Photo by Christine Porubsky

Watch a video interview and performance video from Andy McKee.
Some of us make gear, some of us play it, and, in our case, some of us work at a media company that aims to keep everyone informed. That’s why we facilitate this discussion every month. There are certain conversations that need to take place just between us gearheads. This month, we wanted to connect you with acoustic virtuoso 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 Guitarreaders/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 calledLive 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!