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In his Aladdin’s cave … Rick Beato.
In his Aladdin’s cave … Rick Beato. Photograph: Audra Melton
In his Aladdin’s cave … Rick Beato. Photograph: Audra Melton

‘Joni Mitchell watched me sing one of her songs. I was horrified’: Rick Beato, the world’s best-loved music nerd

As energised by Taylor Swift as Schoenberg, Beato has earned millions of fans with his YouTube videos and become the man musicians seek out to discuss their craft

Once a proud dad posting videos of his son’s perfect pitch, now a muso-in-chief interviewing Sting and Keith Jarrett, American YouTube star Rick Beato has established himself as the internet’s pre-eminent musical sage, with improbable view counts, a sellout stage show, and a multigenerational fanbase that includes the stars themselves.

61-year-old Beato (pronounced bee-Ah-toh) has 3.6 million subscribers on his aptly titled Everything Music channel, which he produces from his home studio in Atlanta, Georgia. He seems as energised by Taylor Swift’s label woes as he is by Schoenberg’s serialism, and he’s a multi-instrumentalist himself with serious guitar chops – in an interview with Brian May, the Queen guitarist jokes: “I don’t wanna talk to you, you’re better than me!” One minute he’s demonstrating how to noodle in the Phrygian mode, the next he’s jamming to the Spotify Top 10. With his boundless enthusiasm and avuncular talkshow host mannerisms, Beato’s hot takes and deep dives have racked up half a billion views and earned him the respect of artists from across the spectrum. They now approach him.

Beato began his YouTube career challenging his seven-year-old Dylan to identify individual notes, and one of these videos went viral. This nascent content was pretty lo fi, recorded in a bare room with a piano and a mic. More than a thousand videos later, his vlogging dominion has been souped up: a warmly lit Aladdin’s cave lined with vintage guitars, stacks of amps, and a twinkling mixing desk. I’m delighted to see he’s in the studio when I video call him.

He’s a little reticent to begin with. What does it feel like to be the interviewee? “It’s not my favourite thing,” he says. Why does an interview with Rick Beato appeal to the likes of Sting? “I wouldn’t say its camaraderie exactly … but they know I’m not only familiar with their music but also the music of the people they were influenced by.” This is the key: Sting wouldn’t get a chance to talk about Bach for an hour on Graham Norton. On his interview with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny: “I’ve seen him many times over decades and decades, and I know how to play his tunes. That adds another level of connection with the artist.” Another Beato tip: “I ask people things that only they can answer. And I don’t talk about myself.”

His music career didn’t start on YouTube, though. When he broke his ankle aged 13, he was unable to leave the house, so picked up a guitar and started teaching himself. He went on to study classical bass at Ithaca College and then did his masters in jazz at the New England Conservatory. He played in groups in the 80s and 90s was a college professor, has lectured at Berklee College of Music, and his co-writing credits include Carolina by Parmalee which topped the US country chart. All this before his son’s viral vid.

Was the broken ankle a sliding doors moment or was he always going to end up in music? “Thats a great question,” he says. “I don’t know!” But he certainly is sure about his chosen medium – doing a show on a traditional TV network holds no appeal. “YouTube goes out and finds your audience for you; network TV doesn’t have an algorithm. When I make a video about Sting, I know it’s going to go and serve people interested in Sting. I also like the fact that YouTube is free – there is no barrier. I do realise when I make a Metallica video, I’m not gonna get the same people that watch my jazz videos, but they can coexist on my channel, which is great.” Beato’s one-man production operation gives him complete sovereignty. “My videos are usually things I think of in the morning, or something that gets talked about at the dinner table with my wife and kids.”

I had long been peripherally aware of Beato, clocking his videos with titles such as “22 guitar chords you’ve NEVER heard,” “John Williams v Gustav Holst,” and the irresistible “Pat Metheny and Allan Holdsworth: MORE ALIKE than you think?”. Manna for jazz fusion nerds, perhaps, but I was determined not fall prey to these algorithmic boobytraps; I’d lumped him in with that genre of YouTube-personality-cum-self-appointed-guru who promises to reveal secret knowledge, life hacks and shortcuts to vocational success, be it playing an instrument or playing the stock market. But I was soon to learn a valuable lesson: don’t judge a video by its thumbnail.

When I saw he’d landed an interview with pianist Keith Jarrett – for many the greatest solo improvisor, and a notoriously inaccessible character, who in 2018 suffered a stroke which left him partially paralysed and ever more reclusive – I was impressed. The encounter came about, Beato tells me, after Jarrett had been shown a video of Beato analysing his music. In their ensuing interview, Jarrett plays piano with his one working hand and shares unreleased music in the inner sanctum of his home. It’s a tender and an extremely moving exchange.

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There’s a moment where the pair revisit an improvisation of Jarrett’s from 1980 – “I thought, when can you ever see someone like Keith Jarrett listening to their own improvisation?”, Beato says. In the footage, we see a vigorous Jarrett writhing, wailing, and pounding the piano in a performance that could be described as coital. When the recording ends, Beato asks the septuagenarian: “How did you do that?” After a pensive hesitation, he answers: “I must have had another hand.” In a similar sequence of events, Joni Mitchell sent Beato a Christmas present after having seen him deconstruct her song Amelia, with a message saying, “Next time you’re in LA, let me know. I’d love to get together.” Pretty neat, engaging with your heroes, I say. “Joni Mitchell watched me sing one of her songs. I was horrified. Keith watched me play piano, badly. Definitely surreal!”

One through-line of Beato’s videos is his observation that over the last 30 years, chart music has declined in complexity. And he can back it up. “Of the No 1 hits between 1965 and 2009, 25% had a modulation – a key change … Since 2009, no [US No 1] songs have had a key change.” Sergio Mendes’s 1983 No 1 hit Never Gonna Let You Go, he exclaims, “has 22 modulations!” When Dylan was in his mother’s womb, Beato made a concerted effort to play him “high information music … I played Bach, Oscar Peterson, Bohemian Rhapsody … music with lots of key changes,” he says with a mischievous smile. He suspects this helped his son develop perfect pitch, quite a rare thing – only one in 10,000 humans have it.

Will chart pop keep getting ever more simple? “I don’t like to make predictions,” he responds, but what’s clear from Rick Beato’s steady, unstoppable rise, is that, with an enthusiastic, encyclopaedic educator, there is in fact plenty of appetite for complexity.

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