YouTube Sensation Andy McKee Still Pushing Acoustic Guitar's Boundaries
"The hard thing with the acoustic guitar is to not get too repetitive," says guitarist Andy McKee from his home in Topeka, Kansas. "It's hard to write new music that doesn't sound like everything else."
The man has a point, as is painfully clear with all too many singer-songwriters repeating tried-and-true folk formulas to the detriment of us all. Fortunately, McKee doesn't fall in that category. First, he doesn't even sing.
"Perhaps one day I will, but right now I don't," McKee says with a laugh.
Instead, McKee is that rare breed of guitar player who doesn't need words to make his voice heard. With a finely developed finger-style, rich tonal qualities, multiple percussive aspects, and an expansive feel, McKee's lush solo acoustic guitar instrumentation sounds like several players performing at once -- occasionally even a full band -- and rarely seems to fall back on past accomplishments.
McKee began playing guitar in his teens, focusing on first Metallica, Dream Theater, and Iron Maiden, but also visionary guitarists Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson. A self-proclaimed "metalhead," it was only after attending a performance by Preston Reed, who incorporated a two-handed approach that included intricate fingerstyle playing, hammered strings, and use of the guitar body for percussive elements, that McKee's musical world shifted on its axis. Realizing the limitations of the electric guitar, McKee moved solely to the acoustic.
"What made me make the change and focus on the acoustic was all the different possibilities that aren't available on the electric guitar, like percussive ideas in using the guitar body," he says. "Even back when I was into the electric guitar -- and playing rock and heavy metal -- I was always interested in all the aspects of guitar . . . But, I didn't really make the switch until heard guys like Michael Hedges and Preston Reed."
Add the finger-style influences of Tommy Emmanuel, Billy McLaughlin, and Don Ross, and McKee dug deep into the form. Gleaning the singular aspects he liked best in each player, McKee created his own distinct style.
"It's a tricky thing for musicians, but one the most important things is to find your own voice," he says. "After playing for over 20 years, I feel like I've finally got to where I have my own thing now. I think that just recently my music has taken on its own character. It's a big thing for me to finally have that identity."
That "identity" comes through in music fueled by an expansive, open feeling, much like the Kansas plains of home -- though McKee doesn't believe his surroundings shaped his music.
"I grew up as a city kid. I didn't live on a farm or anything like that," he says with another laugh. "That sound has to do with my tunings. I've always really loved the sounds of open strings and harmonics and the way it rings out."
Taking that expansiveness a step further, McKee occasionally plays a harp guitar, which technically is any guitar with additional strings above the fretboard. McKee's instrument is based on a hundred-year-old design, utilizing six bass strings for a deeper tone. Think of it as a regular guitar and bass guitar in one.
"With it, I have a really large tone vocabulary to work with," he says. "It's a lot of fun to play on, and interesting to see people's reactions when I break it out. I see jaws dropping to the floor."
Considering McKee's abilities on a typical acoustic, those jaws will have already bottomed out.
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