How a Guitar-Playing British Retiree Became a YouTube Sensation

Frank Watkinson's touching acoustic performances have racked up millions of views, but he insists he's "just a granddad"

March 8, 2021 9:35 am
frank watkinson
Frank Watkinson has amassed over 280,000 YouTube subscribers.
Gabe Serrano

When the world went into lockdown last year, many of us suddenly found ourselves with more time on our hands to pick up new hobbies. But for Frank Watkinson, a 68-year-old English grandfather whose YouTube channel has become an unexpected sensation during quarantine, that moment actually came roughly a decade ago, when retiring allowed him to rediscover his love for the guitar.

“I bought my first guitar when I was 16, and then I just taught myself as best as I could, because imagine in them days there was no YouTube, there was no mobile anything,” he tells InsideHook on the phone from his home in the U.K. “The only way you could learn was with a Bert Weedon Play in a Day book or watching people’s fingers and people who did play. And that’s it. And I’m still basically just above a beginner, really, because although I’ve always had a guitar, life gets in the way, doesn’t it? There’s been times when I’ve never touched it for months and months, and then you pick it up every now and then, then you have another go. But it was only about the last 10 years, I think, when I started to play it a bit more often. I thought, ‘I’ll start doing that a bit more now.’ And it was only about five or six years ago, I put a song on YouTube just to see how it worked, really.”

It was curiosity more than anything that motivated Watkinson to start recording himself playing acoustic covers and original songs using Photo Booth on his Mac. (He still uses Photo Booth to this day, but, he says, “I take the file off and drop it into GarageBand and quadruple the track, the audio, so that I get a decent volume because the volume would be rubbish if I just left it on Photo Booth.”) When he started uploading those videos to YouTube, he had no expectations.

“There was no motive behind it,” he says. “There was no ‘Look at me, I’m going to be putting stuff on YouTube.’ And I wasn’t expecting to get anybody see it. Maybe the close family.”

“Some of the ones before were recorded on my phone and put on, and quite often I was drunk when I did it,” he adds with a laugh. “If I had been sober … I keep going through them all because people are now going right back to the beginning and watching it from the start. And I’m thinking, ‘Ah, I really could do with taking a few of those off.’ But I’ve stopped drinking now, so you’re all right.”

The reason many people are going back and watching his older videos for the first time now is that, though he’s been posting on the platform for years, it was just last November that his channel saw a massive spike in popularity after some of his acoustic covers of material by artists like Neutral Milk Hotel, the Growlers, Bright Eyes and Slipknot began circulating on social media.

“Mid-November, I was really pleased when I turned YouTube on and saw that I had actually got 12,000 subscribers,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Look at that. 12,000.’ And that to me was the pinnacle. And then all of a sudden, I put a song about a year ago, ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea,’ it was called. And comments started coming up on the song. And I thought, ‘Well, I put it on a year ago. All these comments are coming in.’ Comments after comment, after comment, after comment. And somebody had took a clip of it and put it on TikTok saying, ‘Come and look at this. Frank, he does lots of stuff,’ and this, that and the other. And all these people, they go and they listen to that, and they’re on the channel listening to other things. When I first noticed, it was about five in the afternoon. And by 10 o’clock that night, I’d gone from 12,000 to 68,000.”

He saw another surge in subscribers when rock magazines picked up his cover of Slipknot’s “Snuff,” causing it to go viral. Nowadays, he has over 284,000 subscribers, and several weeks ago, he posted an original song called “This Could Be My Last Song” which has already racked up over a million views. It’s an emotional track about getting old (“Whatever happened to all the dreams I had and all those crazy plans I never got the chance to do/They just slipped right through my hands,” he sings), but Watkinson wants to be clear that its title is not to be taken literally.

“I think it was accidental clickbait because I got so many people begging me not to stop and that,” he says. “And in the end, I’ve had to change the title. So, ‘This Could Be My Last Song, and this is not about me. It’s just the title.’ I have to put it in the title, because people don’t seem to read the description. I’ve said it in the description, ‘This is only the title. It’s not an intention,’ but they don’t read that. But then all of a sudden, I don’t know. Don’t ask me what it is about, but that racked up another 60,000, 70,000 subscribers in a couple of nights. This surprised me. I’m not a performer. I’ve never played on a stage in my life. So, I just don’t know what it is they’re seeing. I think I must’ve been visited by the spirit of Johnny Cash or somebody when I wrote that, because it just took off.”

If this were a Hollywood movie, it would end with Watkinson starting a new career late in life, touring the world to play his very first gigs for his newfound fans across the world. But he insists he has no desire whatsoever to suddenly become a performer.

“It’s never been something I’ve dreamed of,” he explains. “Well, it’s probably hard to understand with someone who plays guitar, but I’ve never had an ambition to go out at night, traveling, going to places and playing and that, because I personally wouldn’t pay to see myself.”

Despite that, he’s got a deep catalog of original songs he’s written over the years. (“I think I’ve been writing songs from the first day I came home with a guitar,” he says. “But they’ve not been any good.”)

“I think it’s probably about 10 years ago [that] I actually wrote a song seriously,” he estimates. “And it was a song of mine called ‘Buster.’ It was about the dog, really. He’d been run over and killed in a road accident, and I was sitting in there a few weeks later, and this song came out. And it’s the first song I actually liked. And I thought, ‘That’s actually not a bad song.’ I liked it. I always remember something, I think it was Paul McCartney who said, ‘If you remember something the next day, then it was a good one.’ And I’ve never forgotten that song. I can just play it off anytime.”

While he has no plans to ever play a live show, the idea of getting into a studio and recording a proper album is more appealing to Watkinson — once the pandemic is over, of course.

“I’m planning to do that,” he says. “About 30 miles away, I’ve got a cousin and he has a studio set up in his home. And I was planning to go there because we said I’ll go down there and we’ll get a list, choose a set amount of my own songs, and we’ll studio them, that we’ll do them properly. And he plays guitar as well. So, he’ll add a bit of lead to them as well, instead of it’s just me picking. And there might be a bit of a melody with the lead, and things like that. And I said yeah, and then COVID struck. I think I’m going to [after the pandemic], because I have too many people now asking for a studio version of that last song.”

While his fans have taken to his original material, it’s his covers that first sparked their interest. The majority of the covers he records are fan requests, and Watkinson says it’s been a great way for him to discover and enjoy more contemporary artists or musicians who hail from across the world that he had never heard of.

“It’s a funny world, isn’t it, the music world?” he says. “I’ve got a relative who lives in Texas, and he sometimes mentions a local Texas group that’s massive. ‘Aw, we went to see the so-and-so’s,’ and I never heard of them. I then he says, ‘What do you mean you’ve never heard of them? They’re the number one country,’ this and that. Yeah. It’s not like that in England. There’ll be DJs and people in the business that probably have heard of them, but the average person hasn’t heard. So, I hadn’t heard of Neutral Milk Hotel and I hadn’t heard of Death Cab For Cutie, and I haven’t heard of Bright Eyes. And they’re three of the most popular songs I’ve done. But what I do is I’ll hear the song, I’ll get a request, then I’ll go on YouTube and listen to the song. It doesn’t end there because then I’ll go, ‘That’s a really good song.’ I might spend the whole night then listening to Neutral Milk Hotel.”

But he admits he’s not picky.

“I’ve always liked any band, to be honest,” he shrugs. “Anyone who gets up and plays in front of an audience, I admire. Even a local pub group. I quite often sit there at a table watching a local band playing, and somebody will be moaning about how rubbish they are, and I’ll just look at them and think, ‘Well, you wouldn’t get up there, would you?’ It’s very easy to sit and criticize, but they couldn’t do it.”

So far, however, the response to his music on YouTube has been overwhelmingly positive, and Watkinson now has a network of fans from all over the world. He replies to them in the comments section of each video and still takes requests via email, and last December he set up a P.O. Box because so many asked if they could send him Christmas cards. (He eventually shut it down because he got too many.) He’s touched by it all, but he tries to stay humble.

“It’s nice,” he admits. “It hasn’t gone to my head, if you know what I mean. I still take the dogs for a walk three times a day. I still do the washing up and cleaning the kitchen floor. And I only ever record songs when my wife’s at work, because I’ve retired and she’s got another three or four years to go. She works three days a week, so, there’s only three days a week that I’ll actually record anything. I don’t think it’s changed me. I am changing a little bit in one way, and that’s, I used to try to answer or tick a heart on every comment to let people know I’ve read all the comments. But I soon realized I couldn’t. You can’t keep up with it when you’re starting getting thousands and thousands. But apart from that, I’m still a granddad. It’s just that I’m playing a guitar.”

You can check out Frank Watkinson’s YouTube channel here.

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