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He’s no rock star, but a video ‘god’

Times Staff Writer

Lim Jeong-hyun stands alone onstage in a tiny basement rock club in Seoul, noodling out notes on his guitar as he waits to play the song everyone has come to hear. It’s a young crowd and it’s edging closer, cellphone cameras held high, getting ready to video the video star.

But first Lim feels the need to reassure them he really is the kid in the famous YouTube video: The wild, virtuoso rock version of Pachelbel’s Canon; 5 minutes and 20 seconds of distorted solo guitar played over a heavy metal backtrack that has been viewed about 40 million times.

It’s the video played by the skinny guitarist known as “funtwo,” sitting stoically in a bedroom, his face hidden in shadows cast by ethereal backlighting and the brim of a ball cap tugged low over the eyes.

“Don’t be confused because I’m not wearing the hat,” the soft-spoken 23-year-old South Korean tells the crowd.

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“I am that guy.”

The proof that Lim and funtwo are the same person comes in the playing. Lim’s fingers fly as he coaxes the familiar melody lines from an ESP guitar, which, come to think of it, looks just like the guitar in the video.

Then Lim closes the deal. He hammers out power chords and pulls off the incredibly difficult flurry of notes produced by a complex technique called sweep-picking. These are the signatures of “Canon Rock,” a remake of the 17th century classical piece that has become a cyberspace phenomenon and YouTube’s 14th-most viewed video of all time.

The rise of “Canon Rock” is a defining story of the digital age. Since it was posted in December 2005, the video has been seen roughly as many times as some of the top-selling albums have had copies sold worldwide, including the Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975).”

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It shows how user-generated websites such as YouTube have altered the way musicians learn, teach and exchange ideas, perhaps even changing the way we appreciate music.

Lim, for example, believes that the video’s popularity lies as much with its look as with the music.

“The bad lighting, the cap, the shape of the guitar,” all that made a difference, he says.

To a generation for whom reality is that which is digital, Lim seems surprised that anyone would even be interested in how he plays “Canon Rock” at a live venue.

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“I really didn’t think people would be impressed with it live,” he says.

Lim describes the staggering exposure from “Canon Rock” as mostly “a good thing,” though he has hardly tried to turn his online fame into fortune. His answer to cyber-stardom was to take a break from his computer science studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and travel the world, mostly as a busker.

Carrying a small 15-watt amp, he visited 42 countries over 300 days, playing onstage at the Whisky a Go-Go on the Sunset Strip and in public squares from New York to Amsterdam. “Canon Rock” always drew a crowd, he says.

“But I had to put on the hat or they wouldn’t believe it was me,” he says with a laugh.

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Lim says he had been playing guitar for five years and was merely looking for audience reaction to his style and technique when he posted his version of Canon, also known as Canon in D major, on a Korean website in 2005. He had been practicing the song for about three weeks. The posted video under the name funtwo, which was copied and uploaded to YouTube soon after, was his second or third take that day.

“I don’t think I’m technically that good a guitar player,” he says. “I watch the clips of others playing Canon, and so many people play it better than me. Anyone can do it.”

Most comments on YouTube suggest others disagree. “Dude you are a GOD!!!!” is a typical post. And though there are some who remain disdainful of Lim’s playing, his Canon has triggered a deluge of requests from others for advice.

“Canon Rock” was arranged by Jerry Chang, a Taiwanese guitar player. He took Johann Pachelbel’s overexposed Baroque piece for strings and harpsichord and gave it a major heavy-metal twist. The killer hooks are in the series of arpeggios -- in which the notes of a chord are played in sequence instead of together.

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In the days before user-generated websites, JerryC, as Chang calls himself, might have been just one more lonely guitarist, sitting in his room trying to master a riff.

Instead, he posted his arrangement on YouTube.

Since then, thousands of guitarists have downloaded his backing track and posted their own attempt to match JerryC’s virtuosity. Not even the original has come close to matching the popularity of funtwo’s version.

At first, the assumption was that funtwo’s anonymity was driving the video’s appeal. But even after Lim was unmasked in a New York Times story and subsequently exposed to South Korean media overkill, the online hits kept coming.

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Lim says he has no plans to become a professional musician. He makes a face as he recalls the drudgery of childhood piano lessons. “It’s something I like to do casually,” he says.

So home in Seoul this month before returning to school in New Zealand, Lim put together a garage band called Hurricane. Mixing pop, rock and punk, the group put on a performance at Seoul’s tiny Sapiens 7 club, an almost underground gig. Lim himself sold tickets at the door. And the crowd of about 60 was made up mostly of family and friends.

The band sounded under-rehearsed as it ran through a set of Korean rock songs, a couple of originals, and cover versions of Radiohead’s “Creep” and the Knack’s “My Sharona,” though Lim nailed the solos, sounding note for note like the originals. A single smoke machine puffed thin clouds across the stage, and midway through the gig the bass player stepped to the mike for what he described as “the first time I’ve sung in public other than at karaoke.” He got laughs but perhaps unsurprisingly had to read the lyrics off a piece of paper.

Only Lim’s searing guitar breaks elevated the band’s sound. The video kid can play live.

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Yet even Lim acknowledges getting a little sick of Pachelbel’s opus. “Sometimes I hear those opening notes, and I just go, ‘Oh no,’ ” he says.

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com


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