Striking a chord Winnipeg musician, guitar instructor and engaging personality Steve Onotera is an online phenomenon whose YouTube channel has nearly one million subscribers

Steve Onotera might be the most visible Winnipeg musician whose name doesn’t end in Cummings, Bachman or Kreviazuk.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/03/2022 (191 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Steve Onotera might be the most visible Winnipeg musician whose name doesn’t end in Cummings, Bachman or Kreviazuk.

The 34-year-old Japanese-Canadian, who makes his living online as the Samurai Guitarist, has 77,000 followers on Instagram, and a tick over 975,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel. There, his guitar-centric videos, some educational (“How to make the worst chords sound great”), others entertaining (“Why is this the PERFECT acoustic guitar song?”), have been viewed collectively more than 100 million times since he became a social media six-stringer in 2014.

(Spoiler alert: it’s the Beatles’ Blackbird.)

Before we begin, though, Onotera, as adept at Vivaldi as he is Van Halen, would like to thank a former classmate for beating him out for the lead-guitar part in a Grade 8 musical production, a perceived slight that caused him to head home, grab his axe and spend the next 12 months perfecting his chops.

Steve Onotera is a YouTube personality who connects with nearly a million subscribers from his Winnipeg home studio. His videos have been viewed collectively more than 100 million times since 2014. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

“I’ve always been a very competitive person, going all the way back to when I was cut from a hockey team at the age of eight and did nothing that winter, pretty much, but work on my skating, in order to make the team the following year… which I did,” Onotera says, seated in a St. Vital coffee shop 10 minutes from the home he shares with his partner Jenny, a professional videographer, and their two-year-old son.

“While I can’t say for sure what would have happened if I’d gotten that (guitar) part in the first place, I do know not getting it drove me to be better.”

Did he land a more prominent role the following year? What do you think?

 


 

Onotera was 15 years old when he got a job stocking shelves at music store Long & McQuade, 17 when he recorded a self-written EP with his first band Shakey Gunn and 19 when he informed his parents, both of whom are physicians, he wouldn’t be returning to the University of Manitoba for a second year of studies. He didn’t have a backup plan; he simply realized the University 1 courses he was taking weren’t doing it for him, he explained to them.

“They were pretty upset; like anybody’s parents, they only wanted the best for me,” says the eldest of four siblings. “That said, they weren’t too surprised, given how much time I’d been devoting to music. I think they kind of saw it coming.”

Steve Onotera, a YouTube personality has published nearly 500 videos on his channel. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)
While trying to decide what his next move would be, Onotera travelled to Germany to visit a friend he’d met during a high school exchange program. That person, also a guitarist, was planning a six-month stay in Australia ahead of studying music in Europe. Both ideas sounded intriguing. After joining his pal Down Under for a spell, Onotera returned to Winnipeg to research music academies in this country.

One of Onotera’s best friends at Toronto’s Humber College, where he was accepted into a four-year bachelor of music program in 2009, was Joel Cassady, a multi-instrumentalist from Burlington, Ont. He still wasn’t convinced what direction in music he wanted to take — songwriting, teaching, performing or a combination of all three? — but received his answer in 2012, after Cassady found success with Walk Off the Earth, an indie-pop group he joined after leaving Humber the previous year.

“I remember Joel messaging me one morning to say a video they’d posted online of their cover of a Goyte song was going viral,” Onotera says, referring to a clip in which Walk Off the Earth’s five members are shown playing the singer/songwriter’s Somebody That I Used to Know on a single guitar, simultaneously. In the space of a couple months, the video garnered millions of views, and led to appearances by the band on numerous TV programs, including the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Onotera first garnered attention on Instagram and YouTube with a performance of Beethoven’s Für Elise played on five guitars at once. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

“I didn’t really know what to make of it all; it wasn’t like this was some rock god, this was my buddy Joel,” Onotera continues. “And I’m not going to sugar-coat it; it kind of brought out an ugly part of me, where I found myself getting jealous, the same as when I was 14 and didn’t get that guitar part I wanted. Thankfully, I was able to push those feelings down, and use Joel’s success as motivation to make videos of my own.”

At some point, the members of Walk Off the Earth, winners of the 2016 Juno Award for Group of the Year, were asked what they planning to do for an encore; instead of five people playing one guitar, perhaps each of them could play five guitars, somebody opined?

They laughed the suggestion off but Onotera didn’t. Following a post-graduation trip to Nashville, where he explored a few songwriting opportunities, he returned to his parents’ place in Winnipeg to record a video that showed him deftly performing Beethoven’s Für Elise on five acoustic guitars at once.

Guitar gear in Onotera’s studio. The aspiring musician recalls a perceived slight in Grade 8 that motivated him to perfect his guitar skills. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)
Branding himself Samurai Guitarist, he uploaded a portion of the finished product to Instagram, back when the maximum length a video could be was 15 seconds. Not only did the snippet get a ton of “likes,” scores of people left comments asking where they could go to see more. That led to Onotera posting the full version on YouTube, where views continued to climb.

A subsequent video, again shot in his parents’ garage, showed him playing bluesy, slide guitar with a beer bottle, with a second bottle-as-maracas strapped to his left ankle. Comments ranged from “too much awesomeness to handle” to “a legend is born.”

While that second remark may have sounded a tad hyperbolic, it proved to be the case a short time later when Onotera released a cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper by creating every sound heard on his iPad. Yes, there were cowbells.

Within a week, the Reaper video had been seen more than 100,000 times, and Onotera was fielding media requests from across North America. OK, it was time to run with this, he told himself.

“He was a great student, very motivated, who had an intensity for detail… a very creative kind of entrepreneurial spirit, so it doesn’t surprise me he has built a strong following (online).”– Rik Emmett, Humber College instructor

The ad revenue he was generating early on helped pay the bills, that’s true. But the moment he and Jenny — whom he met five years ago when he was a member of a country-rock act called Velvedere — discussed starting a family (they’re expecting Baby No. 2 later this year), he realized issuing “crazy covers” of everything from Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode to Daft Punk’s Around the World to Stompin’ Tom Connors’ The Hockey Song (performed on a guitar he and his dad crafted out of a pair of wooden hockey sticks, no less) wasn’t going to cut it in the long run.

Onotera’s guitar is photographed in his home studio. This particular guitar has a tape deck in it. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)
In an effort to be more self-sustaining, he added Zoom guitar lessons to the mix, which enabled interested parties from every corner of the globe to sign up for one-on-one sessions. In addition, he developed a series of downloadable courses, five in total, which can be purchased through his website, samuraiguitarist.com. And, if you fancy what he’s sporting in a recent clip, Is Too Much Gear a Thing? during which he shows off a personal collection of close to 50 guitars, you can pick and choose from a dozen Samurai Guitarist T-shirt and hoodie designs, too.

Among Onotera’s cheerleaders is his former Humber College instructor, Rik Emmett, perhaps better known as the lead singer/guitarist of Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees Triumph.

“I recall Steve in my classes (and) I also had him for two semesters in private classes, for song-writing,” Emmett says, when reached via email. “He was a great student, very motivated, who had an intensity for detail… a very creative kind of entrepreneurial spirit, so it doesn’t surprise me he has built a strong following (online).”

Onotera, known online as the Samurai Guitarist, has a personal collection of close to 50 guitars. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)
Emmett mentions Onotera was always focused as a writer, and had a strong grasp of conceptualizing, an attribute that undoubtedly serves him well in his current situation.

“He understood branding in a natural way (and) I’m sure it has grown organically since his years at the college,” he adds.

Walk Off the Earth’s Cassady has also been paying close attention to what his former college roommate has been up to, calling him a “guitar monster, just incredible,” when reached at home in Ontario.

Cassady says as much as he feels Onotera is a “phenomenal” educator, what he especially enjoys is when his friend treats viewers to his lighter side.

“He was always pretty business-first at school, but what I came to know is that he is also an extremely funny guy,” says Cassady, listing Sound One, a ska outfit, as one of several bands he and Onotera played in together during their time at Humber.

After watching the viral success of his Humber College classmate Joel Cassady (a member of indie-pop group Walk Off the Earth), Onotera had the motivation he needed to start making videos of his own. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)
“It’s been nice seeing a bit more of that goofball personality coming out, in videos like the one when he discusses who the world’s second greatest guitarist is.” In it, Onotera proves he is as much a student of the instrument as he is a teacher, as he moves effortlessly from one style to another — jazz, pop, country, rock — in a matter of minutes.

A couple weeks ago Cassady and one of his WOTE bandmates enlisted Onotera to accompany them through the magic of the Internet, for a rollicking TikTok video in support of their latest single, Bet on Me.

“Any excuse to work with the guy I’ll take,” Cassady says. “I wish we were able to hang out more, but the moments we do, I always relish.”

Almost eight years in, Onotera can envision a day when being a professional YouTuber isn’t his primary gig. He can’t imagine ever moving away from videos completely, but he does have a couple of other plans in the works. One is an album of original songs, and, after being cooped up for two years, he’s also looking forward to teaching guitar in a live setting. He has a clinic slated for San Diego in the fall that will accommodate up to 60 students and if it proves successful, he sees no reason why he can’t host similar sessions across North America and beyond.

Lastly, he laughs off an earlier assertion that, because of his sizable social media footprint, he must get recognized everywhere he goes. First of all, he doesn’t really advertise the fact he’s from Winnipeg. He talks a fair bit about his time at Humber when he’s onscreen, so many assume he’s a Torontonian. He’s also recorded a number of videos in California, which leads others to believe he calls L.A. home.

“People do nod or wave from time to time when I’m in a music store trying out guitars, but it’s not like I’m getting stopped every 10 seconds when we take our son for a walk, not even close,” he says, pulling on a Winnipeg Jets tuque for the drive home. “Though there was one time Jenny and I were on vacation in Munich and she tugged at my arm, saying, ‘There’s a guy across the street who is definitely coming over to say ‘hi.’

“As he was approaching he bowed like he was greeting a Sensei, then said, ‘Hello, Samurai Guitarist.’ Even I’ll admit that was kind of cool.”

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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