Go Ahead and Ask: Andy McKee
October 20, 2010
Photo by Christine Porubsky
Watch a video interview and performance video from Andy McKee.
McKee is one of the most important guitarists to come along in a very long time. As an artist, he represents change and innovation. We used to gauge an artist’s popularity by album sales—which, of course, were often dependent on big-label backing for proper production and promotion in order to stand a chance. McKee made his mark with a video camera and an internet connection. The modern metric for gauging what the public is connecting with—YouTube views—is hard to comprehend when you consider McKee’s numbers: the total YouTube views for his videos are approaching 100 million.
But then again, when you consider his artistry and sheer originality, those numbers start to make sense. Who among us hasn’t seen a bearded and dome-shorn McKee slap-hammering that rhythmic tapestry of tones in his “Drifting” video? (33,172,856 views at press time). And who can’t remember their own reaction to first seeing McKee’s wonderfully arranged and skillfully played version of Toto’s “Africa”? In a world where awestruck music fans quickly copy and paste URLs to share music videos that impress them, McKee is a reallife digital sensation. His videos were the top three rated YouTube clips of all time at one point.
Though tremendously talented, McKee’s time spent woodshedding is just as prodigious. A dedicated student of the instrument who is largely self-taught, McKee learned a lot by teaching, too, and continues to do so when he can. He has won and placed high in numerous fingerstyle competitions around the world. He now plays alongside the world-class players he used to look up to as mentors. His name carries plenty of weight on its own, though, as I can attest after seeing him wow an appreciative crowd with a solo show at the Montreal Jazz Festival earlier this year.
Music fans in general embrace McKee’s work, but as guitarists and gearheads there is another zone of McKeedom we’re interested in exploring, obviously. The following questions were submitted by Premier Guitar readers/viewers via our website.
1. Love your stuff! You’ve inspired me to explore the percussive elements of guitars that most players are completely unaware of. Unfortunately, the guitars I bought before I started tapping and thwacking aren’t relaying those sounds effectively through amplification. The piezo and built-in mic in my current guitars are either way too sensitive or too sterile. What kind of electronics do you recommend for someone trying to explore your style of playing while plugged in? —Chris Williams, New York, New York
Hey Chris. I have been using the Pure Western pickup from K&K for several years now. It’s three contact pickups that are attached inside the guitar around the bridge area. They have a really natural sound and pick up the percussive guitar techniques very well. Yamaha also has a great system called the ART that is similar. I use that in conjunction with their SRT system in my Yamaha guitars.
2. Hi Andy. I’m curious about harp guitars and have been thinking about getting one. Are there any quality brands that won’t break the bank? —Tony Burns, Fredonia, New York
Hi Tony. I would recommend checking out Holloway Harp Guitars. They are working hard to get an affordable, high-quality harp guitar out there. I’ve played a couple and they are nice instruments! [Editor’s note: Check out our video demo from Summer NAMM 2010.]
3. What were the circumstances when you decided the harp guitar would be a big part of your artistry? —Jeffrey Meatyard, San Antonio, Texas
Hey Jeffrey. I first heard the harp guitar on a Michael Hedges album called Live on the Double Planet. He had a tune on there called “Because It’s There,” and I really loved the expanded range of the instrument. I never had the chance to see Michael perform before he passed away, unfortunately, but in 2000 I saw a musician named Stephen Bennett performing, and he also played harp guitar. We became good friends, and he thought I might be able to do some interesting music with the harp guitar. So in 2003 he sold me one of his.
4. I understand you’re self-taught but actually know your theory. What method books or systems did you use to learn? Please spill! —Sherry M., Evansville, Indiana
Hey Sherry. I actually learned a lot by teaching guitar lessons—it keeps you on your toes. Any book that teaches you about scales, modes, the circle of fifths, and chord construction should work fine. I was always really into chords and loved learning about inversions and substitutions, and there are some really good jazz books out there on that. Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m definitely not a proficient jazz player!
5. As a current player who’s doing innovative things, you inspire me. So I’m wondering who inspires you in a similar fashion? —Ryan Nusbickel, St. Louis, Missouri
Hey Ryan, thanks for your question. When I was getting into playing guitar, I spent a lot of years learning the tunes of some of my favorite musicians. Guys like Michael Hedges, Eric Johnson, and Don Ross. At some point several years ago, I just sort of stopped working on learning tunes from other players and started trying to write my own. I still listen to those guys, as well as some of the newer generation of players— guys like Antoine Dufour and Gareth Pearson. But my inspiration usually comes from other places these days, including my family, my fans, and places I get to travel to.
6. The bass tones from your fan-fretted guitar (the one with a “G” on the headstock”) are amazing. I assume this is because of the longer scale length on the bass side. I’m about to get my first fan-fret. Are there any particular tunings that seem to come alive with those guitars that you recommend I explore? —John Turner, Dallas, Texas
Hey John. The Greenfields I own are amazing instruments. The one you are talking about, a G4.2, is designed with the use of altered tunings in mind. It works particularly well with tunings that extend the lower range of the guitar. Some of my favorites would be B–G–D–G–A–D, C–G–D–G–B–E, and C–G–Eb–F–Bb–D. Try ’em out!
7. Andy, your music is awesome. What inspired you to go from playing electric guitar to acoustic? For me, it was a Tommy Emmanuel workshop in Phoenix. He inspired me so much. Was there a particular person or event that prompted your switch? —Kent Ironside, Apache Junction, Arizona
Yeah, Kent. For me, it was going to a Preston Reed workshop in Topeka, Kansas, when I was 16 years old. I had never checked out steel-string acoustic guitar music before and was blown away by his use of altered tunings and wild techniques. I was also really drawn to the idea of covering rhythm, melody, and harmony all at once.
8. I love your playing and your style. “For My Father” absolutely blows me away. You have so many songs that express so many emotions through your guitar(s). Thank you for sharing your talents with all of us. Here’s my question: How does one get started with tapping and alternative tunings? —Charlie Yontz, Crawfordville, Florida
Thanks for the kind words, Charlie. For me, I first picked up a Preston Reed instructional video and learned some of the techniques and ideas behind tapping on the acoustic guitar. After that, I tried learning some of my favorite tunes by ear from records. I hope to make an instructional video available of my own in 2011. For altered tunings, it helps to have a good understanding of chord construction to be able to come up with new tunings. I personally do not take the time to “master” different tunings. You could say that I use altered tunings to create a different palette to paint with each time I use a new one.
9. Your version of Toto’s “Africa” is mind-blowing to me because you chose to emulate the band’s familiar parts instead of just riffing off the themes. Your ability to give the melody lines that organic quality is amazing. How did you approach that song and figure out what you were going to do with it? —Jason Wolf, San Francisco, California
Hey Jason, glad you dig the arrangement. Well I started with that drumbeat at the beginning. The trickiest part was figuring out how to keep those dual rhythms going between the drums and the keyboard part in the intro. I play a bit of piano, and I think that helped a lot with being able to separate the two hands and rhythms there. After that, I thought that, dynamically, it made sense to fingerpick the verse sections and then really kick out the jams during the chorus by strumming. It took a bit of figuring out how to finger the harmonies and the chord structures there, but perseverance pays off! For the keyboard solo, I decided to use a Billy McLaughlin approach by tapping the root notes with the right hand and hammering-on/ pulling-off the solo lines with the left.
10. You’ve had success in major fingerstyle competitions but have also become popular outside of the fingerstyle community—that’s something that is more rare than it should be. What advice do you have for other fingerstyle players who’d like to break out of that talented-but-small pond? —Mike Thomson, Raleigh, North Carolina
Well Mike, I can only comment on my own success in this field, and I would like to think that it is because of the way I write music. When I sit down to compose or arrange a piece of music, the last thing that I am thinking about is how difficult or how impressive the tune will be to other guitarists. What I am trying to do every time is communicate something that is inside of me—a feeling, impression, or emotion—so that I can share it with the world. As a musician, that should always be your aim. If it is and you do it well, people can’t help but appreciate what you are doing. It also helps to put videos on YouTube. ;-)
Watch our interview with Andy McKee at the Acoustic Masters tour:
Watch an exclusive performance of Hunter's Moon:
For next month’s “Go Ahead and Ask,” head to premierguitar.com/goaheadandask and let us know what questions you’d like to ask the folks at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.