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 unique?
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 process?
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 upper bout.
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 piano player.
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 when recording?
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.