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“I know a fair amount about theory and chord construction and things like that, but when I’m writing,
I try to use my ear and let things happen as naturally as I can.”
It has been nearly a decade since Andy McKee’s video for “Drifting” turned the former guitar teacher from Topeka, Kansas, into one of YouTube’s first viral music stars. Millions of views and a spate of critically acclaimed albums followed, but it’s McKee’s ability as a live performer—one who can pull orchestral sound out of a single guitar—that has kept him on the road almost constantly.
Until last year, that is, when he finally unpacked his bags and found time to produce a long-awaited follow-up to 2010’s Joyland. The result is the four-song EP, Mythmaker, the first release on his new Mythmaker imprint. While the collection showcases McKee’s trademark two-handed acoustic technique, there are also a couple of surprises in store for longtime fans, including his first foray into recording electric guitar and even a solo piano piece. We caught up with McKee as he was getting ready to hit the road yet again with a tour that will kick off in China before returning to North America.
It has been four years since you released an album. Why the wait?
I’ve found it hard to write music when I’m touring. In 2013 I decided to take some time off to finish writing some tunes. On the road, I’ll come up with some new chord progressions or riffs, and maybe a bit of a melodic idea, and use my iPhone to record them. I’ve been doing that for the last two or three years, so when I actually had time in the studio, I could review all those ideas and try to develop them—see where else I could take them. The two solo guitar tunes [“The Reason” and “Mythmaker”] were developed from riffs I came up with on the road.
Also, whenever I write, I have to put the songs down and come back. It’s usually a matter of really thinking about the tunes and taking time away from the instrument. It can be a bit of a time-consuming process.
Do you hear something in your head and try to figure out how to execute it? Or do you get an idea while playing and start to develop that?
It’s usually the latter. Using altered tunings helps me to get more creative with the guitar and try different things. I’ll start to hear melodic ideas that will work with whatever sort of riff I’m coming up with. But sometimes I’ll hear an idea without even having the guitar in my hand, so then it’s just a matter of finding it on the fretboard.
How many different tunings do you use?
I don’t know for sure. But almost all my songs are in a different tuning, though I’ve got a few I’ve used for multiple songs. If I were to take a guess, it would probably be around 20 to 30 different tunings so far.
What’s your process for developing a tuning?
I have a few different ways. One example is a song called “Art of Motion.” I’d found this really great chord voicing in standard tuning—an F#m11—but it had a really big stretch. I’ve got really small fingers and hands, so I thought, “Maybe I can find all these intervals and put them into an open tuning.”
Sometimes I’ll make a variation on a more common tuning—like DADGAD—and just experiment with it. Put an F# and an E in there so I end up with a major ninth. Other times, it’s totally by accident—the tuning for “Blue Liquid,” for example. Whenever I travel overseas, I always detune the guitar and take the tension off the neck. I got to my hotel one time and opened the case, and it was in this really cool tuning. I thought, “Oh, maybe I can use this.”
How do you keep track of them all?
Before I start recording, I’ll play all the open notes. But I also tried to work on my ear when I was starting out. It was hard to find sheet music back then for guys like Michael Hedges or many of my other favorite guitar players, so I would listen closely for open strings and harmonics and try to figure out the tuning that way.