ANDY MCKEE IS LIKELY THE MOST POPULAR acoustic guitarist in cyberspace.
The video for his song “Drifting” is approaching a staggering 19 million
views on YouTube alone, and he’s piled up millions more mouse clicks
for numerous other tunes on a host of outlets. Some are concert
performances featuring fab friends such as bass guru Michael Manring and
fingerstyle champion Don Ross, but the most popular are simply homespun
shots of an ordinary-looking young man from Topeka, Kansas, performing
his thoughtful compositions while executing fantastic feats of
technical prowess along the way.
The 29-year-old guitarist is a two-hand-tapping
titan who slaps his instrument as if it were
a drum kit, while simultaneously eliciting rich,
piano-like harmonics and resonant melodies
from it. Of course, none of that would mean
much if the tunes weren’t paramount—but
pieces such as “Drifting” provide ample proof
that McKee’s music is fully engaging on its
own, and tracks such as “For My Father” show
McKee to also be an accomplished fingerstylist
with a keen knack for melodic composition.
In 2008, McKee and Ross released a
vibrant duo CD entitled The Thing That Came
from Somewhere [CandyRat], and while McKee
is currently back to flying alone, he expects a
new solo release by fall.
How do you feel about the astounding popularity of
your online videos?
It’s unbelievable, unexpected, and very cool.
I began my career before broadband was in full
swing, so the online video aspect wasn’t even
a consideration until later. I released two independent
records before CandyRat picked me
up for my 2005 release, Art of Motion. Rob
Poland is the head of the label, and the videos
were his idea. We shot them at his house, and
I borrowed his Lowden guitar. I didn’t think
they were going to be any big deal. I’m sitting
there wearing jeans and a T-shirt [laughs].
What were your formative years like as a player?
Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover” inspired
me to start playing electric guitar at 13, and I
got into Metallica, Dream Theater, and Joe Satriani.
On my 16th birthday, I saw Preston Reed
give a clinic on acoustic guitar, and it changed
my life. He was using all sorts of unusual techniques—
such as two-handed tapping and body
slapping—and I was hooked. I made the switch,
and never looked back. Ironically, his Metal CD
made the biggest impact on me. I picked up
many of his techniques as I dissected the songs
by ear and worked out each part.
Who were some of your other acoustic influences,
and what aspects of their playing informed your style?
Michael Hedges motivated me to be fearless.
His playing knew no boundaries, and he
never sacrificed the composition for the sake
of technique. Billy McLaughlin is my primary
melodic inspiration. He almost always plays
with both hands on the fretboard, and his
melodies linger in your mind. Don Ross’s
playing on Passion Session taught me the
importance of timing. Don can just groove.
We share a deep appreciation for Earth,
Wind & Fire.
What aspect of your style do you feel is most
My plucking-hand method incorporates
some aspects I picked up by playing funk
bass in the style of EWF’s Verdine White. I
snap my wrist and slap the side of my thumb
against the 5th and 6th strings for a whapping,
snare-like sound that creates a backbeat
as I pluck with my fingers on the upper
strings. Sometimes, I’ll thump the heel of
my right hand against the lower bout to create
a sound similar to a kick drum, and roll
my fingers for a bongo-like effect. I play a
lot of melodies with my right hand by tapping
my index finger straight down on the
fretboard, and using the others to pluck open
strings. You have to keep your fingernails
short. That’s unusual for a fingerstylist, but
it’s natural for me because of my electric guitar
background. And while many players use
the index finger to execute harmonic slaps,
I find the middle finger is most effective. I
snap my wrist back, and smack down hard
right on the fret wire—usually at the 12th
or 7th fret.
How does technique factor into your compositional
I’m always searching for some new way
to play the guitar. It keeps me interested in
the instrument, and inspires me to write. I
wrote “Drifting” approximately ten years
ago. I tried going to college, but it wasn’t for
me. I felt like I was drifting, and I used some
developing techniques to capture that feeling
in a song.
What’s the tuning on that piece?
How do you execute the over-the-top taps with
your left hand, and why do you play that way?
I tap the 5th and 6th strings together
using my middle finger stacked on top of my
index finger. I find that helps me get a
stronger tap, and delivers a more powerful
tone than using one finger. Playing over the
top of the fretboard limits chording possibilities,
but it allows me to perform percussive
hits with the fretting hand on the
How do you manage to keep the rhythm going
and play the melody at the same time?
I generally start a song with the full rhythmic
pattern, and then I simplify it in order
to play the melody. I’ll sneak in percussive
hits with either hand once the melody is
rolling. Keeping the groove and the melody
together is the greatest challenge to playing
in a style like mine—you have to compartmentalize
like a drummer or a stride-style
What do you look for in a guitar?
I like the percussiveness and resonance
of a guitar with a spruce top and rosewood
back and sides.
How do you capture the full range of sounds
I recorded my past few records with my
signature model Ayers guitar, which was a
jumbo acoustic-electric. In the studio, we
would point a pair of condenser mics at the
14th fret to capture the strings—I use Dean
Markley Alchemy GoldBronze mediums—
and run a direct signal from the onboard
Fishman Ellipse Blend pickup system. It’s nice
to be able to mix in some body sound from
the Fishman when you’re tapping and hammering
a lot, because external mics capture
considerable string noise at the bridge and
nut. I switched to Greenfield guitars this year.
I’d been admiring them since 2004. The
Don Alder G4 features the Novax Fanned
Fret system. It’s designed to facilitate better
intonation in lowered tunings, and I found
that it made a big difference. I also got a GB
baritone, and we’re working on a signature
model harp guitar. Hedges inspired me play
them. I have a Ron Spillers model that I used
on the title track from my fourth album,
Gates of Gnomeria, and several others. I love
getting a rhythm going on its six bass strings
with my right hand, and then playing the
melody on the guitar strings with my left
hand. The dynamic range is awesome.
What’s your current stage setup?
Greenfield equipped my new guitars with
dual outputs to capture signals from a K&K
Trinity Pure Western passive bridge-plate
pickup and a hardwired L.R. Baggs M1 bodysensitive
magnetic soundhole pickup. I use
a little mixer to blend both signals, and send
it to the house.
What kind of capo do you use?
I like the Shubb Original C1 for full capoing.
I have a couple of their partial capos,
but I find that the C5 banjo capo works well
for what I usually do, which is to capo on
the bass side of the fretboard. “Rylynn” is a
good example. The tuning is E, C, D, G, A,
D, [low to high] and the capo covers the bottom
four strings at the 5th fret.
You redid that tune with Don Ross. How did
the duo record come about?
He asked if I wanted to record with him,
which was a dream come true. We each chose
favorites from the other’s catalog to rework.
He came up with his “Rylynn” part in the
studio. His detuned Beneteau baritone provides
a nice contrast to my capoed steel-string.
What you’re new material like—and do you have
any new tricks up your sleeve?
I’m more focused on traditional composition
these days, but I’m always trying new
techniques. One of them is using tapped harmonics—
primarily on open strings—to play
an entire melody while I use hammer-ons to
play the accompaniment with my left hand.
What would you suggest to players who are
interested in learning to play in your style?
Take it one hand at a time, and then put
them together. I recommend checking out
the video for my cover of Toto’s “Africa.” The
beginning is a good example of how I incorporate
interlocking right- and left-hand
rhythms. It helps immensely if you can write
the patterns down on paper in order to see
exactly how they fit together.
Do you feel that your identity as a composer
gets lost in the all the hype about the visual aspect
of your technique?
Maybe so, but I’d like to believe that my
music has caught on because the compositions
themselves are meaningful. There are
lots of players who slap and tap, and some
seem to do it more for its own sake. In the
end, the songs have to connect with people.
How much of your career success do you attribute
to the Internet revolution, and how much do
you feel that it could have happened in any era?
I believe that the Internet has made my
career go further, faster. I still live in Topeka,
but I’ll show up for a gig in Sweden and 300
people will be there. That probably wouldn’t
have been possible in the past. I’m amazed
and very thankful that the playing field has
been leveled to such a degree.