It was during a show in August 2022 at the FirstEnergy Stadium in Ohio, home to the Cleveland Browns NFL team, in front of 41,000 people, that Sophie Lloyd knew she was doing something right. She was playing guitar for US pop-punk/tabloid star Machine Gun Kelly, when he brought four fans onstage. One of them was a girl, who ran right past him to gift Sophie a cap.
“It was such a cool moment!” Sophie grins today. “I was on my knees jamming with her. It was one of my favourite moments of the tour – and I still have that hat.”
That tour was in support of Machine Gun Kelly’s sixth album, Mainstream Sellout, and encompassed some of the US and Europe’s biggest venues. Before Sophie joined his band, she hadn’t even played to 1,000 people before. At least, not in person.
Sophie is part of a generation of YouTube guitarists – players showing off their chops online, building a following via a combination of covers, original songs, tuition and personality. She has 869,000 subscribers, and is unique in making that leap to IRL stardom in arenas. Some old-school gatekeepers might argue she hasn’t paid her dues, but she stresses she’s put in many hours of practice, and it took eight years before her channel made any money.
“Anyone who thinks it’s easy to get big on YouTube clearly fucking doesn’t know shit,” she says. “I get what they’re saying, in a way… people who’ve been in broken-down vans, and slept in the ‘roach coach’ where there’s roaches climbing everywhere, for a gig that’s paying you £30 – I get it. And I did elements of that when I was growing up. But the world has changed now – you either need to evolve with it and become successful with it, or you’re just stuck in your ways and you’re complaining about it. We want to be inspiring these young people growing up and creating, we don’t want to be bashing them down.”
Sophie’s sitting in her living room this afternoon, in front of a towering scratching post, as cats Luna and Jaxx run around. Behind that, boyfriend Chris Painter, her co-writer, drummer and sometimes videographer, is on the sofa on a laptop. She speaks with the kind of smiling, chatty confidence you see in her videos, clear and assured but not afraid to show vulnerability.
Her introduction to heavy music came from her dad, a data scientist, who would play Rory Gallagher, Joe Bonamassa, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath in the car. At age nine, she took a few lessons in classical guitar, but it didn’t really land. It was seeing an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants – yes, really – soon after that inspired her to pick up an electric guitar.
“People have these really cool backstories and I’m like, ‘Fuck, mine was an episode of SpongeBob’, she laughs. “It’s when they cover the Twisted Sister song I Wanna Rock, and it’s like [she sings] ‘I’m a goofy goober, rock!’ with lasers shooting out of guitars. I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so awesome. That’s what I wanna do.’”
Falling in love with electric guitar, she got big into emo and punk, alongside guitar virtuosos Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. The problem was, there weren’t many heavy music fans in her gentile hometown of Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, and she felt like an outcast.
“I dressed like a proper rocker,” she explains. “I had the undersides of my hair dyed black, and I would wear studded bracelets. Which doesn’t sound too extreme, but in Henley-on-Thames, it’s like, ‘Who the hell is this Satan worshipper?!’ And I felt like I didn’t really connect. I didn’t have anyone to go to gigs with. I’d go with my dad, and he’d be there in his suit in the back row, while I’m moshing in the front. I wish I’d had people to share that stuff with.”
Instead, Sophie spent a lot of time alone. While everyone else was hanging out at lunchtime, she’d go to the school’s music room. While they went to parties, she would stay home and practise songs. Between the ages of 13-17, she became withdrawn. “It was kind of like a dark time, I guess?” she remembers. “But at the same time, you look back and you’re like, ‘I’m so grateful that happened’, because that’s where my inspiration and creativity really grew.”
During that period, she also joined her first band, The Hidden Truth, via the website Joinmyband.com. Their first set included covers by Chelsea Grin, Parkway Drive, Avenged Sevenfold and Black Veil Brides. “We were awful,” she laughs. “But that was a fun time. It was the first time I’d been around other musicians, and discovered the love of playing music.”
Like her dad, Sophie excelled in science, and landed a scholarship to study Forensic Science at Sussex. But just before she was meant to start, she got the feeling something was wrong, and made a snap decision to apply to music school BIMM London, where she’d spend the next four years.
It was another tough time for Sophie who, desperate to get good grades, doggedly studied genres she wasn’t interested in, such as gypsy jazz, rather than playing the metal she loved – all while in a “bad relationship” with someone who didn’t want her to pursue music at all. When they broke up after her second year, she started therapy and antidepressants, leading to a change in mindset. Rather than worrying about her academic performance, she loosened up and applied her new knowledge to her rock playing – and still got a First.
“I was like, ‘Right, I’m gonna take home all this stuff that I’m learning around different genres, and play it through a distortion amp to a rock backing track and see how it sounds,’” she says. “I started writing and honing in on my particular sound. Although they felt like some of the worst times, I was sort of born again. Sorry, that got a bit deep!”
Although Sophie never had a career path in mind, she’s thrived on YouTube, uploading her “shred versions” of songs by artists ranging from Iron Maiden and Killswitch Engage to Britney Spears and Dua Lipa, alongside vlogs about everything from pedals to performance anxiety. She started her channel in 2012 at age 16, hoping to meet likeminded people, and went full time with it after BIMM while working a side job at dessert restaurant Creams (“I don’t mean to brag, but I make amazing sundaes!” she laughs).
Early YouTuber inspirations were Andy James, then guitarist of Sacred Mother Tongue and now in Five Finger Death Punch, alongside personable general creators such as danisnotonfire and AmazingPhil. For Sophie, YouTube isn’t just about guitar playing, it’s about relatability. When she arrived in the States for the MGK tour, she filmed herself lying in bed, crying, nervous and homesick.
“I want people to see it’s not just all rock’n’roll. We’re all humans, we all go through shit. Sometimes you can look at social media and be like, ‘Everything’s perfect for this person’, but I think it’s important to break that wall down and be like, ‘Well, it’s not always sunshine and roses,’” she explains.
The tour was a leap for Sophie, who had only played small gigs with The Hidden Truth, a few bands at uni, and her last venture, Marisa And The Moths. She’d messaged MGK two years earlier on a whim, saying, ‘If you ever need a guitarist, hit me up!’ – and there he was in her DMs in April 2022, looking for a live guitarist. After a FaceTime meeting with him and his team, she learned the songs within a month.
“I was fucking terrified, because it’s such a different thing that I didn’t even really know if I wanted to do it. I didn’t know if I’d like it,” she admits. “But I always try to live my life with the mantra, ‘What would make the best story’? And I thought I’d just give it a go. If it fails, at least I’ve got a funny story to tell at the pub on a Friday night, you know? Ha ha ha!”
Growing up on YouTube rather than ‘paying her dues’ the old-fashioned way had left Sophie with a bad case of imposter syndrome that she’d long been battling before this tour.
“I was like, ‘I’ve come through this such unique avenue. Do I deserve to be at this level when I haven’t gone that traditional route?’ But I think your journey’s your journey. And I think you’ve just got to try and shake that,” she says. “You shouldn’t have any shame about what you’ve done to get to where you are, because at the end of the day everyone works to be where they are, and if they’re there, they’re there for a reason.”
Luckily, her nerves evaporated as soon as she stepped onstage for the first date in Austin, Texas. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is what I’m meant to be doing,’” she smiles.
Sophie’s willingness to be in the public eye was tested when a baseless rumour started circulating in the media that MGK had cheated on his fiancée, actress Megan Fox, with her. To get some downtime, the guitarist and her boyfriend retreated to her parents’ house, where they were doorstopped by a reporter. Meanwhile, Megan stepped in to dispel the rumours, calling Sophie “insanely talented”.
“Yeah, that was wild!” she exclaims, calmly but with disbelief. “I never thought I’d be in some sort of internet scandal. The week it happened, I didn’t know how to deal with it. I’ve been in a relationship with my boyfriend for five years, and we just had our anniversary. It felt like a step back for women in the industry, in a way. Where just because there’s a girl in the band, they automatically become the homewrecker, when it’s like, ‘I’m just doing my job.’ I was annoyed and I didn’t want girls to see that.”
At the start of the pandemic, Sophie and boyfriend Chris began working on her debut album, candidly titled Imposter Syndrome. Following on from her Satriani-influenced instrumental Delusions EP in 2018, and inspired by Slash’s 2010 self-titled debut solo record, it features an array of guest vocalists, including her former bandmate Marisa, Nathan James from Inglorious, Trivium’s Matt Heafy and more to be announced.
“The album is so full-circle,” says Sophie. “I’ve gone from being scared to even do a live performance online – that’s why I started my Twitch in 2021, to try and start doing live stuff to feel less like an imposter – to playing Wembley Arena live. It’s a cool story.”
She plans to tour Imposter Syndrome next year, and then carry on with YouTube, Twitch, Patreon and whatever else comes up, in an era where artists need multiple revenue streams to survive, and on a mission to “bring shred guitar into the mainstream”. In the long run, she’d like to open an animal sanctuary. For now, she’s happy she’s been able to reach so many people – especially young women, like the one at the Ohio show.
“Everything I do, I do with the thought of my 15-year-old self watching,” she says. “I’m making my YouTube channel for that girl. That’s the same with my album. I wrote it with the idea of, ‘What would that girl wanna listen to?’ or ‘What would be inspiring for her?’ I wanna make that depressed little metalhead child happy and make her smile.”