I mentioned her first and last name.
  • What’s your favorite song to sing in the shower? Whatever song is stuck in my head, which usually ends up making it into my videos.
  • Longest you’ve gone without sleep: When I was editing “Guitar Impossible” — two and a half days. I ate, I peed and then I slept for a long time. I had to stay hydrated so I drank some Gatorade or Powerade, one of the -ades. [I] definitely drank some -ade.
  • Fun fact: I’m 5’8,” yay! Just kidding, that’s not a fun fact. The first instrument that I’ve ever played was the flute in seventh grade.
  • Funner fact: After I got made fun of for playing the flute, I started to play the tuba in high school, which is the complete opposite (much more [of a] masculine thing). I thought that would help me in the girl department. Nope! Any instrument, unless it’s the guitar or the drums, doesn’t really help out.

How did watching the movie, “Jurassic Park,” when you were younger compel you to become a doctor?

Mystery  Guitar Man: It didn’t. I watched The making of “Jurassic Park” and it compelled me to want to do something with computers. I saw them on the computers and they were like, “Hey, check this out!” Then there was a skeleton and then they said, “And now we do this!” Then there was something better and then they were like, “And then we do this!” And there was a dinosaur and I was like, “Oh my God! This is awesome! I want to do something with computers!” Then I started doing computer science and I realized that you had to sit in front of the computer all day long to do computer science, and I was like, “This is kinda lame.” So I started doing computer based biology, because I liked science a lot — programs where you can see proteins, graph proteins — I started to become interested in that. Then I thought, “Well, that is also like sitting in front of the computer all day.” So I started studying to become a surgeon. I studied to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. Then, I realized that it wasn’t something I wanted to do and I had been doing YouTube as a hobby. So I started to do YouTube full time, where I sit in front of the computer for a long time. I kinda got back to my passion, which is sitting in front of a computer all day.

Why did you want to become a doctor in the first place, before all of this?

Half because I thought it would make my dad happy to pick a profession. I thought being a doctor would make my parents happy, but it didn’t make me happy. They cared about my future a lot and they said to pick something out that will help me with my future, a good profession. “This YouTube thing isn’t going to work out” is what I was thinking at first, so I’m going to become a doctor. There’s a lot of book-learning and memorization that I am not too fond of or great at, so it wasn’t a correct profession to me.

Let’s go back to the time you registered MysteryGuitarMan on YouTube. If you could go back to that very moment and take the time to choose a name, would you choose the same name?

Knowing what I know now? That’s a tough question, because I know the hindsight is 20/20. But if I had chosen a different name like Joe Penna would I be where I am today? I don’t know! Unless I had some kind of machine that said, “This username is best for your future!” then I don’t know. I’ve tried to think and people have asked me before, “Why did you choose MysteryGuitarMan?” I don’t know! I have a really bad memory so I searched through my e-mail thinking, “Did I talk to anybody about this? Did I send any e-mails out?” At 3:14 in the morning, I signed up and it said, “Welcome to YouTube, MysteryGuitarMan!” I don’t know why I signed up at 3:14 in the morning, but I guess that’s what I did.

As someone who didn’t go to film school, your videos follow the basics of film making very well. Where did you learn most of your skills from?

A lot of watching movies, re-watching movies and watching movies again. To re-watch them is kind of like dissecting things apart. I guess I am a surgeon, why not! Very few times, behind the scenes are actually useful for somebody who are making things like this.

You mentioned in one of your interviews you wanted to be a director. If you were given full freedom, what would be your dream?

My dream is to not have a boss and do whatever the heck I want to do, which is what I’m doing on YouTube! Actually, my dream is to direct a Justin Bieber music video. Well, it depends, I’m so A.D.D. about things. There’s not one feature film I want to do. Music videos you can do in 2 to 3 days, or a commercial. Sure, I’ll do it because it’s a different experience, a different thing that I can do. That’s what I enjoy doing — doing different things. I am working on, and this is exclusive news, a longer form of an episodic thing on my channel.

Your videos  are known to be very eye-catching and creative. Walk us through the process of production of your videos from start to finish.

I come in and think of an idea. Or maybe I’m walking around and look at something that gives me an idea. Like a Polaroid camera — what can I do with a Polaroid camera? A Journey CD, what can I do with a Journey CD?  Forks! What can I do with forks? Then I make a video with it. I find something in life that gives me a cool idea. I take what I know about editing, compositing, video effects and I use that. Then I have the basic look of the video. Then I think of what song is going to work for that, usually it’s a cover. Maybe it might be Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Then I record a scratch version of the song and then I record the video. Then I re-record the scratch music into better music and put it out on YouTube.

Have you ever dreaded the amount of production that you ended up getting yourself into and how did you execute it?

I don’t think of that, which is a bad thing sometimes. I kind of think of what the final thing is going to look like and I’m like, “Yeah! Let’s get there!” and then I think, “Oh shoot, there’s a lot of work to get there.” The Orchestra Symphony (5,000 videos). I had to go through all the videos, download and cut through them. There are way more guitars and there is one guitar note per person so you have to get all the guitars as possible, edit 12 different tracks of audio at once and mix them so they don’t sound like it’s an elementary school band. It’s a lot of work but it’s fun.

You put out your first video in 2006, which is still considered the early years of YouTube. As someone who has slowly built their way to one of the most subscribed people on YouTube, do you think there is a special kind of formula to succeed as an artist in new media?

People ask me all the time, “How do I make money on YouTube?” Well, they are asking the wrong question. If you are going to make it on YouTube, you want to not make it on YouTube. If you are preoccupied with becoming famous, or making money, or doing this and doing that, then you’re not going to do it because that’s your end goal. You have to really enjoy YouTube because it takes years and years to build this audience, to build to a point where you can sustain yourself — to be able to do it full time. It takes a long time and you need to be in it for the long haul.

It’s been about 5 years since you’ve put your first video out, how do you think you have grown as a filmmaker over the years?

The first videos that I put out were just me talking about my favorite movie. I knew nothing about cameras, audio or anything about lenses. I didn’t have friends, so I didn’t have parties to go to. I spent my time watching video tutorials. I taught myself, basically, everything. Then I started doing split frame things. I kept buying different programs and learning different programs — reading through the manuals.

The first video I ever put out was before YouTube, 2004 or 2003. If you an empty bottle of Coke and if you flip it at the right angle and force, it goes up, stays up and teeters on its cap. In high school, we used to play around with these bottles. One time I accidentally did it so I tried it with different things. If you have a Gatorade bottle, you can have both of them standing up. I was a nerd so I found a webcam and recorded myself doing that, put it on YouTube and put music behind it, way before MysteryGuitarMan. It was on this website called Putfile and it was an embedded video, not flashy. That was my first video I ever put on the Internet.

Hypothetically speaking, if film never worked out for you what do you think you’d be doing besides being a doctor? Do you have any hidden talents that we don’t know about?

Music is something I enjoy as a hobby. Music for me is a hobby. People are like, “Oh, you want to be a musician! Going to put out an album!” and I’m like no, film-making is what I really enjoy. I think it would have been something music related if being a doctor didn’t work out. Otherwise, computer science, like I said. I used to program those TI-83 calculators. I used to be a moderator in a forum with 3,000 posts about us talking about it. It was basically a glorified calculator watch. I used to code things for the calculator — it started with Pong, Fall Down and Assembly. Did you ever play the Mario game? That was me. I used get in trouble a lot because I would be coding in class. In English class, I’d be coding something that would help me with my verbs and it really did! In Spanish class, if you type in a verb, it gives you all the conjugations of the verb. My Spanish teacher would tell me to stop playing with my calculator and I would say, “I’m not playing! I’m helping myself out here.” I started out doing that so maybe something with a job that involved PHP and C++.

You’ve achieved what some work a lifetime to obtain; the ability to do what you love and get paid. So what’s next? Where are you running to for a renewed source of inspiration and a new challenge?

Well, like I said, I’m working on some bigger episodic things on my channel. It’s going to be a lot of fun. We’ll see where it takes me after that.

The videos you put out are very time-consuming to produce. Was there ever a big disaster that happened during production of one of your videos?

For “Love Story,” the video with Sarah and I holding up pieces of paper — no one knows this, but what happened was we printed all these papers out, 600 of them. We held them up, took pictures of them and then they saved in 2 different folders. Once you get past picture 9999999, then it starts at zero again but in a different folder. We only saved one of the folders and we lost half of the pictures. We had already formatted and shot something else, so we had to re-print and re-shoot everything. We had to re-print everything that was missing. If you look very closely, I change shirts because the shirt I used initially was in the wash. Then I put a hidden message and said, “If you saw the shirt change, comment below.”

There were a couple of other disasters where I tried to make a video and it failed miserably, because we shot it wrong or something. So we’d just drop the video and start at something else  or you work with companies where they tell you that you have the rights to post it tomorrow and then a couple hours before we post they say something like, “Oh, we’re still working on the music rights. You don’t need the music rights to post this right?” And I’m like, “We need all the rights to post that!” And they’re like “Oh yeah, we don’t” or “We only have it for America.” Half of the people who watch my videos are not from America, so we have to scramble and make a video in two hours. A lot of times I’m exhausted. That’s how I started with my glasses. My first camera where I shot my bottle flipping, video broke so I had to find another camera and I didn’t have money to buy a webcam. I found a VHS camera from my mom but the iris was broken. The iris was really closed and I had to over light everything, so I put the glasses on and that’s how I started with the sunglasses. I had to bring every single light I had in the house.

Have you ever doubted the path drawn and considered pursuing other ventures? You mentioned in another interview there was a time you were sleeping on the floor and eating from soup kitchens. How were you able to persevere?

I gave myself one year. At first, I gave myself six months. Six months I wanted to try YouTube, just YouTube. If I get started working at a restaurant or something like that then I’m just going to get stuck doing something like that, so that’s what I started doing. Then after six months it didn’t work out so I said, six more months! I gave myself a year to make YouTube work out. Whatever happened, happened. I was near the end of my year when YouTube finally took off.  I had maybe 100 to 200 thousand subscribers. It was after the partner program but I was making 800 bucks a month on YouTube with $850 of rent. I was working really hard. I started making one video a week and then two videos a week. That’s when my channel really took off. I couldn’t afford to have any help. I won this contest on YouTube [for] this video called “Phlog.” There was a Best Buy contest. It was “Why Should You Get $15,000 in Best Buy Gift Cards?” I said, “Well, I don’t have a camera so I will record with my crappy digital camera.” I recorded my audio on headphones because if you plug in headphones into microphones it works. That’s when I won this so they gave me $15,000 worth in gift cards. It took me about a day to make it. A lot of work [but] it was worth it.

A lot of talents, aside from yourself, have been able to use YouTube to build brand equity for themselves and create a stable revenue stream from it. What [are] your thoughts on the new media movement and what advice would you give artists looking to make a name for themselves on YouTube?

That’s what’s great about YouTube. You don’t need the machine, the old media. You could put a little asterisk saying that I used a lot of air quotes while saying this. What’s nice about YouTube is that you don’t need to have half of your money taken away by some company. Where they promote you, do everything for you — you’re forced to do this and forced to do that. The spirit of YouTube is that some guy is in his bedroom shooting a video. Then maybe you can start doing stuff in your own studio. Some companies that have built around YouTube are really helpful and some of them are beginning to be more like the old media where they take half of your money and don’t really help you out as much as they should. That’s what’s nice about YouTube — It can be different.

In another interview, you mentioned you wanted to do YouTube for the rest of your life. Some people mainly use YouTube as a medium to promote their brand with hopes to gain mainstream attention. As of now, what’s your biggest goal as a filmmaker?

I’ve worked on big sets before, but never the head of it. I’ve worked as a camera assistant before YouTube. During YouTube, I took a hiatus, a year long hiatus just to try to do that. What was nice about McDonald’s and all these projects that we take for product placement in my videos, is that if they come around and say, “Hey, we want you to come and shoot a video like this and it’s going to be awesome,” I tell them no thanks. If they want to give me a product to use and a budget, that’s great because with a budget I could do a way better video instead of doing one here. Let me do whatever I want to do because with the YouTube partner program, with all the ads, I can just stick with YouTube. If I want to make a video, [and] it would be cool to make with a brand, but the brand has to give me the freedom. Of course, they want things, so you need to find a happy medium.

There are a lot of comments on YouTube like, “You sell out! You’re working for a brand!” But I’m not selling out because I am doing what I want to do with this video. This is my idea. I pitched them this idea and they said, “Yes it’s a great idea.” I did this video myself and it’s not selling out. Selling out would be if I did a video that’s completely different from the essence of my channel. When I first started to work with brands, sometimes that happens, where there was a video or two where it didn’t come out the way that I wanted it, because the brand was like, “You have to use this, the music has to be this way, and you can’t do that.” It has happened before, when they start putting too many limitations like that saying, “You have to be playing this video game, you have to show it on the television, you have to mention the name.” Well, I don’t want to have to do anything, I want to want to do something. McDonald’s and Coke gave me a lot of freedom. Even though it was a big set, they trusted me. I kind of cringed a little bit because I hadn’t done anything that big before. They were like, “All right, we trust you!” There are two kinds of “we trust you’s.” There’s a very hesitant trust and another one. It came out great so they put it on television and I get tweets all the time saying, “I’ve seen your ad on Glee!” and “I’ve seen it on the Superbowl!” They are really happy with it because it’s playing everywhere.

It was funny because I walked out at the end of this McDonald’s commercial and I said, “I wish I had a longer sidewalk.” They were like, “OK!” It was really weird. The guy came back and said, “Sign this,” and so I signed it and the next day there was a sidewalk there. I knocked on it and it was wood! [It] looked just like concrete. It spoils you a little bit, because it’s like, I can do anything I want! So I said, “Can we get a bus?” and they said yes! “Can I get a red camera with a steady cam?” and they said “Yeah sure!”. “Can I get a lobster for dinner?” “The McLobster! Sure!”

Have you ever thought about expanding the MGM team?

I have been thinking about expanding it. There’s Grayson who’s helped me out.  He’s got his own channel. He helps me out a lot. He has been helping me out for a long time, which has been great. I wouldn’t [have] been able to do some of these videos that I have been doing — like the crowd orchestra — if I was by myself, so it’s good having somebody to download all the videos and go through them. I’ve worked with some music guys like Paul Dateh. Some other music guys like Levi Doron who’ve helped me out with music and have pushed my videos to take them to where I wouldn’t have been able to go or take me a long time to learn.

How did you and Grayson meet?

I posted a Craigslist ad saying that I have a YouTube channel called MysteryGuitarMan and I’m looking for some dude to help me do some assembly edits. At first I was really protective. He would start editing a bit [and] the first time I was like, “Just watch!” The second time was like, “You can do it! OK, you can go home now.” Then I would start ‘fixing it’ because I had a very specific style. We’ve kind of worked out this different way of doing it where now it’s more, “How do you think about doing this?” because he kind of jives off of my style, he understands it. It’s a learning curve. Went through a couple of music guys. I’ve been sending raw files because my style is kind of raw sounded and I want them to sound better. I’ve worked with George Shaw a lot. He’s a good guy.

We know that your parents were supportive of your career choice due to your accomplishments. We’ve heard about the comment story. Basically how did you convince them in the beginning that this is what you wanted to do, from doctor to YouTube channel?

By quitting college. I had to phrase it like, “I’m going to take a hiatus from college to try to work on video stuff.” They didn’t go crazy. They said, “If you’re not doing what you want to be doing then you should be doing that.” They were very supportive which was good, especially since it started working out.

Do you ever feel surreal when you go back to your first video?

I go back and think, “Oh my God, I did this wrong! What was I doing with my hair? What was I doing? I could be doing something different. What kind of glasses are those? The $2 ones?” And it’s only been five years. One day it’s going to be 20 [years] and it will be like, “Wow, look at me.”

How did you meet Sarah?

It was at the Google headquarters.

Let’s say you had a son. He just turned 16 and he tells you that he wants to pursue film-making for the rest of his life. What words of advice would you tell him?

I would tell him to intern somewhere because that’s what I started doing. Be an intern. The pressure that we place on kids nowadays — we have to choose what we want to do for the rest of our lives until we’re 75 when we are 18, sometimes it’s even earlier. When you’re 16 in London, you have to choose what you’ll be doing. If there was a way to actually try the thing out that would be great. Try doing videos with YouTube. I would tell him if that’s what you want to do, then great, but try it out.

NMR: How do we stalk you?

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Photography by Melly Lee

Special thanks to Big Frame for making this feature possible.

Big Frame is a media company that specializes in audience development, brand integration and production. 

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